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The Rise of The Kurds

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Like many Kurdish people in Syria, I lived between two worlds and was treated as a second-class citizen. My family was one of many families going through a transitional phase between Kurdish ethnicity and endeavors to melt us into another ethnicity. Both Syrian society and government pushed us to integrate with the majority in Syria, but without fully accepting us.

As a young girl I was in school I used to omit the last letter in my surname so I would not be exposed to mockery. It was hard for me to be Kurdish. Many Kurd-haters wanted to obliterate everything that makes me a Kurd. As I became a young woman, those who hated my people had nearly succeeded in getting me to turn me on my own people, and to brainwash me. I began to detach myself away to avoid being called a traitor by the majority of society.

But a turning point in my life came when my grandfather passed away. At that time something changed in me and I started to search for what makes me a Kurd.

In Syria, anyone who seeks to learn the Kurdish language is considered a traitor, Syrian security forces insist that, "If there is education, then it is an organization." My attempts to learn my own language were doomed to fail because I felt guilty about putting my Kurdish teacher in danger.

One day a man came to my work place in Damascus, and asked where I came from. When I told him that I was a Kurd, He looked astonished. He could not believe that I was Kurdish because he thought that we are all uneducated. Such views are endorsed and supported excessively by the Syrian Baath party. A party that has racist opinions. 

Kurds are the largest minority in Syria, but there are no exact statistics on the number of Kurds in Syria because the Syrian government refuses to acknowledge many Kurds or to conduct a census for us, but we are estimated to compose 10% of the population. The number of Kurds in Syria is smaller than the number of Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, and we are mainly located in the north and northern east of Syria. There are a small number of Kurds living in the capital Damascus; many of them settled in it during the reign of Ayyubids dnasty - dynasty from Kurdish origins- which ruled most of the Middle East during the 12th and 13th centuries.

Kurds have suffered outrageous acts of oppression in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria including mass murder, suppression of language rights and exploitation of Kurdish resources. Kurds were also forced into poverty and deprived of education and national citizenship. Because many Kurds in Syria were denied the Syrian nationality, as a result of that they were trapped in Syria and stripped from all rights. For the Syrian government, it is as though Kurds do not exist.

Though all Kurds are treated in a discriminatory manner, but the stateless Syrian Kurds estimated to number 200,000 people, have suffered more because they were not allowed able to travel, continue their education or get medical treatment in public hospitals.

The Human Rights Watch report entitled “The Silenced Kurds", states that during the 1962 census 120,000 Kurds were stripped of their nationality. The pretext of the government for this act was to identify "alien infiltrators". The census arbitrarily classified brothers from the same family and born in the same village were classified differently. This was the beginning of the attempts to Arabize the resources-rich northeast of Syria. As a result of this census, many marriages were not recognized by the state and the stateless Kurds were not allowed to own property, deprived from getting any passports and thus the freedom of movement.

Heyam Aqil, a Kurdish activist living in London told me that a Kurdish woman suffering from breast cancer and unable to afford treatment in a private hospital, was prevented from getting treatment in Syrian public hospitals because she was one of the stateless Kurds.

But even the Syrian Kurds who kept their citizenship were not considered lucky; the Syrian authorities could strip them from their nationality if they appeared not as loyal as they should be to the regime. Many students were arbitrarily expelled from their universities and schools, and some employees working in governmental institutes were fired from their jobs. In addition, Kurdish men are not allowed to go to a military school or be promoted to high military ranks. 

Like men, Kurdish women suffered from political oppression, but they also suffered from social prejudice from Kurdish men. The attempts of authorities in countries where Kurds live in to dissolve other ethnicities in society changed some social conducts in the Kurdish society itself which started to dominate the social habits and traditions in the countries Kurds live in.

Some negative practices and habits sneaked into the Kurdish culture, like honor killing and limiting women's freedoms. Kurdish women paid the price twice, they were subjected to prosecution and imprisonment, and at the same time they were denied from many rights by their communities. In my village, many girls were able to get their elementary education, but rarely allowed to continue to higher levels of education. 

Arranged marriages are common in the Kurdish society, so women must marry whom their families choose. Most of my female cousins married this way. I still remember my cousin Guleh when she was combing her hair in our house many years ago before she traveled to another country to marry a man she had never met before. But most women accept this as part of their costumes, “The Kurdish woman is devoted to her family no matter what level of education she reached or from which social rank she came from. She fights for her people," the activist Heyam said. Women literally fight for their people, and women fought hard to prove that they are as able as men. Some Kurdish women joined "The Pêşmerge Force for Women" in Iraq, or the PKK women fighters in Turkey and Syria who live in mountainsides and seek to be known for their womanly strength. These strong women were always compared to the Amazons. Though hese women are allowed to join armed forces in remote areas, but usually they are not allowed to trave for work or education in remote areas. But still, it is notable that the Kurdish society in the recent years is taking massive steps toward more gain of political rights, human rights and women rights.

Historically, Kurdish women used to assumed power in their communities and ran the affairs of their tribes. Kurdish women enjoyed more freedom than their counterparts like Arabs, Persians and Turkish women. Matriarchal and patriarchal authority could both be found. Kurdish women also once played more notable roles, for instance, Asenath Barzani was one of the first female Rabbis in history. Though assuming power by Kurdish women decreased and some women lost many rights through the years; today Kurdish women engage in social activities like work, dancing and singing equally with men. I still enjoy the memory of weddings in my village where men and women held hands in a big circle to perform the local dance. 

The recent uprising in Syria brought more respect to Kurds after they joined all components of Syrian society in the movement for change. "They want to be part of the march for rights, and participate in the formation of a new constitution for Syria where Kurds' rights are recognized," Heyam said. In 2004, a major unrest broke out in the Kurdish inhabited areas in Syria. The regime used all means possible in its crackdown against the Kurds, and in the years after the regime incited hatred against Kurds as traitors and enemies. Kurdish women were a major part of the unrest, because for years, many young Kurdish soldiers were brought dead to their families for unknown reasons. The Kurds were not perceived as humans by the Syrian regime and could be shot by army officers without explanation.

In my conversation with activist Heyam she told me that things changed a lot for women after the unrest in 2004. Women and men joined hands against the oppression they were facing. In 2006, the Kurdish Women’s Union was created to defend women rights and spread awareness, empower women and society. Kurdish women started to engage in their society and their life much more than before.

At the beginning of the revolution, the Syrian regime tried to bribe Kurds, as well as other minorities. Minority rights were denied for decades and only recently did the regime decided to recognize their rights and not harm them in an attempt to turn the Syrian society on each other and isolate the Arab Muslim Sunni. The regime wants to claim that what it is facing is not a revolution, but a sectarian strife were the Arab Muslim Sunni rebels wants to kill other sects and ethnicities. The Kurds insisted on joining the revolution, and their participation in the wheel of change shattered the regime's claims of any sectarian strife.

Heyam Aqil says that inside Syria Kurdish women and men are organizing fund raising, marching to topple the government and forming the "Kurdish National Council" as the framework for the future political life. Heyam told me that those who live outside Syria are also working where they live in to spread awareness about their rights and urge governments to act and support the Syrian people. Heyam said that Kurds often organize protests in front of Syrian embassies, meeting with officials and lawyers to explain their struggle.

The voices of the Kurds are rising. In the recent years, thousands of organizations and forums specialized in Kurdish affairs and rights were established. Our determination crossed years of pain and struggle till we reached the age of web 2.0 where our voices can reach. The existential fight of the Kurds as a nation taught every Kurdish man and woman to speak up and face challenges. Almost every Kurdish individual is a proud messenger that always seeks to deliver his/her spirit and culture.

Some Kurds, like me, might get confused about their identity, they might let go part of their inner soul, might lose confidence under pressure. But the moment I embraced the essence of my nation, I breathed.

This piece is part of my recognition and appreciation of being a Kurd; an attempt to celebrate my Kurdish spirit.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

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Comments

Stella Paul's picture

Message well delivered

Wow Nissan
I must admit, I got an insight into the lives of Kurd people in Iraq I never had! Thanks for this post, therefore. I feel really enlightened, though sad to know the level of state repression (I knew it existed, but didn't know the exact level of it) and yes, I am happy that you could rise above the level, to bring us the news of what's going on. Love

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Sarah Whitten-Grigsby's picture

THANK YOU . . .

Dear Nisan,

Your article about your people, the Kurds, is eloquent, highly-informative, powerful and crucial. Your people need your voice, as does the world.

Like Stella -- who commented above -- I learned a great deal about the Kurdish from this one article. I want and need to know, as does the world, that the Kurdish are appallingly oppressed and that anyone of us who can must speak up and support your people as you struggle to make positive changes.

Keep writing, continue to speak up, to spread the word, to become a leader. Your voice is desperately needed.

With great admiration and respect,

Sarah

P.S. Your choice of the picture/poster depicted at the opening of your article is startling and powerful, too.

emilybrews's picture

Opening our eyes

Nisan, I agree wholeheartedly with Sarah that this article is hugely important in what it teaches the World Pulse community - and what it can teach everyone beyond it - about this little-known issue. Your piece is beautifully written and the heartfelt anecdotes about your own experiences and feelings are a superb accompaniment to what you tell us about the Syrian treatment of the Kurds. You are a fantastic representative for the Syrian Kurdish community!

Emily

Monica Clarke's picture

Coming Out

Dear Nisan

I used to feel quite confused about my cultural identity and your words brought it all back to me. 'Coming out' is where our power begins. Would you believe that I had to 'come out' twice in my life? The first time was realising that I was a woman - not only a wife and mother, but Monica, the woman. Then, I had to come out as a black woman! It was only when I identified with my black sisters and stopped trying to imitate the culture of the white first world, that I came to realise how really strong I am.

Your article gave me a keen insight into your culture and I admire you for being prepared to stand up and say it, Niran. I learnt a lot about myself from reading your beautiful piece. You are an asset to your people, your culture and those younger women who are and will come into your sphere as you go walking your path with pride for the rest of your life.

Lots of strength from Monica in France

Monica Clarke, Writer & Storyteller, bringing human rights alive.
I wish you 'Nangamso', that is: May you continue to do the good work which you do so well.
(A blessing from my ancestors, the Khoikhoi, the first people of South Africa).

amiesissoho's picture

Dear Nisan, It is an

Dear Nisan,

It is an enlightening writing about Kurds in Syria. How one identifies oneself is more important than how others identify you, because it determines your association and belief in the self. thanks for the information.

Amie

noreens's picture

Hi Nisan, Your article is

Hi Nisan,

Your article is interesting. I never gave "who are the Kurds?" much thought, but you have given me a reason to do some reading so that I can learn. I'm glad you decided to understand yourself as a Kurd. I went through the same thing (and was going to write about it for this module but decided not to). I didn't appreciate my Palestinian background until I came here to live, and started living the culture, the religion, and the politics. I understand things so much better now, and have a deep appreciation for my heritage, and that has helped me so much in my writing also because I feel so passionate about things here.)

Love,
Noreen

Rachael Maddock-Hughes's picture

A Missing Piece of History

Thank you so much for sharing this story with us. I doubt that many people outside of your region understand the violence and abuse visited on the Kurdish people. The flow of your story is also very good. I would have loved to see you integrate a bit more of your personal experience/emotions within the story. However, I think you did a very good job! Hopefully the world will be a little bit better educated on the plight of the Kurds!

Kind regards,

Rachael

"In every human heart there are a few passions that last a lifetime. They're with us from the moment we're born, and nothing can dilute their intensity." Rob Brezny

Michelle Coburn's picture

I feel more informed

Dear Nisan,

Thank you for putting a name and face to the story of your people. I now feel more of a connection with this part of the world than I ever had before, despite having previously read many news reports on the region. I enjoyed reading your article, which included a number of astounding facts. I feel I have learnt a lot, so thank you for sharing this important story with us.

Best wishes
Michelle

Dear Nisan,

Thank you for this powerful piece. First, you so artfully balanced information, history, cultural context with the strengths of the Kurds as well as the oppression that has persisted throughout the ages Your writing is lucid, informative, illuminating and touches the reader with such a global sweep of history as well as current reality. I was struck to hear the level of activism that has spread through the region and the activism unleashed to address the dignity violations that persist. My own learning and resolve to be more attentive and aware has been so greatly enhanced. And most of all, to feel you breathe, to inhabit the pride of standing as tall as the Amazons :-) You inspire us all!

Warmest regards,
Ellen

KathyG's picture

Powerful icon

Dear Nisan,

Thank you for working so hard to present all the facts about the Kurdish people in Syria. We hear about Syria in the news, here in the USA, but it is far away and you brought it closer to me. You made it feel real, more tangible. I also felt that the picture and the slogan were very powerful in directly representing your ideas. It would have been interesting to follow one of these ideas, like education or language a bit more in-depth with your personal story and history. Thank you and I look forward to reading more.

Best wishes,
Kathy

Judith Spirit's picture

You are the Beacon

Hello Nisan,

You are on a journey of courage and spirit. Your devotion to cultural change within an historical context is powerful. You are a beacon to all of us who seek justice, dignity, and peace.

Your writing is raising the consciousness of the world.

Judith

MaDube's picture

Dear Nisan

This is the first time I have ever read or heard about the fate of the minority Kurds in Syria. Thanks for this very enlightening piece. I can relate your troubles to those I witnessed among members of the Baha’i faith in Egypt, especially the exclusion from society, the challenges with citizenship and the denial of rights ensuing to citizens. I wish there were more voices like yours, helping us know what is happening to your people and giving solutions to the challenges you face.

Best,

MaDube

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