Professor Shahrzad Mojab on gender and power in Kurdish Studies

Feminism, gender and power in Kurdish Studies: Professor Shahrzad Mojab interviewed by Marlene Schäfers

In this interview, Prof. Shahrzad Mojab reflects on her longstanding personal, political, and intellectual engagement with Kurdish women. Twenty years after publishing the ground-breaking edited volume Women of a Non-State Nation: The Kurds (Mazda Publishers, 2001), Mojab assesses the complex relation between Kurdish Studies and feminism and evaluates current discussions regarding gendered power relations in Kurdish scholarship. Gender relations in Kurdish society and in scholarship about that society can only be understood, she insists, when taking into account how gender intersects with capitalism, class, colonialism, nationalism, and patriarchy. The interview offers an insight into the historical developments that have seen Kurdish women have become increasingly included in Kurdish Studies as both researchers and research subjects. Women of Kurdistan: A Historical and Bibliographic Study by Shahrzad Mojab and Amir Hassanpour was published on 19 April 2021. Find the full interview in the latest issue of Kurdish Studies here.

I went to Kurdistan soon after the ceasefire between the Islamic regime and the resistant Kurdish forces in November 1979 and stayed there until the summer of 1980. This was my first trip to this region of Iran. I was born in Shiraz, but mostly raised and went to school in Tehran. Although I came from a middle-class, educated, and enlightened family inspired by the ideas of democracy, secularism, rights, and equality, they nonetheless remained deeply vested in the monarchical national modernity of “Iranianness.” Therefore, my original conception of the Kurds and Kurdistan was constructed by the official Iranian state narrative of the Kurds as “pure” and “original” people of Iran and as “brave fighters,” though deeply “tribal,” “primordial,” and “traditional.” The hegemonic ideological superiority of “Persianness” made us complicit in cultural and political suppression of all nationalities in Iran, in particular the Kurds. I have not yet fully written about my experience of being in Kurdistan, though while being there, I kept detailed daily notes of my observations, in particular of gender relations. Those notes were lost as we had to move around due to the ongoing war and security concerns. Only a few hand-written pages are left. [See sample notes here]

Neither have I written about my short-lived peshmerga year, including participating in the resistance movement of the city of Sanandaj, also known as Sine, in early 1980. This resistance lasted for 24 days; it has been registered in the annals of political history in Iran as “The 24 Days of Resistance in Sine,” when the city was renamed “Red Sine” or the “Brave Sine” by the people. This was an entry into lives, aspirations, history, and culture of the Kurdish people with no return for me. It was an encounter that became the basis for understanding the entanglement and contradictions of nationalism and feminism. I learned the Sorani Kurdish language and immersed myself in the culture and history of Kurdistan to overcome my Persian national chauvinism and embraced the ideals of Marxist feminist internationalism.

[…]Steadily I started building a catalogue of literature on Kurdish women in the 1990s; a method that I learned during my graduate studies in the Women’s Studies program. This reference work progressed with ebb and flow due to complex personal and professional lives of both myself and Amir, who also enthusiastically collaborated with me on this project (Mojab & Hassanpour, 2021). It was in the context of compiling, documenting, and archiving this body of literature that the International Kurdish Women’s Studies Network (IKWSN) was initiated. As was stated on its inaugural brochure, the IKWSN was founded in the fall of 1996 “…as a response to a growing need for opening a space for Kurdish women in international debates on women’s rights, women’s studies, and promoting gender justice among the Kurdish communities in the diaspora and the Middle East”. [See the flyer of International Kurdish Women’s Studies Network here]

The story of this collective effort is still untold, although I reflected on its rise and demise in two articles (Mojab 1997, 2000). Nonetheless, reviewing my meticulous archive of the letters and folders of this unique experience makes me realize the need for a deeper historical contextualization of this initiative. It was envisioned during the era following the First Gulf War of 1991, the rise of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and the 2003 occupation of Iraq by Western imperialist forces, led by the US. These events had, and still continue to have, an immense impact on the Kurds, in particular Kurdish women, throughout the region. Therefore, it is important to revisit the achievements and challenges of this network while we are (re)trying to (re)build a new one.