Sep 04

Kurdish Women As a Disciplined Body

By Shara Tahir

Shara Taher


The main purpose of this article is to figure out the common discourse that continuously claims the freedom of Kurdish women in different geographical areas in Kurdish society. An assumption being made and that has become a dominant doctrine in the mentality of Kurdish people is that, they think Kurdish women in rural areas (the villages) are free. Others say the opposite, that woman in the cities and urban communities are more independent. However, there is a more radical thought which claims that the most ideal model of women is the revolutionary who fights bravely shoulder to shoulder with her Peshmerga brothers. As we can see there are three stereotypes of Kurdish women who seem different in their geographical aspects and characteristics, which are all in competition with regards to women’s freedom. Yet deep down they are all symbols of the patriarchal system and share the same disciplined body.

Here I have focused on the main characteristic of these three stereotypes of Kurdish women in northern Iraq (South Kurdistan) in order to try to disprove and criticize the myth that women are free in Kurdish society! I also aim to prove that we have one social construction for women which sees them as a disciplined body while there are many weird and rhetorical indications that try to persuade us that these stereotypes are the real ideal models of free women. At the beginning I would like to define what I mean by “disciplined body” itself and then will focus on the main characteristics of these stereotypes: women in the villages, women in the cities, and women at the battle front-lines.

Disciplined Body

In his book- Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison (1975), Michel Foucault talks about the characteristics of the disciplining process: it focuses on the human psyche, her soul, or conscience, and in doing so creates an individual who submits to power. Formerly brutal punishment such as, torture and executions took place in open and public spaces. They were a clear demonstration to mark the ruler’s capacity for revenge, and the collective gaze and involvement was important in this. New prison

sentences, executed in the name of defending society, according to Foucault signified only an apparent relaxing of punishment. The individual was separated instead of being the collective, and would now be subjected to different disciplinary techniques behind closed doors. Foucault argues the characteristics of the disciplined body without actual punishment or a public torturing process, sees other mechanisms that submit the individual to power such that their own principles and values turn into a censoring element instead of an exterior authority .The disciplined body acquires its distinctions and characteristics from a disciplined _ oriented process in the community. In the meantime, it continuously disciplines the self in order to not move beyond the boundaries of society. In other words, such types of bodies actively contribute to torturing, degrading, and disgracing themselves through self-discipline, self-control, and lack of self-sufficiency. What is important in the disciplined body is self-censoring and self-monitoring in accordance with common values and norms.[1]

Kurdish women can be seen as a disciplined body characterized by strong self-control, lack of self-sufficiency, and a fragmented self, a body which receives its contours through social discipline, but also through self-discipline. Kurdish women through self-discipline and self-control are actively involved in subordinating themselves, following -social norms which subordinate them. In light of Foucault’s understanding of the disciplined body and in relation to women’s life in the village, cities and on the battle frontlines, I will try to analyze these three stereotypes of Kurdish women (women as villagers, women as urban and women as warriors).

Women in the Village

Kurdish villages can be simply described as small geographical areas where a group of people (almost relatives) live together in small houses close to each other. Kurdish villages lack modern institutions. There is no distinguished boundary between what is private and public and it is worth mentioning, that even animals live too close to the people. Villagers are mainly involved in livestock and agriculture, closely connected to nature, and sources of protection and reproduction of nature. Nature in Kurdish villages is an open area without the restrictions of civilized society, that is to say it’s not institutionalized and there is no written ruling law! What dominates and rules people are the traditions and backward values that these people have internalized. In their turn they maintain and reproduce these values. Simone de Beauvoir speaks of the body as a situation. Women are indeed enslaved to the human species through their reproductive function and hormonal cycle. De Beauvoir, states that women are pushed forward through a lived reality, mediated through a consciousness and a community’s ideas about her.

My point here is to figure out the role and effect of Kurdish women as a disciplined body in the village, opposition to the common rhetoric claiming that women in the villages are free and own their bodies and desires because they are near nature and there is no monitoring institution to control them. Women in the villages are nature themselves; one cannot distinguish among them because they are the reflection and the production of nature itself. But this disposition of naturalness does not qualify women to be free and equal to the opposite sex. On the contrary, being near nature seems to oblige her to stand for and tolerate the roughness of nature and the violence of patriarchy system as well.

Far from any educational, social, economical, and political institution makes women obedient creatures to the norms and values that subordinate them and which she must accept with pleasure as if they are one part of the nature in which she lives. Women in the villages have no access to female life or femininity: they have no beauty salon, no special bathroom, no shopping’s center, and even her strong, colorful mode of dress reflects their nearness to nature. In other words women are not in need of femininity in its consumerist definition, because their live are limited to nature and home; they are busier with a social and domestic structure that needs to be fed and satisfied.

I want to make clear here that  Kurdish women in the villages have a “zero degree of total equality ” What makes them unaware of this inequality is that they have absorbed and internalized the norms and values thoroughly to such an extent that they themselves became the norms for the upcoming Kurdish women’s generation. A woman is an isolating object totally devoted to and engaged in the disciplining process of which she is an integral and indivisible part.

Taking all these duties and responsibilities into consideration and the care of Kurdish women for both her family and nature one might think that Kurdish women in the villages should have the most self-determination. Even, that they would not only equal to men but more privileged. Regrettably, the reality is that Kurdish women in the villages are much more repressed and oppressed socially, sexually, and economically. They are seen as weak and passive creatures in need of men’s power and energy to activate them and make them living beings. Men decide the lives and deaths of women: first as fathers to their little girls and then as husbands when they get married. As Drucilla Cornell argues, the cultural analysis of the fathers’ movement echoes the need for men to have power over women in order to accept their real roles in society. Yet real, living, breathing men are psychologically imprisoned by the very patrilineal masculinity that purportedly gives them their status as men.[2]

Women in the City

First and foremost, Kurdish women in the cities have access to civilization.  Despite the city’s big size and area, having different social, educational, and economical institutions, the social sphere of Kurdish women is limited to her little family and especially to her kitchen. Kurdish cities like other cities have their own special social and political structures. People in the cities are monitored by these institutions and much more connected to their places (their jobs or their homes). In the city women’s private spheres are much more limited but access to femininity is much greater. Unlike women in the village, they have access to education and can be employed. Since life in the city is more open, women are personified much more in their dress and makeup. Women’s way of dressing changed from traditional colorful dresses (Kurdish clothes) to modern clothes (skirt and blouses) with dark colors. Due to the fact that life in the city reflects different social contexts it’s expected that women are represented and appear differently. For that very reason women in the city have access to different private spheres such as swimming pools and, shopping centers for makeup and accessories. What is important to mention here is that this new way of life in so-called modern or civilized forms _dressing, living, employment, and even domestic structures bring with them new and positive opportunities for women to practice new ways of life.  They also bring with them different disciplinary discourses. If women in the village are bound to nature then women in the city are bound to their home and especially to the kitchen! They spend a great deal of time in the kitchen and with their-stoves and making food.

It’s not absurd here to compare women’s life in city to the paintings of that art movement, so-called Kitchen Sink Realism which resembles the work of a group of British painters practicing in the 1950s whose deliberately drab works borrowed from the imagery of domestic life, from kitchen sinks and tables to toilets and backyards. Their interior scenes of commonplace objects emphasized the banality of the everyday life of working classes[3]. There was one difference:  in Kurdish cities women’s devotion and attention to the stuff of the kitchen symbolizes modern life and well-being compared to women in the village in which there is no divide between nature and the kitchen. This discourse of well-being and transcendence is a part of the disciplinary process the patriarchal system imposes in order to control women and maintain social order. For the family (especially women) to play its own modern productive role in cities it had to remain old-fashioned and pre-modern, that is, family and domestication of women became the main domain of female gender in the cities because the Kurdish patriarchal system does not accept women as free individuals who choose their own way of life and needs but rather as a bearers of pre-existing roles and norms.

Women on the Battle Frontlines

The figures and heroes of this war against terrorism and especially in Kobani which haunt and fascinate us are those of Kurdish women as Sherevan, guerilla and Peshmerga. This new image of Kurdish women is totally contrary to the reality of our social construction that sees women as passive and weak. Gendering the militarization system and giving women the opportunity to fight on the frontlines brings a new stereotype of an ideal woman symbolized recently in global media both as offensive to and defensive of Kurdish people. Women who step outside the bounds of femininity to become active participants in warfare are praised and honored as symbol of courageousness, resistance, and confrontation with the enemy.

Women have been active participants in warfare at many different points in Kurdish history and in many different situations; they served behind the Peshmerga as wives and women villagers who served food and laundry. But the idea of women soldiers working in combat zones is new to the Kurdish people because the woman’s body transforms from a living womb to a killing machine. Oliver Kelly in her book Women as Weapons of War (2007) refers to Julia Krestiva in saying that these women are “sent off to sacrifice and martyrdom in imitation of the warlike man and possessor of power,” they are killing in the name of principles that have excluded them; the representatives of life are sent to kill. This is to say that the very culture that reduces them to the bearers of life now makes them the bearers of death. [4]

We are currently witness to another model of Kurdish women as viewed within the masculine discourse as, courageous, fearless, revolutionary, partisan among many other descriptions that used to be synonyms for Kurdish manhood! This will make us come to the heart of what Kristeva called -belonging- : “I” do not know who “I “am do not know if “I “am (a man or a woman); but “I” am a part of something. [5]

In other words the front-lines are zones of non-being where a woman is not woman but a Manish woman. In Kristeva’s words she is an abject who rejects her maternal body in order to identify herself with an imaginary father. That is to say woman is a subject only to the extent to which she tries to enforce her existence on to another man in order to be recognized by him. In her book Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (2001) Kelly Oliver argues that: “oppression creates the need and demand for recognition. It is not just that the injustices of oppression create the need for justice. More than this, the pathology of oppression creates the need in the oppressed to be recognized by their oppressors, the very people most likely not to recognize them. The internalization of stereotypes of inferiority and superiority leave the oppressed with the sense that they are lacking something that only their superior dominators have or can give them”.[6]

Therefore I would like to add that what this freedom rhetoric tries to convey is the truth that every real woman is a brave man. This revolution in politics has brought about a revolution in the Kurdish language. We are witnessing the   revolutionary power of the semiotic itself. Oliver in her book Reading Kristeva: Unraveling the Double-bind (1993) refers to Kristeva in saying: “… In Revolution in Poetic Language, Kristeva insists that the “artistic”, and the “political”, are two modalities of the same process. Revolution in either sphere is brought about through the introduction of the semiotic that points up the process of production, whether it is linguistic or political or both. Kristeva also suggests that a revolution in one sphere is a revolution in the other”.

Kelly argues that Kristeva’s notion suggests that the logic of Western culture condemns women to one of these two fates. She also suggests that a way out of this a double-bind. First, we must realize that it is necessary to know an ostensibly masculine identification in order to be heard within the Symbolic order. But we have to guard against the narcissism of that identification. We have to avoid becoming “virile women,” or supermen. On the other hand, we cannot fall back into the silent body. We need to listen to this body from within the Symbolic. From within the Symbolic that demands and guarantees identity, we have to refuse all identities. [7]

As we have seen, Kurdish women are not only biological lives but their bodies and the meanings of their lives are constructed through a patriarchal system. The definition of women’s freedom changes according to their geographical state: in the villages women’s freedom is connected to nature; in cities their liberation is reduced to modern welfare and the new domestic way of life; on the frontlines women’s equality and freedom is recognized according to their sacrifice and martyrdom. What is changed here is the rhetoric of equality, I mean it’s only on the frontlines Kurdish women and men are equal to martyrdom.  At this point we might ask: Are we really free? Or we are free only to the extent of creating the very stereotypes of women and traditions that continue to be dominated by diverse patriarchal discourses? As De Beauvoir suggests in her book The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947), none of us are free until all of us are free—because how can we say that to be human is to be free when some people are imprisoned, physically or psychically. [8]

[1] Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans.

Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage: 1979.

[2] Cornell, Drucilla, At the Heart of Freedom ,FEMINISM, SEX, AND

EQUALITY,  Princeton University Press : 1998

[4] Kelly Oliver, Women as Weapons of War,  Columbia University Press: 2007:144

[5] Julia Kristeva , Hatred and Forgiveness, Columbia University Press: 2010: 270

[6]  Oliver, Kelly, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota

Press:2001: 9

[7] Kelly Oliver,  Reading Kristeva, Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data: 1993:107, 108.

[8] Beauvoir Simone, The Ethics of Ambiguity ,Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Philosophical Library: 1948


This article was first published in INLAND VOLUME: PUBLISHING CLASS By Fernando García-Dory, Sanne Oorthuizen & Dutch Art Institute