“And the other principle I asked everyone to recite. ‘Woman’s true freedom is only possible if the enslaving emotions, needs and desires of husband, father, lover, brother, friend and son can all be removed. The deepest love constitutes the most dangerous bonds of ownership.’”
Zara Khatum, May 2021
“That’s why I followed you and still do. You made tangible, made real for our soldiers the teachings we learned in our Peshmerga training. Were we not told that a country cannot be free unless the women are free? Under Kurdish rule, women have equal say in political rule.”
Peri, Zara’s best friend before she met Peter
I read with fascination each and every review for The Matriarch Matrix. And I thank every single reviewer for their candor and especially for their time they took not only reading this epic, but the extra time taken to write a review. Merci.
The subject of feminism has arisen in some reviews. In the blog post https://www.tailofthebird.com/2017/08/29/from-patriarchy-to-matriarchy-and-back/,
I discussed the strategic change from a patriarchal story to a one about a matriarchy. As such, the focus went from Orzu and Peter to Nanshe and Zara. And the flavor of the book forever changed.
Why A Feminist Protagonist? Or Maybe, Why A Kurdish Protagonist?
When the story line was still about a patriarchy that created the 12,000 year old monolithic sanctuary at Gobekli Tepe, a secondary character, a guide from the local area, would escort Peter and Father Jean-Paul to the archaeologic site. As the story morphed into one about matriarchy, this secondary character became a woman, one who would share the same genetic heritage as did Peter. The link hidden in their beings connecting them to the originating matriarch and her family from 9600 BCE.
So why did Zara’s character become Kurdish? I envisioned this woman as a fighter. Someone who would offset Peter’s inability to be a fighter mimicking his ancient counterpart Orzu. Perhaps the most well-known aspect of Kurdish women in the west are the images and interviews with women who fought in Iraq and Syria against the Daesh (ISIS).
In Iraq, these women fought and still fight as part of the Peshmerga, the military forces of the Iraqi Kurds. They helped the American forces in 2003 in the fight to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. 1600 Peshmerga women were involved in fighting the Daesh in Iraq.
In Syria, these women fought and still fight in the YPJ, or Womens Protection Union. These all-female make up 40% of the Kurdish forces battling the Daesh in Syria. The YPJ and the male counterpart YPG are controversial in their link to the PKK in Turkey, considered a terrorist organization.
What is Jineology?
“A country can’t be free unless the women are free.”
—Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned leader of the PKK, recognized as a terrorist organization by the US, NATO, and the EU.
Jineology is the science of women, a form of feminism espoused by Abdullah Öcalan, head of the controversial PKK. Female soldiers in the Peshmerga and YPJ are taught jineology as part of their on-boarding. Why? The thought is two-fold. 1) A nation is only half as strong with just men. For the Kurds to gain the independence and freedom they have desired for centuries, women must be empowered; and 2) The regional traditions of patriarchy must be broken in order for women to help the nation.
In older traditional Kurdish communities and non-Kurdish communities in the same lands, the patriarchal tradition leads to a form of women’s oppression. Women are not as highly educated, their career opportunities are limited, and they do not play strong roles in family and societal decision making. In some of these areas, this patriarchal tradition leads to honor killings, political rapes, and other forms of physical and violent oppression.
Activist author Dilar Dirik from Turkey writes a clarification between feminism and Kurdish freedom:
“First, it should be mentioned that Kurdish women’s relationship to the feminisms in the region has often been quite complicated. Turkish feminists for instance had the tendency to marginalize Kurdish women, which they perceived as backward, and tried to forcefully assimilate them into their nationalist “modernization project”. In practice, this meant that all women first had to be “Turkish” in order to qualify for liberation. Their political struggle, especially when armed, was often met with harsh state violence, which used a gross combination of racism and sexism, centered around sexualized torture, systematic rape, and propaganda campaigns that portrayed militant women as prostitutes, because they dared to pose themselves as enemies of hyper-masculine armies….The struggling women in Kobanê have become an inspiration for women around the word. In this sense, if we want to challenge the global patriarchal, nation-statist, racist, militarist, neo-colonialist and capitalist systemic order, we should ask which kinds of feminism this system can accept and which ones it cannot. An imperialist “feminism” can justify wars in the Middle East to “save women from barbarism”, while the same forces that fuel this so-called barbarism by their foreign policies or arms trades label the women who defend themselves in Kobanê today as terrorist.”
In contrast, in Rojava, the Kurdish part of Syria and in parts of Kurdish Turkey, women are in co-leadership positions with a male counterpart reflecting the philosophy that a nation will not be strong unless women are included.
The Kurdish Women Who Fight For Freedom From Oppression
The following are quotes from some of the real Kurdish women from whom the beliefs of the character Zara were fashioned after:
“We are defending a democratic, secular society of Kurds, Arabs, Muslims and Christians who all face an imminent massacre. Kobani’s resistance has mobilized our entire society, and many of its leaders, including myself, are women. Those of us on the front lines are well aware of the Islamic State’s treatment of women.” Meysa Abdo, October 2014, a commander of the resistance in Kobani.
“The hallmark of a free and democratic life is a free woman”
“Isis would like to reduce women to slaves and body parts. We show them they’re wrong. We can do anything.” Asya Abdullah, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Union Party in Rojava
These women are subject to tremendous risk fighting the Daesh as noted by Colonel Nahida Ahmad Rashid leader of the 2nd Battalion, a 500-strong force based in Sulaymaniyah in Kurdistan, northern Iraq. From her interview by The Sun:
….she says her soldiers must never allow themselves to be captured by ISIS, usually contemptuously called ‘ Daesh ‘ in the Middle East, as they face torture and rape at their hands.
In fact, her fighters are always careful to leave a bullet in their weapons to use on themselves if it looks like they will be taken.
These sentiments are echoed by another Peshmerga soldier:
“We always have a bullet ready to use on ourselves in case we are about to be taken prisoner.”
“We will tear them apart. When they have killed our babies in the womb why should we show them mercy.”
“Here the men cook for us.”
Mani Nasrallahpour, Peshmerga solider, in November 2016 Reuters interview
Zara Khatum – The Manifestation of the Matriarch
Who is she? Is she the voice of a feminist book? Or is she the reimagining of many Kurdish women who are seeking the best for their people, for other women like her? Loaded question.
I feel simply horrible for the women who have reviewed this book for whom violence and rape have been the most looming impressions from this book. These parts of the book were intended only to realistically portray the struggles of Zara as a Kurdish woman, the real-life struggles faced by Kurdish women. I hope what has been outlined in this blog help bring forth an understanding of why Zara’s story and her character were told they way they were. There are many sources, articles, books, which outline the inhumanity inflicted upon Kurdish women by oppressors in recent years. Zara’s depiction is mostly true to these depictions. See reading list below at end of blog post for book suggestions.
The barbarity, the uncivilized behaviors of tyrannical men exists today in this decade. A fact that is hard to believe. In 2014, 3000 Yazidi women were taken by Daesh soldiers and made into sexual slaves for the soldiers or sold in open markets. Girls as young as 12 to 13 taken and raped and sold. But this is not an isolated case. In 2015, 200 school girls were taken into sexual slavery by the Boko Haram. In the 90’s during the Bosnian war, institutionalized rape by the oppressors has been estimated to be committed to a range from 12,000 to 50,000 girls and women.
Zara’s character was born into the savage years of Kurdish oppression and genocide known as the Anfal Campaign, where 4000 villages were raised to the ground, where deadly gases were used on civilian populations, and women were taken to rape prisons. After her father returns from being taken a political prisoner, he eventually commits suicide. An act that drives Zara to join the Peshmerga with a local boy, someone she has interest in, to fight Saddam’s tyranny. Later in life, she joins the YPJ to fight tyranny against the Kurds there as well as the Daesh invasions. With passing of two bad relationships with men, she comes to realize that she does not need men to be the person she want to be. And thus she finds the principles of Jineology very compatible with her emerging belief system.
Core to the character Zara’s inner wound was a critical moment in Sinjar, 2014, when the Daesh overran her half-Yazidi cousins’ home. She did not have that bullet ready as described by female Kurdish soldiers earlier in this blog. And thus, she could not kill her cousins, her aunt, or herself before being captured and subjected to several months of captivity of the worse kind. The guilt of not having that bullet and what happened when she did have such a bullet haunted her until she met Peter, her “other half of the apple”.
Excerpt from chapter 37:
“Rona begged me to leave her there and save her sister. She cried and cried about what those monsters would do to her. She could not take any more. We all were so disfigured already….And then Rona looked at me, her eyes saying what she wanted me to do. To shoot her. But I could not. I just could not. She was my sister.” Zara Khatum, June 2021
Writing a novel is a very daunting affair. You simply want to stop and go onto something else many times along the way. But it was the comments from a 22 year old beta reader from Germany which gave me the inspiration, the courage, the commitment to bring Zara’s story, un-softened, unadulterated, into fruition. She wrote:
“I would actually like to extend my gratitude. I can’t explain how touching it has been to read about a character like Zara. I think it sends a really strong message home that people seem to really forget. We can all be subject to rape. The world isn’t pretty. And it doesn’t matter how strong you are. But through everything, Zara is so incredibly beautiful. I think that’s important. Whether she agrees or not, she’s a stronger person for everything she’s been through. Thank you for not writing her as some typical rape victim. Thank you for creating something so much more powerful.”
I hope Zara’s story can be a source of strength for others as much as she was for this woman from Germany. The world is not always a pretty place. But together we can work to help make it better for our children.
For Further Reading:
First I would like to thank Ava Homa, author of Echos from the Other Land, for her advice on Kurdish women and politics. Please take a look at her book which offers four lovely vignettes sharing the lives of young Kurdish women in Iran.
Kurdish women in military
MEYSA ABDO’s Op-Ed piece in New York Times
Jineology: The Kurdish Women’s Movement by Meral Düzgün
The Kurdish Women’s Movement: Challenging gendered militarization and the nation-state by Meral Düzgün
Feminism and the Kurdish Freedom Movement by Dilar Dirik
Enslavement of Yazidi, Nigerian, Bosnian Women
Other Recommended Books
Photos licensed from depositphotos.com