By Shilan Fuad Hussain

What does it mean to be in a “diaspora”? The term refers to a people who are dispersed, but often they are merely re-conglomerated, forming an insular “placenta” that incubates their new lives abroad, while still retaining aspects of the homeland they left. Diasporic homes can thus become a battleground, particularly for women, where house walls can be akin to a reconstituted national border; not in a new country, but in a tiny version of their old one. As a diasporic scholar with a deep interest in women’s equality, I have been particularly intrigued by the intersections between equality and the effects of cultural identity on our diasporic experiences.

As a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow in the field of Gender Studies and Cultural Analysis at Middlesex University in the UK, I examine gender-based violence and aspects surrounding women’s empowerment. My larger research project is primarily focused on women in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and more broadly in the Middle East, where I am investigating the ‘patriarchal trifecta’ (as I have termed it) in the region: forced marriages, FGM, and honour killings. In this article, however, I narrow my focus to exploring how women in the European diaspora, and particularly in the UK, deal with these same challenges when it comes to their gender equality.

How have these Kurdish women come to be in the diaspora? What cultural impediments have followed them into the West? In answering these questions, I hope to illuminate why, for many Kurdish women in the diaspora, changing geographies does not guarantee a fresh start. In fact, many of the structural and societal impediments merely follow them like a shadow, accompanying them as they attempt to establish new lives abroad. In these instances, we see that “diaspora” is less about the land one stands on, and more about the ideas they are surrounded by and where those originated from.

Exodus & Origins

Any discussion on the Kurdish diaspora, especially in Europe, first requires an examination of how that diaspora came to be in the first place. The origins of this diaspora include, to begin with, the oppression of Kurdish identity within Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria – all countries occupying Kurdish territory and ensuring Kurdish statelessness – which has led men Kurds to leave or become refugees. Some recent Kurdish diasporic waves include Kurds from Iraq fleeing Saddam Hussein’s Al Anfal genocide in the late 1980s, as well as Kurds from Turkey fleeing the Turkish military’s campaign throughout the 1990s, where around 4,000 Kurdish villages were razed to the ground. While many of those Kurds ultimately relocated to western Turkey (in particular Istanbul), a sizable number of them also headed for Germany, home to the largest Kurdish diaspora in the world. The decision of many Kurds to relocate to Germany in the 1990s, however, was really the result of pre-existing German social policies, where Berlin cynically sought to incentivize the arrival of a cheaper labor pool from Turkey.

The European Kurdish diaspora has entailed a several sizeable migrations: first, out of northwest Iran, Eastern Kurdistan, following Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979; second, as a wave of Kurds who fled the United States’ 1991 and 2003 wars against Iraq; and, more recently, Kurds escaping the wave of ISIS terror which struck the Yazidis around Sinjar in 2014.

The latest wave of Kurdish refugees to join the European diaspora has featured youths from the KRI arriving in Europe to search for a better life, as they believe that the economy back home is stagnating and lacks opportunities for them to succeed unless they have the right personal connections to curry government favors. A further set of Kurdish refugees fleeing Rojava (northern Syria) and the Syrian civil war, as well as the rise of ISIS and numerous Turkish invasions and drone attacks for the past nine years, has also emerged. As a result, there are now over two million Kurds in the European diaspora, most of whom reside in Germany but also with significant populations in Sweden, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, and the UK.

Photography by Lukman Ahmad, used with artist’s permission

UK Kurdish Diaspora

In the UK, and London in particular, the Kurdish diaspora has developed a professional class element, which itself has given rise to a range of complicated variables. Into this mix has stepped the age-old desire to preserve one’s identity and homeland amidst a foreign environment. Where this becomes even more complicated, however, is when Kurdish migrants decide which elements of their cultural tradition are worth preserving, and which elements are outdated and oppressive patriarchal relics of a time before women had self-agency.

This struggle plays itself out daily in the Kurdish diaspora in the UK, as Kurdish families gaining economic flexibilities then wrestle with questions such as: what does it mean to be Kurd? How are parents to handle their children growing up in such a relatively open environment compared to the culturally conservative one they are accustomed to back in Kurdistan? There are basic issues regarding how young people—in particular, women—dress in public, but also spill over into the way they pursue romantic relationships. And while Kurdish men typically have much greater freedom to discover themselves and find their way, young Kurdish women can be the targets of a range of communal policing, which puts added pressures onto the families to preserve their quote-on-quote good name or reputation.

This concern for a family’s standing amongst the wider Kurdish community often leads to arranged or forced marriages, as parents seek out socially acceptable partners for their children. In my research, I found that often times it is mothers and aunts who are the enforcers of patriarchal norms on their daughters, demonstrating the degree to which they are driven to be accomplices in a social construction which also limits their own freedom.

Occasionally, you also have the tragic element connected to forced or arranged marriages, which is so-called honour killings, which in truth have nothing to do with actual honour, and more to do with misogynistic policing of women’s bodies, life choices, and sexual agency. But because some Kurdish men perceive a sexually active daughter or sister, or one who disobeys their father or brother’s dictates as disobedient to the point of deserving death, honor killings are an issue that, although rare, unfortunately still exists in the Kurdish UK diaspora.

The most famous case of a honor killing was the 2006 Murder of Banaz Mahmod, a Kurdish woman from the KRI, who suffered under the ‘patriarchal trifecta’ of FGM, arranged marriages, and honor killing that my research explores. Banaz had undergone FGM herself, then was arranged-married to an older man when she was sixteen; she then fled his abuse and was threatened by her male family members that she would be killed if she did not return to him. When they discovered that she had entered into a new relationship without their permission, her father, uncle, and three cousins all murdered her and buried her in a garden.

The lead up to Banaz’s murder is instructive about the ways in which the UK system failed her as well as other diasporic migrants like her. Banaz had repeatedly requested protection from the police, telling them that her father was determined to kill her. However, at the time, UK police were reluctant to interfere in the “family matters” of outsiders or get involved in what could be perceived as a cultural difference issue. But this impulse not to “interfere” is destructive and harmful to all women facing such threats, as really the UK state is their only dependable ally when they are facing communal threats and literally fearing their family may murder them.

In this way, we see the ways that honour killings are perpetuated and continued based on the legal, social, and cultural conditions in which they thrive. Sometimes the cautionary impulses by police or the legal system can even come from a place of good intentions, where UK institutions want to be respectful of religious differences and perhaps not be seen as interfering or discriminating against Islamic traditions in particular. However, this can also lead to a dangerous dynamic where their “respect” for another culture places the actual women of that culture at dangerous risks.

Which opens up an important debate for all of the Kurdish diaspora, but in particular in the UK: where do one’s cultural traditions end and where does gender subjugation begin? In the cases of honour killings and FGM it seems fairly obvious – but is perhaps less obvious in more quotidian cases, such as the control fathers exert over their daughters or wives. Or, perhaps, in the ways Kurdish women are at times constantly surveilled and policed by male relatives or other members of their community. There are many restrictive ways that women are overly monitored not only by their family, but any person from the community that knows their father or brothers and may report back to them on their behaviors, which supposedly bring shame to their entire bloodline. In this case, perceived shame can have deadly and grave consequences.

Inequality Masquerading as Culture

My research thus far has shown that a cultural battle is taking place among diasporic Kurds in the UK, with many wanting to embrace elements of their new British home, but still fiercely clinging to some cultural traditions which they have convinced themselves are integral to their Kurdishness. When you then consider that Kurds have had many elements of their culture banned by occupying states, it is natural to see why a Kurdish person may defiantly want to hold on to something that they now feel they are free to express in the diaspora away from such occupying states.

However, it is not just a coincidence that often times the “traditions” that many traditionalist Kurds feel so obligated to preserve, also just happen to be the ones which restrict the liberties of Kurdish women. It is convenient that some of the traditions which place unfair burdens on men regarding familial duties can be discarded, while the one’s policing the behavior and bodies of women all of the sudden become sacred.

In this way, you see that this trifecta of FGM, forced marriages, and honor killings all symbiotically work in unison. First, they physically alter women under the misguided perception that they would be overly lustful without such alterations. Second, they enforce strict control over women by handing them off to an appropriate policing force and suitable male who will carry on the control they previously wielded. And third, if the women break free of these constraints, the option of an honour killing is there, to eradicate the disobedient women and act as a message to any of the others that may have the idea of similarly breaking free. Not unlike the way they used to execute slaves after a slave revolt, honour killings also serve a powerful communal function my research has shown, where they are used to intimidate and act as cautionary tale to all the other women on the risks of defiance.

As a Kurdish woman from the KRI who grew up in the European diaspora, this is obviously both a professional and personal matter to me, as I believe that all of the women facing these attacks on their equality deserve similar opportunities that I have had. Now, my own journey was far from easy, as the West has its own set of structural impediments and hurdles, but I still recognize the difference between having a tough road that can break you and not being allowed on the road at all. In this way, I am constantly wrestling with the idea of how much of my research is supposed to inform, but also help transform the unjust realities that I am observing.

But what it is clear to me thus far, is that although Kurdish women have made large gains in their respective freedoms at home and in the diaspora, unfortunately some of that residue of the patriarchal past is still present. While Kurds are particularly rebellious when it comes to defending their cultural identity against an outside force—as seen in the YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) helping defeat ISIS and the recent “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” (Women, Life, Freedom) protests throughout Iran, they often times fail to see the tyrant that is sitting right in their own living room, in the role of their father, uncle, or brother. Or we must sadly admit, even in the role of mothers-in-law or aunts, who can act as collaborating accomplices of a patriarchal order which limits their own horizons. For true women’s liberation, however, you need freedom in the homeland but also inside the home.

Dr. Shilan Fuad Hussain is currently a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow in the field of Gender Studies and Cultural Analysis, and a Senior Consultant for gender-related issues in society. She was previously a Visiting Fellow at the Washington Kurdish Institute (U.S.) and a Doctoral Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (Switzerland). She is an interdisciplinary academic and works on a variety of topics, among them: cultural representation, production, and practices; gender-based violence; state policies enhancing female equality; FGM and arranged/forced marriages; the social impacts of masculinity; and multi-identity and culture in the diaspora. Her current work sits at the intersection of sociology and cultural analysis, and its symbiotic relevance to modern society.