Kurdish women’s Poetry as Resistance: Reclaiming ‘the self’ through literary expression

“Even if we douse it in the sea.
this fire will burn forever.
It beats out light in the darkness.
It burns on.”
– Bejan Matur

To be able to understand the importance of Kurdish women’s poetry in the contemporary context, it is first necessary to illustrate the condition of the Kurdish identity—regardless of gender—in the present day Middle East. The position of the Kurdish people within modern day society is possibly best portrayed by the old Kurdish proverb, “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” Following the end of World War One—the consequence of which was a thorough reconstruction of middle-eastern borders and the creation of a new geopolitical landscape—the Kurdish people have become a thoroughly disjointed, stateless entity dispersed across the mountainous territories now encompassed by the Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish borders. Denying the Kurds their own independent state, and forever erasing Kurdistan off the map, ushered in an era of oppression suffered at the hands of the regimes of either of the four aforementioned countries. Since they were no longer considered a legitimate nation, but rather a numerous minority in every country that they now inhabited, the Kurds have more often than not been subjected to ethnic cleansing (be it at the hands of the remnants of the fallen Ottoman Empire known as Turkey or the deceased Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein), involuntary resettlement and forced attempts at assimilation via language bans.

Where Kurds are located in the Middle East via ‘The Kurdish Project’.

Within this whirlwind of endeavours to render the Kurdish identity non-existent by stripping the people of the rights to their own language, as well as abolishing their rights to freedom of cultural expression, and numerous armed uprisings in an attempt to reclaim the sense of ‘self’ from the merciless jaws of new identities assigned by none other than the oppressors, another, more covert struggle was taking place — the women’s struggle. In the midst of the Kurdish cultural apocalypse and perpetual ‘linguicide’, women have been—and still are—fighting their own battle in both the public and the domestic sphere of existence. They commenced not only fighting against ‘culturcide’ perpetuated by either of the previously mentioned countries by directly facing the oppressor in the field of battle, but also decided to stand up to another, less visible, but ever so dangerous enemy — the patriarchal mentality ingrained into every pore of society, thus dictating clandestinely each and every aspect of their every day lives. In a sense, the Kurdish women were victims of ‘double oppression’, that of the regime that turned the Kurd into the unmentionable ‘other’— an undesirable, barely existent, leper-like entity whose very language and culture are a threat to society — and that of the ever present notion of the dominant male/submissive female dynamics still deep-rooted in the middle-eastern society, thus becoming forced to tackle an array of gender-specific obstacles in an effort to save their own identities from extinction.

“Their political struggle, especially when armed, was often met with harsh state violence, which used a gross combination of racism and sexism, centered around sexualized torture, systematic rape, and propaganda campaigns that portrayed militant women as prostitutes, because they dared to pose themselves as enemies of hyper-masculine armies. In the Western discourse, Kurdish women’s agency in their struggle was often denied by claims that they are “being instrumentalized for the national cause” or that they participate in the liberation struggle in order to escape their sad lives as “victims of a backward culture”.” (‘Feminism and the Kurdish Freedom Movement’, Dirik, paragraph 3)

In the aforementioned passage, Dilar Dirik manages to perfectly illustrate the issues experienced by Kurdish women caused by the prevalent patriarchal mentality. It became clear that Kurdish women’s liberation cannot be achieved solely through the means of armed struggle, since the efforts will only continue to be undermined by mistreatment of women in other aspects of life. In order to fight the regime, one first had to destroy the notion of the dominant male and reimagine the woman not as a submissive ‘extension’ of a man, but an equal. Thus, in order to be able to successfully reclaim her culture, the Kurdish woman first had to reclaim herself.

Dilar Dirik in Rojava, Syrian Kurdistan.

In a society where women’s actions are heavily dictated by the will of men, where there is little space left for women in the context of the public sphere—as well as regulated by the oppressive nation-state intent on reducing her cultural and linguistic identity to absolute nothingness—literature became a new battlefront, an act of defiance and unconditional resistance. Poetry replaced a gun, and verses written in Kurdish became bullets shooting through the walls encasing the Kurdish woman and piercing holes, however small, which allowed her to become seen by her oppressor and yet remain protected from him. The ambiguity of poetry allowed the Kurdish woman to express and explore a myriad of issues — from those addressing the taboo status of women’s sexuality, to those providing harsh political criticism cleverly disguised in the form of a seemingly innocent musing — while still remaining safely hidden from prosecution and ostracising by using the socially imposed ‘walls’ to her advantage, and fighting the oppression by ever so carefully filling her every word with vagueness, sure to enable her to render herself a submissive woman acceptable within the framework of patriarchy, if the need arises.

The aforementioned can be said to be rather similar to the notion of the veiled Algerian woman in Frantz Fanon’s essay, ‘Algeria unveiled‘:

[In the essay] the colonizer’s attempt to unveil the Algerian woman does not simply turn the veil into the symbol of resistance; it becomes a technique of camouflage, a means of struggle – the veil conceals bombs. The veil that once secured the boundary of the hone – the limits of woman – now masks the woman in her revolutionary activity (…) (Bhabha, pg. 63)

Much like the Algerian woman from Fanon’s essay, the Kurdish woman has learned how to turn the oppression suffered by women into her own advantage and seemingly give into the concept of an obedient, submissive woman by retreating from the frontline back into her own home. Her submissiveness is her veil which allows her to stand up to the oppressor and convey her revolutionary ideas to others maybe even more efficiently than a man — simply because she is not expected to engage in any of those activities simply due to the perceived nature of her gender. Her pages littered with words written in Kurdish and subtly portraying the long history of the Kurdish people is a weapon as effective as a gun wielded by a man fighting fervently on the frontline, maybe even more so. Unlike the frenzied gun fire in the midst of battle that sends a clear message of defiance and unwillingness to yield, poetry sends a much different, but an even more compelling message.

Frantz Fanon

While soldiers and various other Kurdish individuals may perish, reading and writing poetry will ensure that the notion of ‘Kurdishness’ never does, for once the poem is completed it no longer depends on the poet. It becomes a part of society, slowly making its way from one individual to another remaining forever embedded in people’s minds. Once the poem is read for the first time after being written it cannot be destroyed. Its physical copies may be destroyed or banned, but the impact it left on its reader is something that can never be taken away from them since it is safely nested within the walls of their own minds, where it rests and waits to transferred to the minds of others. In that regard, the poem has more power than any other weapon used to fight the aggressor. It exists defiantly and indestructibly, sending a clear message — We exist. We are Kurds. We are women. And our existence can never be erased.

In the following paragraph is one of the poems possibly best illustrating all of the aforementioned, titled Separation from Earth and written by a Kurdish female poet by the name of Kajal Ahmad:

“When I exploded
Like the horizon, my hair
Became a belt around the Earth’s waist.
For the frozen poles of the south,
I turned myself into a pair of socks,
For the chills in the North, from threads of my soul
I wore hats and turbans.
The homeland was sick of me:
It wanted to tear me off like an old coat,
But I hung myself on the mercy of its beard
And from earth I was thrown off into the arms of the universe.
In the sky I became a star
And now I have my own place and my own passion
And I am denser with lives than Earth.”

In this compelling poem originally written in Kurdish, Ahmad tells not only a story of herself, nor does she solely provide her own personalized experience of the world as it may seem at first glance. Her poem is her story, but behind its carefully draped veil of vagueness, it is also every woman’s and every Kurd’s simultaneously. While speaking of her own experience of forcing herself into submission and reshaping the very core of her identity for various metaphorically expressed reasons (e.g. “For the frozen poles of the south, I turned myself into a pair of socks”), Ahmad also speaks for every woman suffering from oppression at the hands of the dominant male. She speaks for every woman desperately twisting and turning her own sense of self in a desperate attempt to conform to the expectations of society by becoming a submissive ‘extension’ of a male figure, but no matter how hard she tries to conform, any remaining particle of her true, independent self will remain an object of scrutiny by the dominant male (e.g. “It wanted to tear me off like an old coat, but I hung myself on the mercy of its beard.”).

The very same verses that speak of the women speak of the condition of the Kurdish culture in today’s society as well. It ever so covertly tells a story of the Kurds as a stateless nation, scattered and forced to wander the earth in search for a homeland that can never be found. It subtly evokes the notion of ethnic cleansings and forced resettlements that both played a significant role in creating the modern Kurdish identity (e.g. “The homeland was sick of me” (…) And from the earth I was thrown off into the arms of the universe. In the sky I became a star”).

Ruined city of Kobane, Syria.

Most importantly, the poem conveys a message of hope. In its last two verses (“And now I have my own place and my own passion, and I am denser with lives than Earth.”) the poem accentuates that even in the face of adversity, the author, the women and the Kurds have only been given a chance to grow stronger and more resilient for what is yet to come. By being written and read this very poem has now found its own place within more minds that there are lives on Earth. Its message of resistance has become embedded within the lives of women, Kurds and Kurdish women thus first allowing woman to utilize its power in their fight against patriarchal oppression and then Kurdish women to stand side by side with their male counterparts and reclaim their identity by speaking, writing and reading in the Kurdish language and openly living the Kurdish culture. Only when the women are free of the chains of the patriarchal mentality will the Kurds be able to efficiently fight the socio-cultural erasure at the hands of other countries and become truly free — and here poetry and its readers, and more specifically, women’s poetry, can play a crucial part.

Originally written in Croatian by Katarina Pavičić-Ivelja (17/07/2017)

Translated by Katarina Pavičić-Ivelja

Edited by Anthony Avice Du Buisson

Link to original post in Croatian here: click here

+ Bibliography
– Ahmad, Kajal. “Magazine.” Words Without Borders. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2017.
– Bhabha, Homi K. The location of culture. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.
– Dirik, Dilar. “Feminism and the Kurdish Freedom Movement.” Home – KurdishQuestion.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2017.
– Hale, Thomas. “A short history of the Kurds.” Financial Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2017.
– “Kurdish Academy of Language enables the Kurdish language in new horizon.” Kurdish Academy of Language. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2017.


Clock Never Stops

Clock holds time in its face.
Endlessly running in a clockwise formation;
no stop in site, for time stops for nothing.
Young faces, old faces, happy faces and sad faces—
all are a victim of its subtle but salient reality.

Mothers raise daughters;
fathers raise sons to its marching drumbeat.
None can stop.
So the fool tries to save what is now gone;
death is called to repeat and give back the fool’s gold.
Tears say nothing; for they cannot do anything.

‘Tick, tick’ is what is heard;
dead face with no remorse or feel.
Sandman comes to collect then goes,
then collects again—no stop.
Grim Reaper steals those tears shed from the fool;
mocking them with each death smile.

Clock cannot stop—
it will not stop, please stop.
Please give back those taken.
One to twelve each day, more are taken away.
Raven echoes long forgotten words.
Clock face can only stop once; no, no, it cannot.
Each hand pulls reality.
Time never stops.

Written By: Anthony Avice Du Buisson