Voices that Matter
Kurdish Women at the Limits of Representation in Contemporary Turkey
“Raise your voice!” and “Speak up!” are familiar refrains that assume, all too easily, that gaining voice will lead to empowerment, healing, and inclusion for marginalized subjects. The world over, countless feminist, development, and human rights activists are deeply invested in measures that seek to give voice to the ostensibly silenced so as to ensure their participation and agency, while liberal democracies encourage their citizens to voice their sentiments and opinions as an integral mechanism of political decision-making.
My book, Voices that Matter published in 2022 with the University of Chicago Press, examines the consequences of contemporary politics that incite marginalized subjects to voice in the name of empowerment, emancipation, and representation. Based on twenty months of ethnographic fieldwork in eastern Turkey with Kurdish female singers, poets, and women’s activists, it argues that “raising one’s voice” in the contemporary world is not always or necessarily empowering but constitutes an endeavor full of risk, dilemma, and contradiction. What is more, an equation of voice with agency and empowerment fails to adequately capture the effects of such incitement. By narrowly focusing on whether the marginalized have already acquired voice or are still being silenced, it loses sight of how contemporary politics of voice foster new understandings of self and community and engender novel arenas of struggle and contestation.
To bring these effects into view, Voices that Matter attends to the voice as form, shifting attention away from what voices say to how they do so. I trace how oral genres have been changing in a context where Kurdish voices have gained increasing moral and political value as metaphors of empowerment, representation, and resistance. Focusing on the transformations in how Kurdish women relate to and employ their voices, I illustrate that “gaining voice” is no straightforward path to liberation, especially when one’s voice can be selectively appropriated to further empty displays of pluralist representation.
Kilam about the death of Hozan Feraşîn, a young Kurdish political activist, narrating the search for and discovery of his body. Performed by Dengbêj Asya (pseudonym).
Field recording. 1 June 2012. Wan, Turkey.
Kilam about a tribal battle of the early twentieth century, in which the mother Şemê laments the death of her son Filît. Performed by Dengbêj Şakiro.
Lament for husband and son
Kilam by Altûn, a Yezidi widow from Armenia, lamenting the death of her son and husband. An audio recording of the kilam can be found on the website of Amy de la Bretèque. Go to “Document 52.”
Xalît Begê Cibrî
Kilam about Xalît Begê Cibrî, leader of the Sunni Cibran tribe. As leader of the second Hamidiye regiment he was involved in fighting against Armenians during World War I. In the 1920s he became member of the Kurdish nationalist Azadî organisation and was hanged by the Turkish regime in 1925.