The history of Kurdish women has been mostly invisible because the information is not easily accessible. It is difficult to learn about women from an ethnic group whose history has not been fully documented, and of which many precious elements are unknown or lost. One can easily find material about the influential women of western history; but tracking historical sources on Kurdish women is a challenge. This is because most books about Kurds focus on their geographical location and struggle for self-determination. When books do mention influential Kurds, they tend to speak mostly of men, such as Saladin, Mustafa Barzani, Qazi Muhammad and Abdullah Ocalan. These are all great men who influenced Kurdish history, but their accomplishments tell us nothing of the contributions of Kurdish women.
A search for the history of feminism in literature, documentaries and reports yields mostly fragmented material about notable Kurdish women who have influenced the world and the Kurdish struggle for an autonomous region. This lack of information underestimates the Kurdish significance in the world. We know much about the heroines of Europe and America, but nearly nothing about Kurdish women. This void is an important research opportunity for feminists and historians.
The Kurdish struggle is unique in that Kurdish people have received little attention from the media. Nonetheless, because the struggle for survival and an independent Kurdistan has been so continuous, influential Kurdish women have often matched or surpassed the efforts of Kurdish men. For example, Kara Fatma was once described by the New York Times as “the redoubtable female warrior of Kurdistan” for leading Kurdish volunteers to battle in the Crimean War.
Although in many countries people have only recently begun to consider women's participation in war frontlines, already in the 19th century Kurdish women were on par with men. In fact their public service activities date back even further, as stories tell of a woman named Zrena, who led armies in ancient wars; and Mir Xanzad, who became a powerful princess of the Soran Emirate in the 16th century.
Hapsa Khan is another great role model for Kurdish feminism in Kurdistan and elsewhere. Born in the latter part of the 19th century in Sulaymaniyah, Southern Kurdistan, Khan established a local organization for women and a school for girls. Community members respected her public service during a time when most women worked at home raising children and maintaining their homes. Khan supported the cause for a Kurdish autonomous region and was active during the government of Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji.
More contemporary influential Kurdish women include Leyla Qasim, who began to participate in Kurdish politics when most societies did not easily accept women as politicians. Born to a family of several children, of which she was the only girl, Qasim would join the Kurdish democratic party in 1970 and study sociology at the University of Baghdad. Her life took a violent turn when a brutal regime imprisoned and executed her in 1974. Witnesses say Qasim voiced her belief for an independent Kurdistan in her last breath. To Kurdish people everywhere, Qasim remains a symbol of peace, freedom and determination. Her life also reminds people that women's participation in society is essential for human progress.
More recently we have Leyla Zana, a staunch defender of Kurdish identity. While growing in Turkey Zana dreamed of living in a society free from ethnic oppression. In the 1990s she protested against the torture of prisoners, including her husband, a former mayor. Authorities apprehended Zana, but the awful experience only motivated her to reinvigorate her fight against oppression. The people took note and elected Zana to the Turkish parliament in 1991. When she took the oath of office, Zana spoke in Kurdish about the brotherhood between Turkish and Kurdish people. The Nobel committee has taken note of Zana's efforts and twice nominated her for the peace prize. Unfortunately this has not stopped Turkish authorities from condemning the activist, who they incarcerated from 1994 to 2004 and convicted in 2012 to serve jail time after public office.
Kurdish women have for centuries contributed to the advancement of human and women's rights. Their struggle has been manifold in that they stand for women's rights while combating ethnic and cultural oppression. But the women whose names we know are not the only Kurdish heroines of history. Also honorable are the unknown women who have survived genocidal wars only to see their families massacred in brutal ethnic cleansing. I think of one woman in particular I once heard sing peacefully about the Kurdish struggle for survival. Her eyes bore the marks of anguish, but they emanated the bright light of hope.
Tara Fatehi prepared this text with assistance from e-feminist staff.