Marlene Schäfers, Voices that Matter: Kurdish Women at the Limits of Representation in Contemporary Turkey (University of Chicago Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Marlene Schäfers (MS): When I first embarked on dissertational field research in the majority Kurdish town of Wan (Van) in eastern Turkey in the fall of 2011, I soon began working with a group of Kurdish women singers and poets. Intent on raising their voices in public, these women had faced considerable opposition throughout their lives. On the one hand, they faced political restrictions because they performed in Kurdish—a language that was long banned in Turkey and still attracts suspicion. On the other hand, they faced opposition from families and social communities, because it can be considered immodest or shameful for women’s singing voices to be heard in public.
Yet the women did not bow to these intersecting political and gendered restrictions. Initially, it seemed obvious that their insistence on raising their voices ought to be read as a form of resistance vis-à-vis gendered and political forms of violence and discipline. But over the course of my fieldwork, I realized that such a framing did not quite do justice to the social force that the women’s voices possessed. These were voices that did all kinds of other things apart from or in addition to representing the will, agency, or resistance of the women who raised them. These voices could move listeners to tears, make them shiver, or “burn their hearts,” as local idioms put it. They could be lent and borrowed, and they did not always speak for the enunciating self, but would make pain and suffering travel between bodies.
The book is an attempt at trying to make sense of these observations. It arises out of a frustration with mainstream ideas about Muslim women being silenced or voiceless. But instead of simply celebrating the voices of Kurdish women as forms of agency or resistance, I ask how voices have become potent signs of agency in the first place, and what the consequences of approaching the voice in this way might be.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MS: In many ways, the book is an attempt to understand and honor the immense desire for voice on the part of the women I encountered. Instead of assuming that desire to be naturally given, in the book I ask what animates and nourishes it. How come the voice has become such an appealing object in the contemporary world, particularly for subjects who have historically been marginalized? I argue that this has much to do with how we value the voice as a sign of empowerment and agency, not just in Kurdistan or Turkey, but globally. Many of us find ourselves continuously encouraged to be vocal, to speak up, to voice our opinions, ideas, and emotions. Having a voice carries a lot of ethical weight and emancipatory promise in the contemporary world.
The book tracks how this particular way of valorizing the voice animates new desires, imaginations, and aspirations in Kurdish contexts, while also creating new contestations, conflicts, and anxieties. Essentially, it ethnographically studies what happens when marginalized subjects try to attain all those mighty promises that representational politics attach to the voice by actually making their voices resound in public. What I find is that more often than not, raising one’s voice turns out not to be a straightforward path to liberation or empowerment but rather an endeavor that is marked by repeated disappointment and the experience of new forms of vulnerability.
There of course exists an important body of scholarship that has critiqued contemporary politics of representation, particularly in liberal contexts. Scholars have for instance drawn attention to the fact that the voices of marginalized subjects regularly fail to be heard, or that they can become audible only by adhering to certain scripts. What is often left unquestioned in this literature, however, is the assumption that voices by default indicate the agency, self, and presence of their speakers. Yet not recognizing that this is a historically, culturally, and ideologically very specific understanding of voice means that we are unable to grasp how contemporary politics of representation have effects not just because of whether they grant or deny voice, but because of how they construct and value the voice as a certain kind of thing. In Voices that Matter I address precisely this point, by showing that for Kurdish women’s voices to become intelligible as an expression of agency, empowerment, and resistance, these voices have to become audible in specific ways. I trace how this “representational imperative,” as I call it, is having a considerable impact on how the voices of Kurdish women sound today and what kind of subjects and communities these voices are able to shape as a result.
So rather than telling a triumphant story of Kurdish women moving from silence to voice, from oppression to agency, what I try to do in the book is to look at how the way in which Kurdish women are using their voices has been changing, how these voices have acquired new meanings, and what effects these transformations entail.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
MS: This book is the outcome of more than a decade of research, thinking, and writing in which I have explored the contours of vocal and cultural politics in northern Kurdistan, with a particular view to its gendered repercussions. Initially my interests were much more focused on the politics of witnessing and history-telling as they unfold in the repertoires of Kurdish singer-poets and storytellers. It is only over time that I developed “an ear” for the stakes that are attached to the formal qualities of the voice—to aspects like poetic expression, narrative structure, or melodic elaboration—and that I began to sense the changes that these aspects are undergoing. And it was yet another step to think through how these formal aspects relate to broader questions of how difference comes to be governed in the contemporary world.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MS: Much has been written about allegedly “silenced” or “voiceless” women in the Muslim world. The voices of Kurdish women in particular have repeatedly become a focus of attention, most recently in the context of the protest wave in Iran that was set off when Jina (Mahsa) Amini, a young woman from the country’s Kurdish region, was killed in September 2022. My wish for the book is that it will contribute to moving these discussions beyond simplistic frameworks where voice opposes silence, and empowerment opposes oppression. Voice is a term that we readily use both inside and outside of academia as a shorthand for agency and empowerment. I hope Voices that Matter can help readers become more aware of the fact that this is a socially and historically very specific understanding of voice that makes specific assumptions about what it means to “matter” in public and political spheres. I would hope that the book will encourage reflection on what the limits of these assumptions are, and what might get lost in approaching the voice primarily as a metaphor for agency.
While Kurdish studies is a growing field, it remains in many ways marginal within Middle East studies. The dominance of Arab, Iranian, and Turkish studies is no coincidence, but reflects legacies of colonialism and how these play out in contemporary institutional arrangements. At the same time, Kurdish studies is also a field that remains dominated by the analysis of geopolitics and a focus on political parties and nationalist movements. I hope that Voices that Matter will make a case for situating Kurdish studies outside these confines, as a site of theoretical conversation beyond methodological nationalism and area studies, and that it will put center stage the complexities and contradictions of Kurdish everyday life.
Finally, I hope that students at both undergraduate and graduate levels will find fruitful ways of engaging with the book. I would want for the book to sharpen students’ understanding of what stakes might be attached to how people use their voices, and how the voice is a historically and culturally constructed object rather than naturally given. Hopefully the book will encourage students to pursue research interests in Kurdish studies and open up new avenues of research in the exciting and growing field of voice studies.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MS: The oral and musical genres that I studied for the book are in fact quite close to funerary lamentations, and through my research I have become fascinated with how loss and absence are negotiated in these repertoires. My next project goes further in this direction by studying questions around death, (im)mortality and the afterlife in the context of the ongoing political conflict in the Kurdish region. I am particularly interested in how logics of sacrifice shape regimes of value that pierce the boundaries between life and death, this-worldly and other-worldly, immanent and transcendent.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-6)
“Our voices can no longer be hidden,” Gazîn proclaimed with firm resolution. “Today it is no longer like it used to be. Now we can say, ‘This is me, this is us.’ We can show our existence to the world.” I was impressed by the proud insistence of this middle-aged Kurdish woman on the power of her voice, particularly since I knew something of what it had cost her to raise it. Gazîn had just been telling me about the lifelong struggle she had waged for her voice—a struggle that had involved major conflicts with her family and wider social circle, confrontations with Turkish state authorities, and that had been beset by violence, loss, and fear.
As Gazîn explained to me, in northern Kurdistan many people considered it immodest (‘eyb, şerm) for a woman’s singing voice to be heard in public. Even though many women knew the rich repertoires of oral tradition that are today widely celebrated as key aspects of Kurdish cultural heritage, performing them in public was often met with severe opposition from families, kin, and the wider society. Zehra, a younger female singer of Kurdish pop genres who had joined our conversation, agreed. She recounted how she had published her first cassettes under a pseudonym for fear of her family’s reaction. When they nonetheless discovered her pursuit of a singing career, they pressured her to give it up. Gazîn similarly spoke of years of fierce arguments and conflict with her family over her public appearances.
In addition, there were the political consequences. In a country where Kurdish linguistic and cultural expression has been suppressed for decades, Kurdish voices continue to attract suspicion and surveillance. Although the formal ban on the Kurdish language was lifted in the early 1990s, when I conducted field research for this book two decades later Kurdish sounds remained heavily policed, perpetually suspected of indicating disloyalty toward the Turkish nation. Outside Turkey’s Kurdish heartlands, the sounds of Kurdish easily incited public anger, while Turkish courts, for their part, regularly issued rulings declaring spoken or sung Kurdish a threat to what the constitution proclaims as the indivisible unity of the nation. Becoming audible in and through Kurdish was a risky undertaking in Turkey. Gazîn knew this only too well: at the time we met, she had been freshly indicted on the grounds that two public performances of hers constituted acts of promoting separatism.
Against these stories of patriarchal restriction, political subjection, and different forms of violent disciplining, Gazîn, Zehra, and the other women at the singers’ association displayed remarkable perseverance. Determined to raise their voices despite all opposition, they stubbornly negotiated with the authority figures in their extended families to let them participate in the association’s activities. They risked not only straining domestic relations but also legal sanctioning to perform at concerts and on television. Notwithstanding the precarity of their everyday lives and the challenges of having to run multigenerational households with modest financial means, they dreamed of fame and popularity, of being celebrated on stage and screen, and of the financial gain that such fame might bring. They also insisted that not being able to raise their voices would condemn them to suffocate amid experiences of restraint and memories of loss. And despite the routine frustrations they encountered—when once again a husband or father-in-law intervened to prevent them from attending a performance, a music producer withheld their rightful profits, or yet another promised concert invitation was withdrawn— they radiated a resolute optimism. As women and as Kurds, they knew they had important stories to tell. The time had come for them to raise their voices.
In the stories that Gazîn, Zehra, and the other women at the association told me about their passionate investment in their voices and the struggles they had waged in order to raise them, the voice functioned as a powerful index of emancipation and empowerment. In a context rife with political subjection and gendered disciplining, it held outstanding liberatory potential. Freely circulating voices signaled free subjects, unencumbered in their urge to express their desires, opinions, and inner selves. Such voices spoke of social progress and political advancement, suggesting avenues for overcoming both personal and collective trauma. They promised forms of recognition, participation, and authority from which my interlocutors, both as Kurds and as women, had mostly been excluded.
The voice constitutes a powerful trope promising empowerment and recognition not only in Kurdistan, of course. In many parts of the world, marginalized, disadvantaged, and dispossessed subjects are regularly encouraged to “raise their voice” as a means of asserting their identity, engaging in public discourse, and participating in political decision-making. Many feminist, development, and human rights activists are deeply invested in measures that seek to give voice to the ostensibly silenced so as to bolster their agency and ensure their participation in social and political life. Mental health practitioners and transitional justice activists encourage the voicing of personal experiences of trauma, hardship, and suffering as a path toward personal healing and societal reconciliation. In documentary films, we encounter the voices of the disenfranchised as a token of their belonging to a common humanity, while the foundations of representative democracies tell us that decision-making should rely on us citizens voicing our opinions and sentiments in the public sphere.
Tying political and personal agency, recognition, and participation to “having a voice,” liberal discourse and practice invest the voice with immense emancipatory promise, political value, and ethical weight. Voices That Matter sets out to examine some of the consequences of this contemporary valorization of the voice as a route to empowerment and agency. Following Daniel Fisher, I approach representational politics as a framework that powerfully incites minoritarian subjects to raise their voices, noting that such politics render the voice at once an object of desire and aspiration for the marginalized, a linchpin of subaltern resistance, and a site of moral anxiety, governmental intervention, and bureaucratic management. Based on an ethnographic account of Kurdish women’s struggle for voice in contemporary Turkey, I argue that “raising one’s voice” is not always or necessarily empowering but constitutes an endeavor that is equally shaped by risk, dilemma, and contradiction. What is more, an equation of voice with agency and empowerment fails to adequately capture the effects of the hailing to voice that I observe. These effects reach beyond the question of whether and how voices empower those who enunciate them, or represent the subaltern who speaks. They also inhere in the ways that contemporary politics of voice shape the contour and flow of vocal sound and thereby determine how voices affect those they encounter.
Whether the audibility of Kurdish women’s voices is celebrated as proof of their bearers’ emancipation from restrictive custom and tradition or condemned as evidence of their transgressive agency, implicit in such evaluations stands the assumption that voices inherently represent the will and identity of those who enunciate them. It is this assumption that allows us to see in the circumscription of Middle Eastern women’s voices an act of suppression, and in their becoming audible a sign of empowerment. As I have come to realize over the course of researching and writing this book, however, voices do not in any inherent or universal way represent the interiority of those who pronounce them. In the Kurdish contexts where I conducted research, voices often became detached from the subjects who uttered them, expressing not the emotions of the self but those of others, for example, or featuring like a service that could be commissioned and exchanged rather than being tied to a singular individual and their intimate experiences. How, this prompts me to ask, has the voice evolved from a vehicle that is in principle detachable from its bearer into one that is read as the direct expression of the self and as proof of their agency? And what are the consequences of this positioning?
When highlighting that in Kurdish contexts voices occasionally mean or do things that are not easily captured by dominant frameworks that understand voice primarily as an index of the self and its identity, my aim is not to map out a space of anthropological difference or radical alterity. Doing so would risk casting as inauthentic the desires for voice that women like Gazîn and Zehra so vividly expressed, brushing them aside as mere mimicry of Euro-American ideologies of voice, self, and agency. Yet these desires were all too real, as were the consequences my interlocutors faced when they set out to pursue them. The task I set myself in this book, therefore, is to acknowledge and honor my interlocutors’ insistent desires for voice, without either dismissing them as inauthentic or naturalizing the equation of voice with agency that they rely upon. Instead of taking this equation for granted, I ask what social, historical, and political forces have turned voices into the objects of women’s desire and aspiration—and into sites of moral anxiety and violent disciplining. In this way, I seek not only to understand the hopes and expectations with which women like Gazîn and Zehra embarked upon the struggle to raise their voices, but also to critically interrogate why it is that their hopes were so routinely disappointed.