The famous 14th century Islamic theologian and philosopher Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya wrote: “women are the half of society who gives birth to the other half and so they are seemingly the entire society.”
Six hundred years later, the Egyptian-Kurdish thinker Qasim Amin endorsed Jawziyya's observation regarding the vital role of women in society, leading the vanguard in calling for gender equality.
Yet to what extent have these far-sighted individuals shaped Muslim societies in general and the Kurds in particular?
Examining the contemporary state of women in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), it seems at first glance that the answer is a resounding YES, but it is still a work in progress. Much has been achieved since the formation of the Kurdistan Regional Government in 1992 that one cannot turn a blind eye to. At the moment, the region faces a major challenge working from the laws of the Iraqi Federal Government as well as some common traditional social structures that impede gender equality and reinforce old norms, including polygamy, honor killing, female genital mutilation, and child marriage.
"Much has been achieved since the formation of the Kurdistan Regional Government in 1992."
These structural problems are, however, balanced by two parallel Kurdish traditions of women intermingling with men in the public sphere and of strong female leaders, fighters, and politicians, from Khanzadeh in the 17th century and Kara Fatma in the 19th to Adela Khanum in the early 20th, to mention a few.
Female Kurds in Iraq began small-scale activities to advance the Kurdish women’s movement in Istanbul following the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Thereafter, these activists worked in Iraqi Kurdistan, notching notable achievements such as opening a school for girls in Sulemani. Since then, Kurdish women have risen to leading roles while some neighboring societies still uphold traditional and patriarchal norms.
Among the most famous Kurdish women was Margaret George Shello, an Assyrian Kurd who in 1960 at the age of twenty became the first female fighter in the peshmerga, the Kurdish guerrilla forces, and assumed leading positions in important battles against the Iraqi army until her death nine years later.