Iraqi Kurdish Women Activists in the West

Migrant by Hayv Kahraman

The work of Kurdish women activists fighting for Kurdish rights and women's rights has long been overlooked. This is due to both the absence of a fully independent Kurdish state and the patriarchal nature of traditional Kurdish societies. For this reason, some Kurdish women have found that their voices have a greater effect when speaking from exile rather than their homeland. In the diaspora they have been given a voice that those who have remained in Iraqi Kurdistan are not permitted. The women living in the diaspora are dedicated to the Kurdish community and the role of women within the community. But being in the West (mainly the UK and North America) has allowed them to develop new and differing perspectives—something they could not have done in Iraqi Kurdistan. These women are able to deconstruct political and gender constraints as a means of challenging societal norms and constructing a political consciousness. In a patriarchal society in which state institutions favor  males, diasporic Kurdish women are attempting to illuminate political issues regarding gender inequality and violence toward women. These women recognize that the advancement of Kurdish women is crucial to the democratic development of all Kurdish people. Two such activists are Nazaneen Rashid and the artist Hayv Kahraman.

Nazaneen Rashid is the quintessential diasporic Kurdish activist. She began working as an activist on behalf of Kurdish women after witnessing the aftermath of an honor killing as a child. Her work ensures that she can protect herself, and that the voices of Kurdish women are not weakened or ultimately lost.  Beginning after the Gulf War, Nazaneen attempted to give a voice to the needs of the female Kurdish population and to engage women to be their own advocates through their commitment to civic activities. However, her work was thwarted by the interference of male-dominated political groups in the regions where she worked; in addition, she was unable to access resources, projects, and funding since she was not affiliated with a political party. When she moved to the United Kingdom to continue her activism in a new forum, she was finally given a platform to effect change. From abroad, Nazaneen worked as a successful activist for Kurdish women, traveling throughout Europe, raising funding for Kurdish refugees, and bringing the plight of the Kurds to light within the international community. In an attempt to highlight the widespread violence perpetrated against women, Nazaneen’s work aims to promote women’s interests in the international community and within the Kurdish community in Kurdistan.  In 1999, she spearheaded the construction of a women’s shelter for Kurdish women in need of a place to escape and find protection. The shelter not only provides women with asylum, but it also gives them legal guidance and hope for a better future. Moreover, she works as the international coordinator for Gender Justice in Iraq at Kurdish Women’s Watch as a means of awakening the political conscious of the international community.  Although she is “in diaspora,” she explains, “In my heart and head, [I] live in Kurdistan every day. I want to know daily what is going on there and what Kurdish women have done. I am in love with Kurdistan and Kurdish women.”

This diaspora activism is not solely found in the political sphere; it has also infiltrated the Kurdish diaspora culture through the world of art. One such artist is Hayv Kahraman, whose work is a symbolic representation of the plight and desperate state of Kurdish women. Working mainly in ink on paper and oil on unprimed linen, she engages with the difficult issues surrounding female identity in her homeland. Through a fusion of Kurdish cultural symbolism and her own experience in the Diaspora, Kahraman attempts to depict the restrictions, self-immolation, and persecution that victimize Kurdish women, juxtaposed with the ideas of hope and the overarching desire for a homeland. Through her artwork, Kahraman provides proactive insight into the condition of Kurdish women and seeks to create a better reality. In an interview with ArtSlant, Kahraman speaks of her sense of obligation to present political issues in her work. “Having fled Iraq during war, I’m constantly faced with the fact that I am not in the country of my origin, and while I live a safe and pleasant life in the West, my fellow countryman and women suffer from unspeakable wars and injustices. As a result, I’ve inherited an appetite for rebellion that exclusively takes form in my work.” As such, the themes of her work emerge in social and personal contexts, which need to be jointly understood to properly analyze the work.

The Kurdish women activists in the diaspora do not face the same hurdles as those in Iraqi Kurdistan. Although they are spatially distant from their homeland, Kahraman and Nazaneen, along with many other activists, have found their own means to change the domestic, national, and international structures of patriarchal oppression.  

Gorman, Rachel, and Shahrzad Mojab. "Dispersed Nationalism: War, Diaspora And Kurdish Women's Organizing." Journal of Middle East Women's Studies . 3.1 (2007): 58-85. Print.  

Honigman, Ana. "Interview with Hayv Kahraman." ArtSlant. N.p., 11-2009. Web. 19 Jun 2012. <>

Kahraman, Hayv. "Hayv Kahraman Official Website ." . N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Jun 2012. <> 

Rashid , Nazaneen . "DFID’s Roundtable conference on Violence Against Women in Iraqi Kurdistan ." Kurdish Women Action Against Honour Killing . Kurdish Media , 18/10/2002. Web. 19 Jun 2012. <>.

Ariel Brickman

Diwaniyya Contributor