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The Powerful Legacy of Kurdish Women in the Middle East

Updated: May 28

Kurdish women have historically navigated the complexities of a traditional gender regime embedded in the tribal structures of Kurdish society. These structures have historically imposed certain restrictions on their visibility and roles. Despite such constraints, Kurdish women have attained a status that is notably progressive in comparison to their counterparts in neighbouring regions, enjoying a degree of tolerance within their society that facilitates a relatively liberal participation in social, political, and even military spheres.


Historical Influence and Cultural Contributions of Kurdish Women

Kurdish women have traditionally played a pivotal role as custodians of cultural heritage, artfully weaving narratives of their society into the fabric of daily life through textiles, songs, and oral histories. These expressions are not merely artistic; they form a rich tapestry of Kurdish heritage, encoding the collective consciousness and social values of their communities. Women's contributions through these mediums have often provided them with a platform to influence societal norms subtly.

Historically, Kurdish women have achieved high positions of influence, challenging and transforming their roles within society. For instance, historical records recount the reigns of widowed rulers who assumed leadership roles traditionally held by men, such as in military and governance, effectively maintaining power and securing political succession for their progeny. Prominent among them in the mid-17th century was Khanzade Sultan, who ruled over Harrir and Soran, northeast of Erbil, commanding an army of up to 50,000 men and conducting multiple raids into Iran. Similarly, Mayan Khatun led the Yezidi Emirate of Sheikhan after her husband's death, significantly influencing Yezidi politics despite societal constraints on gender roles. 

Socio-Political Transformations and Ongoing Challenges

The emergence of modern nation-states in the post-Ottoman era brought substantial socio-political changes to the Middle East, impacting Kurdish identity across Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. These changes have resulted in varied developmental trajectories for Kurdish women's social and political status. Despite the persistence of traditional tribal and kinship structures, these have been increasingly integrated into the national frameworks of newly established states, often aligning with authoritarian regimes to preserve local power dynamics.


On the other hand and according to the UN’s Gender Inequality Index, Iraqi Kurdistan performs relatively better than the rest of Iraq in terms of gender equality, with measures indicating disparities in reproductive health, empowerment, and labour market participation. While Iraqi Kurdistan achieves a score of 0.41, the rest of Iraq stands at 0.55, reflecting broader regional trends where nations like Kuwait, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia score 0.27, 0.36, and 0.68 respectively.

Despite these historical and comparative advancements, Kurdish women still face significant challenges in contemporary society. As highlighted in the MERI Forum 2019, issues such as domestic violence, low labour market participation (14%), and minimal political representation, with only three women in a 23-member federal cabinet and one in a 21-member KRG cabinet, underscore the ongoing struggles against deeply ingrained inequalities.

In conclusion, the journey of Kurdish women through the annals of history to the present day exemplifies a profound resilience and an unwavering pursuit of progress within the confines of a deeply entrenched traditional and tribal framework. Despite historical constraints, Kurdish women have emerged as influential figures, weaving their legacies into the socio-political fabric of their society and beyond. From the artistic expressions of cultural heritage to ascending the echelons of military and political power, they have continuously expanded the boundaries of what is achievable, redefining their roles in ways that challenge both historical and contemporary stereotypes.

However, the path toward reaching their human rights remains fraught with substantial challenges. The modern geopolitical transformations and the formation of nation-states have reshaped the societal structures within Kurdish regions, affecting the progress and status of women variably across different areas.  The narrative of Kurdish women is thus not merely one of past oppression; it is an ongoing saga of adaptation, struggle, and resistance against the backdrop of significant socio-political changes. It underscores the necessity for continuous support and reformative action to empower Kurdish women, enabling them to fulfil their potential fully. As Kurdish society continues to evolve, the role of women will undoubtedly be a cornerstone in shaping its future, demanding a concerted effort from all sectors of society to foster an environment where gender equality is not just aspired to but achieved.

By Sarah Dahanni

MECS Intern

To find out more on this issue, take a look at our Country Risk Insights series.

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