It was my twenty-third birthday. I sat on my mom’s bed, legs crossed, watching her rumble through suitcases filled with fabrics – satin, sheer, velvet. The reality was that most of them had seen the light of day once every few years.

She put her glasses on. “Your late uncle bought me this when I got engaged,” she sighed as she held the fabric closer to herself. It was white, with specs of gold and a vibrant floral design.

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My 23rd birthday.

I insisted on wearing a Kurdish dress for my birthday. “Why do we have all this stuff if we’re never going to wear it?” Around her were smaller bags filled with sequins, embroidered segments she had ripped off of dresses, and strings of lace. In her mind, every little bead was going to come in handy at some point.

My mom has a habit of hoarding, but when it comes to materials from Kurdistan, it’s a far more complex relationship.

Looking around the room, my mom was pointing out different textiles in a somewhat chronology – “my great aunt gave me this when I was in high school” or “your dad bought me this when we were refugees in Turkey.” Each material had a story. Each material triggered a memory that reinforced a sense of identity. Who was my mom before she came to Canada? How much of that person still existed in this landscape? Did hoarding the material help her keep those memories alive?

In this series, I’m going to explore the relationship between gender and power in relation to embroidery in a transnational context. For many diaspora, material culture functions as a mechanism for storytelling. For the Kurds who lack a formal nation state, its role delves deeper into reinforcing a sense of identity; the physical existence & durability.

A question of gender?

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In the Middle East, embroidery was historically an instrument to measure a women’s worth as a potential wife and homemaker. Needlework has been argued as a highly gendered activity, with sewing symbolizing obedience. However, the autonomy could also be a form of self-expression; it is not the actual needlework itself, rather the interpretation of the embroidery.

Questions of interest:

What role does embroidery have for transnational Kurdish women in a landscape where technology, innovation, and stitching have come together? Does the interaction between handcrafts and digital technology betray “women’s” work?  Does it allow diaspora to connect to a sense of ‘home’? Is this material culture politicized in the same way as it is in the Middle East? Is it empowering? If so, in which context(s)/landscapes?

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2 thoughts on “Memory, Material Culture, and Kurdish Identity: A Series

  1. This is a great post about identity through the connections to material culture. Even though I live in a westernized context, I am still connected to my home identity through the clothes I wear on a daily basis. In a way it is significant to the understanding of a diaspora reality. With the many aspects that unite a culture such as language or cultural values, clothing is always a important marker of our physical and emotional identity.

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  2. I think that there is a deep relationship between material culture and identity at a transnational level. I have also a different cultural background, over time have brought back from “home” many materials that symbolize those traditions for me, which that now are either hard to find or no longer exist – so I am very happy I did!

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