Photo credit: Nick Guzman
Photo credit: Nick Guzman

The Jiyan Archives: Archiving Histories of Kurdish Women

Field Notes is where writers show us the creativity, perspectives, and strategies of everyday organizers who are pushing us toward a world where a truly just, multiracial democracy is possible. In this Field Note, Matthew Braunginn shows us how, for a community of Kurdish women, creating an archive is an act of cultural resistance.


Matthew Braunginn


21 May, 2024

Kurdish political prisoner in Turkey, Abdullah Öcalan, said: “A country cannot be truly free unless its women are free.” While such sentiments may be perceived as feminist in the West,  Raz Xaidan, a Swedish-born Kurdish woman, finds that Western feminism fails to meet the needs of Kurdish women like herself. Through the Jiyan Archives, she seeks to document the experiences and legacies of Kurdish women, rooted in a non-Western approach to feminism, matriarchy, and resistance.

Led by 13 diverse women from five continents, the Jiyan Archives chronicles the history of Kurdish matriarchs and their significant historical contributions. At the heart of this work is the revolutionary slogan Jin, Jiyan, Azadi –"women, life, and freedom." A core element of genocide is the erasure of history, language, and culture of a people. Archiving defeats that intent. Xaidan notes, “To archive is to resist. . .When we talk about resistance, what are we discussing? We're not just talking about the Kurdish women who hold up the AK-47 and are ready for war—this is a great aspect of Kurdish resistance. . . We are talking about the preservation of history and heritage and culture and identity, which is what has been the target for so many years.” The preservation of history is a mighty act of resistance. 

Growing up, Xaidan lacked access to her history as a Kurdish woman. “The majority of college archives you find online is based around war, the men who went to war, political leaders, and their offsprings. Rarely will you find a space focused primarily on Kurdish women in the diaspora and the Kurdistan Region,” said Xaidan. 

Xaidan embarked on a mission to uncover this neglected history through photography and multimedia art projects. While exploring, Xaidan found a wealth of archival photographs of Kurdish men “so frustrating because, in the early 1900s, even late 1800s, we had a lot of Western photographers in the region. They were able not only to capture but archive away, digitally, these amazing photographs of our women and our region. They had the tools; they had the privilege to do so.” While massive archiving of Kurdish men was taking place, many documents of Kurdish women went missing. Xaidan immediately recognized the need to fill this archival gap to safeguard the historical legacy of Kurdish women.


Although she may not be depicted as a matriarch now, a few years on when her images are archived, those struggles will echo for her kids and for her community.

Colonial documentation of the region since the1800s has significantly influenced perceptions of Kurds and Kurdish history. The Treaty of Sèvres initially promised a Kurdish state, only to be undermined by subsequent treaties, leading to a century of violence, displacement, repression, and genocide against the Kurdish people. 

Amidst this turmoil, Kurdish matriarchs played pivotal roles beyond militant resistance. Hepse Xanî Neqîb was one such matriarch. In 1926, she helped establish the first Kurdish school for girls in the city of Silêmanî, in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq. The Jiyan Archives documented the work of Hepsa Xan for future generations to know the great lengths she went to to preserve Kurdish heritage. Xan not only enrolled as many girls as possible in her school, but she was even known to cut off gold pieces of her headdress to fund writers or open her home to women in need.  

To Xaidan, the matriarch isn’t always the person who is “loudest at the table.”

“Although she may not be depicted as a matriarch now, a few years on when her images are archived, those struggles will echo for her kids and for her community. Even women who you won’t find their stories, women who have lived a quiet, private life, but [who were] politically active, that’s a matriarch— it's about the women who have had to break themselves for her own flesh and blood to thrive or for other parts of her community or society to flourish.” Xaidan even holds up women who stay married to men, as even a “suffering sixth wife,” to ensure their family flourishes in the next generation as a matriarch.

Shining a light on historical Kurdish matriarchs showcases the diversity of the modern Kurdish matriarchy. The Jiyan Archives is a volunteer-led project, with formidable contributors. These women are journalists, writers, artists and photographers across the globe who are dedicated to amplifying the voices of all Kurdish women. The self-funded project is not affiliated with any political or religious entity that guarantees they can do just that. “We will interview any woman from any political or religious background, as a platform, we only represent Kurdish female archives,” Xaidan explained.

According to Xaidan, Western feminism fails Kurdish women because of the unique challenges they face. “Western feminism has done many great things for women in the West. Unfortunately, it hasn't done much for the women where I come from. Our feminism is not rooted in the same pot.” Xaidan shared her interview with Zehra Dogan, who was imprisoned in Turkey for three years for producing art. Dogan used her menstrual blood and hair to make art while imprisoned. “These are not women running publicity stunts, or doing online campaigns,” Xaidan said. “Just for Kurdish women to exist is a slap in the face for oppressors.” 

The Jiyan Archives are filled with stories like Dogan’s: from Leila Bedirxan, a ballerina in Paris during the 1930s to Khabat Abbas, a fixer who risked her life shepherding journalists through Kurdistan and parts of Syria to tell the stories of Kurds. Every story reflects resistance and matriarchy and they are accessible on the site for the world to learn. “What we do at Jiyan, we not only just say look at us existing, we also say look at us fucking thriving across every decade, across every year, after every genocide, we continue to flourish and shine and the inspiration is there for that cycle to continue.”

Clarification: This article was updated on May 22nd with edits to more accurately reflect geography. Additionally, there are 13 members of the Jiyan Archives team, not 11 as initially published.

Matthew Braunginn is a mixed-race Black American with a deep love of history, and interest in liberation and resistance. His family has roots in the Civil Rights movement. A. Leon Higginbotham, his father's godfather, was a noted civil rights activist. Matthew's movement and family lineage allows him to relate to other struggles and situate stories of resistance in a broader historical context. He is honored that Xaidan and the volunteers of the Jiyan Archives trusted him to tell their story with care and reverence.