“From Adele Khanum to Layla Zana”

When did killing become an honor among Kurds?

By Ava Homa: Kurdistan Tribune – 17.4.2013 – Kurds have respected powerful female leaders from Adele Khanum to Leyla Zana, yet the rate of Kurdish women’s immolation is shockingly high. How can this paradox be explained?

Iraqi Kurdistan’s Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, called violence against women, “A terrible expression of inequality and injustice,” and started a 16-day campaign promoting women’s rights but when did violence against women start normalizing itself within the Kurdish culture? When did killing become an honor?

Some Kurdish nationalists believe that Kurds have always respected women and discriminations were only injected into the culture by Islam and Arabs. Their evidence for their claims is the life of powerful and influential Kurdish rulers and governments like Adellah Khanum and Hapsa Khan.

Adela Khanum, from the Ardalan family of Eastern Kurdistan, married Usman Pasha of Halabja, and entirely reshaped the environment of Halabbja by creating a huge garden. She later practically governed Halabja, instituted a court of justice and became the president. Up to her death in 1924, she exercised her influence.

Hapsa Khan, born in a prominent family of Sulaimaniah and married to a ruling family of Sheikh Qadir, was active in the early 1920s government, established the first women’s organization, and pursued an agenda for women’s literacy and education.

Martin van Bruinessen, the Dutch Professor of Anthropology who has extensively published on the Kurds, writes that such women “exemplify the moral superiority of the Kurds over their neighbours.”  His article “From Adele Khanum to Layla Zana” was published in Women of a Non-State Nation: The Kurds edited by Shahrzad Mojab.

Bruinessen adds that “in certain districts of Kurdistan, rule by women was in fact so common that it was explicitly referred to in the records of customary law (qanunnama) complied by the Ottomans.”

It is noted that the seventeenth century Turkish traveler Evliya Chelebi documented this with some bewilderment. He states that “the qanunnama for Shahrizur contained provisions allowing succession by a daughter, and he observes that such succession was common enough and apparently quiet accepted by the Kurds.”

Examples of powerful Kurdish women are abundant throughout history: Khanum Sultan, Khanzade Sultan, Kara Fatima Khanum, Shamsi Khatun and Fasla Khatun are some prominent figures.

Is having such powerful Kurdish woman an indication of women’s equal rights among the Kurds? Bruinessen also mentions the well-known Kurdish folklore “Zambil forosh” that details a woman’s explicit sexual advances towards a good looking married man. Does this folklore poem represent Kurdish Women’s sexual freedom?

What is noticeable is that all these women were in power when Islam was practiced by the majority of the Kurds and thus the claim that Islam promoted gender inequality among the Kurds is not acceptable.

What is noticeable, also, is that with no exception, all these women were either born to a prominent family or married into one. Thus Kurdish men did not consider it disgraceful to obey such women. Would the men feel the same way if the woman they follow didn’t belong to a conspicuous family?

“When Kurdish men marry a Western woman, someone who has had sex from the adolescence, they aren’t ashamed of her. In fact, they praise and value her courage and liberty,” observes Kaziwa Salih, the Kurdish poet and writer. “Yet, when the same man sees a Kurdish woman in love, they look down upon her and consider her a ‘bad woman’ simply for having loved a man back. Even when the ‘bad’ woman is their own lover, they lose respect for her. What kind of double-standard is that?”

F. Karahan, the Kurdish feminist writer, a pioneer of Kurdish Feminist movement in Turkey and publisher of the bi-monthly feminist magazine of Roza, believes that Kurdish women are respected as wives and mothers but never as independent individuals.

Yilmaz Guney, the prize-winning director of “Yol” and other movies, portrays a woman being locked-up like an animal and then surrounded to the husband to be killed because the relatives are suspicious of her having had an affair while the husband was imprisoned.

Which mirrors the reality of the Kurdish Women’s life? The influential women or the abused ones?

In the first World Kurdish Conference in Netherland, in October 2011, Soheila Ghaderi-Mamlah, a Kurdish scholar residing in France, read her article on the situation of the Kurdish women which was, in fact, a criticism of inequality. Pary Gharadakhi, a human-right activist residing in US, was chairing the session and said that Kurdish women enjoy more freedom than their neighbors: Fars, Turks and Arabs. Many Kurdish nationalists make similar arguments: Kurdish women don’t have to cover their hair, can put on colorful dress and dance hand in hand with men.

Throughout history, Kurdish men have been successful to climb the social ladders when they have been able to prove their qualifications while the Kurdish women depend on the influential fathers of husbands to become worthy of respect.

The reality is that Kurdish women in this day and age, at this very moment that you and I are reading history and reflecting on realities, are being circumcised (an unchangeable condition), are beaten by their brothers, husband and fathers who wholeheartedly believe they own the woman and some are killed in the name of honor.

In the Eastern Kurdistan, where Islamic Republic’s rules further strengthen patriarchy, frustrated, uneducated and powerless women’s only way out of suffrage, their only way to protest to injustice is self-burning. Kurdpa News agency recently published the latest data that proves 36.7% of the attempted suicides by women end in death; 30% of the victims are under the age 20.

The Kurdistan Regional Government has taken steps to stop such acts. Studies are done, shelters are made, organizations are founded and funded, yet many women in Southern Kurdistan are too scared to even report abuse. Women in other parts of Kurdistan are unaware that they can get a shelter in Southern Kurdistan and that is an option, if they have the strength, the money and the passport to cross the borders. Regardless of where our culture got contaminated, giving women their right is a process of unlearning. The paralyzing views of women that are now deeply produced and reproduced in our culture and language should be rejected for the women to be accepted as a human being.

While we strive to stop physical abuse, we should not forget the many emotional forms of abuse that are normalized, that a concept called “rape within marriage” does exist, and that women are human and thus have the right to fully control their own bodies as much as men do. That the men’s honour should not depend on women’s bodies.

Every traveller to Southern Kurdistan is astonished by the safety in the region and the honesty they see there: from the cab drivers, to business owners. Kurds are among the extraordinary honest people but does the uncivilized treatment of half of the population (only because of the biological differences) prove Kurds have lost their morality? Is it a result of lack of education among a nation constantly massacred and rendered homeless?

Whatever the cause(s) is, does is justify the inhumane actions taken against women?

Ava Homa is a Kurdish-Canadian writer and author of ‘Echoes from the Other Land’ which was nominated for the the world’s largest short story award, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.