Kurdish women’s resistance in body and poetry

I need a street
Empty of bloodstains,
A street that has never seen
Or known terror.
Let it be flawless, let it be flawless, flawless
Like the sex of these girls that are killed unjustly.
Let it be long, let it be long, long
Like their agony.

(Kajal Ahmad, Extract from In the country of terror I love the streets more than men. Translated from the Kurdish by Mewan Nahro and Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse)

The past two months have been both devastating and galvanising for Kurdish women, since the tragedy of Jîna (Mahsa) Amînî reached the international media. Jîna, a young Kurdish woman from the Seqiz region in Iranian Kurdistan, was visiting Tehran with her brother when he was beaten by the police and she was arrested. She was then taken to prison, where she was met with such violence that she died after three days in a coma. All for ‘improper wearing of hijab’.

Since this horrific event, women across Iran have taken to the streets, putting their bodies at risk of mutilation and murder by the same brutal police force. This ultimate resistance of body and life is astonishing, but it is not new. There have been decades of such acts, through physical protest, film, literature and art by Kurdish women, against repeated attempts at erasure. It is time we gave heed to this legacy, lest we allow this misogyny and racism to pervade in all societies. The truism that abuse thrives in silence applies most pertinently here, when we think also of the atrocities in the Australian carceral systems, including deaths in custody of Indigenous peoples and the failure to protect victims of gender-based violence. As a Kurdish-Australian woman, I look at the resounding words of Audre Lorde when she said: ‘Our silence will not protect us.’

‘Jin Jiyan Azadi’, Kurdish for ‘Women Life Freedom’, is the slogan of the protests, which have been mobilised internationally, condemning the Iranian government for their abuses of human rights.

Language is not accidental, and the fact that the stem of the word ‘jiyan’ or ‘woman’ comes from ‘jin’ or ‘life’ in Kurdish is useful to understanding Kurdish feminism. This chant has since been translated and co-opted by protesters of all backgrounds—which is not problematic in itself, although we must acknowledge and respect the origin of these words. For an international audience to rally behind the cries of Kurdish women like Jîna—just one of scores of untold stories of femicide—is a crucial moment for women everywhere.


Addicted to freedom

Kajal Ahmad, the author of the lines at the top of this article, was born in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1967, a year before the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party seized power in Iraq. Until 2003, under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, Kurdish peoples suffered anything from persecution for speaking their native language in public to the gassing of entire villages. This was the brutal context in which Ahmad grew up, and it shows in her poetry, which is concerned with freedom, most specifically for Kurdish women. Palpable in her writing is a sense of fortitude and healing.

Consider for instance these lines from ‘Godless Snow’:

How addicted I am to freedom:
I create life from death,
lanterns from my scars.

‘Addicted to freedom’ is a great accolade for Kurdish women, and reminds me of a vintage card, from 1929, turned into a collage by artist/activist Raz Xaidan. The card reads (in typical essentialist language):

The Kurds are a very wild and freedom loving nomadic race … the women share the life of the men but are allowed considerable freedom, and they go about with their faces unveiled.

Set against the present moment, this orientalist, western archival object is revealing of the progressiveness of the Kurdish cultural movement, and of the centrality of women in its discourse. The nameless, unveiled woman on the card might have been Jîna Amini or any other Kurdish women who dared resist racist governments simply by their survival and visibility. It is irrefutable that women of all ethnic origins are at grave risk under governments like the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ba’athist Iraq and Syria or Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi in Turkey. But for Kurdish women, for whom racism and misogyny intersect, this risk is even more harrowing. We are indeed addicted to freedom, as persecution and genocide have been our major frames of reference for successive generations.

To extend the metaphor, consider Ahmad’s poem ‘Birds’, and the dark humour of its opening lines:

According to the latest classification, Kurds
now belong to a species of bird
which is why, across the torn, yellowing pages
of history, they are nomads spotted by their caravans.
Yes, Kurds are birds! And even when
there’s nowhere left, no refuge for their pain,
they turn to the illusion of traveling
between the warm and the cold climes
of their homeland. So naturally,
I don’t think it strange that Kurds can fly.


Diaspora, hybridity and healing

Kurdish-American poet Tracy Fuad is from Minnesota and has spent time as an adult in Kurdistan, rediscovering her ancestral roots. Her first collection, about:blank, explored the dual experiences of extrication and loss, youth and survivor guilt, connection and dissipation. In her poem ‘Thistle’, she explores the agony of this dissonance, as a young woman of the Kurdish diaspora acutely aware of the generations of tragedy inflicted on her forebears.

I can’t tell you how I found
war to be sexy – you would
only understand the shrapnel
in your knee – and I can only
think about my body turning
crude when my grandfather called –

Here again, as in Ahmad’s ‘addicted to freedom’ and ‘Kurds are birds!’, Fuad employs a playful, flirtatious voice as she relates: ‘I can’t tell you how I found/war to be sexy’. This subversion of tragic poetic form, like the ‘going about with their faces unveiled’, is a characteristic Kurdish feminist act. We may have to take arms in actual combat in the face of genocide, or our subversions may be in dark humour and coquetry, as we expose the great false monolith of the ideal of the ‘Middle-Eastern woman’.



Where language is criminalised, poetry holds even more power and writing is an act of resistance—as Kurdish-American poet Holly Mason Badra writes in her poem ‘A Wolf Howls: or when the poet reads in Kurdish and I cry’:

She was a child toggling between two languages.
Only Arabic in public; Only Kurdish at home.
What happens when your language is a crime?

Speaking Kurdish was a crime for many generations and still is across the geography of the region. Just as women’s bodies are policed and punished, so is our language, and so is any expression of our culture. Under governments where women’s bodies are oppressed, Indigenous language and cultures often are also. It is no accident, then, that ‘mother tongue’ is feminised, just as it is no accident that these cultures hold women and the life-giving force of motherhood as central. ‘Jin Jiyan Azadi’ has no place in ultra-conservative governments that promote jingoism and patriarchy. Therefore, Kurdish women are constantly acting in bravery and resistance when they make their bodies and their words visible, in the face of this oppression—be it in the streets or on the page.

I myself did not learn Kurdish as a child: the post-traumatic legacies of oppression ran deep within my family. Our surname was Arabised under Saddam Hussein in Iraq, just as Jina (Masha) Amini’s was. I am learning Kurdish as an adult, and proverbs from my ancestral tongue weave their way into my poetry.

In my 2018 poem ‘Gulak Naksa’, I wrote of the ways in which my body still resounds with the trauma of persecution and oppression, of the absence of protection and the necessity of feminine strength, and how I am finding my way to express and resist despite:

You grew up surrounded
by absent men,
shadowy black & white,
in gold frames,
their smiles ghostly in the foreground.

On your skin, you traced this rupture
following the faint line,
running down the Meridian of your body—
a biological scar of disunion
of place and time.

The bravery of the women who are putting their precious bodies on the line, protesting in the streets of Tehran, like the bravery of these Kurdish female poets, cannot be understated. As Sara Ahmed writes in ‘Living a Feminist Life’, ‘I think of feminism as poetry’. Language, in order not to become oppressive, must be reclaimed and recuperated through critique, through loving litany, through persistent repetitions. This is how a new generation of Kurdish female writers are living their politics, for the liberation of all women. Theirs is a truly revolutionary act, in defiance of erasure and brutality. We must listen.


What you can do to help:

Donate to The Lotus Flower

A Kurdish women’s run grassroots charity. They provide women and girls impacted by conflict and displacement with the tools and opportunities they need to rebuild their lives.

Image: Taymaz Valley

Leila Lois

Leila Lois is a dancer and writer of Kurdish and Celtic heritage. Her poetry, essays and reviews have been published in Australia, New Zealand, USA and Canada by Southerly Journal, Cordite, LA Review of Books, Honey Literary Journal, Right Now, Delving Into Dance and more. She writes dance features and reviews for The Age and The Saturday Paper.

More by Leila Lois ›

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