Post-Traumatic Growth: Rhetorical Listening & Kurdish Women’s Voices

By Sarwa Azeez


In 2014, I took part in a pilot initiative aimed at gathering stories from Kurdish women. The project “Many Women, Many Words” sought to uncover the untold stories of women in Kurdistan during the period of Saddam Hussein’s rule and the Kurdish resistance. Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region within Iraq, experienced a deliberate genocide orchestrated by the Ba’ath Party, leading to the destruction of thousands of Kurdish villages and the displacement of many Kurds into neighbouring countries like Turkey, Iran, and Syria.

The Kurdish Peshmerga forces, including many women, engaged in armed resistance against Saddam’s regime. However, alongside the heroic resistance stories, there were also narratives of women who had to take on the responsibility of supporting their families in the absence of menfolk, who were often under the scrutiny and control of the Ba’ath Party. The displacement and trauma inflicted during this period affected an entire generation. Using Krista Ratcliffe’s 2006 text ‘Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender and Whiteness’ the following is an account of some of the experiences of women shared by the participants of the study.

Unearthing Generational Identity: The Lost Narratives of Kurdish Women

Many intergenerational stories are lost as young people move into a technological age that has little resemblance to the lives of their parents and grandparents. In male-dominant cultures, stories of women’s suffering under tyranny are at greater risk of being lost, especially if they are not told in the first place. When personal stories are shared with others, they belong not only to the speaker but also to the audience, and are impactful especially for those with similar traumatic experiences.

In most wars that occurred in Kurdish regions, men faced a higher death rate than women. This had an enormous impact on women’s lives. Not only did they experience loss, possible sexual assault, and violence, they were also responsible for keeping their families together and caring for survivors.

Media and academia have focused relatively little on the historical challenges of Kurdish women compared to those of Peshmerga men. Any Kurdish woman over 40 can attest to her group’s continuous struggles. Each woman’s narrative is a story that holds a thousand other stories within it. Collecting and recording women’s personal narratives of a buried Kurdish past and turning them into a performance piece is an act of forming their generational identity.

The Art of Listening

According to Krista Ratcliffe (2006), rhetorical listening is a “stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in relation to any person, text, or culture”. She further describes rhetorical listening as a device for creative interpretation. It arises from a place within communication where listeners have the ability to actively position themselves in response to various forms of expression, be it written, spoken, or visual.

In revisiting and recording Kurdish women’s experiences, we are ensuring that their collective knowledge, experience and memory remains accessible to all. It is extremely difficult to fully understand women’s issues without rhetorical listening. The practice helped our participants feel safe to be open about their issues and fears. Awaz, for instance, could not hold back her tears when she shared a tragic event involving a girl in her village:

“Because there are some dalaqa’s that people cannot see things through, but I can see things through. The story starts here. There was a morning in which silence prevailed in the village. Farmers carried their axes and spades and walked silently. The daisies were waiting for sunshine. Ducks and geese were like [a] line of pearls, walking towards streams of water. The trees were so quiet. Women were speechless, as if their lips had been sewn. Unlike the other days, no one heard the sound of the shepherd’s flute. The only sound that was heard was the song of an owl, singing on a (towk) tree. It sang until suddenly a yellow leaf fell from the tree.”

Awaz is a poet and a storywriter. Here, she is sharing her experience of an honour killing. The details of her story left us speechless. After two decades, the memory of that innocent girl’s murder is clearly still fresh in her mind.

Ratcliffe proposes a concept called “rhetorical listening,” which involves five distinct features, all centred around a transformative process referred to as “turning”. In our project, we incorporated all of Ratcliffe’s “turnings.” We not only regarded listening as an attentive process but also integrated beliefs, theories, and other elements into the act of listening.

First, rhetorical listening can serve as a process of hearing, examining, and performing. As the women told their stories, we attempted to discover the hidden meaning behind their expressions, and in doing so realized we needed to take additional steps. Our listening also turned to a focus on how ideas were being used by the women to describe their pain.

The second “turn” of rhetorical listening explains that it “turns the realm of hearing into a larger space, one encompassing all discursive forms, not just oral ones”. We applied this by providing our interviewees with comfort and empathy in order to ease their transition into broader cultural settings. Their narratives embody the powerful diversity of their communities. They also carry important political messages that serve as signals of their bravery, strength, and resilience.

Here, Zin tells us a heart-wrenching story of a single mother who worked two jobs to feed her children and take care of her imprisoned husband:

“The day after, I went for a visit. When I went, I saw my husband had a long beard, and he had no money. This time the misery started from here. I had a small salary, not enough for us. I taught at eradicating illiteracy campaigns, later in the afternoons I had taken a science subject of the intermediate stage to teach, only to let my family and children not feel any lack. After this visit with my husband, every month, I would send fifty dinar to jail for him.”

As exemplified by Zin, we could see from our participants’ body language that they were sharing memories that were not easy to discuss. We could feel the fear she felt going to sleep at night without her husband:

“When I slept at night, I would put a knife beneath my head, I would put a big knife under my head under the pillow. The wind was rushing.”

While recalling such moments is painful for the interviewees, our attentiveness made them feel empowered and liberated from isolation and fear.

Ratcliffe’s third turn of rhetorical listening is “listening with intent.” She believes that “rhetorical listening turns intent back on the listener, focusing on listening with intent, not for it”. For example, I did not realize that my listening would turn “intent back on” me—before the interviews, my focus was on accomplishing the project. However, during the interviews, I started to consider the women and their experiences as meaningful stories in their own right rather than mere project material. Rhetorical listening, thus, humanizes the subject and allows a greater connection between the interviewee and the interviewer in a way that a more superficial approach would not allow.

In her fourth point, Ratcliffe states that “rhetorical listening turns the meaning of the text into something larger than itself, certainly larger than the intent of the speaker/writer, rhetorical listening locates a text as part of a larger cultural logics”. By engaging Kurdish women in discussions about their lifestyle, traditions, and daily lives, we were able to better understand how their issues fit into the larger cultural context of their society. Our aim was to figure out how to maximize the influence of these stories to a broader audience.

Samiramees is an Assyrian woman. Her story reveals the alarming lack of understanding among different religious and ethnic groups in her region:

“In the past people were equal. But now there are religious and class distinctions. In the past there were no such differences; for instance, during Eid or feasts people all celebrated together and wished each other happy feast. At that time, there was a mullah called Mullah Othman who used to visit the Bishop, Abuna MayuKhna. They were calling each other using respectful words. The mullah was calling the Bishop Sir Abuna and he would answer Mulla do not call me sir, I have to call you sir. This shows that there were no such differences, people treated each other equally, life was excellent. But nowadays these distinctions can be noticed. We cannot go to the mosque. They will say that we are Christians and are not allowed to go there. But in the past, things were different.”

This example prompts us to contemplate the adverse effects on specific minorities due to stereotypes and misinformation stemming from war, migration, and radical movements across the world.

Finally, rhetorical listening per Ratcliffe “turns rhetoric’s traditional focus on the desires of the speaker/writer into a harmonics and/or dissonance of the desires of both the speaker/writer and the listener”. For example, some of our women had limited literacy skills, which made it hard for us to communicate our project’s goals. We used plain, non-academic language to ensure their comfort enough to tell us their stories. We also communicated our expectations and desires plainly.

Narrating Trauma

The women we interviewed grew up at a time when technology was not very advanced in the region, and consequently developed strong social and communication skills. Currently, however, due to widespread use of electronic devices and smartphones, it has become extremely difficult for trauma survivors to effectively express both positive and negative emotions. In addition to sharing tragic memories, they also spoke with us about engaging in fun social activities like dancing, climbing mountains, gardening, and spending time with neighbours and relatives. Here is Dilbar’s story about a traditional wedding ceremony:

“Our son got married. Two drums and two hornpipes were playing at his wedding party. Rashid Arf (folk singer) sang there and the party was very delightful. Well, I had charok on me and bare-footed was stamping. We had prepared such a feast, fifteen to twenty big pots… At my time there were cars. But there was still the mirror, which people danced with in front of the bride. We held the mirror for the bride; its back to us and its front to the bride, a big mirror. We held the mirror and danced with it until we took the bride to the courtyard. If there was a chair, we would seat the bride on it; otherwise, we would put two pillows and had the bride sit on them.”

It is part of human nature to revisit the past and share nostalgic moments with loved ones. However, because social networks are fast replacing face-to-face meetings, people who are unaccustomed to sharing their lives on social media are missing out on connection. Sameeramis shares: “I remember that in the past, each woman used to lead a group of women who visited people’s houses during their happy or sorrowful occasions”. She misses the social connections of those days, and now, thanks to technology, she has less opportunity to genuinely reminisce with loved ones.


Human Rights Watch. “Genocide in Iraq: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds”. New York: HRW, 1993. link
Many Women, Many Words: In Search of Kurdish Women’s Stories”, 2014. link
Ratcliffe, Krista L. “Rhetorical Listening: A Trope for Interpretive Invention and a ‘Code of Cross Cultural Conduct.’” College Composition and Communication 51.2 (1999): 195-224. JSTOR. link
Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness”. Carbondale, Southern Illinois UP, 2005.


  • Sarwa Azeez

    Sarwa Azeez is Kurdish poet, researcher, and translator. She is a Fulbright alumni, and has recently received her second masters in Creative Writing from Nebraska-Lincoln University. Her debut poetry pamphlet collection, Remote, was published in the UK by 4Word in 2019. Her work has appeared in many publications such as Parentheses Journal, Writing for A Woman's Voice, Notre Dame Literary, The International Journal of Genocide Studies and Prevention, Wingless Dreamer and elsewhere.

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