The Consequences of Being an Independent Woman in Kurdish Society

Disclaimer: Any of my accomplishments I list in this article are merely stated to make a point. I say them with humility and humbleness, not in a way of bragging.

Recently, a Kurdish male said some things to my face that left me in complete shock- things a woman should never have to hear in the year 2015. During this conversation, I was told that I am not “wife material” because I am “too independent” and that I am “too successful and will be even more successful in the future” therefore I will “have the power to kick out a man one day and that threatens a man in our culture.” Ending it with “99.9% of Kurdish men will never want to be with you.”

Excuse me?

Since when did being independent become synonymous with not being a wife? These words cut through me as an offense I can’t seem to let go of. All of his statements may sound like compliments to a feminist like myself but underneath it all, they are back-handed insults to not just me personally, but to Kurdish women and Kurdish culture overall. The person behind these comments personally knows the type of life I have lived for the past decade or so, but has just recently revealed how he truly feels about the way I live my life. Fortunately, I am not one to hide behind my decisions- I will gladly tell the world what I’ve been doing for the past 22 years.

My parents escaped political turmoil and risked everything to bring their children to the United States when I was about 6 years old. Upon moving here, my father made sure to engrave into his children the importance of education and how lucky we were to have the opportunity to learn, especially as women. After all, Iran isn’t exactly best known for encouraging women to become self-sufficient and educated members of their society. Growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska- a farming state where conservatism runs high among the American population, it seemed as if the Kurdish population was just as conservative and close-minded, if not ten times worse. Just imagine, I’m talking ancient Kurdish village type of close minded. If you are seen for example- wearing shorts, you might as well exile yourself to Antarctica because you are automatically dubbed the loose goose of the community. These people are lucky to be in a country full of opportunity and freedom yet they confine themselves to living in a bubble full of judgement, assumptions and disillusionments based on rumors and spreading gossip. Knowing all of this, I removed myself entirely to avoid being associated to this sort of backwards behavior.

I grew up with American friends and lived a relatively “American” life. This is not to say my teenage years weren’t microscopically watched by my parents; I still went through the typical strict Kurdish parents. But the difference was that at some point, it eased down based on my age, actions and level of education- AS IT SHOULD. Like I previously stated, education was still at the highest importance for me, so I went off to college to earn a degree. I got accepted to a private university with the highest respect in the midwest, but unfortunately it was an hour away in a different city. This took a lot of convincing for my father, but after long talks and debates, he eventually came around and realized what was more important.

So, I set off to a brand new city all by myself knowing just one person. I lived out the typical “American college experience” of living in dorms and meeting thousands of interesting people who I’m honored to call my friends today. I actively volunteered within my community as a tutor for underprivileged girls, I was a Girl Scout troop leader at a local elementary school, attended week long volunteer based service trips in different states and I volunteered for local political campaigns. I attended workshops and conferences and I shadowed highly successful people who’s advice I’ve kept with me throughout all of my decisions. I belonged to clubs and organizations on my campus and I even interned and did research alongside our state Senator. This is all while balancing a healthy social life as well, working part-time to earn my own money and attending school full-time. 4 years later, I graduated (on time) with loads of experience under my belt, my own published research, and a resume set to impress anyone in the professional world. But the Kurdish community in my hometown could only see my leaving home as something bad- something to be gossiped about.

After graduation, I made the decision to go halfway across the world and experience something new and different before beginning my Master’s degree. I lived in Spain for almost 9 months and officially made Spanish my 4th official language. I taught english to make money and used the money to backpack across Europe for 6 weeks at the end of my journey. How can you explain to a group of close-minded people the liberation that comes with roaming across a continent by yourself? The experiences, memories and relationships you’ve found? These are the same people who allow their sons to go on vacation but won’t let their daughters out of the house. The same people who are so afraid of living that they subdue to a stagnant idleness with no real sense of direction. They have no interest in hearing my stories because at the end of the day, I will always be the black sheep who left her parent’s home before marriage.

As a proud feminist, I am disappointed. But as a proud Kurd, I’m even more disappointed. Most Kurdish communities, like the one I grew up in, hold us back from progressing towards a well-balanced population. So many of us fight to be recognized alongside the Western world as an independent state, while others pull us back using the excuse “that’s not in our culture.” What they fail to realize is that culture may evolve while still keeping high moral capacity. How can we request to be an independent state while there are those who believe women cannot make more money than a man because it is “threatening?” Or that daughters cannot leave the nest without a husband? Carefully study history and you’ll soon find that all the great nations of the world today at some point struggled with sexism as well. Imagine the things we’d accomplish as Kurds if we weren’t so attached to culturally engrained sexism.

The topic is a sensitive one that needs to be talked about more openly and directly. We must first identify the root causes of the issue, then find and analyze the effects of oppression on a woman’s health- physically, mentally and emotionally. And lastly, we must collectively work together to find solutions. These solutions will hopefully have potential to become policies that may realistically be implemented and carried out to prepare future generations for a better life.

I don’t believe there to be only one cause but rather a summation of explanations that all lead to the same outcome. One reason may be most of the Arab countries surrounding Kurdistan. These countries’ male reliance on misogyny is destroying their societies as well as their economies. We as Kurds constantly correct people that we are Kurd and not Arab, identifying with the idea of being progressive. So when will we fully differentiate our culture and not let their cultural characteristics trickle into ours? Another widely researched reason will cite the Muslim religion as a heavy influence as well. Next may be the hundreds of years of harsh authoritarian rule within the region that has left a huge imprint on modern society. We can even blame the high volumes of Western invasions and occupations in the area, making feminism considered solely a Western idea, which in turn makes it harder to accept in traditional places since it is seen as an imposition. Lastly, it seems that Kurdistan’s recent social changes in society seem to be clashing with old traditions of oppressing women in an uneducated manner. Remember, I am touching just the surface here; this issue is an exponentially deeper wound than we all like to admit.

As for the effects- it’s tough to correctly identify which variables are impacting the female population due to the lack of data and quantitative research on this subject. But I think we can all see it’s effects quite clearly before our own eyes. Oppression mainly leads to making certain subjects, such as sex, taboo. It also puts mental and emotional strain on a human, and in worst case scenarios, leads to many depressing thoughts that in turn lead to regretful actions. Our very own editor-in-chief here at Medya, Tara Fatehi, specializes in the research of health and well-being among Kurdish women. She finds that “this type of mentality and lack of education towards sex creates a culture of honor killings, genital mutilation, rape and suicide.” The numbers show a clear increase of suicide attempts over the years in both provinces of Slemani and Hewler, sampled in a report by Hanna & Ahmad (2009). These acts create an even wider gender gap that becomes harder to fill.

To address those of you who will of course attack me on the basis of “stop condemning our culture and making it sound so awful,” I’d like to point out that I am surely not doing that. The way I see it, we are allowing our Peshmarga women to be on the front lines fighting equally alongside men, but then having them come home to the kitchen. Obviously this is an overdramatic statement, but the point I’m trying to make is that the double standards need to be abolished. Let’s rid ourselves of the negatives, not wipe out our culture entirely. I will proudly embed the positives of Kurdish culture into my future children, such as our passion for food and the arts, our sense of respect- especially for elders, and our struggle as a people that will instill in them perseverance and earnestness.

At the end of the day, I must remember who I am based on my own opinion, not the opinion of a male whose mind is stuck in a different era. I’ve seen too many Kurdish girls get married at a young age to escape their oppressed situation at home only to end up unhappy, divorced, or both. I encourage my female readers to not let this happen to them. I want you all to be so independent and well educated, that when you finally are ready to get married, your partner understands that you are wanting to spend the rest of your life with him, not because you need him. A female’s place is not behind a man but beside him. Let’s not wait for an independent Kurdistan to begin empowering our women, let’s begin today. And to the Kurds who still think a woman belongs at home in the kitchen, I cordially invite you to build yourselves a time machine and head back to a time period where you belong, because it certainly is not this one.