At the beginning of February 2014, Hevi Ibrahim, a woman, was appointed to the post of prime minister of Afrin, one of the three Kurdish autonomous cantons in Syria. This was the first case in modern times of a woman and a Kurd being appointed to such a high post. Indeed this revolutionary move is doubly significant. First, the declaration of the autonomy of Afrin was itself a turning point in the history of the Kurds in Syria, who until 2012 were an almost unknown entity to the outside world. Second, unlike in the Arab case where women assumed an important role in the “Arab Spring” revolutions but were sidelined later by the new regimes, in the Kurdish case women who took part in the revolution remained center stage and even managed to reap its fruits politically.
Speaking after her appointment Hevi Ibrahim highlighted the point that being woman leaders are not something exceptional among the Kurds: “It might be an interesting situation for the Middle East, but it is not for the Kurds. We have many Kurdish women who have led their communities in the past. There are many examples before me. I just follow their path. Especially in Afrin, and throughout the Rojava Region [Western Kurdistan in Syria], women are leading the revolution.”
Indeed, in the case of Rojava many women are assuming a leading role. For example another woman, Asia Abdullah, is a co-chair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the leading party which governs the region. Abdullah, who has taken an active part in the Kurdish movement in Rojava for many years, also emphasized that the revolution was led by women. Another woman, Ramziya Mohammed, who was appointed finance minister in the Al-Jazeera canton, stressed that hers was a unique case in the Middle East, emphasizing that, “The Rojava Revolution became at the same time a women’s revolution.”
Two other women, Shamiram Sham’un and Amina Osi, were appointed deputies for the minister in charge of foreign relations. A Kurdish woman activist, Nora, explained that since the revolution 75 percent of Kurdish women in Rojava became organized thus being able to break the shackles of traditional society. Another unique phenomenon of this transformation is that women are also taking part in military activities in Rojava.
THE ROLE of women in Kurdish society is a classical case of continuity and change. Kurdish history is replete with cases of women assuming leadership roles in the realm of religion, politics and even in the military sphere. Interestingly, individual women from different religious denominations, including Jewish, Yezidi, Alevi and Muslim, assumed such a role. The most renowned among the Jewish Kurds is perhaps Asenath Barzani, who lived in the 17th century (1590- 1670). After her husband’s death she became head of a yeshiva and was considered the first female rabbi in Jewish history.
About the same time, Muslim Khanzade Sultan, who ruled over two Kurdish principalities and commanded according to one historian an army of 30,000 soldiers, conducted raids against Iran. The Kurdistan regional government (KRG) in Iraq has erected a statue to honor her feat. That hers was not a unique case was illustrated in the emergence of another lady warrior, Kara Fatma Khanum, who in 1850 led a contingent in the Crimean War to prove her loyalty to the Ottomans. Another famous Kurdish woman leader is Adela Khanum (1847-1924), who became head of the strong Jaf tribe even as her husband was still alive. She ruled in the Halabja area and became famous for her administrative capabilities.
The British who admired her conferred on her the title “the princess of the brave.” Among the Yezidis, a non-Muslim community, there was also a famous lady, Mayan Khatun, who was the effective religious leader of this community from 1913 to 1957.
This list of impressive women was not meant to be inclusive but rather to pinpoint a trend unique to Kurdish society and not to be found among the Kurds’ Arab, Turkish and Iranian neighbors. Still, it must be stressed that until quite recently women leaders in Kurdish society belonged as a rule to the aristocracy and were either the daughters or the wives of a male leader. Also this phenomenon should not be mistaken as a sign of gender equality in Kurdish society, as side by side with such strong women the majority have suffered from all the abuses of a traditional and conservative male-dominated society.
However, in recent years it is possible to notice a revolution in this realm as well, especially among the Kurds of Turkey and Syria. In these two regions the participation of women in social and political affairs became somehow institutionalized; women from the lower strata are increasingly taking part in these affairs; and the phenomenon became quite entrenched and widespread and ceased to be an exceptional case of one individual or another.
How and when did this process start? The initiative for this move began in the outlawed PKK. Abdullah Ocalan, its leader and chief ideologue, was under the influence of Marxism Leninism and had as a target achieving gender equality in the highly tribal, feudal and conservative Kurdish society. Thus from the very beginning of the establishment of the PKK in 1978 women were playing a central role in the movement. They enrolled as fighters in the PKK, where they have been treated on equal footing with men.
By the 1990s women represented 30 percent of the force and this number has increased since then. The politicization of women did not stop in the PKK but came to include all the other Kurdish organizations in Turkey, most importantly the (legal) Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). The BDP applies the quota of at least 40% for women in the various levels of the organization, and what is more, women share the leadership posts with men. For example, the co-chair of the BDP is Gultan Kishanak, who had been imprisoned for two years (1980-1982) because of her pro-Kurdish activities.
However, the most renowned Kurdish woman in Turkey is Leyla Zana, who became the symbol of the Kurdish struggle after spending 10 years in prison because she dared to utter one sentence in Kurdish during her oath ceremony in the Turkish Parliament in 1991. Nowadays she is engaged in certain pan-Kurdish activities.
As the PYD in Kurdistan of Syria is an offshoot of the PKK, the same processes have been taking place among Kurdish women in Rojava, except that in their case this tendency is much more pronounced and accelerated; a kind of revolution within a revolution. Even in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq where Kurdish society is more traditional, there are signs of improvement in women’s standing. Thus, the percentage of women in the KRG parliament is 30% (compared for example with 2% of Egyptian women parliamentarians in the post-revolutionary period in Egypt). However, the public standing of women in the KRG’s politics is much less pronounced.
One exception is may be Hero Talabani, President Jalal Talabani’s wife, who is considered as the strong woman in her party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
Although many Kurdish women continue to suffer from the maltreatment of their patriarchal and traditional society, the significance of the latest transformations cannot be exaggerated, paving the way as they do to a more democratic and egalitarian environment which may turn them into a role model for neighboring Muslim societies.
The writer, a professor, is Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. She is editor (with Meir Litvak) of
“The Sunna and Shi’a in History: Division and Ecumenism in the Muslim Middle East”.
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