If International Women’s Day is about anything, it is giving women a megaphone, especially those whose voices have been heard only in whispers even when their struggles were groundbreaking enough to be shouted from the rooftops.
Kurdish women certainly fall into this category. They have not simply been the shock absorbers of state brutality against their community in each of the four states – Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria – in which the Kurds have lived but often the troops leading the charge against their oppressors. State attempts to wipe out and crush their identity, culture, language and dress with varying degrees of success make this recently published collection of stories, Kurdish Women’s Stories, edited by Houzan Mahmoud, not just a literary act but a political one.
It was published originally in Sorani, the main Kurdish language in Iraqi Kurdistan, the only place where the language has flourished since the 1990s when the region gained partial autonomy, and then translated into English by Darya Najim. Many of the stories were written originally in Turkish, Arabic or Farsi, or simply narrated, which speaks volumes about the annihilation of Kurdish women’s education.
This is an incredibly varied collection of stories which share only one thing in common – strong and often rebellious women. Of course there are recurring themes: patriarchal controls on the freedom of women; state repression of Kurdish communities; displacement; imprisonment; armed struggle; loss of homes and family members; and women resisting victimhood. For Houzan Mahmoud, the self-effacing editor, her priority in curating this collection was to create space as a matter of solidarity, to not intervene or shape the stories in any way so that Kurdish women, who are often written about, finally had the chance to write their own stories.
These stories tremble with the fear of being caught speaking Kurdish, but also spark with defiance. There are stories of children feeling burdened by the secrets they have to carry around with them in order to hide their Kurdish origins. In North Kurdistan, for example, the Turkish state refuses to register Kurdish names for babies. They will accept names like Elizabeth or Buket (Bouquet) before they accept Ruken, as the narrator, Ruken Isik, tell us in the story “To Be Ruken or Not to Be Buket?” When Ruken starts a campaign to get Kurdish taught at university in Istanbul, she is labelled by her lecturers as a “terrorist” and tortured. Extreme torture of dissidents, especially Kurdish dissidents, was so commonplace that she didn’t even recognise that she was being tortured when she was blindfolded, threatened with rape, slapped and had her hair pulled. She says of her experiences, “I have withstood this horror. I will not be silenced”. And that for her was the essence of what it means to be Kurdish.
Another writer, Simal, writing anonymously in the story “In Search of Kurdishness: Our History, My Life” identifies Kurdishness in the images of two dispossessed people – two poor kids eating from a bin and a woman who was part of the forced migration in North Kurdistan (Turkey). When genocide or cultural assimilation, which have the same endpoint of disappearing the Kurds, are the stark choices facing them, it is little wonder that this question preoccupies a number of writers.
The resilience of the women featured in these stories, their determination not to show their grief in the presence of their oppressors no matter how painful the provocation, is deeply moving. In the opening story, “For the Execution of My Son, I Did Not Cry: There Was Smoke Coming From My Soul”, told by Mother Sabria to Amira Mohammed, the mother of a political activist is asked to collect his tortured, dead body. She doesn’t give them the satisfaction of seeing her cry even though, as the title says, there was smoke coming from her soul.
Susan Shahab, in “There Is a Sorrow in My Heart That I Cannot Console”, describes the pain of being hugged by her father for the very last time, knowing it is the last time because he will be executed the following morning. She has never forgotten that hug, so full of “benevolence and love”, which she has never received from anyone else. It was her father’s wish that she shouldn’t cry. She was only 14 years old.
These are stories of women who fought to get an education, who became political activists, who were uprooted from their homes simply because they were Kurds, who have seen public executions as children, whose family members have been disappeared and women who became fighters in the Peshmerga forces and suffered terrible injuries. To those of us who know Abu Ghraib prison only from media reports of the US army dehumanising the prisoners, it takes on another reality for those who must find the money to travel to it to see their loved ones and collect their dead bodies.
What was also striking was the absence of romantic stories, apart from one. There were many failed relationships touched upon in passing but these women were not to be defined by their feelings for men. In the same vein, it might have been good to include stories by lesbians. I would also have liked more stories from Rojava.
The collection reminded me of the shared literary values between the Asian sub-continent and Kurdish culture; the use of language laden with images which might be too flowery for British tastes. For example, in “Fuchsia Flower of My Brother”, Nahiya Khoshkalam pays homage to a brother killed at 25 by the Iranian army, saying “Happiness was a bird that took flight and disappeared into an endless sky”, when she hears of his arrest. This is the kind of language that I was raised on but it stands in tension with the value attached to writing that is stripped down and bare. In all the years I have lived in the UK, I have struggled to tone down my own writing for fear of it being damned as overwritten. This collection rejects that colonial mindset and wears its flowers proudly on it sleeve. For that alone, if not for all its other qualities, this book is worth reading.