In the heart of the Middle East, a region plagued by religious fundamentalism and where women are almost invisible in political and social activities, a movement has taken place where women play a substantial role in both practices and decision making processes within the military and in politics; it is a Kurdish Movement.
Modern Kurdish nationalism started since the establishment of the Republic of Kurdistan, towards the end of WWII. Kurdistan is one of the largest nations in the world that does not have its own state. The people migrated between Iran and the Ottoman Empire after the Chaldoran conflict. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the population had been redistributed between Turkey, Iraq and Syria. They have struggled to attain an autonomous government with the objective of gaining fundamental rights within its borders and a peaceful coexistence with people of other ethnicity.
This movement has been able to make a difference in Iraq, Syria and in Turkey. However,circumstances in Iran have made it difficult for Kurdistan to reach its goal of becoming an independent state. On one hand, their military forces have been pushed back to Kurdish Iraq and on the other hand, the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq (KRG) that has special relations with Iran, makes the freedom of movement for them more difficult. The Iranian regime, unlike Turkey and Syria, has no intentions of negotiating with Kurds about their rights except if it involves a plan to assassinate Kurdish negotiators.
The Kurds of Iran have not attained their objectives yet; however their movement has distinguished them from all other ones in the Middle East. Kurdish women, as mentioned above, play a large role in political and military activities, in contrast to other movements in the region, namely those that are more Islamic in ideological orientation. Abnormally enough, a number of religious Kurdish men had a significant role to make this difference. How did women from such a closed-minded and conservative region take part in a fully male-based domain? And how did all these religious men let this social change happen?
Women involvement in Kurdish political life–particularly Kurdistan of Iran- has passed through three historical epochs: the establishment of the republic of Kurdistan via KDP-Iran (1946), the emergence of Komaleh as a Kurdish left wing movement (1979) and the establishment of PJAK as a PKK-related political and military organization (2004).
When the Republic of Kurdistan was established in Mahabad, Kurdish society allowed the participation of women in social activities, yet not in political ones. In other parts of Kurdistan, women had become involved in politics within society. An example of this is of ruler ‘Lady Maryam’ who belonged to a famous Kurdish family, Nahri, residing in Turkey. She obtained great power and authority over her tribal territory in the 1910’s. Another female ruler, Lady Adela, ruled Halabja,
Kurdistan in Iraq and played a major role helping British soldiers during the Great War. However the women of Kurdish Iran had not been involved in political activities before the 1940s. The vast majority of Kurdish women did not veil themselves. When Reza Shah outlawed the Hijab in 1936, his officers had not been faced with resistance by Kurdish women. However an uprising of Kurdish men was present, as they did not want to accept governmental uniform and westernization among society.
The social lives of women in Kurdistan were very different from those living in the rest of Iran.They would dance and sing with men in public and associated themselves with foreigners, some
of who were men or tourists. They were freer than women of other ethnicity in Iran and the rest of the region. Nevertheless, the leadership of the Republic in Mahabad (1945-46) encouraged them to participate in political and in social domains. A propitious education was then provided for women, teaching them the required skills they needed to express themselves within society. Ghazi Mohammad, the supreme leader of KDP (the party established before the Republic of Kurdistan), launched a campaign to extend the involvement of women in political activities establishing the ‘Union of Democrat Women’. His wife, Mina Ghazi, was the first to join. This greatly impacted Kurdish society, not only because Ghazi Mohammad brought his wife in such activities, but also because he was a religious leader. Before becoming the president of the Republic, he was a popular and well-known ‘Mullah’ in Mahabad. Subsequently, his decision to let women play a role within this particular field had inspired the religious community of Kurdistan to initiate demonstrations, leading to an intellectual shift in both the attitudes and beliefs of the people.
The second epoch started when a radical left wing party emerged rapidly after Iran’s Revolution in 1979. Komaleh, as it became known, had strengthened the participation of Kurdish women in politics. This process led to the involvement in combat and military training when Iran’s Army launched an offensive to destroy the socialist and autonomist movements in Kurdistan. At first it was a general oppression of all Kurds, including men and women. Hundreds of Kurdish women joined the military and political ranks of Komala. Discriminatory laws in the incipient Islamic regime, along with domestic violence within certain rural and conservative families, encouraged many women to fight for their rights during the first decade after Iran’s attack in Kurdistan.
They found joining Komala –and also KDP which had a long history since 1946- less dangerous than being subject to abuse in the prisons or exposed to the new Islamic laws. Other women joined because their relatives had been killed or imprisoned and were also worried about their lives, deciding to join Komala in order to avoid prison. They had heard about cases of other women forced to commit suicide or had been killed by security officers. Other deaths, such as honor killings, were present among women within society. Joining a party such as Komala offered a way out for these women. Some saw Komala as a way of gaining entry into politics, offering them a sense of democracy and a ‘normal society’.
Similarly to the first epoch, this second wave of involvement was fortified by the most famous religious leader in Kurdistan: Sheikh Izzaddin Hosseini, who supported Komala’s socialist ideas and let his daughters join the military, involving political activities. This movement created a new revolution and a sense of resistance among society. Poets wrote about female ‘Peshmargeh’ fighting against Islamic forces and how they protect the male Peshmaga, while also caring for their children. The most famous poem, ‘Runak’, is about a mother who is far away from her child and writes her a letter saying that her father had been killed while he was fighting. The mother ended the letter by saying she had to fulfill her role and replace him in the Kurdistan revolutionary forces. This poem had been sung by Najma Ghulami, one of the most renowned artists and singers from the 1980s, who pursued Komaleh activities throughout these years.
The last epoch of women involvement in political and military campaigns in Kurdistan commenced with the emergence of PJAK (Kurdistan’s Free Life Party) in 2004. It had a close relation to the PKK (Kurdistan’s Workers Party), known for having the largest contingent of female guerrillas in the world. PJAK had gradually expanded its female ranks, becoming the largest one among Kurdish parties in Iran. Women in the PJAK, had models to follow and learn from. The presence of women already existed during this movement and they were able to improve their positions in both quantitative and qualitative aspects. Their existence is now ever stronger and more vital than women in Komaleh and KDP. Along with male accomplices, the Kurdish women carried out military attacks and participated in philosophical and theoretical classes in order to educate themselves on weapons and in politics. Women also have equal rights within the leadership of Pejak, as well as the PKK and BDP in the Turkish parliament. Now female members in the ranks of PJAK have become part of normal standards. After each victory, they take the hands of the male guerrillas and begin to dance. This is one of the most visible symbols of freedom and power. Significantly as the PJAK has claimed, Kurdish women have managed to attain complete gender equality. Some have fled from a conservative background while have been brought up in open-minded and educated families with university qualifications. Similar to their involvement in intellectual activities, they see the military campaigns as a way of getting their national and gender rights and also a means of women empowerment within their movement. In contrast to closed and conservative societies where women are raised under pressure, PJAK claims to have valued women as free individuals, providing them the best space to express themselves. Even in a so called “free society” women still had barriers, and this had given them the opportunity for progression. Women have proven that they are capable of attaining power within Kurdish society, yearning for a pattern of change and revitalization that could potentially be followed by other Middle Eastern societies someday.
Text by Hemn Seyedi
This body of work portray the life of kurdish women fighters in three different Kurish political party: KDP-Iran (1946), Komaleh (1979) and PJAK as a PKK-related political and military organization (2004).
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