Women in Kurdistan

By: Nguyen Huong Tra My

Kurdistan, The Kurds & Kurdish Women

The Kurds are amongst the largest nations in the world without a state. Around 35 million Kurds reside in a mountainous zone straddling Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

The Kurds were first split-up politically in the 17th century, when their territory was divided between the Ottoman and Safavid empires.

After World War I, a treaty between Britain and France, called the Sykes-Picot Agreement, drew arbitrary borders across the Middle East, creating colonial protectorate states.

The partition again fragmented the Kurds, this time across four countries: modern-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

Various Kurdish groups have been fighting for autonomy within their respective countries ever since. In recent decades, they have succeeded in establishing autonomously governed regions within Iraq and previously within Syria.

But in Iran and Turkey, the Kurds continue their armed struggle, which has led both countries to view this ethnic minority as a terrorist threat and to legally repress Kurdish populations.

They've formed alliances with other international powers, including the US, when doing so aligned with their military interests. 

Kurdish women have traditionally played important roles in Kurdish society and politics. In general Kurdish women's rights and equality have improved dramatically in the 21st century due to progressive movements within Kurdish society. 

However, despite the progress, Kurdish and international women's rights organizations still report problems related to gender equality, forced marriages, honor killings and in Iraqi Kurdistan also female genital mutilation (FGM).

Jineology & Kurdish Feminism

During the second half of the twentieth century, as the ideological Cold War took shape around the globe and divided cultures and societies, the Kurds were no different.

The Marxist-Communist outlook appealed to the Kurds – the ideology offered equality for the often-oppressed group, and Moscow provided a backing from a geopolitical superpower willing to provide the varying Kurdish organizations weapons and support for independence.

The ideology would also shape how the Kurdish culture approached gender, and gender equality. “The Kurdish freedom movement’s outlook on women’s liberation is of an explicit communalist nature.

Rather than deconstructing gender roles to infinity, it treats the conditions behind current concepts of womanhood as sociological phenomena and aims to redefine such concepts by formulating a new social contract.”

Built into many of the Kurdish political party’s manifestos are the desire for gender equality and the importance of women.

The PKK coined the term ‘Jineology’ – ‘jin’, in Kurdish, means ‘woman’ – the term is defined as “a fundamental scientific term in order to fill the gaps that the current social sciences are incapable of doing.

Jineology is built on the principle that without the freedom of women within society and without a real consciousness surrounding women no society can call itself free.”

Much of the Kurdish feminist movement can be traced to the political and ethnic struggles in Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s. The feminist movement in Turkey encouraged women to form their own groups, recognize their own identities separate from their husbands.

The Kurdish women in Turkey took these ideas to heart, especially in Turkey where the Kurds have been historically oppressed and separated sociologically and politically.

Because of this, Kurdish feminists have developed a dual identity which has taken root in the Kurdish feminist movements throughout Kurdish-held territory – that they are not only women, but also members of a nation, specifically a repressed nation, and that by freeing Kurdistan, all women will gain freedom and equality not experienced by many of their cultural neighbors.

“Kurdish feminists argue that being members of the oppressed nation has not caused them to ignore the domination and oppression of Kurdish men over them.

In this respect, it is insistently emphasised that Kurdish women should be possessed with the desire to simultaneously fight against two enemies.

In the Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria, the approach to gender and equality are no different, and even in war, remains a vital part of Syrian Kurdish culture, and a point of pride for its leaders.“

Gender-based discrimination, forced marriages, domestic violence, honor killings, polygamy, child marriage, and bride price are criminalized.

Many non-Kurdish women, especially Arabs and Assyrians, joined the armed ranks and administration in Rojava.

In all spheres, including the internal security forces (asayish) and the People’s Defense Units, YPG, and Women’s Defense Units YPJ, gender equality is a central part of education and training.”

Feminism & the PKK

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, created in 1978 in Turkey, with Marxist-Leninist inspirations, advocated the formation of an independent Kurdish state.

It may be considered a terrorist organization by some countries, but it also happens to be one of the most feminist movements in the Middle East.

The group held its first congress on women's rights in 1987, in which PKK co-founder Sakine Cansiz—who was later shot dead in an apparent assassination in 2013—proposed that its "liberation for all" rhetoric must include women's liberation too.

Today, the party's political agenda explicitly recognizes religious minorities, dissidents, and women as the crux of democracy. Within a short time, the group was able to organise a guerrilla war against the Turkish state, and it captured its full attention after 1984.

At that time, the PKK was able to exercise great influence in the southeast of Turkey, in many cases establishing a parallel government and challenging power in Ankara.

The PKK remained active in the 1980s and 1990s, but, in 1999, when Öcalan (the group's leader) was arrested, the group started a profound process of ideological re-evaluation, transforming its agency and aims.

In the Kurdish regions of Iraq and Syria, women have the same legal rights as men. Indeed, the Iraqi Kurdish regional government has a higher proportion of women than United Kingdom—30 percent versus 20 percent.

The charter of the semi-autonomous Syrian Federation of Kurdistan, founded in 2012, requires that women must hold a minimum of 40 percent of all government posts. Every Kurdish Syrian public institution must also have two co-presidents, one male and one female.

Women also make up 40 percent of Kurdish fighters deployed across the Middle East. Today, more than 25,000 Kurdish women are deployed in Syria as the Women's Protection Units, an all-female militia inspired by the KPP's feminist liberation ideology.

Female Fighters in the Peshmerga

History describes women fighting alongside men as well as leading armies as early as 605 BC. With the worldwide coverage of the war against ISIS, Kurdish female fighters have emerged as popular figures for their effectiveness and bravery in battle.

Leading by example, they have also inspired millions of people around the world to stand up for women’s equality.

Female Kurdish troops played a crucial role in rescuing the thousands of Yazidis trapped by ISIS on Iraq's Mount Sinjar in 2014 and liberating the city of Raqqa from the Islamic State in 2017.

Currently, women are on the brutal front lines of Afrin. Their prominence has caught the eye of the international media.

State media in Turkey and Iran, for example, often reflect the government's view that female Kurdish guerrilla fighters are man-hating terrorists.

Western reporters, on the other hand, sometimes portray Kurdish female fighters as oppressed victims of a backwards culture who are looking for an escape.

Others outlets focus on their looks. In 2014, British papers dubbed fighter Asia Ramazan Antar the "Kurdish Angelina Jolie."

Gender Equality in Iraqi Kurdistan

According to the Iraqi government’s I-WISH survey results in 2012, a large proportion of women in the Kurdistan Region face impediments in public participation, achieve lower levels of educational attainment than men, and experience discrimination and violence.

But the survey also shows Kurdish women’s perception of their status and circumstances is better than that of women in the rest of Iraq. More women in the Region feel they can participate in politics and that the gender balance is not favourable towards men.

As early as World War I, Kurds already had a female leader. Lady Adela Khanum, leader of the Kurdish region of Halabja, saved the lives of numerous British army officers on the battlefield, earning her the nickname "Princess of the Brave."

She originally rose to power because she inherited the position when her husband died and while ruling Halabja from 1909 to 1924, she did not push a women's rights agenda.


McKiernan, Kevin. 2006. The Kurds, a People in Search of Their Homeland. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-0-312-32546-6

Shawn E. Gorman, B.S., B.A. (2017). Are Female Counterinsurgency Units effective? A case study of the female Kurdish militias of Iraq and Syria. Georgetown University Washington, D.C

Hansen, H.H. (1961). The Kurdish Woman's Life. Copenhagen. Ethnographic Museum Record 7:1–213.

Bruna Ferreira, Vinícius Santiago. (2018). Santiago The Core of Resistance : Recognising Intersectional Struggle in the Kurdish Women ’ s Movement. Contexto Internacional

Zeynep N. Kaya. (2017). Gender Equality and the Quest for Statehood in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. LSE Middle East Centre Paper Series.

Haidar Khezrimar. (2018). The complex gender politics of Kurdistan. Pacific Standard. Archived from: https://psmag.com/social-justice/the-complex-gender-politics-of-kurdistan

Pinar Tremblay. (2016). Kurdish women's movement reshapes Turkish politics – Al-Monitor: the Pulse of the Middle East. Al-Monitor. Archived from https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/03/turkey-women-in-middle-east-figen-yuksekdag.html#

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