A remarkable and unusual sort of civil disobedience has been triggered in Marivan, a city in the Kurdistan Province of Iran. On April 15, an Iranian court in the city forced a male convict to wear traditional Kurdish women’s clothes in public, perceiving it as a humiliating punishment. Kurdish feminists of the Marivan Women’s Community protested against this misogynistic decision on the streets of Marivan in red traditional clothes, similar to the Kurdish bride robe that the convicts had to wear, and they were confronted by violent security forces.
Then, in solidarity with the women, Kurdish men took an extraordinary initiative by dressing as Kurdish women and posting their photos on social media.
In a café in the heart of Frankfurt, Germany, my friend Çiğdem and I enjoyed tea with Masoud Fathi and Dler Kamangar, two of the feminist men behind this campaign, which has made international news.
Masoud Fathi is a poet, journalist, political activist—and feminist. He is from Marivan, a city known for its disobedience and resistance. He had his friend Dler take a photo of him wearing an authentic, grass-green Kurdish woman’s robe, and posted it on his Facebook page, adding the sentence that became the slogan of the campaign: “Being a woman is not a tool to humiliate or punish anyone”.
Soon, some friends joined this brave statement by taking pictures of themselves in women’s dresses. Within a week, the Facebook page “Kurd Men for Equality” gained over 13,000 fans. Women and men from other parts of Kurdistan, Europe and America expressed their solidarity and shared commitment to gender equality with their own photos.
How did Masoud feel when he put on this impressive green dress?
When I wore that dress, I suddenly realized how much evil the chauvinist thinking of men, male-dominated religions, ideologies and systems have caused. I understood that masculine culture has destroyed the world.
The pictures on Facebook are as diverse as the Kurdish nation: A cute, smiling little boy in red challenges patriarchy the same way as a mature, serious-looking man with thick glasses in a delightfully charming dress. Some women are dressed in Kurdish men’s clothes, some of them stand next to male friends who wear flashy dresses with pride. One mother in a traditional men’s outfit stands confidently alongside her adolescent son, who smiles in a bright-blue, shimmering woman’s gown. Some men covered their faces to escape persecution by the Iranian regime.
Sasan Amjadi, a contributor to this project and a friend of Masoud and Dler’s, says,
The Iranian regime is fascist, and it is almost inevitable that this affects the society, which leads parts of the Iranian population to accept the regime’s beliefs. Perhaps 40 percent of the population does not believe in women. I did not feel any strangeness when I put on a woman’s dress. I just wanted to demonstrate who we were: This is what we look like, this is our culture and they cannot insult our culture, our mothers and sisters. We cannot accept that. … There can be no free society without free women. It is in the responsibility of men to end this culture of male hegemony.
Men in Western societies have also resorted to wearing women’s clothes in order to challenge gender discrimination. Even the most democratic societies struggle with rape culture, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. Violence against women is a global epidemic. If tabooizing and controlling women’s bodies and behaviors in the name of honor is the sexism of one society, the porn industry, prostitution and unhealthy beauty standards make up the other end of the patriarchal spectrum that devaluates women by reducing them to objects of men’s pleasure or property. Cross-dressing is an effective way of challenging binary notions of gender and raising awareness of issues that human beings who are not male and heterosexual encounter on a daily basis.
However, the case of Kurdish men wearing Kurdish women’s clothes is even more special, because it attacks two forms of oppression at the same time. This “punishment” is not only sexist; it further constitutes an attempt to ridicule Kurdish culture. The Islamic Republic of Iran has executed at least 56 Kurds in the past year. It continues to enforce oppressive annihilation policies towards the Kurdish people and other ethnicities, or against any dissident voice, for that matter. While the misogynist regime forces women to cover in black cloth, traditional Kurdish (and of course traditional Persian) women’s clothes are very colorful and beautifully embroidered pieces of detailed handwork. The meaning of these sequined, extravagant robes on Kurdish men is a double strike against a regime that covers, hides and silences women in plain black, discriminates against different ethnicities and believes that being an oppressive despot defines masculinity and power. After all, chauvinist concepts of gender and abusive power structures are inseparable.
But while the Iranian authorities attempted to shame male prisoners by making them wear traditional Kurdish women’s clothes, Kurdish men formidably responded by standing up against both sorts of oppression. They made two statements in one: Being a woman is NOT a punishment—and our culture is beautiful. Not being a woman, but being sexist is degrading. Not Kurdish clothes, but racism is humiliating.
Dler Kamangar, a talented musician from the beautiful East Kurdish city of Sine, agrees with Masoud that this Facebook action is just one small step in the right direction. Though media and public attention are important, future steps must be more practical, and not just remain in the social media sphere. As he drinks his black tea, he tells me that they are currently planning protest actions in front of Iranian embassies. They will appear in women’s clothes. Dler’s skepticism of the Iranian regime is surpassed by his optimism for the Kurdish people’s struggle:
I do not wait for a reform by the Iranian regime. We need to work against the negative structures in our own communities and societies. In the end, we are by ourselves. We must come up with our own solutions.
Like Dler, Masoud considers himself a feminist. He has written columns about women’s rights and men’s duty to actively challenge the male-dominated system. In his words,
Women are part of our personality, our character. If we oppress one part of our character, we oppress ourselves. If one part of us is unfree, our whole cannot be free either.
While the regimes of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria oppressed the Kurds ethnically and created hyper-masculinized forms of warfare and oppression, the Kurds have often responded with feminism. One unifying slogan echoes around all four parts of Kurdistan: “No free society without free women.” A liberated Kurdistan is, and must be, measured by women’s emancipation.
Speaking from a Kurdish woman’s perspective, my dear friend Çiğdem Orhan, a young philosophy student from Karakocan, Elazig in North Kurdistan, who is socially active in our community in Germany, adds:
This action is very meaningful and powerful, because it was started by men who stand up for women’s rights. This illustrates that women’s rights is a societal phenomenon that involves all of society, not just women. These men prove courage in overcoming their “inner man” when putting on dresses, taking pictures and posting these for the world to see. They don’t just mentally stand up for women’s rights, but do so literally in a physical sense.
The Iranian regime’s intention to signify honorlessness, embarrassment, humiliation and degradation by using womanhood has completely failed.
Crossposted from the Kurdistan Tribune