Reclaiming Kurdish Dress as Political Struggle

By Ruken Isik
Submitted to Session P4834 (Narratives of Struggle: Maintaining and Preserving Kurdish Cultural Heritage, 2017 Annual Meeting
Cultural Studies;
Clothing has been one of the markers of cultural heritage worldwide, and members of some cultures are identified by their dress such as Saudi Arabians or Indians. In the construction of the modern Turkish nation-state, markers of ethnic and religious dress codes were eliminated and the society was forced to adopt Western style attires. During the “hat revolution” of 1925, the new state forbid men from wearing the ‘fez’ in public space.

Gradually traditional Kurdish clothing has disappeared in the public sphere in Turkey as a consequence of that enforced modernization and westernization. Although Kurdish clothing is still worn by some communities in Turkey, compared to Kurds in Iraq, Iran, and Syria the majority of Kurds in Turkey do not wear traditional dress. After decades of long conflict between the PKK and the Turkish State, Kurdish cultural clothing markers such as keffiyeh, shal u shepik (baggy pants), and green-red-yellow scarves were seen as threats by the Turkish state which criminalized and prosecuted people for wearing these clothes. In 2015, the Anadolu news agency reported the wording from the Turkish parliament’s new security bill, “Protesters now cannot wear any clothing that depicts emblems of banned organizations; similarly no such emblems and symbols can be displayed on placards or banners. The punishment for displaying such illegal symbols is six months to three years in prison.” (AA)

However, Kurds have been reclaiming Kurdish clothing which is visible in the election campaigns, on Kurdish TV, during national celebrations, and in demonstrations in Turkey. Re-claiming ethnic dress can be an important tool for constructing identity and it can be a political statement. It can also be as deadly as speaking Kurdish to wear Kurdish dress in the public sphere. For example, in Mugla province of Turkey in 2015 a Kurdish man was beaten and forced to kiss a statue of Turkish founder Ataturk for wearing ethnic Kurdish clothes. In this paper I will analyze the ways in which ethnic Kurdish dress has been reclaimed by women and men in various public spaces and venues to assert Kurdish identity.