Feminist Fitness Revolution in Iraqi Kurdistan

By Ivana Porashka

Contributing Writer

Bodybuilding and Building the Body Politic in Kurdistan was a thought-provoking presentation given by Diana P. Hatchett, a cultural anthropologist and Sewanee alumna. For 2 years she lived in Erbil, which is considered to be the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, to conduct her fieldwork. There, she studied the rising fitness industry and its symbolic equivalence of fighting for human rights. Hatchett has examined the societal, cultural and economic dynamics through the eyes of Kurdish women.


Women in Iraqi Kurdistan are discouraged from exercising in public, because it is seen as indecent. Risking ostracization and severe backlash from their communities, a couple of bold fitness instructors decided to organize an outdoor Zumbathon charity event for Peshmerga  (“those who face death”), the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan. This event sparked both intense interest and heavy criticism from the locals.


The result was a very small turnout of women coming together to dance. One Arab woman declared: “This country will never change. This is all the people who came to this event? There should be more.”  It seemed like a strange phenomenon for women to dare to exercise and dance for all to see.


Hatchett asked a Kurdish private high school girl what she thought of life in Kurdistan: “There are so many things people, society, don’t allow you to do. Like this, for example,” the girl said, gesturing toward the Zumba stage. There has been a recent increase in fitness studios in Kurdistan, such as the Sports Center in Bnslawa and the Ironman Gym in Koya,  and the development of women-only sections in mixed gyms serves as an outlet for Kurdish women to not only strengthen their bodies, but also to push past societal and gender norms.


Iraqi Kurdistan is currently pursuing autonomy and is holding an independence referendum on September 25, 2017, with an overwhelming majority of Kurds expected to vote in favor. This upcoming event has bred massive controversy globally: the United States and Turkey, among many others, have voiced their opposition. So far, only Israel has gone public with their support. Heavy tension has risen due to the possible outcomes of the referendum.


A female Kurdish bodybuilder voices her opinion on the matter: “As a sportswoman I say yes for independence, yes for the referendum. Because success…requires freedom and independence. I also want the time that I participate in a sports competition [bodybuilding] outside the country to say in a loud voice ‘as Kurdistan I participate.’ I will say ‘I am Kurd and Kurdistani.’ Not by the name of Iraq will I participate.”


More and more women are speaking up, advocating for change, and working to change their perceived role in society. They face incredible dangers, such as being shunned by their neighborhoods and families, being deemed unmarriageable, and far worse. Hatchett’s research has allowed her to get a closer look at the intricate workings of Iraqi Kurdistan’s culture. A  human rights revolution has begun with the simple act of dancing out in public and is sure to continue.