Nazand Begikhani: Speaking Out, Fighting Back and No Surrender

Clarion Project: Could you explain a little bit about honor culture and how it manifests itself in Kurdistan? Is there a trend away from honour culture? Or is it becoming more entrenched?


Nazand Begikhani: Honour among the Kurds consists of two interdependent cultural norms calledNamus and SharafNamus is based on women’s sexuality and bodily conduct, while Sharaf involves qualities of worthiness and the social stature of individuals, mainly men, which depends on women’s Namus.

Honour code in such a context is highly gender-specific, requiring girls and women to strictly adhere to social norms and values. Breaching socially constructed norms and values is perceived as a challenge to the collective honour, bringing shame to the family and putting the life of girls and women responsible for what is perceived as “dishonourable” behaviour at risk.

Perceived dishonourable behaviour consists of forming an overt love relationship, losing ones virginity, having sex outside marriage, an extramarital relationship and alleged/perceived indecent dressing.

Love and sexual relationships are the main factors leading to shame and dishonour. These can be real or based on gossip and hearsay; once they are public knowledge, women involved in such alleged sexual relations are seen as responsible and are subjected to honour-based violence (HBV) by male family members aimed at cleansing the family honour.

HBV involves many forms of violence and killing is the most extreme form of such violence. It is an act of purification through blood, for example through an act of violence and killing by a group, in order to regain honour and dignity among the community.

As for the second part of your question, yes, since the mid 90s, there has been an active mobilization against HBV; activists and women’s rights groups have initiated multiple activities to combat honour crimes, such as campaigns, public awareness programmes as well as prevention and protection initiatives.

Officials both nationally and internationally were reluctant in the beginning to include such issues into their political agenda, but later they came on board and started setting up strategies to address them. With the increasing awareness, governments both at home and at international level started to develop policies and initiate legal reforms, aiming at combating HBV.

These new strategies have made a difference; nowadays, there is more awareness about HBV than before, and many preventive and protection measures are put in place. However, implementation of reformed laws and new measures has been challenged by a conservative mentality on the ground. Islamist ideology and the emergence of terror groups have paved the way for further subjugation of women generating more violence and sexual assault. Some statistics suggest that there has been a backlash and gender-based violence has been on the increase, while the number of killings has decreased.


Clarion: A lot has been made in Western media reports of the bravery and heroism of the female Kurdish peshmerga fighters. How does that tally with your experience of honor culture and violence against women in Kurdistan?


Begikhani: Historically, Kurdish women have played an important political and economic role in their societies. They have been active as politicians and also as peshmargas fighting against state rulers in different parts of Kurdistan. We should not forget that since the beginning of the 20th century, more particularly since 1923, Kurds have been subjected to severe politics of oppression, discrimination and ethnic cleansing.

Kurdish people in all parts of Kurdistan have been involved in resistance and women have never been absent in such struggle. Their resistance is also to be highlighted in combating gender-based violence and honour culture both in their society and at international levels; they have been participating in international campaigns against honour crimes and in their networking with international NGOs to address HBV, including their participation in UN forums and discussion.

The media representation of Kurdish women’s bravery and heroism especially in Kobanê, is an expression of the reality of Kurdish women. It tells about the harsh life of women in Kurdish societies but also about their will and determination in speaking out, fighting back and not to surrender.

In Iraqi Kurdistan where the political context is different, women have been active in civil resistance through their political and organizational mobilization. Here Kurdish society is undergoing a transitional period, restructuring itself after decades of Baathist dictatorship and genocidal politics as well as several subsequent wars. There is a sharp confrontation between modernising and conservative forces and women’s and gender issues are at the centre of such a confrontation. 


Clarion: In 2000 you won the Emma Humphreys memorial prize, which recognizes women who have fought against male violence, for your work combatting honor crimes. What are the ways that you have found to be most effective in combatting it?


Begikhani: When I and my Kurdish friends in the diaspora and colleagues from different parts of Kurdistan started activities to combat HBV there was no awareness among decision makers about such a plight, both nationally and internationally.

The best way to combat HBV is to speak out, to break the circle of silence and fear; violence in the name of honour, including killing, is enshrined in silence, in secrecy and fear;  by speaking out and raising awareness, you are half way to challenging it. It was the case at that time that even international organizations such as Amnesty International with whom I raised the issue, was considering it as cultural and a private matter that should not be included in the political agenda.

In 1995 when I participated in the UN Form on women and addressed HBV in Beijing, the world was not ready to listen, let alone ready to combat it. One lesson learnt from my experience, is in order to make a difference in women’s lives, in order to protect those at risk of HBV, in order to make progress, we need to be strong, convinced and ruthlessly rational, away from emotional and sensational discourse.

Our activities and discourse have to be enforced by knowledge and information about culture, gender politics as well as experiences of HBV in different communities along with methods for actions. We should not be reluctant about cooperating with progressive members within decision makers and official institutions in order to help developing strategies and action towards change. 


Clarion: Have you found yourself personally in danger because of your work?


Begikhani: Yes, working on such sensitive issues in the context of the Middle East is bound to be risky. In addition to verbal threats, I have been denounced in mosques and among clerics, who take any action challenging their traditional beliefs as a threat. Last year, I gave a lecture on the history of feminism at the Soran University near the Iran-Iraq borders, a few days later, at a Friday preach, an Imam denounced my lecture as “an alien” element threatening Kurdish “authentic identity and coherence”. But I have faith in what I do and also in those who stand by me and support my actions within grass-roots and official organizations.  


Clarion: How have you found the creative process of poetry helpful in engaging with Kurdish women's rights?


Begikhani: Poetry and academically research-based writings are two different forms of a creative process: if in my poetry I raise philosophical questions, in my academic writings I try to bring about answers. My ultimate aim in this process and in any activities I am involved in is to make a difference in our human condition. Writing is also an act of resistance; women have been marginalised throughout history and considered as “emotional” beings with little interest in activities involving “intellect” and “mind”. I consider my poetry as recollected voices of those marginalised and silenced women.

Beyond that, I would like to convey a message about human frailty in this brutalized world and our need for more love and a spirituality that transcends religions.


Clarion: The advances of the Islamic State have caused severe damage to Kurds in both Iraq and Syria. What is the role of the Kurdish diaspora in supporting their struggle?


Begikhani: The advance of ISIS jihadists has reminded us how fragile our status is in the Middle East and how challenging it is to preserve Kurdish identity. Since its emergence, Kurdistan, including Sinjar and Kobane, has suffered severe damage with ISIS attacks and Kurds have formed the only regional force combating their advances.

The Kurdish diaspora has participated in the last few decades in the economic and social development of Kurdish societies and during crisis it has played an effective role in providing relief and humanitarian support to refugees and displaced people as well as in the reconstruction and recovery processes.

For example, after the ISIS attack on Sinjar which has led to a mass exodus of Yezidi people and the kidnapping of thousands of women, who have been subjected to rape and sex slavery, Kurdish diaspora members in general and women in particular have been actively involved in campaigning for the rights of those women, developing awareness raising and support mechanisms.

But I should add that most of this support and contribution has been developed as ad hoc projects rather than as part of a comprehensive national strategy channelled through networks, which can go beyond political party mobilization.


Clarion: Can the women's rights movement in Middle Eastern countries be a moderating force in the region that would ameliorate the sectarian and religious conflicts? 


Begikhani: Ameliorating the sectarian and religious conflicts is a huge task! In the volatile situation of the Middle East where regional forces have no clear strategy and international powers maintain their double standard politics, it is not easy to predict the future.

One promising element consists of the fact that Kurds, who have been fighting for their national identity for almost a century, have used culture and civil rights elements and not religion in their struggle. Women, as I said earlier, have played an important role in this struggle. Female fighters in Rojava with their perseverant combat against one of the most brutal terrorist forces in the world have become the symbol of resistance and optimism.

In fact these Kurdish women fighters have generated a new hope, not only in Kurdistan, but around the world where women are reduced to a svelte body and used as a commodity in the capitalist market. Recently, a middle-aged French woman told me with tears in her eyes that female fighters in Kobanê have presented her with a new spirit, giving her a new image of women that had disappeared in the West, and she was thankful.

I should add that in addition to their fight on the battlefield, Kurdish women have been fighting for their rights at home too. Considering patriarchal mechanisms of post-revolution and post-national independence, Kurdish women have to conduct another fight within their private space, inside their family and at home. In Iraqi Kurdistan they have been remarkably active in civil rights movements and organizational activities combating violence against women.

In Rojava’s Cezire, Syrian Kurdistan, they have been involved in drafting and issuing an Equality Decree to guarantee the judicial protection of their rights: banning polygamy, criminalising honour killings and FGM, guaranteeing equality in inheritance.

These are in straight opposition to Sharia law that prevails in almost all Muslim countries. So while Kurdish women are fighting against Islamist forces as well as state oppression in different parts of Kurdistan, they have also to fight for their independence and rights as women. This is not an easy battle, as it is related to structural mentality and power relations within their own community, not against a targeted outside enemy.

What is certain is that Kurdish women are very active in resistance politics and seem to be determined to defend their rights in private and public spaces, for their national identity as well as their own gender identity. Whether they can breathe new life into the situation in the Middle East, only time can tell.


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Dr. Nazand Begikhani is a writer, poet and academic researcher from Kurdistan currently based in the UK, who has lived in Europe since 1987. She has published five poetry collections in Kurdish and one (Bells of Speech) in English. She has translated Baudelaire and T.S. Eliot into Kurdish.

In 2000 she won the Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize (UK) for her work combatting honor violence and in 2012 she won the Simone Landrey's Feminine Poetry Prize (France) for poetry. In her capacity as a human rights activist, she is one of the founding members of Kurdish Women's Rights Watch.

Her current position is as a senior research fellow for the University of Bristol in the UK. She kindly agreed to speak with Clarion Project Research Fellow Elliot Friedland about honor culture in Kurdistan and her work in fighting against it.