Remembering Leyla, Fatma, Asya, Zara – remembering Kurdish women


It was evening
we barely escaped.
Like the rain falling
we could not stop.
We were a train of tears as we were walking there
like a winding trail of smoke
a village climbing a mountain.
We were wet, were water streams.
Our noses dripping
our legs brooks streaming from our bodies.
The children looked like swallows
our wives like the trees and bushes in the fall and
our elders like exhausted horses.
We were wet, were water streams.
Except one of us who under her umbrella
did not feel a drop of rain
and was calmer than us all;
it was the child
under my wife’s stomach skin, her good umbrella

Şêrko Bêkes (1940-2013) was a Kurdish poet who published the poem Just one of us in his poetry collection “Three languages and four whips”, alluding to the four parts of Kurdistan in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. He depicts a moment of refuge, a scene easily recognisable by many Kurds who have been persecuted by the regimes in all parts of Kurdistan and forced to flee their homes. In the poem, the refugees are in the mountains, cold and wet, but one unborn child is warm and safe in his mother’s stomach.

Women are often ascribed nurturing and gentle qualities in literature, even in the midst of war and chaos, as is portrayed in the poem. But just as war and refuge is a common experience to the Kurdish people, so is the Kurdish woman fighting the regimes trying to kill her or exile her from her home, be it in parliament or with guns in her hands. In Şêrko Bêkes’ poem A name he writes about Leyla Qasim, a female student at the University of Baghdad, who was born into a very poor family. She experienced the rise of the Baath party and its intolerance of the Kurdish people. She was vocal about her resistance and joined the Kurdistan Students Union, which ultimately led to her execution on May 12, 1974.

When I think of strength, a woman comes to mind. It is a bitter thought that men initiated a majority of wars but women continue to be their greatest victims. They are made vulnerable in the conflict-ridden areas by their gender to perpetrators who use rape as means of warfare. I know of a woman who had been forced to witness the killing of a family member and then subjected to group rape on his dismembered body. She managed to escape on foot with her children, flee her home country and integrate into a new society while taking care of her children. We may initially envision strength as a moment when we stand victorious and jubilant after enduring a difficult task or experience but it is not necessarily so. To me, strength is the protection of your existence and identity for years; a battle that for some groups seem never-ending.

So when I think of strength, I think of a female nurse I met in Kobanê in 2015, a few weeks after the Islamic State (IS) had returned on a murder-suicide mission, supposedly to avenge themselves in some form after their siege of the city was broken 6 months earlier by Kurdish armed groups. They killed at least 200 civilians. One of them was Fatma’s father whom she held in her arms as he was taking his last breath. Not long after she returned to her job at the military hospital and I observed her as she was nursing an IS war prisoner, even when a colleague refused. She explained this by saying: “What sets us apart from these people is our humaneness. We would not be any better than Daesh (IS) if we didn’t help them when they are wounded in our care.” A male nurse who stood next to Fatma said: “It’s funny how this woman-hating Daesh is being cared for by two Kurdish girls.” And truly, it was a funny and telling experience.

I think of war and women and I remember a letter written by Asya Tekin, a Kurdish journalist who was trapped in the city of Cizre in 2016 during the siege by Turkish armed forces. Whole neighbourhoods had been destroyed by Turkish soldiers and more than 100 civilians were killed, many of them burned in their homes while hiding in the basement. She wrote:

The screams from the children, the youth and the fathers who are here at Bostanci Road number 23 are ringing in our ears. The street that used to be the scene of happy people dancing and singing is now the center of a pain that will never ease, never go away. 28 people are crying when a voice coming from the phone screams: “They [Turkish soldiers] have come.” […] Instead of the sun rising, smoke is rising from a fire so intense that humanity can’t breathe. We can’t breathe, they can’t breathe. Bostanci Road can’t breathe.

Unknown men in bulletproof vests and helmets and with guns in their hands are invading Bostanci Road. They do not belong in this street, and they have never met the children of Bostanci Road. They have never seen them play, never witnessed their happiness. It is easy to see that they are strangers to this road as they hesitantly move forward. These walls will witness it all. These strangers on the road are also afraid of the walls, they tear them down one by one with their weapons that we do not know the names of.

I think of strength and I remember Zara Mohammedi, a Kurdish teacher from Sanandaj in Iran. Musa Anter, an influential Kurdish writer who was assassinated by Turkish intelligenc in 1992, once wrote: “If my mother tongue is shaking the foundations of your land, it probably means that you built your state on my land.” The Iranian authorities seemingly felt the ground trembling beneath them because they arrested Zara Mohammedi in 2019 on charges of national security offenses and separatism. Her actual crime was to teach Kurdish children their mother tongue and Kurdish literature at the local language center. The prosecutor used photos of Ms. Mohammedi with the Kurdish flag and in Kurdish clothes as proof of separatist activities. She was recently sentenced to 5 years prison.

Today, we are remembering and honouring Leyla, Fatma, Asya, Zara and every other Kurdish women who daily fight a battle for their own and their people’s existence.

zara mohammedi