The Unfathomable Charisma of Hapsa Khan
By Dr. Hawzhin Azeez
Challenges in Documenting the Historical Role of Kurdish Women
The nature of the ‘Kurdish Question’ has ensured that Kurdish women have historically played a prominent role in the liberation of their people across the four parts of Greater Kurdistan. More recently, at least since 2001 there has been intense interest in the historical and modern role of Kurdish women in the nationalist liberation struggle. With the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), and the Women’s Protection Unit’s (YPJ) heroic struggle against the violence imposed by the terrorist organization, efforts on the parts of Kurdish Peshmerga women in the Southern Kurdistan (Bashur, Northern Iraq) against Saddam’s regime and beyond, the historical struggles of women in the Kurdish political parties in Rojhilat (Eastern Kurdistan, northwest Iran) and those of the struggles of the PKK women guerrillas in the mountains of Qandil and their struggle for liberation against the violent Turkish state on the Kurds in Bakur (Northern Kurdistan, southeast Turkey) has become a source of deep interest for policy makers, anthropologists, feminists, and academics.
Yet, there are many challenges encountered in writing about the role and status of Kurdish women historically. According to Shehrzad Mojab and Amir Hassanpour in their 2021 book Women of Kurdistan: A Historical and Bibliographic Study: “There are serious, systemic obstacles to the creation and dissemination of knowledge about Kurdish women. This is in spite of the fact that Kurds are one of the world’s large transnational nations, living in a strategically important part of the world. Their status as a suppressed non-state nation plays a major role in creation and dissemination of knowledge about Kurdish women.” They go on to highlight how the key factor of the Kurd’s statelessness has had profoundly detrimental effects on knowledge construction about the Kurds and Kurdish women. This statelessness has meant that there has been a lack of tolerance towards the Kurds and their very existence, lack of official census data about the Kurds, lack of relative access to official state media, educational institutions, literature, films, and journals have all impacted our understanding of Kurdish women in society, the roles and status they held and how they have impacted the liberation struggles of the Kurds.
In Northern Kurdistan, where until very recently the very terms ‘Kurd’ and ‘Kurdistan’ were illegal, scholars of Kurdish women and history face a significant barrier. Additionally, “the story of Kurdish women is not monolithic”, and their influence and agency has been very much influenced by the various parts of Kurdistan that they resided in, including the different oppressive policies that the regime’s that colonized and dominated the Kurds imposed on them. Kurdish women were of course present in the stories and accounts written by missionaries, diplomats, military figures, traders, and historians – but they tended to be sidelined and seen in an Orientalized and fetishized Western lens.
Despite the above restrictions, by virtue of the long and extensive history of violent assimilation and oppressive state-imposed policies on the parts of the Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian regimes this long list of different women’s organizations and militant movements emerged as a counter movement. From the 19th century onwards, a number of prominent women came to the foreground of the emancipation efforts of the Kurds. Consequently, Kurdish women are seen as brave warriors who are just as fearless if not more in the front lines of war, or seen as supporting the nationalist causes in the mountains and urban locations through traditional service roles or as peacekeepers through various mothers and women’s peace organizations. In contrast, we know less about intellectual women who contributed to social justice, equality, and human rights, especially that of fellow women in society.
One such woman is Hapsa Khan Naqib (Hepse Xanî Neqîb) who was born in Silêmanî (Suleymaniya) in 1891. A quick review of her immensely influential activism and work within Kurdish society in the early 19th century can provide deep insight for the background that paved the way for many of the various women’s militant and women’s self-protection units that exist across modern day Kurdistan. Yet, sadly, there is very little known about her life, no official biographies exist about her aside from mentions of her influence in Kurdish (Sorani dialect) history books, all of which provide a cursory view into her life. Nothing about her exists in English aside from a few short paragraphs and short articles.
Traditionally Kurdish women have enjoyed a relatively greater level of freedom within society in comparison with the various neighboring ethno-religious groups. The Greco-Roman historian Plutarch noted fierce men and women in what is now northern and western Kurdistan fighting against invading Roman troops in the 1st century BC. The invading Afghan tribes joked that the Kurdish Zand Dynasty (1750–1794) hid behind the skirts of their women as the brides of the worriers fought side by side with their men. Many prominent women such as Sayida Mama Khatun, the last ruler of the medieval Kurdish dynasty of Daylamite, Khanzade Sultan who ruled the regions of Harrir and Soran in mid-17th century, Kara Fatima Khanum from Marash in Bakur of Kurdistan who became the chieftain of her large tribe in the 1800’s, along with others such as Mama Maryam, Mama Kara Nergiz, mama Pura Halima of Piidar, Mama Persheng exist. In the religious sphere, Asenath (Osnat) Barzani (1590–1670), another Kurdish woman who lived in Bashur of Kurdistan in the 17th century became the head of a yeshiva after the death of her husband. Of course no list of prominent historical Kurdish women is complete without the famous poet and historiographer Mastura Ardalan (1805–1848).
Many reasons existed as to the relatively freer nature of Kurdish women including, ironically, their nomadic and semi-nomadic and pastoral nature of existence. Likewise, many Kurdish intellectuals supported gender equality and took pains to present their views through literature, poetry, sermons and lectures. Intellectuals such as Kurdish Poets Haji Qadri Koyi (1815- 1892), Qani Muhammed Abdulkader (1898-1965), Abdulla Goran (1904-1962), Hemin Mukriyani (1921-1986) have paved the way in the 19th and 20th century for a foundation of women’s emancipation and freedom. By the time Hapsa Khan was born, the prominence and fame of women such as Mastura Ardalan ensured that a precedence of powerful and influential historical and contemporary women had existed.
Introducing Hapsa Khan Neqib
Hapsa Khan Neqib was born in 1891 to an influential family in Silêmanî in a feudal, male-dominated, and patriarchal society. This was an important start since many of the noted women mentioned above came from influential and prominent families in urban locations or tribes. Undoubtedly, it is important to note that women in upper classes, powerful tribes and families had greater access to education, literature, contact with progressive intellectuals, poets, academics and nationalist figures than rural and lower-class women. Hapsa Khan’s family being of such prominence with her socially significant parents Sheikh Marif and Salma Khan, allowed her many privileges that women in lower classes or tribes did not have. Nevertheless, the personal charisma of Hapsa Khan ensured that she would become a power figure in the “the double revolution” of the nationalist struggle along with the social struggles for justice, equality and gender liberation.
Nevertheless, Hapsa Khan became known for her boundless generosity towards the poor and the unfortunate. Her charity work was legendary, even from a very young age. She was especially concerned with the role and status of women and girls in society and devoted much of her life to their betterment and emancipation. During this period, not only did the British occupy Iraq resulting in socio-political and economic upheavals but also much of greater Iraq itself continued to exist in poverty, underdevelopment and tribalism which severely restricted women’s freedom and rights. In 1926, she engaged in a single-handed education revolution in the city of Silêmanî and its surrounding regions. Hapsa Khan engaged in a house-to-house campaign with a number of teachers informing and encouraging families to allow their daughters to attend the first girl’s school in the region.
Hapsa Khan was also a social advocate for justice and worked effortlessly against inequalities. Families who could not afford the financial burden of educating their daughters were provided with the means to do so personally by Hapsa Khan. Hapsa Khan is thus responsible for the education and literacy levels of the society she lived in almost single handedly. Thousands of children, including boys, were educated by her, supported financially by her, or attended the schools she founded even after her death. This was a revolution in itself since many of these educated children would then go on to support the Kurdish nationalist movement or encourage their children and families to become patrons and revolutionaries in the decades that followed.
Hapsa Khan’s prominence in society was such that many intellectuals, academics, poets, writers and prominent men would often visit and engage in critical socio-political and intellectual discussions with her. At a time where universities or institutions of higher learning were quite scarce, Hapsa Khan served as an institution of and within herself. Indeed, the Kurds in Bashur had demanded universities as early as the 1920’s, but it was not until the late 1960’s that the first universities were built in the Kurdistan region. Thus, her views about about social justice and equality, reduction of poverty and illiteracy, and improving the status of women and girls in society undoubtedly influenced many and contributed towards enduring progressive reforms and changes.
But her house was not just a location for powerful and elite men to visit. It was also a center of education, community meetings and planning for women. Women in the community would often convene to Hapsa Khan’s house to engage in critical discussion about ethics, role of women in society, ways of combating tribal and feudal influences in the family and especially in relation to gender issues. The role and responsibility of women within the greater nationalist cause was also often discussed. Considering the deeply tribal and feudal nature of society at the time, her efforts at flouting social taboos around women’s visibility in public spaces and roles is astonishing.
Likewise, her home also became a center of charity and aid to the poverty stricken or those fallen on hard times. It was said that her home was always open to the poor, with everyone treated equally with compassion and kindness. She would often support poverty-stricken families to have access to doctors in different regions and cities, fund their travels and pay for their medical fees.
Politically she was also a formidable figure. She was married to Sheikh Qadir Hafid, the brother of Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji (1868-1956) who led a number of revolts against the British in 1920. Following the British occupation of Iraq after WWI, Sheikh Mahmud was appointed as the governor of Silêmanî. Hapsa Khan provided ideological and financial support to the Kurdish struggle for independence and freedom and aided and organized the many resistances and demonstrations of the people of Silêmanî against the British occupation. When her brother in laws revolts resulted in heavy bombardment and forced evacuation of the people by the British forces she refused to leave and instead stayed with the many families who could not escape. Her solidarity and love for her people was incomparable, even at the risk of losing her own life. In the 1930s she sent a powerful letter to the ‘League of Nations’, calling for the rights of the Kurds to be recognized. When over a decade later, in 1946 Qazi Mohammad declared the Republic of Mahabad in Rojhilat she was one of its first and most vocal supporters.
In 1930 she established the first women’s organization, the Kurdish Women’s Association, focused on addressing socio-cultural and economic issues affecting Kurdish women. Her association also provided and distributed financial aid to poverty ridden women and their families, as well as supporting women’s education. Hapsa Khan continued her charitable, educational, and social justice efforts until her death on the 12th of April 1953. Upon her death, her family home became a school which has continued to educate younger generations of Kurds.
The Enduring Legacy of Hapsa Khan
It is difficult to do justice to the revolutionary and influential role of Hapsa Khan, whose contribution to gender equality, social justice, charitable work, and the Kurdish nationalist cause remains largely ignored or relegated to the footnotes of Kurdish history. Kurdish politics, revolutionary struggles and nationalist movements across Greater Kurdistan continue to be a sphere dominated by men; and yet despite the role of important and powerful women across the history of the Kurds and the sacrifice and bravery of women’s organizations, individuals and revolutionary groups, many historical female figures remain ignored or overlooked. Yet, Hapsa Khan’s legacy and charisma demonstrates that no society – no matter how tribal, feudal, male dominated or patriarchal – cannot be compelled to change towards greater degrees of social justice, gender and class equality, and progress.
Remembering such women as Hapsa Khan, honoring their lives and efforts, their unwavering love for the oppressed and the poor, their efforts at breaking social and class taboos, and staunch support of their fellow women should give them a special status in the annals of Kurdish history and nationalist struggles. How can we do justice by and honor Hapsa Khan’s immeasurable impact on Kurdish people and society? How can her revolutionary efforts at an educational transformation, or how she permanently changed the role and status of women and girls in Kurdish society be measured? Surely, nothing can suffice to honor her memory as she deserved. Yet ensuring that generations of Kurdish women and girls and society in general are aware of her existence, her immense contribution to Kurdistan, and to ensure that we produce and support the many other hidden Hapsa Khan’s amongst our society is perhaps a small measure of ensuring that her memory lives on.
Lawn Karim. (2016).Women of Kurdistan: Hepse Xanî Neqîb (1891-1953).
Hooshmand Alizadeh. (2022). The Status of Women in Kurdish Society and the Extent of Their Interactions in Public Realm.
Shehrzad Mojab and Amir Hassanpour. (2021). Women of Kurdistan: A Historical and Bibliographical Study.
Ofra Bengion. (2016). Game Changers: Kurdish Women in Peace and War.