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Challenging representations of Syrian Kurdish women in Scandinavia

Wendelmoet Hamelink recently completed her Marie Skłodowska-Curie (MSCA) funded Postdoctoral project IMEX – Images in Exile. Gender and representation among Syrian Kurdish women in Scandinavia, hosted by the Centre for Gender Research, University of Oslo.

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Abrizet Hajo proudly shows the book that was written about her great-grandfather, Hasan Hajo Agha, a prominent figure in Kurdish political history. Many people of the Hajo family settled in Scandinavia in the 1980s, after the Syrian regime disowned them from much of their lands and properties. Abrizet was among these early migrants. Copyright © Iffit Qureshi 2019, All rights reserved.

Can you explain shortly what your research project was about?

The project had the aim to challenge media representations of Kurdish women. In the first place because Muslim and Middle Eastern women are often depicted as a homogeneous group and as victims of oppression and violence. In the media you find little nuance, and little emphasis on what women themselves experience, what they find important, about their own activities and education, and how they wish to represent themselves. Secondly, since the Syrian war started and especially in the fight with ISIS, Syrian Kurdish women became symbols of women’s liberation. The media focused on their bravery and militarization, their liberation ideology, their lack of headscarf and their beauty.

I wanted to diversify and complement these images of Kurdish women by looking at women’s daily lives and the way they want to represent themselves.

The majority of the approximately 30-40 million Kurds worldwide live in Kurdistan which is divided over four different countries in the Middle East, and has significant variation in religion, culture and language. This means, naturally, that women’s lives and experiences also show a lot of variation. Within the scope of a small project like this one, I could only investigate a very small portion of these experiences. As the recent media focus was mostly directed at women from Syria, and many of them arrived as refugees in Europe, it seemed to me that working with them would be a good choice.

So I decided to work towards a more realistic portrayal of Kurdish women’s lives through dialogue and engagement with a small group of Kurdish women from Syria.

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Demonstration against Turkey’s occupation of Afrin, north west Syria, in Oslo, October 2019. Kurdish cultural and political identity are strongly intertwined and played out actively and visibly, specifically in demonstrations and cultural events. Women play a crucial role in these important interactions. Copyright © Iffit Qureshi 2019, All rights reserved.

What exactly made you choose this topic?

During my PhD I worked on cultural activism, I investigated a Kurdish oral tradition that obtained new forms in a very politicized Kurdish cultural environment in Turkey. At the time, it was not easy to get access to women’s voices. Men were very dominant in that tradition and women were often hesitant to be interviewed, or even to present themselves as performers. But this was about to change: In the years that followed after my fieldwork, women gradually received more attention, also female performers of that tradition. Although it had been difficult for me to interview them, I had managed to speak, on a personal level, with hundreds of women while living in dozens of Kurdish households during my fieldwork in Turkey. Women were extremely hospitable and curious about my life. I spent hours with them chatting, while making walks or sitting in their kitchen. We often shared a room during the time I lived in their homes. This made me very motivated to learn more. For the new project, I decided to focus more exclusively on women, because otherwise the first entry point to the community would again be through men.

By presenting my research interests as being about women, it made it easier to open up dialogue with women directly without having to go through men.

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Preparing for being photographed in her Kurdish dress, Emma Kalo carefully takes out her embellished belt (kember in Kurdish) which serves as an ornament to her dress. In Syrian Kurdistan she was the leader of a woman’s organization. Copyright © Iffit Qureshi 2019, All rights reserved.

What were the challenges and what were the easy parts?

My previous research projects had focused on Turks, Kurds and Armenians from Turkey, so I was very well informed about the history and political developments in Turkey. I had also learned Turkish and Kurmanji Kurdish, and had gained a large network of friends and colleagues both inside and outside of Turkey. But working with Kurds from Syria meant that I lacked some basic knowledge about Syria, Kurdish history in Syria, and Arabic. My initial plan was to learn Arabic, but I soon realized that it was impossible to learn it to such an extent that I would be able to use it for fieldwork, within a few months. Also, when I got to know Kurds from Syria I realized that the Kurdish language is very important to them, more than among Kurds from Turkey. It was therefore enough to update my Kurdish, because the dialect spoken in Syria is slightly different from that in Turkey. Still, it remains a disadvantage not to know Arabic, because I have no access to academic literature or novels written by Syrian Kurds in Arabic.

There were also unexpected things that made my fieldwork easier. For example, both me and the women that I interviewed had recently settled in Scandinavia. I lived in Turkey in 2015, the year that Turkey’s social and political landscape changed completely, and a huge government crackdown took place on the Kurdish population, especially in Eastern Turkey. I left Kurdistan because of the crackdown. Although my experiences with the violence and suffering that people went through as a result, was very minor, it gave us a common ground and much to talk about. It also helped that I was, like them, an outsider to Scandinavian societies, and that we could share our experiences of settling here.

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Nesreen Tilo is an avid human rights activist whose life was marked in varying degrees by her activism. She grew up in a family of activists. Her father made the revolutionary move to open the first Kurdish girl’s school in Syrian Kurdistan in the 1930s. Here, she is showing some of the texts she has written about women’s rights and the situation for Kurds in Syria. Copyright © Iffit Qureshi 2019, All rights reserved.

So, what are your main findings?

I took a very broad perspective. Very little has been written about Kurdish daily life in Syria generally, and even less about the lives of Kurdish women. I did not want to make it to narrow. I was interested in exploring very broadly what women had experienced in Syria, not only during the war, but also before that. It was my conviction that, in order to understand women’s lives today in Scandinavia, I would also need to understand their experiences before the war. I therefore conducted life story interviews with 23 women in Norway and Sweden, I visited them at home many times, I also attended events such as weddings, concerts, other celebrations and political meetings and demonstrations. I met and talked with many others as well. I became good friends with some and we remained in close contact for a long time. It was very important to me to become involved with Kurdish women’s lives, in order to better understand how they experience life in Scandinavia, how they remember life in Syria and how they stay connected to that life today.

I have so much material and really don’t want to restrict myself by writing only a few academic articles. The material is more fit for a book and that is what I am working on right now.

The book has different chapters with different topics. It is still a work in progress, and I will therefore not describe it in detail. What I can say, is that the book will include chapters about the history of women’s activism in Syria, about everyday resistance against male and government oppression, about experiences of war and violence (not only in the recent war but also in the longer history of Kurds in Syria), about the escape from Syria and the refugee journey, and about life in Scandinavia today.

Writing a book takes a lot of time and the women whom I have worked with will need a lot of patience to wait for the end result. I am also working on some academic articles, which in due time will be revised into book chapters. So, there is a lot of work ahead of me. But I’m collaborating with different people and the collaboration makes all the work very rewarding.

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A women’s gathering. Maria Haji: “We play music, talk, laugh, and put on Kurdish clothes. This is how we forget our worries and celebrate home. We are not allowed to cry or focus on our pain. This is how we survive in this country.” Copyright © Iffit Qureshi 2019, All rights reserved.

Can you say a bit more about the collaboration?

Collaboration is very useful for two reasons: First, academic writing is often a very lonely job and that is one thing that I find difficult. I like to collaborate and to learn from that. Secondly, as an anthropologist working on topics that are outside my own life world, I realize more and more how, as Europeans, our imperialist and colonial history has influenced our outlook on the world, to the extent that we are often not aware of it. To work on a project like this, writing about the lives of other women, is in that sense a very risky undertaking, because you can easily make so many mistakes.

And then there is the question of ownership: Because the rights to everything that I collect belong to the community I write about, I find it problematic to publish only with my name as the author. I am therefore very grateful to have found Kurdish scholars who are willing to cooperate with me on this project.

My research has benefited enormously from the insight of these scholars, and I am particularly indebted to:

Besime Şen, who is Professor in Urban Studies at Mimar Sinan University in Turkey. She has conducted interviews with Kurdish women from Syria who settled in Istanbul. This is an important topic for the book, since the majority of Kurdish women who escaped from Syria and settled in Europe travelled through Turkey and often even lived there for a few years. The situation in Turkey is part of what women have experienced, and Sen will contribute to the book with a chapter about the situation of women who remained living there. She will also be involved in the writing of some other chapters.

Ruşan Güngör, who was a PhD student in Turkey, but recently settled in Norway. She did research on the experience of displaced women from Eastern Turkey who now live in Istanbul. She is also co-author to at least one chapter.

Iffit Qureshi, who is a photojournalist. She has published the much-praised book Oslofolk - En kjærlighetserklæring til byen [Humans of Oslo], for which she received the Oslo bys kunstnerpris.

My aim with this project was to combine academic writing and artistic expression. This because academic writing cannot capture everything, especially if it is about representation. Photography is a very strong medium with a very different result, and the perspective of a photographer is also very different from that of an academic.

I was very curious to see what Qureshi would see, and how she would approach this topic. She worked with Kurdish women from Syria and made pictures of them by asking them how they wanted to represent themselves. We had many discussions about women’s lives, how to portray them, and about the pictures Qureshi made.

Her work resulted in an amazing series of photographs which will become part of the book, and hopefully also of an exhibition. It honestly was a dream come true for me to collaborate with her and to balance my academic voice with the voice and view of an artist.

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Sharing food and eating together are important ways of remembering the homeland and creating feelings of belonging in the new country. Maria Haji and Hadia Hussein while carrying a dish (dolme in Kurdish) to the table. 2019. Copyright © Iffit Qureshi 2019, All rights reserved.

What was your methodological and theoretical approach?

I have already explained some of the methodology, for example my choice to focus on women, my choice for life story research, my engagement with women’s lives, the collaboration with Kurdish female scholars, and the collaboration with a photojournalist. I find it truly joyful to work with life stories. I never get bored of hearing people tell their stories, and to explore intersections between different layers of a society: from more psychological perspectives, to those of family history, the history of a nation, ideas and transnational connections.

I have been quite occupied with the relation between person and place. How do people attach to places, how do they imagine, give structure to, and build their direct environment? It struck me how connected the women I interviewed are with their hometowns, and how they keep searching for ways to keep that connection alive. Questions about place and time are therefore very relevant for this project. How did and do migrants connect to the place they come from, and how do they build new connections in an entirely new country?

Another related focus, is the cultural and emotional archive of memories which people carry with them, for which I draw on the work of Ann Cvetkovich, Marianne Hirsch, Gloria Wekker and Sara Ahmad, to mention but a few. I am also inspired by perspectives of women’s history and the decolonization of academic work.

What did you learn from this project personally?

Every research project is a personal journey. Getting to know new people, environments and histories is such a gift. It has told me a lot about my own life and viewpoints, about the way I have been raised, about the narratives about other people that I have learned to believe.

The idea that women from Middle Eastern countries are backwards, oppressed and have no say, is so strong in European societies. The best way to unlearn such prejudice is exactly by engaging with women on a personal level. This project has been intended as an important contribution to this process.

Very early on in the project, for example, I realized that the history of Kurdish women in Syria actually is one of activism and engagement, both socially and politically. That’s why at the beginning of the project I worked with two other scholars, Dr. Minoo Alinia and Dr. Nerina Weiss, on an article and special issue about Theorising Women and War in Kurdistan (Kurdish Studies 2018). This work helped me discover more about Kurdish women’s engagement and histories. This awareness grew even stronger while working with the Kurdish women from Syria. It helped me to see the stamina of individual women, even in situations of marginalization, governmental oppression and poverty.

How was it for you to work at the Centre for Gender Research?

It has been a very enriching experience for me to work at the Centre for Gender Research. It was the first time that my research focus was gender, and my academic environment was gender studies. I am an anthropologist by training and had not been this much involved in the topic of gender before.

I experienced the Center as a place where I could learn from my colleagues: I enjoyed very much to engage with them on both a personal and scholarly level, and found great support in my supervisors. Their areas of research intersected my own project in various ways: Beatrice Halsaa worked on citizenship and women’s activism, Harriet Bjerrum Nielsen on gender and generation, and Sverre Varvin on refugees, war and trauma. It has been amazing for me to experience how each of them could inspire me, personally, methodologically and theoretically.

I found it very rewarding to work (for the first time actually) in a workplace where the majority were women. Although we should definitely aim towards involving more men in the field of Gender Studies, indeed strive for a more diverse work environment, I have to admit that I felt empowered to work amongst such a collective of women in research, teaching, collaboration and leadership.

I was raised in a conservative Protestant community in the Netherlands and it has been a personal journey for me to deal with the huge effect this had on my life and personality. That strict Calvinist Protestantism is so unfriendly towards enjoyment, towards personal growth and development and towards women’s empowerment. It gives you a very negative set of ideas about yourself and the world, or at least that is how I have experienced it. So for this reason alone, it has been refreshing to be able to focus more exclusively on women and gender. It has made me stronger personally, and more aware of exclusionary mechanisms, male domination and abuse of power, not only by men but also by the privileged. In this respect, the discussions about #Metoo that came up at the Centre were an inspiration as well.

What are your future plans?

I just started a new job as a researcher for the Social and Cultural Planning office (SCP), which is a research institute under the Ministry of health, welfare and sports, in the Netherlands. The research we conduct is policy oriented and focuses on many different social issues, such as inclusion of minorities, poverty, unemployment etc. Although more policy-oriented, I look forward to learning new skills to conduct shorter research projects focused on very practical topics. You also work much closer with colleagues. There is less competition and more collaboration. That is something I really appreciate.

But a lot of work still remains to be done on my MSCA-project. I feel motivated and obliged, both to myself and the communities I have worked with, to continue working on the material I have collected and to keep publishing about them. I do not look too far ahead. For now, I am just happy to see the fruits of both hard work and collaborative efforts slowly starting to appear in publications.

Published Apr. 15, 2020 1:12 PM - Last modified Aug. 3, 2020 1:27 PM