WHO’S GOT SHAME?

Kurdish woman fighter of South Kurdistan, by Kevin McKiernan.

“What is shameful is the attempt to hide the practice of honour crime by stating that this exposes the Kurdish nation to criticism. We are in the heart of a dangerous problem that needs to be discussed, understood and resolved.”
~ Dr. Nazand Begikhani, Interview with KurdishMedia.

Indeed, Dr. Nazand has hit the proverbial nail on the head. Those who use the excuse of “shaming the nation” when the subject of honor murders is publicly discussed by Kurds, are, in reality, seeking to deflect attention from their own share in the guilt, brought upon themselves by silence. They also seek to maintain a status quo that benefits only one half of society. Criticism should properly be made against this attempt to hide the atrocity of honor murder and to expose this undermining of Kurdish women’s rights. Because, make no mistake, honor murders are the pinnacle of an entire tradition, a tradition which must be destroyed if Kurds wish to create genuine democratic change for themselves and for the region.

Drs. Shahrzad Mojab and Amir Hassanpour co-penned an article on honor murders in 2002, and in comparing it with Dr. Nazand’s interview, one finds that the situation has remained fairly static in the last four years, at least from the position of the two main Southern parties.

Gender politics in Kurdish society, just like every other society in the world, contains two components, that of patriarchal structures with accompanying misogyny, and that of struggle for gender equality, which means that Kurdistan is only too much like every other nation in this respect, with Kurds engaging in preservation of the patriarchal structure, or struggling against it for gender equality. We might ask, though, why have greater strides for gender equality been made in the West, while certain segments of Kurdish society still make excuses for an extreme method of insuring women’s subordinate statusr? Drs. Shahrzad and Amir seem to have part of the answer:

The Kurdish people have lived since the late 1870s in what Mark Levene (1998) has characterized as a “zone of genocide.” In this zone (Eastern Anatolia comprising Kurdistan), the Ottoman state conducted a genocide of the Armenian people in 1915 and, together with its successor, the Republic of Turkey, subjected the Assyrian and Kurdish peoples to numerous campaigns of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The Ba’th regime of Iraq ensured that this zone would continue to operate in spite of its division between Iraq and Turkey in 1918. No less than ten thousand Kurdish villages were destroyed in Iraqi Kurdistan between 1975 and 1991 and in Turkey between 1984 and 2000.

The zone of genocide continues to be an active zone of war. These wars have destroyed the social, economic and cultural fabric of Kurdish society. They have unleashed waves of male violence against women. This explains, at least in part, why there are more incidents of honour killing among the Kurds of Iraq and Turkey compared with the Kurds of Iran, whose experience of war has been less devastating.

We know that the violence did not abate with the establishment of the KRG in 1992, but that it continued in the brakujî of the mid-1990’s. It is only now that the violence has ended in South Kurdistan so that the serious work of changing attitudes can begin, and this will have to be as part of the national healing process. Any discussion of gender politics in Kurdistan, will have to include a decision about the role of Islam, as well as the danger of totalitarian political Islam, and their effects on women’s rights, especially the very basic right to life. It is not enough for the KDP and PUK to come to a working relationship, for the sake of economic benefit, with those who promote extremist Islam. If the parties are serious about establishing a democracy in South Kurdistan, they will have to articulate, clearly, the reasons for no tolerance of anti-democratic ideas and practices. They must also ditch Ba’athi law and habits, so that Kurdistan is cleansed of this ideological plague once and for all.

Eren Keskin has commented on the fact that violence perpetrated by the state has created a climate in which the continued use of violence has become “normal,” lending support the the “zone of genocide” theory and its contribution to the culture of honor murders in North Kurdistan. Recently, forced suicides in Êlih (Batman) made international news and prompted an investigation by the UN. By far, the most extensive report on the situation came from the TimesOnline, in mid-May. But, once again, the establishment makes excuses for murder, in the form of Turkish MP’s criticizing the open discussion of atrocities against women. Even though laws may be in place to punish perpetrators, there is no serious desire to change the status quo, an attitude held in common with the government in South Kurdistan.

Neither are Kurds in Diaspora immune from this curse, as there have been a number of Kurdish honor murders reported in Europe. If the defenders of patriarchal tradition are truly worried about “shame,” then they should have considered the consequences that these murders would have for Diaspora communities. Unfortunately for the defenders, they aren’t so easily able to wiggle out of prosecution for their crimes in the West. An unusual aspect of honor murder in the West is that I, for one, have never heard of a Kurdish honor murder taking place in the US. Why is that?

I have one guess as to why it is that we have not seen honor murders among the American Kurdish communities, and it is because the emphasis in the US is on the integration of immigrants into society. As an immigrant country, the US is used to the idea of integration and of equality under the law. A murder within any immigrant community is going to be investigated as a crime, and it is unlikely that the American public would permit weaseling over anything as serious as a charge of domestic murder, no matter whether such an act of murder is part of a long established “tradition” within the immigrant community or not.

Europe does not have a tradition of integrating immigrants. Instead it encourages ghettoization while discouraging “interference” with transplanted cultures. A lack of enthusiasm for integration out of fear of being labeled “racist,” has allowed the tradition of honor murder to continue, along with the mysogyny that created it.

This fear of being labeled “racist” is also what keeps feminists in academia silent in the face of murder, although they have additional fears of being labeled “Orientalist” or “colonialist.” As a result, they end up as de facto supporters of an oppression they claim to oppose. They end up making common cause with those who insist that a public discussion is “indecent” or brings “shame” to the Kurdish people. This is the shame of academic Western feminists, and until they overcome their own selfish fears of shame, we cannot wait for them to raise their voices to defend Kurdish women, or others.

What must happen instead, is that which is already beginning to happen–an awakening to the problem by Kurdish society in both Kurdistan and Diaspora. Dr. Nazand’s interview is a testimony to the fact that there are ongoing efforts to improve the status and life conditions of Kurdish women in South Kurdistan. Women like Eren Keskin, in North Kurdistan, are still in the battle. KONGRA-GEL carries on with active encouragement of women’s participation in the life of the nation, and that organization can do even more by purposely cultivating Kurdish women for leadership positions in political and military organizations. In fact, KONGRA-GEL would do very well to create a mentoring program for this purpose, in which longtime women members pass on their knowledge and experience to the newer and younger ones.

The good news in the Diaspora, especially in the US, is that young Kurdish women are beginning to take up the torch for Kurdish women’s rights within the greater Kurdish struggle, as can be seen from a speech given by Sheinei Saleem at this year’s KNC of North America conference.

As young Kurdish women like Sheinei enter the struggle not only for Kurdish women, but also for the Kurdish people as a whole, young Kurdish men will also have to take a stand on the issue and their contributions will be equally valuable, since it is impossible to heal Kurdish society while half of the population continues to suffer. We know that not all Kurdish men approve of, or engage in, attitudes that perpetuate honor murder. In fact, we know that Kurdish women themselves, in the absence of men, have enforced the vile code of honor. Young Kurdish men must support their sisters with the same enthusiasm and perseverance that many generations of Kurdish women have shown men in the armed struggle. Mutual support is the only path to victory and it is the honor of Kurdistan.

Serkeftin, xwişkên û birayên min!

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