The Yazidis are a small people, who live scattered in different countries due to religious persecution and discrimination and who are gaining more and more attention in Germany. The last time was in 2014, when the henchmen of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” drove hundreds of thousands of Yazidis to flight. With the flow of refugees to Germany, the main question is to what extent cultural conflicts could arise. In the foreground here is the Yazidie woman in society, who has become the focus of cultural tensions. In this treatise, the role of women in Yazidi mythology, religious life and history is discussed. The intention of this paper is to make the reader aware of the balance between the sexes – with a focus on the Yazidie woman – and that any discrimination in Yazidism has no religious or social legitimation.

by Sarkis Agojan

In mythology

The personification of human and mystical figures, of angels and heavenly bodies is an integral part of many ancient religions – including Yazidism. In the mystification of this ancient religion more than 10 women have a holy status and are worshipped. They have immense roles in the divine order of the Yazidien society in the spiritual and political sense.

As mothers of holy personalities, some of these women are venerated for this fact alone. One of them is “Jêzda”, the mother of Sheikh Adi ibn Misafir, the most important saint of the Yazidian society. In the sacred texts and oral tradition, the mother of Sheikh Adi ibn Bereket (the father of Sheikh Hassan) is known as “Siti Es”. “Maka Ezid” is the mother of “Siltan Ezid”, the mystical embodiment of God in this world. In the hymns and messages, i.e. the orally preserved Yazidien liturgy, she takes on a comparable role to the mother of Jesus Christ, Mary of Nazareth, and is also involved in theological disputes. “Siti Zin” was the mother of the saints Sheikh Shemsedin and Sheikh Fakhradin, both legendary philosophers and part of the Yazidien Pantheon. “Siti Ereb” was the mother of the saints Sheikh Nasirdin and Sheikh Sijadin, who are also part of the Yazidien Pantheon. This pantheon is composed of 7 saints who have individual roles and tasks in the earthly world and each represents one of the 7 angels in this world. Other Yezidi women with saint status are “Siti Tawis”, “Siti Nefis”, “Siti Bilkhan”, “Siti Nisret”, “Pir Afat” and “Khatuna Fekhra”. The latter is in the Yazidian mysticism as the guardian of the birth and patron saint of pregnant women. Once a year women who have already given birth to a child fast in her honour. Because of her female function for human life on earth, she has an important special role in Yazidism. These saints were, like many women in the history of Yazidia, an important part of the intellectual elite of their epoch and shaped a formative phase of Yazidism. In the central sanctuary, in Lalish, so-called “Chira”, oil lamps in honour of saints, are lit in certain places in the sanctuary in honour of them. The descendants of some of these saints live to this day and form their own hereditary groups in Yazidi society and take on various religious roles.

In religious life

The Yazidie Society is organized into three endogamic hereditary groups, two of which are priest groups and perform religious and socio-political functions. The sacred dignity of the Sheikh and Pir families is given equally to both sexes. In many ceremonies the wives of the clergy are also actively involved and perform important rites, and also act as contact persons for the women. The Yazidistum provides that a Yazidi designates a “sister from the other world” or a “brother from the other world” during his lifetime. These chosen siblings can also be of the opposite sex. According to Yazidi theology, after death a person is accompanied into the spiritual world by his “brother in the other world” or his “sister in the other world”. In the afterlife, the chosen siblings assume a moral co-responsibility for the deceased. On many social occasions, such as a funeral service, religious ceremonies or rituals, women always move in front of the assembled society. During important religious and social ceremonies women take the leading role.

Water plays an essential role in Yazidia mythology and in religious life as one of the four elements of life. Two of the most important sources of water in Yazidism originate in the vaults of the temple city of Lalisch. “Kaniya Sipi”, the holy “White Water Spring” there from an underground rock, the guardian of this spring is a woman and is called “Dayê Esmer”. The baptism, i.e. the sealing of Yazidis with the baptismal water is reserved to her, only through her baptism the seal is valid. As “Feqra” is the name of the women’s order resident in Lalisch. Pious temple servants are forced to work in it and can dedicate themselves independently of their hereditary group, asceticism, to the religious organization, care and cleansing of the sanctuary.

In the history

Already 2 times women ruled over the Yazidie people as leaders. The zeitgeist of their epoch and the regional environment hardly knew gender equality or tolerated a woman as political and social power. These facts make the regency of Yazidi women over their principalities even more remarkable. They were ahead of the zeitgeist of their surroundings and ruled the principalities for decades with prudent boldness, intelligence and great courage. Yazidie women also stood and still stand by their husbands as advisors. A Yazidie princess with great courage was Neam Khatun (died 1832). She was the wife of the Yazidie Prince Mir Ali Beg I. When she learned of the murder of her husband, she went alone, armed with a hidden dagger, to the Kurdish prince Mohammed Rawanduz, who had her husband killed. Under the pretext of requesting her husband’s body, she attacked Mohammed Rawanduz with the dagger, but could only slightly wound him. Because of her courage, Mohammed Rawanduz let her go unpunished and accompanied by his subjects to transport the body. But Princess Neam Khatun still longed for revenge and retribution for the enslaved Yazidien women and the murder of her husband. Arriving in Schingal, a main Yazidi settlement area, she ordered the Yazidis to kill the soldiers of Mohammed Rawanduz and attacked more of his troops. As punishment Mohammed Rawanduz had Neam Khatun executed by hanging in another campaign.

A Yazidie princess who accompanied three chiefs during their reign was Mayan Khatun (1873 – 1957). She was the wife of Mir Ali Beg II. and the grandmother of the late Mir Tahsin Beg. After the death of her husband, her son took over the office of the head of the Yazidis and she stood by his side as an advisor. After his death she took over the leadership of the Yazidi people once again, because her grandson was too young at that time. For more than 20 years she was the secular head of the Yazidis, acted as a wise advisor for more than 50 years and was thus able to defend the Yazidis against Islamization attempts, united many quarrelling Yazidie tribes with each other and strengthened the cohesion of the Yazidis.

“In addition, the position of the Yezidi seems to differ significantly from that of Muslim women. They do not wear a veil and are not familiar with the wide robe that covers the whole body and is worn more often among Muslim women today. In the opinion of many Arabs, Turks and Persians they are distinguished by their special beauty. That is why they were much sought after in Turkish and Persian harems, but also in the women’s rooms of the Kurds. Stolen from her family and forcibly locked up in the harem, the Yezidi woman also became the subject of literature.”

Prof. Dr. Gernot Wießner: “…history and religion of the Yezidi”, 2004

Already centuries ago, European travellers, researchers and writers such as Karl May, Sir Austen Henry Layard, August von Haxthausen and others noticed that the Yezidi women behaved and felt much freer than their mostly Muslim neighbours. They were respected and esteemed by Yazidi men.

“We rode past the tents of nomadic Tatars and finally saw the destination of our journey, the tents of the Yazidis. Old Abowian rode ahead to ask if our visit was being received kindly, but soon waved us off, and as we approached, the women and children came towards us first and held our horses kindly. The women were not shy at all, and very free in all their conduct.”

August von Haxthausen: “…Transcaucasia (Part Three), 1856
“Whoever was able to get close to the lights of the priests passed his hand through the flame of the same and then with this hand he stroked the forehead and the region of the heart. “Men stroked the flame a second time, bringing the blessings of the flame to their wives.”

Karl May: “Collected Travel Novels – Volume II”, 1892

Yazidie spirituality provides for equal rights for men and women. There are no elements in the Yazidie religion that justify discrimination or disadvantage for women. There must therefore be no unequal treatment. Here in Europe, however, some Yazidis are in conflict with liberal Western values and their traditional upbringing. These conflicts are not caused by religion, but by a patriarchal understanding of roles, originating from the cultural environment of the regions of origin. However, according to Martin Affolderbach & Ralf Geisler (2007), the younger generation of Yazidis no longer differs from their modern social environment in Germany in terms of traditional gender roles.

List of sources:

Rudolf Frank: „Scheich Adi, der grosse Heilige der Jezîdîs“, 1910

Pîr Dîma & L. Îavasko; S. Grîgoriyêv: „Lalişa Nûranî – Peristgeha Êzidiyan“, 2008

Bedel Feqîr Hecî: „Bawerî û Mîtologiya Êzidîyan: Çendeha Têkist û Vekolîn“, 2002

Dengê Êzîdiyan Oldenburg, 6 & 7 Ausgabe: „Die Beziehungen des Sufismus zum Yezidentum“, 1997

Dengê Êzîdiyan Oldenburg: „Yezidische Helden – Mêrxasên Êzîdiyan“, 2011

Chaukeddin Issa: „Das Jesidentum – Religion und Leben“, 2016

Martin Affolderbach & Ralf Geisler: „Die Yeziden“, 2007

Dîar Khalaf & Hayrî Demir: „Mythos und Legende der Şêx Mend und das Symbol der Schlange“, 2013