Middle East Studies

Nisa Göksel

Visiting Research Fellow, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University – Sweden

Thinking Displacement: Kurdish Women and Political Agency in Europe

This study concerns the struggles of Kurdish women in becoming and being unable to become political agents while confronting the difficulties of migration, displacement, and exile in Europe. Looking at the cycles of Kurds’ migration from Kurdistan to different European cities from the 1960s onwards, my study brings together four generations of politically engaged Kurdish women whose lives are shaped by the violent nexus of displacement-migration-exile. The displacement accounts of Kurds include not just the late 1980s and 1990s, times of intense conflict between the Turkish state and PKK, but also went back to the 1960s and 70s when economic reasons were the apparent reason for migration. In my study, Kurdish women’s stories of migration demonstrate that their experiences of displacement extended far earlier than the 1980s and 1990s—that is, forced migrations were a systematic war strategy. Given this, I reconsider displacement not as a physical condition, but as a self-reflexive process. I employ this as a conceptual tool to examine how Kurdish women strive to be (or are unable to be) political agents in the contested space of displacement, migration, and exile.

Based on my analysis of interviews and ethnographic observations with politically active Kurdish women in Berlin and Paris, I focus on displacement in two different ways. First, I consider displacement as a productive state, enabling women to leave the home, the family, gender roles, and past selves. Displacement thus comes to be the primary condition for the flourishing of new selves and political affiliations. To develop this point, my study draws on Rajeswari Mohan (2006), who writes, “critical self-consciousness and oppositional agency begins with dislocation” (58).

Second, I emphasize displacement as an “unproductive” state—in that women’s detachment from their past lives was likely to result in loneliness and depression; demobilization; and the interminable loss of political and familial affiliations in Europe. Finally, this study reconsiders displacement beyond the sense of physical dislocation and dispossession. It asks how Kurdish women’s pasts and selves, displaced in the process of migration and exile, are replaced by “new” political selves and familial attachments; an intense self-interrogation; and a failure to become in multiple directions across time and space.


Nisa Göksel recently earned a PhD. in sociology from Northwestern University, with a graduate certificate in gender and sexuality studies. Presently, she is a vsiting Research fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University. Her areas of research are gender and sexuality; feminist and women’s movements in the Middle East; war, violence, and peace-making; and migration, displacement and diaspora studies.