Kurdish traditions and languages distinguish Kurds from other ethnic groups in that they live within numerous linguistically homogeneous nation-states. Kurdish communities are divided by the borders of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, and many Kurds also live in various diasporas in Europe. Although it is debated, some historians trace the origins of Kurds to the Medes. Kurds speak different but related dialects of Kurdish, a member of the Indo-European language group. Kurdish communities are affected by changes in the global capitalist system and by mass migrations due to economic and political pressures. While they struggle against countervailing cultural pressures, their old traditions are continuously revitalized and some are modified to reflect changing circumstances and outside pressures.
Kurdish Family and Households
A traditional Kurdish family is a peasant family. A Kurdish household is a patrilineal lineage, assembled around the male head of the family. Such a lineage depends on mutual support and defense while living in the same ancestral village. Although men are responsible for agricultural tasks and socioeconomic and political contacts with the outside world, Kurdish women also contribute to all social, economic, and political processes within their villages. The Kurdish household is a corporate entity whether the extended family lives under the same roof, xani, or breaks into nuclear family sub-units—consisting of mother, father, and their children—in the family compound. During their trans-humance—a seasonal movement organized around the migration of livestock from lowland winter to highland summer pastures—seminomadic pastoralist households may share a tent, live in a compound of tents, or both. The compound is called zoma. The extended Kurdish family includes not only parents and unmarried children, but also married male children, their wives, and their offspring. Unmarried sisters and brothers of the male head of the family may also live with them.
According to Kurdish traditions, marriage does not bring with it the creation of a new household. Kurdish traditions oblige the oldest brother and his wife and children to remain with his parents. As family resources expand, married younger brothers build their own houses and move into them, gradually enlarging the family compound. Household production refers to the production of all members of the family compound. The main building, the home for those members of the kin group who share a residence, is referred to as mal. All consumption activities take place in mal. The extended family continues to have meals together in the mal, even after younger sons move to their own houses within it. This is also the case for seminomadic pastoralists. Pastoralist households are united in their village compounds during some seasons and may be cyclically divided between pasture camps when they move to higher plateaus during the summer months.
A Kurdish household is a unit where production, reproduction, distribution, and consumption take place. Mal is an economic unit for about thirty million Kurds in the Middle East. Mal is also very important for urban families in transition and for diaspora families. Not only the first, but often the transitional second generation of migrant families in urban areas replicate this pattern. However, with the creation of permanent wage labor, young modernized urban families both challenge and reiterate traditional arrangements. They may independently decide not to pool their income with their extended families, while insisting on their traditional rights to resources, such as their share from the harvest and animals.
For hundreds of years, Kurdish households have relied on a broad range of economic activities to generate income. Within households in Kurdistan, noncapitalist forms of labor exchanges (reciprocal labor exchanges) transform all daily activities—agricultural work, animal husbandry, daily chores, and preparations for weddings and other celebrations. Intrahousehold exchanges expand to encompass interhousehold exchanges with kin who are living in the same villages and hamlets. A traditional form of reciprocal labor exchange, called zebari or zebare, is recognized as an obligation to be fulfilled between kin and neighbors, even in urban contexts. Another form of labor exchange, also called zebari, is a form of forced labor. Tribal Kurds are obliged to work for their tribal leaders and landlords. While fulfilling zebari obligations, men work in agriculture for a limited time, but the duration of women's work in the houses of their tribal leaders or landlords is never specifically defined.
Historically, most peasant Kurdish households occupy multiple class positions as merchants and petty producers, and according to their participation in capitalist relations as wage laborers. From the 1950s onward, the development of wage relations was tied to the monetization of the rural economy and was closely correlated with a house-hold's access to land. Today, the families of seasonal workers continue to live in rural areas while their men return home for cultivation and harvest. Permanent wage employment is particularly important for urban Kurdish families. The jobs available for unskilled urban Kurds are in the construction industry and the service sector is attracting a growing number of Kurdish women as well as men. Successful urbanized families responding to socioeconomic changes are gaining a greater ability to live independently from rural, social, and economic networks and are distancing themselves from rural obligations.
For almost all Kurds—Sunni (Shafiis), Shii (Twelvers), Alevi (Ahl-el Haqqs), and Yezidi (a heterodox sect occurring only among Kirmanchispeaking Kurds)—household relations define gender relations. Kurdish households have both a male, malxî, and female head, kabanî, with clearly defined duties concerning production, distribution, and consumption allocations. There are gender and intergenerational inequalities in patriarchal Kurdish households. In rural households, with the exception of female heads of households, women have a subordinate role in household decisionmaking. However, they are able to exercise power by negotiating with patriarchal structures, especially by choosing to socially isolate themselves from family affairs, thereby publicly damaging the reputation of the family. The women of seminomadic pastoral tribes enjoy privileges that allow them to be nominal equals with their husbands. Peasant women's engagement in wage labor in urban settings weakens the old patriarchal traditions and allows women to have decision-making power in their households.
Kurdish Marriage Patterns
Kurdish marriage arrangements are very complex and defined by tribal traditions. Almost all Kirmanji-, Sorani-, Zaza-, and Gorani-speaking Kurds are historically tribal people, and tribal traditions continue to affect the daily experiences of tribal, as well as nontribal Kurds, who live in both rural and urban areas. The term mal also means a lineage in Kurdish. A lineage is a group of people who descend from a common ancestor. According to tribal ideology, brothers, father, and sons are joined in a single group, creating a division within the tribe against the father's brother and his sons. They all unite against far removed patriarchal cousins. Although a tribe is segmented genealogically, all of the units described above are united as patrilineal kin against another tribe at times of conflict, such as blood feuds. Tribal membership exists both in terms of putative patrilineal kin groups (groups that trace their genealogy to a common ancestor of the main branch of the tribe) and fictive patrilineal kinship groups (groups created in circumstances when an individual was adopted as a tribal member; lineages are traced from this adopted individual). However, tribal kinship is described bilaterally (traced through both male and female lines). Kurdish kinship terminology consists of two categories: kin relations traced through blood (consanguine) and through marriage (affinal) relations. In each category, terms are very specific for ascending and descending generations; the categories define patrilineal kin and female affine, as well as social relations. Yezidi traditions are similar to the traditions of Muslim Kurds, yet are differentiated by the existence of social categories: sheihks, peshimams, pirs, kawals, and faqirs. These categories clearly define social, political, and economic positions, as well as responsibilities of these individuals within Yezidi societies.
Marriage is one of the most important events for establishing alliances and creating social hierarchies within and between tribes. Upon marriage, a woman leaves her birth homestead and moves to her husband's village. Traditionally, a woman did not move away from the territory of her lineage since most marriages were within the lineage where members live a short distance away. However, urban migration and diaspora relations resulted in contemporary marriages in which women not only move from their paternal homes, but frequently cross national borders. Traditionally, Kurdish marriages are arranged marriages. Marriage arrangements may be completed even before children are born. For boys and girls, marriage establishes the passage to adulthood. The marriageable age of male and female children varies according to socioeconomic class and the specific needs of individual families. The average age for marriage increases in urban areas, where the parties involved are usually educated and employed. Although the marriage age of boys is slightly higher than girls, this depends on various social and economic strategies of households. Generally, girls' marriages are postponed when there is a labor shortage in the family. However, they may be given in marriage at an early age to settle a dispute in a case of kidnapping, taking an unmarried girl by force to marry against her will. That is, if a son of family A kidnaps a girl from family B, the resulting dispute between the two families can't be settled unless family A gives a girl to family B. The possibilities of both eloping and kidnapping also contribute to the desire to arrange early marriages for girls. Although kidnapping and eloping are relatively rare, both cause a social disruption and require mediation between lineages and families to recover from social and economic damages. These events highlight certain aspects of Kurdish family traditions.
Historically, tribal endogamy—the obligation to marry within the tribe—is followed in Kurdish marriages. Yezidi marriages similarly follow strict endogamy within well-defined social categories. Yezidi traditions do not allow marriages between the families of sheihks, peshimams, pirs, kawals, and faqirs. According to Kurdish traditions, a man has the right to marry his paternal uncle's daughter. Any arrangement contrary to this rule must be negotiated between the two brothers. Therefore, for all Kurds the preferred form of marriage is with patrilateral cousins (the children of siblings of the same sex, FBD/FBS—father's brother's daughter and son) while cross-cousin (the children of the siblings of opposite sex, FZD/FZS—father's sister's daughter and son) marriages are rarely practiced. The lineage endogamy is secured by marrying a first parallel cousin, and if this is not possible, a second or a more distant patrilateral cousin. The patrilateral cousins' marriage keeps property in the family and reinforces patriarchal and tribal solidarity.
Marriages are often arranged in the form of direct exchanges, pê-guhurk. Direct exchange marriages are made if one household head, who gives a daughter to another one as a wife for their son, demands a wife in return. The most common form of a direct exchange between two households is sister exchange. In rare cases, marriages are arranged between three families: family A gives a daughter to family B, family B gives a daughter to family C, and family C completes the circle of exchange by giving a daughter to family A. Direct wife and sister exchanges eliminate the payment of bride-price in marriages.
In Kurdistan, a widowed woman stays with her husband's family. If she is widowed when her children are young, she is obliged to marry her deceased husband's brother. This form of marriage is called levirate. Sororate is another custom: When a man loses his wife before she bears a child or she dies leaving young children, her lineage provides another wife to the man, usually a younger sister with a lowered bride-price. Both levirate and sororate are practiced to guarantee the well being of children and ensure that any inheritance of land will stay within the family.
Most Kurdish marriages are monogamous marriages. However, Islam allows polygynous marriages; a man may have as many as four wives at one time providing that he fulfills his obligations as prescribed in Islam. Although statistically rare, polygynous marriages are practiced by Kurdish men who have high economic and political status or claim to have such status. Patriarchal ideology justifies these marriages by emphasizing the Islamic prescription that asserts that social harmony will develop between wives who share household chores and childcare. In reality, polygyny complicates social relations between the members of extended households.
Bride-price is called naxt in Kurdish. It is given to the family of the bride at the time of betrothal or may be paid in increments until the wedding ceremony. It is paid in cash and gold and may include gifts to the bride and her family, the expenses of the wedding ceremony, a rifle, a revolver, jewelry, household goods, electronic equipment, and hoofed animals. The wedding expenses, including the bride-price and the construction and preparation of a room for the marrying couple, may be as much as one year's income for an average household. The amount of the bride-price varies according to the wealth and social standing of the groom's family. However, the bride-price is decreased if the marriage is an FBD/FBS marriage. The bride does not claim any of the bride-price. Generally, most fathers of young sons use the bride-price, which they receive from their daughter's marriages, to pay the family providing a bride for their sons. Fathers of young women are expected to prepare a trousseau and a dowry, which may include jewelry and livestock, for their marrying daughters. Kaleb or sirdan, so-called milk money, is not negotiated between families; rather, it is courteously presented to the mother of the bride, generally in the form of gold jewelry, for her loss of a daughter and a laborer.
Traditionally, peasant weddings include everyone living in the village of the groom and involve elaborate ceremonies. Most able members of the village contribute to wedding preparations in different ways. The wedding ceremonies may last several days. Following proper rules of conduct, a newly married couple avoids being in the same room with the groom's father for close to a week, although they are living in the same house. It is only after this period of prohibition that a bride can visit her parents to receive their blessings.
The preference for FBD/FBS marriages is one of the reasons why young men and women choose to elope. In urban areas, some young girls negotiate to marry a young man they choose by threatening their parents with the possibility of eloping. In both rural and urban areas, kidnapping may also be considered as an attempt on the part of young people to undermine this patriarchal imposition. Eloping and kidnapping also eliminate the problems of paying a high bride-price for the Kurds, but not for the Yezidis. Both eloping and kidnapping bring shame to families. However, kidnapping may have far more serious consequences. It may result in inter-lineage and intertribal feuds, since it is believed that the woman's honor is stained; she is no longer considered a virgin, and can't be returned to her family.
Traditionally, blood feuds are intertribal affairs. When a Kurd is murdered by someone from another tribe, not only the lineage of the dead man, but the whole tribe comes together for an extra-juridical form of punishment, usually provoking countermeasures that lead to escalated tribal warfare. Settlement between the tribes can be a lengthy process and is pursued until an agreement is reached about the payment of blood money, bezh, to the relatives of the victim. Blood feuds are more widespread in Northern Kurdistan than in other parts of Kurdistan, and incidents of it are decreasing as the power of tribal leaders decreases.
Among Muslim Kurds, despite the sharia, Islamic law, and civil inheritance laws where applicable, and among Yezidis, women are not given property, including land, pastures, houses, and livestock, as their inheritances. In addition, FBD/FBS marriages guarantee the continuity of patriarchal domination; it is less likely that her husband will support a woman's right to claim her inheritance. However, in urban areas, education, employment opportunities and nontraditional marriage arrangements situate women in more powerful positions to demand their legal inheritances.
Every birth in a Kurdish family is recognized with joy. In rural households, mothers do not discipline their children in the presence of their inlaws. Generally, breastfeeding continues until the baby is two years old. Although toddlers receive excessive care, as they grow up to understand the world around them, they also recognize that seniority is the organizing principle in Kurdish households. Children are expected to be obedient and submissive to their elders. Traditionally, they do not contest the decisions of the parents.
Sibling bonds, especially between sisters and brothers, are very strong among the Kurds. Brother-sister ties continue after her marriage. This bond guarantees the well being of the sister in her husband's household. In exchange, it secures the brother's right to keep all inherited property. Despite tribal ideology and the segmentary model, FBSs are usually close friends. Conflicts between the two of them, especially related to the division of landed property, are generally managed by the elder's mediation within village life. Cross-cousins (MBSs/MSSs) also usually have a close relationship and most often invest in trading activities together. Kurds are very clear in defining how close their relatives are with specific terms and references. The distance and the closeness of the kin are also strategically defined in terms of establishing ties with individuals who may be profitable to have as familial contacts. Kurds develop close relationships with their non-Kurdish neighbors through a mechanism called tirib relationships.
Circumcision is an important rite of passage in a man's life. Most boys are circumcised between the ages of six and ten. Kurds select a tirib from their neighbors who will comfort the young boy during his circumcision, with the hope that the two will have a lifelong relationship. Yezidis have a similar custom, selecting a Muslim man as karif or kiniv for the young boy, forming a blood-brotherhood between the two.
ahmetbeyzade, c. (2000). "kurdish nationalism in turkey and the role of peasant kurdish women." in gender ironies of nationalism: sexing the nation, ed. t. mayer. london and new york: routledge.
guest, j. (1987). the yezidis: a study in survival. london and new york: kpi.
gunter, m. (1990). the kurds in turkey: a politicaldilemma. boulder, co: westview press.
izadi, m. (1992). the kurds: a concise handbook. washington, dc: crane russak.
keyenbroek, p., and allison, c., eds. (1996). kurdish culture and identity. london: zed books.
keyenbroek, p., and sperl, s., eds. (1992). the kurds: contemporary overview. london: routledge.
meiselas, s. (1997). kurdistan: in the shadow of history. new york: random house.
olson, r. (1989). the emergence of kurdish nationalism1880–1925. austin: university of texas press.
van bruinessen, m. (1992). agha, shaikh and state: thesocial and political structures of kurdistan. london: zed books.
yalçin-heckmann, l. (1991). tribe and kinship among thekurds. frankfurt: peter lang.
MIHRI İNAL ÇAKIR
"Kurdish Families." International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 12, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kurdish-families
"Kurdish Families." International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. . Retrieved January 12, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kurdish-families
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.