By Dilar Dirik:
“Being a woman is not a tool to punish or humiliate anyone – No free society without free women”
In the last couple of days, a remarkable and unusual sort of civil disobedience was triggered in Marivan, a city in East Kurdistan, which now echoes around the globe, rattling and shuddering the shackles and chains of patriarchy. A few days ago, an Iranian local court has found it appropriate to consider “being dressed as a Kurdish woman” as a “punishment to humiliate” male convicts. In order to express their solidarity with the outrage of women in Marivan about this misogynist court decision, Kurdish men took an extraordinary initiative to confront the two kinds of oppression that such a concept of punishment simultaneously implies. They responded to sexism against half of the world’s population and racism against the Kurds – combined in the concept of doubly “degrading” a man by turning him into a Kurdish woman – by dressing as Kurdish women and posting their photos on social media! In a café in the heart of Frankfurt, my friend Çiğdem and I enjoyed tea with Masoud Fathi and Dler Kamangar, two of the feminist men behind this campaign that made it to international news…
On April 15, an Iranian court in Marivan punished a convict by making him wear traditional Kurdish women’s clothes in public, perceiving it as a degradation to a man to be displayed as a woman. Two more prisoners await the same sentence. Kurdish feminists of the Marivan Women’s Community protested against this bizarre court decision, because they found the sexist mentality behind dressing prisoners as Kurdish women as a form of humiliation unacceptable. Women that protested on the streets of Marivan in red traditional clothes, similar to the Kurdish bride robe that the convicts had to wear, were confronted by violent security forces.
Masoud Fathi is a poet, journalist, political activist – and feminist. He is from Marivan, a Kurdish city that is known for its disobedience and resistance. Near the border to South Kurdistan, and a short distance to Halabja, Marivanis have had many reasons to protest and rise up, and are therefore a thorn in the eye of the Iranian regime. As a Marivan native, Masoud did not accept the sexist punishment that the Iranian court used as a tool to humiliate a prisoner. He had his friend Dler take a photo of himself wearing an authentic, grass-green Kurdish woman’s robe, and posted it on his Facebook page, adding the sentence that became the slogan of a campaign that soon reached and surprised many people around the globe. “Being a woman is not a tool to humiliate or punish anyone”.
Soon, some friends joined this brave statement by taking pictures of themselves in women’s dresses; what started as an individual’s idea in an industrial city in Germany was soon adopted by hundreds of people. Within a week, the page “Kurd Men for Equality” gained over 9000 fans. Women and men from other parts of Kurdistan, Europe, and America expressed their solidarity and shared commitment to gender equality with their own photos.
How did Masoud feel when putting on this impressive green dress?
“When I wore that dress, I suddenly realized how much evil the chauvinist thinking of men, male-dominated religions, ideologies, and systems have caused. I understood that masculine culture has destroyed the world”.
The pictures on Facebook are as diverse as the Kurdish nation: A cute, smiling little boy in red challenges patriarchy the same way as a mature, serious-looking man with thick glasses in a delightfully charming dress. Some women dressed in Kurdish men’s clothes, some of them stand next to male friends who wear flashy dresses with pride. One mother in a traditional men’s outfit stands confidently alongside her adolescent son, who smiles in a bright-blue, shimmering woman’s gown. Some men covered their faces to escape persecution by the regime. One becomes aware of one’s own prejudice, seeing very “masculine-looking” men with facial and chest hair – some of them even mean-looking –comfortably sitting in fancy-colored women’s clothes to make a visual and fabulous statement against patriarchy.
Sasan Amjadi is a contributor to this project, and a friend of Masoud and Dler’s. He states: “The Iranian regime is fascist, and it is almost inevitable that this affects the society, which leads parts of the Iranian population to accept the regime’s beliefs. Perhaps 40% of the population does not believe in women. I did not feel any strangeness when I put on a woman’s dress. I just wanted to demonstrate who we were: this is what we look like, this is our culture and they cannot insult our culture, our mothers and sisters. We cannot accept that.” His message to other men: “There can be no free society without free women. It is in the responsibility of men to end this culture of male hegemony”.
Men in Western societies have also resorted to wearing women’s clothes in order to challenge gender discrimination. Even the most democratic societies struggle with rape culture, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. Violence against women is a global epidemic. If tabooizing and controlling women’s bodies and behaviors in the name of honor is the sexism of one society, the porn industry, prostitution, and unhealthy beauty standards make up the other end of the patriarchal spectrum that devaluates women by reducing them to objects of men’s pleasure or property. Cross-dressing is an effective way of challenging binary notions of gender and raising awareness of issues that human beings who are not male and heterosexual encounter on a daily basis.
However, the case of Kurdish men wearing Kurdish women’s clothes is even more special, because it attacks two forms of oppression at the same time. It is important to consider the double discrimination that this sort of punishment implies. This “punishment” is not only sexist; it further constitutes an attempt to ridicule Kurdish culture. The Islamic Republic of Iran has executed at least 56 Kurds in the past year. It continues to enforce oppressive annihilation policies towards the Kurdish people and other ethnicities, or any dissident voice for that matter. While the misogynist regime forces women to cover in black cloth, traditional Kurdish (and of course traditional Persian) women’s clothes are very colorful and beautifully embroidered pieces of detailed handwork. The meaning of these sequined, extravagant robes on Kurdish men is a double strike against a regime that covers, hides, and silences women in plain black, discriminates against different ethnicities and believes that being an oppressive despot defines masculinity and power. After all, chauvinist concepts of gender and abusive power structures are inseparable.
Ridiculing a rich culture that produced the remarkable dresses that Kurdish men now wear as a protest and rejecting women as human beings of equal worth speaks volumes of the sexist, misogynist and chauvinistic fascist mentality of the Iranian regime. “Humiliating” prisoners by making them wear Kurdish women’s clothes is therefore an attack on women and on Kurdish culture simultaneously. But while the Iranian authorities attempted to shame male prisoners by making them wear traditional Kurdish women’s clothes, Kurdish men formidably responded by standing up against both sorts of oppression. They made two statements in one: Being a woman is NOT a punishment- and our culture is beautiful. Not being a woman, but being sexist is degrading. Not Kurdish clothes, but racism is humiliating…
Dler Kamangar is a talented musician from the beautiful East Kurdish city Sine. The instruments in the background of Masoud’s photo are his. He agrees with Masoud that this Facebook action is just one small step towards the right direction. Though media and public attention are very important, future steps must be more practical, and not just remain in the social media sphere. He, too, is very happy with the outcome of the campaign and explains that similar events are planned in the future. As he drinks his black tea, he tells me that they are currently planning protest actions in front of Iranian embassies. They will appear in women’s clothes. Dler’s skepticism of the Iranian regime is surpassed by his optimism for the Kurdish people’s struggle: “I do not wait for a reform by the Iranian regime. We need to work against the negative structures in our own communities and societies. In the end, we are by ourselves. We must come up with our own solutions”.
Like Dler, Masoud considers himself a feminist. He has written columns about women’s rights and men’s duty to actively challenge the male-dominated system. In his words, “Women are part of our personality, our character. If we oppress one part of our character, we oppress ourselves. If one part of us is unfree, our whole cannot be free either”. Masoud tells us his personal development towards being the feminist that he is today. He recounts one specific event that seems to have impacted the way he now sees the world. When a friend of his sister got married, his sister asked her what marriage felt like. The now married girl’s response: “It doesn’t matter. I got to see another town”.
When I asked Masoud what kinds of reactions he received from his family, friends, and community, after publishing a picture of himself, a tall, dark-haired man in a dress, on Facebook, he said that his sister congratulated him and that he generally received great comments on his unusual form of protest. However, some people seem to have expressed criticism by arguing that these Kurdish men’s action was an attempt to promote Kurdish culture, a seemingly nationalist ambition that has not much to do with women’s rights. Masoud spoke on the phone with Persian feminists appearing on TV about this campaign. After he hung up, these women said that they believed that this campaign was meant to protect Kurdish culture, not women, rejecting to acknowledge any feminism in his words or actions. Masoud believes that this is a result of fascist distorted thinking that would not permit Kurdish men to be feminist without assuming other insidious reasons – the classical “Mountain people” argument that discriminates against Kurds in every part of Kurdistan in presuming that they are not capable of progressive thinking, especially if this thinking is more advanced than the regime elite. He explicitly states that this punishment is an assault on both, women and Kurdish culture, but even more on women.
Ironically, other critical voices came from Kurds that insist that national freedom is more important than women’s rights. Unfortunately, in spite of immense, untiring women’s political activism in all parts of Kurdistan, and the fact that feminism has become a prerequisite in all Kurdish political spheres (at least in theory), there are still people that somehow regard women’s liberation as secondary to national freedom, as though different forms of oppression were not intersectionally connected.
Masoud rejects this line of thinking and points out that women’s liberation is crucial for a movement that wants to liberate itself from occupation and exploitation. He says that no matter what happens to Kurdistan, if women’s liberation is not a central core aim for the liberation struggle, women will continue to suffer. Similar situations happened in Algeria for instance, where women were active in the national liberation movement, but whose post-conflict positions in society regressed due to a lack of practically applied feminism in the national liberation. Instead of making women part of the patriarchal men’s system, the Kurdish freedom struggle must be feminist in practice in order to achieve freedom in a meaningful sense, Masoud says.
Women’s liberation cannot be left as the responsibility of women only. Men’s active and practical activism against patriarchy is fundamental to wider social justice and liberation. How hypocritical would it be to demand national freedom, when half of our own kind is enslaved by despotic men, fascists of their own home?
I want to know more about his thoughts on the connection between Kurdish national freedom and women’s liberation. Masoud responds: “Kurdish men come from a culture that has been assimilated. We are not part of a regime, we have learned to deal with oppression. Our reactions to oppression have been shaped by our own painful experiences.”
Of course gender discrimination is not exclusively reserved to women. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual individuals suffer harassment, discrimination, and sometimes face death in the predominantly hetero-patriarchal systems that shape the Middle East. Masoud’s understanding of freedom advocates that everyone can do whatever and be whoever one wants to be. Society must accept individual rights and choices. Live and let live…
In my eyes, this overwhelming campaign is a graphic illustration of the gender dynamics of Kurdish political communities. The Kurds have been oppressed by all four countries over which they are dispersed. The ethnic discrimination with which the Kurdish nation is confronted, hits Kurdish women even harder, as Kurdish men have facilitated access to the social structures around them. Socially, economically, and politically, Kurdish women face multiple layers of oppression – they are the oppressed of the oppressed.
While the regimes of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria oppressed the Kurds ethnically and created hyper-masculinized forms of warfare and oppression, the Kurds have often responded with feminism. Be this in the militant rows of the PKK (in North Kurdistan/Turkey), PJAK (East Kurdistan/Iran), or YPG (West Kurdistan/Syria), in which guerrilla women actively participate in national liberation as equals, or outstanding parliamentary activism of Kurdish women, or the unstoppable will of Peace Mothers, who wait for the war to end, whose lives have been more politicized than that of the corrupt white collar men who decide over the fate of their children – the Kurdish woman has become a symbol of resistance against both, fascism and sexism. She has become subject of systemic abuse as a Kurd and as a woman and now combats all forms of oppression, combining two oppressed identities in her experience as a Kurdish woman. Even though Kurds have made different experiences and encountered different forms of systemic oppression within different borders, one unifying slogan echoes around all four parts of Kurdistan: “No free society without free women”. A liberated Kurdistan is –and must be- measured by women’s emancipation.
Speaking from a Kurdish woman’s perspective, my dear friend Çiğdem Orhan, a young Philosophy student from Karakocan, Elazig in North Kurdistan, who is socially active in our community in Germany, adds:
“This action is very meaningful and powerful, because it was started by men who stand up for women’s rights. This illustrates that women’s rights is a societal phenomenon that involves all of society, not just women. These men prove courage in overcoming their “inner man”, when putting on dresses, taking pictures and posting these for the world to see. They don’t just mentally stand up for women’s rights, but do so literally in a physical sense. Our Kurdish movement shows that different population groups are active in demanding women’s liberation; it is not just an issue that concerns intellectual elitist circles. Feminism can very well root in the broader community. These photos show the great restructuring that the political Kurdish movement has achieved in society. The Iranian regime’s intention to signify honorlessness, embarrassment, humiliation, and degradation by using womanhood has completely failed.”
Once again, much of the world was surprised by this outstanding campaign, because it seems impossible that men in patriarchal societies may be able to step up against injustice by challenging their privileged status. However, though there is still a long way to go, the mountains of Kurdistan have been singing the songs of free women for a long time, the tales of Amazons that fight for freedom and social justice. The world would not be so surprised, if it only dared to listen…
Is it through the centuries-long oppression that Kurds have endured under despotic regimes that have ruled over them, annihilated them in genocidal policies and denied their existence, that many Kurdish men are sensitive to other forms of oppression such as women’s enslavement? The uncompromising insistence of Kurdish women to participate in every political realm as equals? Or does the laudable and courageous activism of Kurdish men in traditional women’s clothes indicate that patriarchy is merely an artificial social construct that can and ought to be easily discarded with sufficient conscious effort? Most likely, it is a combination of all.
This fantastic campaign ought to be a source of inspiration for women’s struggles around the world and an example for men everywhere. Acknowledging, challenging, and overcoming one’s own privileged position in society demands a lot of courage. In my eyes, every single man that participates in this campaign deserves standing ovations.
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