Gender representations in Kurdish urban society

Black-white man, white-red woman: gender representations in Kurdish urban society

Andrea Fischer-Tahir

The paper examines cultural representations of gender in Iraqi Kurdistan in the context of colors as social symbols of “masculinity” and “femininity”. Exploring the colors white, red and black as examples, the paper argues that the exchange of representations mirrors relations of power whereas an ideology of “the beauty” veils them.


Since 1993 I have been visiting Iraqi Kurdistan regularly, working for Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and conducting field research. From November 2004 to April 2007 I lived in the region and worked in the field of higher education, doing scientific research as a consultant for NGOs and as an editor for an independent newspaper. My interest in the region of Kurdistan, its people and culture goes back to my time as a student and has much to do with my teacher of Kurdish language at the University in Leipzig. She was a Kurd from Hewler (Erbil) who left Iraq in 1979. It was in her apartment that I first saw objects of Kurdish folklore. I remember very well a ceramic ensemble of Kurdish dancers. Two of the four figures represented men. They wore identical white shoes, brown trousers and jackets, with a black scarf serving as a belt. The men’s hair under their small colored caps was black, and their most significant facial feature was a black mustache over their upper lip. The other two figures represented women. They wore high heels and their dresses were of the same pattern, but completely different in color. One had thick black hair; the other was blond with blue eyes.

My Kurdish teacher explained that the dance is called resbelek (black-white dappled). She said that women and men dance together, hand in hand, male close to female shoulders. Smiling, she added, this dance is to express both equality between men and women and female individuality. When I traveled to Kurdistan for the first time, nowhere did I observe a “natural” model for that ceramic ensemble. Of course, during that travel and later on, I often saw many groups of dancing Kurds, and I saw many women in dresses of many colors dancing in a row with men. But the men were wearing similar, even identical shoes, trousers, jackets and belts. I also learned the names they gave to each item of clothing. But where was the blond-haired woman with the blue eyes? There are blond girls and boys in Kurdistan and I met women and men with blue eyes. But the ceramic woman with thick blond hair and blue eyes I found far more frequently in paintings, in carpet motifs, in stories, legends and gossip, than on the dance floor.

Clearly the blond with blue eyes had a specific function within the nationalist discourse: distinguishing “white” Kurds from “black” Arabs. Nonetheless still I could not understand what “black-white dappled” had to do with that particular dance because from region to region I found differences in male clothing. However, the more time I spent in Kurdistan over the next two years, the better I understood the implicit social understandings represented by the ceramic group of dancers. In this paper I examine this social discourse (1).

During the last few years, the handful of researchers working on gender issues in Iraqi Kurdistan–from an academic as well as a political perspective–have generally focused on women’s roles in Kurdish society, women in the feminist movement, gender-related violence such as honor killings and female genital mutilation, women in the resistance or liberation movement, and women as victims of the Ba’ath regime. (2) More recently, local Kurdish researchers have begun to publish research on forms of physical and structural violence. (3) However, the approach to gender issues undertaken in this paper is slightly different: it is concerned with perceptions of “femininity” and “masculinity” within the context of Kurdish urban society. I examine cultural representations of male or masculine domination (4) within the social order.

Following Judith Butler (1990), I use the term gender as the process of embodiment resulting from repeated performances of acts of gendering. Culture refers to “webs of significance” (5) with representations to symbols and concepts and thus to the human resources of perception, interpretation and action. Proceeding from the assumption that the exchange of representations constitutes the social discourse, I take a closer look at the exchange of representations between genders in terms of color and its symbolism. I will not discuss color as such and will not provide an overview of terms used to describe colors in the Kurdish language. (6) Instead, I examine colors as cultural representations. Since, in rituals and ritualized situations like dances such as resbelek, representations appear in a particularly dense or “thickened” mode, the little story about the ceramic figures serves as a starting point. From the city of Slemani (Sulaimaniya) in today’s Iraqi Kurdistan, I focus on women and men of the well-educated/educated middle-class, in order to analyze and explain manifestations of power relations in and by the exchange of representations. (7)

Speaking Colors

As with many other cultures, Kurdish culture embodies a clear range of colors having a range of meanings not easily grasped. Competition and military confrontations between the two dominating groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (DPK) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have a specific impact on the perception of colors nowadays. The yellow of the KDP banner symbolizes “sun” (hetaw), “brightness” (runaki), “rebirth” (jiyanewe), “beauty” (8) (cwani) etc. The green of the PUK represents “life” (jiyan), “spring” (behar), the beginning of the New Year and the spring (Newroz) and also “beauty”. In both cases, colors represent political statements.

Pragmatically, colors can be categorized as follows: (1) colors of Kurdish folklore, (2) colors of religion, (3) colors of modern political positions and (4) colors of everyday fashion. (9) The same color can represent completely different perceptions, and the same perceptions can be represented by different colors. Indications of gender relations can be identified across these categories. Take for example the color blue (sin):

Kurdish folklore (10) Religion

BLUE (sin) HARM & DISASTER ISLAM: eternity and

inscrutability (as the sky

Curse: Serit sin keit! “May and the sea)

harm come about you!” (11)

YEZIDI: taboo,


harm/disaster and the

sin-u sepor (crying and antithesis of preventing

beating oneself) used by men harm / disaster

towards women and children.

cawezer, little blue pendent

Em sin-u seporet le ciye? to ward off the “bad eye

‘Why do you cry and beat sight” (evil eye)



PURITY & REBIRTH (connected

with and preferred by old

women, for example, as a

color for a scarf)

refers to the sky as a

symbol of beauty,

asman-i sin- (blue sky)

sin synonymous with cwan-u

nazenin (beautiful and

tender / lovely /gentle)

Political positions Fashion


of Kurdistan (Social-

Democratic Party of (as color of clothes, shoes and

Kurdistan) jewelry preferred by young


LIGHT BLUE Zionism (12)

Of course, each color has a different meaning to different individuals. One may regard blue as connected to the sky and the horizon in a romantic way. Another may link the image of a blue sky with memories of war, good weather and thus good conditions for carrying out bombings. (13) Nevertheless, the collective memory (Maurice Halbwachs) provides individuals with certain images, whereas exchanged images and experiences “feed” the collective memory.

In terms of gender relations, it is necessary to mention some of the terms Kurds use to describe players of the game. The Kurdish word for “man” is piyaw, for woman it is jin or afret. The words afret, plural afretan, does not distinguish between married or unmarried women, whereas jin and plural jinan refers to married women physically present on the scene or as a concrete topic of conversation. On a more abstract level jin may represent married as well as unmarried women. (14) The word ner represents imaginations of “male” as “strong” and “forceful”, as “imperious”, “domineering” and “masculine”. A nerepiyaw is a “masculine man”, a nerejin an “imperious woman”. The word me means “female”, “feminine” and also “woman”. (15)

From September to November 2006 I interviewed women on their attitudes towards gender relations and intimate relationships. One of my questions concerned their spontaneous associations with the words “woman” and “man”. Most of the respondents gave nasik as one of their first associations to “woman”. The same occurred with female students and journalists (16) in Slemani. Encouraged to brainstorm, very soon and very often they used the word nasik. According to the Kurdish-Sorani dictionary of Feryad Fazil Omar (2005) nasik has the following meanings: (1) tender/gentle, delicate, petite, (2) lovely/charming, sweet/cute, pretty, (3) kind/obliging, polite, lenient/forbearing, (4) gentle, tender, soft, sensitive, delicate and (5) sensitive. Nasik is a popular name for women of my generation. (17) Asked about their associations with “man”, the women used the following terms: hez (power), [.sup.desela]t (power/authority), [sup.briyar] (decision) but also [sup.tura] (angry/furious) and aza (strong).

Subsequently I distributed a questionnaire among educated and well-educated women and men at the university, in governmental institutions and NGOs. (18) My main interest concerned attributions to “man” and “woman” and a possible connection between concepts of “man” and “woman” with cosmological imaginations (19) represented for example by colors. The group of probands was comprised of 150 employees and students aged 19 to 45, some 25% of them married, half of them male, the other half female. The questionnaire as well as follow-up interviews confirmed the contrast between “tender”, “lovely”, “kind”, “soft” and “sensitive”: in short, nasik on the one side and “power”, “authority”, “decision”, “angry” and “strong” on the other. These attributions mirror imaginations of “woman” and “man” in the social order. Asked which colors they associate with “man” and with “woman”, the probands’ answers referred to a range of dark and bright, cold and warm colors. Black, red and white played a prominent role in their responses, as can be shown in the following:

Associations / Colors

Men to “man” Women to “man” Men to “woman” Women to “woman”

White x x x X

Red X x

Black X X

These tendencies raise questions: What do white, red and black symbolize? How are these representations exchanged in ordinary situations? How are they exchanged in exceptional situations? Are the tendencies above coincidental or are they imaginations of “masculinity” and “femininity” principally connected with certain colors? Is the perception of colors a gendered perception? In order to find some answers, the colors and the meanings attached to them will be discussed. For practical reasons I do not deal with special shades of the named colors.

The Color White

White (spi) symbolizes “the good” (caki) and “the truth” (rasti), “purity” (paki) and “immaculate state”/”without fault” (be gerdi). As a representation of the unity of all colors and of divinity it has a particular place within the context of Islam, standing alone or combined with green. White is prominent in funeral ceremonies, and in the capes worn by mullahs and imams. As a result of recent trans-cultural adaptation it also symbolizes peace. A man of ru-spi (white face) represents imaginations of a “good man”, a man of dem-spi (white mouth), “good” and “clever”. If Kurds say that someone is capable of “reading a white paper” (kagez-i spi dexwenetewe), they want to point out that he or she is very intelligent. But this phrase can also describe someone always looking for the mistakes or weaknesses of others.

White is also associated with age, experience and wisdom; rish spi (white beard) for men, ser spi (white head) for men and women. In order to stress that a certain person would never do harm to another it can be said that “his / her heart is whiter than a piece of paper” (dili le kagez spitir-e). But white also represents negative feelings. About a man who never learns from bad experiences it is said, “He has colored his hair white because of the sun” (ser-i leber hetaw spi kirduwe). (20) Moreover, white represents imaginations of “the beauty”. The moon is said to be white and a symbol of beauty.

Women prefer a cosmetic that makes their facial skin brighter or even “white”. Preference for “white” skin (21) leads women and men to protect their faces from the sun. Urbanites avoid the sun as much as they can despite climatic conditions. Yet if it is necessary to go outside, many shield themselves. Students, for example, use their college notepads as a kind of umbrella against the sun. During the last several years streaking the hair with blond colored strands has become most fashionable and many urban women compete to appear blond and white. Thus women are increasingly adapting to the models of blond women in Latin-American soap operas and in US movies they view on television. Increasingly their image is approaching that of figures in paintings and on carpets, in essence making nationalist statements. Yet, the preference for white make-up is not without its critics. Take for example this little verse found at Herdewel Kakayi’s book on colors in Kurdish folklore:

“Suraw-u spiyaw gisti dro-ye, merc-i cwani-i kic caw-u bro-ye.” (22)

“Lipstick and white make-up are lies, the beauty of a girl are in

eyebrows and eyes.” (This of course refers to her natural and dark

eyes and eyebrows.)

Generally, imaginations of “the good” and “the truth” are closely linked to Islam as well as to role expectations and status ascriptions. But the connections between white, “good”/”truth” and “the beauty” may even be visible in an unexpected context. For many years I thought that the habit of Kurds impressed by a poem, an article, a book or a movie was to say, respectfully or politely, Zor cwan-e (It is very beautiful), thereby expressing enthusiasm, a specific sense of aesthetics, hypocrisy, or lack of criticism. I assumed the latter because of two other common reactions representing rejection: Hic niye (That is nothing) and denial: Nem biniwe. (I haven’t seen it). But if white is linked to “cleverness”, “intelligence” and “truth” as well as to imaginations of “beauty”, it makes sense to praise a good piece of art and a creative product saying “It is very beautiful”. By the way, it is also very common to say “very beautiful” to rice that has been re-cooked in salty water with much oil or animal fats. Of course, the rice is white and sometimes even “shiny”–owing to the oil and the fats used in the cooking process. When women stuff rice into vegetables or wrap it up with vine leafs, men might complain: “That rice is very poor”. Some men might smile; others might glance very seriously at their wives or mothers.

The concept paki (purity) may be seen within the context of Islam, but white as a symbol of “purity” also represents imaginations of gender relations and must be connected with be gerdi (immaculate state/without fault), which is reserved for girls and women. More than any other color, white represents imaginations of female innocence, chastity and virginity. (23) This imagination is also reflected in white bridal fashions, undoubtedly of recent Western influence. It is also reflected in the tradition of painting the bride’s face whiter than white, so that it is sometimes difficult even to recognize the woman behind the make-up. I happened to visit families and needed help to recognize women I had seen before as brides on their wedding day.

The concepts “purity” and “immaculate state” linked with imaginations of “beauty” stand in stark contrast to imaginations of immorality and pejorative descriptions as represented by the semantic contraposition between the following couples:

pak-u temiz (pure and clean) – pis-u pox (dirty and foul)

pak-u cwan (pure and beautiful) – eib-u nasrin (shameful and ugly)

While “pure and clean” and “dirty and foul” are used to refer both to objects and human behaviors, the couples “pure and beautiful” and “shameful and ugly” are merely descriptives. The term eib leads to the concept of “honor”. Kurdish imaginations of “honor”, “honorability”, and also of “reputation” and “chastity” are represented by the concept namus. This concept refers to a complex set of the social rules people apply more or less consciously. It also refers to explanations Kurds give for legitimizing or sanctioning behavior. Only in exceptional situations will the word namus (or “borrowed” from the Arabic seref) (24) be explicitly articulated. Yet Kurds exchange phrases referring and relating to that concept in many ordinary situations.

The afore-mentioned eib and the word heyya’ have a prominent place in these phrases; eib means “shameful”, whereas heyya’ represents imaginations of “reputation” but also of “sense of shame”, “shame”, “good manners” and “modesty”. The first is related to acts, the latter in the most common usage relates to “reputation,” to a state or condition. The word eib serves as a means of sanction whenever, from the perspective of the speaker, a rule has been violated. Parents and teachers punish their own and other children with eib on scores of occasions daily. The word heyya’ often indicates uncertainty on the speaker’s part. Men and women might be telling each other about a painful mundane experience or a professional failure, and all of a sudden they will say: Heyya’m cuwe (My reputation has gone). When afraid of failure or about to do something that might be considered an offense to social rules, they will say: Heyya’man ecet (We will loose our reputation). Such statements are often accompanied by a smile or even a laugh. On the other hand, objects and matters related to sexuality are taken very seriously and then, heyya’i cuwe (Her reputation has gone) is used to refer to the imagination of damage concerning “honor”. (25)

Often I heard women judging men disdainfully as “dirty and foul”. Here they were not referring to dirty socks as one might assume, but to “moral faults”. If women say about a man, caw pis (dirty eye), they mean that this man is driven by sexual greed and therefore always looking at women. Women also judge prostitutes or women suspected of having committed “moral faults” using the couple “dirty and foul”. The ideal imagination of “girl” and “woman” is “pure and clean”, referring both to physical appearance as well as to behavior, but “pure and beautiful” refers only to behavior.

Without doubt, this ideal imagination is white. Interpreting the table above, it can be said that the women interviewed tend to present themselves as “pure” and of “immaculate state”. Taking into consideration that most of them were unmarried, the color white may also represent romantic desires. In addition it can be taken as an expression of female obedience to the social norms involved in wedding and marriage. Most of the women associated “man” first with black and second with white. This can be interpreted as their expectation that men behave morally and appear to be “pure” as well. Definitely, it is linked to imaginations of “truth” and cultural expectations.

The Color Red

In Kurdish culture red (sur) represents feelings and imaginations of “pleasure” (zawq, arezu) of “joy” and “happiness” (both dil’-xosi). Red is closely linked to weddings. The compound “sur geran” means: “going to the [wedding] celebration”. However, some other words compete with that compound: hefle, which is “borrowed” from the Arabic language, and sai, which also means celebration and is the opposite of sin, as mentioned above in the meaning of blue as representing “harm”, “disaster”, “grief”, “pain” and “sorrow”.

The circumcision of boys is also semantically connected with the color red. The related ceremony is xetene suran; xetene (circumcision), and suran: (celebration). The act of circumcision is called xetene-i kuran (circumcision of boys). The socially controversial “circumcision of girls” is simply described by the term xetene-i kican. It is not linked semantically to the word suran in the meaning of “celebration”. Instead, circumcision of girls is being practiced in a non-official and secretive manner. It is legitimized as an act to eliminate danger and something “dirty”. It is justified as a measure to guarantee female chastity. There is no celebration; there is no happiness. Radical parts of the Kurdish women’s movement fight fiercely against this custom, which is practiced in some rural areas in the region of Iraqi Kurdistan and among recently urbanized villagers in socially underprivileged quarters of the city.

Within the particular ethnic context of Sunni-dominated Kurdish culture, both customs, the wedding and the circumcision of boys, have common aspects. Firstly, they are understood as celebrations. Secondly, though practiced by Muslims in rituals, they are not Islamic rituals. (26) Thirdly, both are “rites of institution” and, according to Pierre Bourdieu, they can be considered rites practiced to “separate clearly those who have undergone it […] from those who will under no circumstances undergo it, and thus to institute a lasting difference between those whom the rite concerns and those whom it does not concern.” (27) Circumcision separates boys from girls and women and from the uncircumcised men of other “tribes” and “nations,” as Marcel Mauss notes. (28)

The wedding provides the ceremonial frame for the act of proving man’s superiority. The “defloration of a virgin”, i.e. the privileged penetration of another’s body in a socially sanctioned violent act, represents for a man a social triumph that women will never have under any circumstances–according to the perceptions of most Kurds concerning sexuality. The linguistic representation of the act veils an important aspect of gendered power relations: Kurds speak of labirdin-i perde-i kiceni (taking away the hymen of a girl), and they distinguish kic (unmarried girl) from jin (married woman). Kurds explain that in this way the difference in status between unmarried and married females is described. They shift the matter of social distinction and competition for status to the female alone. In essence the wedding does not focus on female chastity and status change, it focuses on the male. Taking into consideration that a daughter’s chastity must be, and usually is, granted by her father and brothers etc., curiosity concerning “the wedding night” is a concern of the woman rather than to the man. He is expected to prove his power, aggressiveness and bodily strength, in short, his virility. Taking also into consideration that female menstrual blood is regarded as impure, there is no reason to celebrate the shedding of female blood. But it makes sense to celebrate the moment or the imagination of it, if this blood is perceived as a symbol of masculinity, as proof of a man’s capability to penetrate the body of a woman and thereby to belong to the group of “real” men.

This leads to the fourth common feature of the wedding when, like the circumcision of boys, physical violence is carried out by men and is socially mediated as a symbol of “joy” and “happiness”. In this context, the relationship between red and “joy”/”happiness” explains why the color is banned from mourning ceremonies (ta’ziye) where neither red clothes nor red lipstick are allowed, but increasingly the ban on make-up is ignored by many urban middle and upper class women. Often daily life is interrupted by news of the death of a relative, a colleague, another student, etc. When this occurs, whole groups of colleagues spontaneously go to the ta’ziye and women do not remove their make-up.

In Islam, red is perceived as a symbol of blood and of violence. As in the Zoroastrian religion, Kurds view red as the color of fire and nationalism. Red is considered a symbol of (men’s) “anger” and “fury”, of “strength”, “fight”, and in political terms, of “passion”. (29) Again the color is used in combination with “mouth”, dem-sur (red-mouth) and is used to refer to a man who tells the truth even in dangerous situations. A man who gets very angry will be spoken of as caw-i sur buwetewe (his eyes got red [with fury]). Once again the color is connected with the “face” as such, but now with the female face. Elderly women and men may say to a young woman or a girl doing well at good domestic work or hosting visitors, Ru-t sur bet! (May your face be red) (30). They mean that the woman or girl can be proud of herself because she meets their expectations. Pride of that kind is considered “beautiful”. This of course is related to red as representative of “the beauty”, but also of sexual pleasure and love.

Often I have heard Kurds make a clear distinction between zerd-u nasrin (yellow and ugly) on the one hand, and sur-u cwan (red and beautiful) on the other. Red as a color for clothing is a matter for women, not men. Among women it is considered stylish and chic. But it is also risky to wear red at celebrations, picnics or dining out. A woman wearing a red blouse, T-shirt, dress, shawl or scarf can get a good deal of attention from men, sometimes even more than intended. But Kurdish traditional dresses in red or in pink are often regarded as zor nasik (very tender/delicate). Many Kurdish women told me that their preference for red and men’s attraction to red has something to do with certain flowers reminiscent of spring. However, I would also associate red with fertility and soil. Though more loam than clay, the surface of the Kurdish landscape appears to be red in the sunlight of late afternoon or early evening. On the other hand, the relationship between red and sexual pleasure and love may also be seen as the result of trans-cultural adaptation and certain Western images of eroticism. The link between red and “the beauty” is another reason for banning red from mourning ceremonies.

Assuming that red symbolizes happiness and beauty suggests a simple explanation for the tendency of men to associate women with the color: It is an expression of desire for joy and contentment. It indicates a particular imagination of taste, aesthetics and sexual pleasure. I tend to an interpretation including concepts of virility and chastity. Young women present themselves with reference to the color white. Red as a symbol of “the beauty” appears to be of lesser importance. This might be read as an indication of young women’s desires and wishes relative to marriage. Yet it can also be understood as indicating that while women are aware of men’s desires and aggression, they still insist on moral “purity” and the “immaculate state” of their bodies. It might also represent acquiescence to male desires and aggression, indicating the disparity in power relations. And the male may well connect the color red with “woman” as confirmation of his desire to penetrate and therefore to dominate, confirming and maintaining his social superiority.

The Color Black

Black (res / siyah) represents in Kurdish folklore imaginations of “harm” (sum), “catastrophe” (negbet) and “war” (ser), but also of “viciousness” (nalebari), “fear” (tirs) and of “the bad” (xrapi). Again there is a compound connecting the mouth with a color. To be dem-res–([of] black mouth) is said of a person, man or woman, who speaks negatively about others and tries to harm others by spreading rumors. But also the whole face can be seen as black: ru-res (black face) describes a “bad guy”, even a “perpetrator”. (31) Black can also be used as a metaphor to condemn another person. In a face-to-face situation this may be said to a person suspected of having lied: Rut res bet! (May your face get black!) If the condemned person is absent, it can be said: Leber cawm-e res buwe (He, or she, became black in my eyes). There is a special proverb corresponding to this phrase and representing Kurds as “unforgiving” contemporaries:

Res her rese, be sed sawin spi nabetewe.

“Black remains black. By a hundred good acts it will not get white.”

Herdewel Kakayi explains the proverb thusly: “Even a hundred good acts cannot erase the bad thing someone has done to another person”. (32)

Within the context of Islam, black has also a very positive connotation. Black is the color of the kiswa covering the Ka’ba. Thus, it is used to represent respect and religious knowledge. Owing to Western influence it became a symbol of the mourning ceremony, while blue is disappearing in that context. Black is also popular as a color of fashion. Along with gray and brown it represents political seriousness and dignity. The image of women covered by the black cape aba has been established in nationalist discourse as a symbol of [the] Anfal [campaigns] and of widows of martyrs. Pictures of (male dominated) party congresses depict gray, black and brown and other dark shades.

For practical reasons construction workers, taxi drivers and packers wear dark colored clothes. So do most shop owners and sellers in the traditional bazaar. The brittle architecture of the front streets in the bazaar and the dust and dirt on the streets and on the walls of the buildings give the impression of the Slemani city center as a rather somber place. However, during the last several years many modern shopping malls have been constructed outside the old bazaar and city center. The new malls and shops established by returnees from the Diaspora employ an increasing number of women, often in family owned enterprises. These new businesses and the number of women employed in them and dressed according to preference in bright-colored clothes create an entirely different image.

Without doubt, colors can be used very consciously to represent status and gender differences. Take for example Slemani University. According to a 2006 statistic, of a total number of 10,089 students, 5.238 were male and 4,851 female, i.e. approximately half of the students were women. Of 471 men, only 136 women were working as lecturers, only 23 of them with PhD degrees; whereas among the men, 197 lecturers have PhD degrees. Among the 15 deans of faculty were only 2 women. All of the university presidents in Kurdistan are males. (33)

There is an unwritten law at Kurdish universities that male lecturers must wear an ironed shirt, a tie and a dark colored suit, dark trousers and dark jacket. It might be of dark-blue, dark-green, gray or brown. But on special occasions black is obligatory. The same unwritten law applies in government institutions such as ministries, particularly for those in positions of higher rank. Women in the position of university lecturers are, like female politicians and technocrats, freer to choose their clothing. This phenomenon is not typically Kurdish but it is typical in many societies that regard men as foreordained to dominate politically. The point here is that female lecturers at the university are in the minority and men in the absolute majority. The specific play of colors reflects gender related unequal distribution of cultural capital in the “scientific field” (Pierre Bourdieu). It also confirms the cultural norm that “man” is more related to “truth” and “power” than “woman” and contributes to the perpetuation of the status quo.

The university in the political and social life of the city is very important. Questions such as how many girls and boys are accepted as students in a certain year, how many students have passed the exam, and how many students have been caught cheating during exams, are front-page news in the local papers. Unlike most urban families of German students at German universities, Kurdish families are very proud of their children attending the university. Many girls, for example, are excused from household chores because mothers are determined that their daughters complete their studies and return home with a degree.

For both young women and men a university degree not only increases their chances of finding good jobs, it also increases their value in the marriage bazaar. The social importance related to the status of “university student” (telebe-i zanko) is reflected as well in the way a female student chooses to dress. However, clothing and style is more than a matter of good grooming. Among the students of the university three groups of women can be identified: The first and smallest group consists of women wearing an Islamic scarf on their heads and shoulders, most colored gray or beige. The second small group consists of non-Islamist under-class women from the socially underprivileged quarters of the city or from rural areas. Many of them wear scarves but rather in dark violet, dark green and other dark shades. Middle and upper- class women make up the third and largest group. They dress in Western styles, in attractive designs and colors. And they pay a great deal of attention to hairstyle and jewelry. It is not unusual to meet a young woman on campus dressed in a tight bright skirt and T-shirt, wearing high heels and a bright-red scarf thrown casually over her head so that her hair and made-up face are more attractive, even erotic.

As in other societies, many young men and women use the university as a marriage bazaar. Not only do they enjoy that period of their lives, they take the opportunity to meet the opposite sex in an ambiance where there is less social control than they find at home or in earlier schooling. Like the young women, many young men do their best to appear fashionable. But they tend to copy the styles of the male teachers and lecturers they view as privileged representatives of “truth” and “power”. Male students tend to wear dark or even black trousers and white shirts, sometimes even ties and dark/black jackets. (34)

The gender-related contrast between dark/black and white on the one hand and multicolor on the other is more visible on special occasions: inaugurations, celebrations and the like, when many young women come to the campus in traditional Kurdish dresses, whereas most young men prefer the Western white shirt and dark or black trousers. With the exception of Islamist women, an increasing number of female students refuse traditional Kurdish dress because they view it as a statement of nationalism, conservatism and old-fashioned. Nonetheless, teachers and others promoting political agendas do not hesitate to remind them to wear Kurdish clothes. (35) On such occasions the black/dark and white and the multicolored stand in sharp contrast. The exchange of these symbols mirrors power relations and confirms the social order. Both men and women are keenly aware of the status quo.

So often in Kurdistan I have heard that Kurds love colors–more so than their neighbors. The passion for colors may well have something to do with the long, hard winter, the hot, dry summer and the short spring. But if this is the case, why do men prefer dressing in natural and dark colors and women bright and multicolored clothing? This leads back to the little ceramic ensemble of Kurdish dancers. Clearly the multi-colors on women in dancing rows and on special occasions have nothing to do with individuality. Instead, it represents male desire for “the beauty” and for a variety of sexual partners.

The possibility of female desire for variety has no place in such imaginations. The uniformity of traditional male clothes symbolizes Kurdish imaginations about political representation of groups such as the family, clan, village, tribe etc. It also symbolizes power to make decisions regarding the female body. Thus it reflects unequally distributed power between men and women. The concept of “the beauty” “invented” by the social discourse and allowing “woman” to use all of the bright as well as some dark colors, serves to veil that particular aspect of male domination.

Imaginations of man’s privileges (and duties) regarding the political representation of a group are always grounded in the accepted notion of “man-outside” and “woman-inside”. (36) How much this thinking is present in Kurdish culture can be demonstrated by this example of linguistic representation: Kurds often use the word “house” (mal’) and “my house” (mal’-e-kem) when they speak of or speak to their wives. Asked about “wife and children”, a man, as well as a woman will say colloquially, Mal’-u min(d)al’ cone? (37) (How are [your] house and children doing?) My questionnaire also related to a “wider corpus of beliefs about the world” (Delany 1991). Most men and women connected “right” with “man” and “left” with “woman”, “outside” with “man” and “inside” with “woman”. Black is so much associated with imaginations of “masculinity” because of the political functions ascribed to and expected from “man”. The tendency of women to connect “man” with black corresponds to men’s self-representation.

Is “man” simply “dark” or is he “black”? Is “woman” “multicolored” or “white”? Again I remember the little figures in the ceramic ensemble of dancing Kurdish men and women. When I saw it many years ago I was impressed by the love of detail the artist had shown, particularly in designing the faces, notably the bearded upper lip. When I questioned men and women on their associations with the physical appearance of “man” and “woman”, the male “beard and upper lip beard” and the “upper lip beard” appeared very often, whereas neither men nor women made reference to any other feature of the male face or the male body. On the other hand, men in particular referred to single parts of the female body, for example, to hair, breast, feet or eyes. Many old pictures show Kurdish men, like others in the region and in the European past, with thick and trimmed upper lip beards (mustaches). My impression is that today many urban well-educated men in various professions between the ages of twenty and fifty prefer to shave regularly. But they do not eliminate every trace of facial hair. Instead, they pay a good deal of attention to their upper lip refining an “illusion of an upper lip beard”. Clearly the beard, or the imagination of it, persists as a symbol of masculinity. Men define themselves not only in power relations with women and children. The black upper lip beard can also be read as a representation of ethnocentric and nationalist attitudes, a statement directed to men “of other tribes” or societies. (38) The upper lip beard makes the face of “the Kurdish man” somehow black. As “man” is considered the thesis and is black, woman is the antithesis and is white. In this context, resbel’ek as a linguistic representation of that particular folk dance and its meaning, “black-white dappled” makes sense.


Insomuch as this paper is concerned with colors as cultural representations, I did not discuss color terms as such. (39) Having explored many examples, I described the basic colors black, white and red as representations of norms, behaviors and genders. In a naturalistic way, black, white and red as well as other color terms in the Kurdish language can be and are used to create compounds expressing feelings, attitudes and traits. Particular colors are specifically linked to imaginations of role expectations, normative behavior and images of “man” and “woman”. As representations of imagined “masculinity” and “femininity” they render collectively produced and reproduced gender identity visible. As resources of agency they consciously or unconsciously apply, in speech, in dress, in face and hair; in short, appearance constitutes or accompanies acts of gendering. In everyday life as well as in exceptional situations, colors are exchanged as gendered representations. Through repeated exchanges, the social discourse leads to gendered perceptions of colors.

Colors can represent social concepts and meaning. As gendered representations they mirror the social structures that sustain the unequal distribution of power. By exchanging representations the agents negotiate social meaning or call it into question. Repeated acts insisting on man’s homo-colored image represented by dark/black and white, and on a white, red or multicolored image of woman serves to legitimize and to perpetuate these structures. From the agent’s perspective, this may sometimes be difficult to see or to feel because the “ideology of the beauty” veils relations of power.


1. Following methodologically Clifford Geertz 1973

2. Mlodoch 2000, 2006, Mojab 2001a, 2001b, Fischer-Tahir 2000, 2004; see also the web pages of Kurdish Women’s Human Rights Watch (, Kurdish Women’s Action Against Honour Killings ( and the two Germany-based international NGOs Haukari ( and wadi (

3. For example Faraj Rahim / Shwan 2004, Qadir Koste 2005, Mihemmed Jeza 2007

4. Bourdieu 2001

5. According to Clifford Geertz, culture is understood as “webs of significance.” (1973: 5, “Believing with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture as to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpreting one in search of meaning.”)

6. For the linguistic debate on color terms see Berlin & Kay 1969, Kay & Maffi 1999

7. Many thanks to Katharina Lange and Karin Mlodoch for their suggestions on this article

8. In that meaning we find yellow in the Kurdish nationalist banner. But yellow is also the color of decline, degeneration and of sickness. See Kakayi and his introduction to the meanings of colors in Kurdish folklore (2005: 54). In Iraqi propaganda against Iran, yellow as dirty and dangerous as a desert storm has been used in phrases such as “the yellow revolution” for the Iranian revolution of 1978 and “yellow storm” for Iranian troops. See Bengio 1998: 142. Nowadays yellow is also seen as a symbol of jealousy but this is said to be a result of adapting to modern psychological knowledge.

9. Many thanks to Wahby Rasool, artist and lecturer at the Institute of Fine Arts / Sulaimaniya, for his suggestions to this topic

10. Most of the examples are from Kakayi 2005: 79 f

11. See the dictionary by Feryad Fazil Omer 2005: 670

12. One hot summer in the 1990s, a friend of mine told me that one of the Islamists I had interviewed would suspect me of working for the Israeli secret service. The “evidence”: My (long) skirt was light-blue and white colored.

13. Interview with the artist and scientist Rebwar Said, Department of Fine Arts, University of Sulaimaniya, April 2007

14. The origin of the word afret and speculations about its Arabic root or about its relation to “Aphrodite” cannot be discussed here. The usage of jin and afret is also a matter of dialect and closely linked with party-politics in Iraqi Kurdistan.

15. See also Omer 2005

16. Female journalist at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), December 2006

17. I refer to women born between the early sixties and late seventies.

18. Many thanks to my former colleagues Chrakhan Berzinji, Awat Ahmed, Aso Ahmed, Saman Shawkat and my husband Herish Tahir for having helped me to organize the distribution of the questionnaire.

19. I follow Carol Delany and her suggestion to view gender relations within a “wider corpus of beliefs about the world.” (1991: 26 f)

20. Kakayi 2005: 28 ff

21. I want to avoid a discussion on certain imaginations of “Arian” origin spread among Kurds.

22. Kakayi 2005: 30

23. Concerning relations between “white” and “bride” and more generally “white” and “virginity”, see the study on the cultural history of virginity by Hanne Blank 2007.

24. On honor and the Kurds see Barth 1953: pp. 72, Bruinessen 1989: pp. 78; honor and violence of honor see Bourdieu 1977, Schiffauer 1983, Abu Lughod 1986, Peristiany & Pitt-Rivers 1992, Henderson Stewart 1994

25. Particularly in interviews I did in 1999 with women committed to the resistance movement against Ba’th rule (Fischer-Tahir 2003, 2005) and also in the narratives given by elder women in private households, this and similar phrases appeared very often. The same occurred during interviews on gender relations and intimate relationships.

26. See Bouhdiba / Khal (2000:26) and their argument on male ircumcision practiced by Muslims. They refer to the sexual significance of circumcision and argue that it is a repetition of wedding.

27. See Bourdieu’s critical remark on van Gennep and his notion of rite de passage (Bourdieu 1992: 80 f)

28. Mauss 1906: 142

29. Interview with Wahby Rasool, Sulaimaniya, April 2007. The link to communist influence cannot be discussed here.

30. Kakayi 2005: 69

31. Kakayi 2005:37ff

32. ibid

33. Numbers according to a statistic provided by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Kurdistan Regional Government, January 2006

34. One may also find many other colors among men but they are the exception.

35. In May 2005 the Kurdistan Technology and Scientific Research Center where I worked officially celebrated its inauguration. Except for a few women all of the young female colleagues wore Kurdish clothes. The days before and on that day I had to “defend” myself more than once because I refused to wear Kurdish clothes on that occasion.

36. By referring to the division of “inside” and “outside” it is not my intention to suggest that women would practically be restricted to the first sphere and men to the latter and that the first is “private” and the latter “public”. On the de-construction of the concepts “private” and “public” see Nelson 1974, Afsaruddin 1999.

37. On language development and the disappearance of consonants like dal in many Sorani words see Soane 1909 (2003): 899.

38. I just remember an article published in the newspaper I worked for. The article directed indignant criticism towards the US-forces and “occupiers” who had recently issued the order that Iraqis joining the new military forces must shave their beards and even their upper lip beards. This was identified as an attack against Iraqi identity. The man who wrote the article had such a “cultivated allusion of an upper lip beard” but the other parts of his face were most of the time well shaved. What I found very significant was that he did not use his own name as the writer of the article. Instead he used the name of his adolescent son.

39. Nevertheless, one might think that the prominent role black, white and red played within the context of gender relations is not a coincidence.


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Colors as gendered representations

White Red Black

MAN – knowledge / power – aggression/ – aggression / war

– religious knowledge resistance – authority /

and function – bodily strength political

– experience – virility representation

– respect

– religious knowledge

and function

– cultural knowledge

WOMAN – chastity – object of desire – (natural) beauty

– virginity – social weakness

– innocence – beauty

– beauty

– experience

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