The Kurds number around thirty million people and are the world’s largest stateless nation. They are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, after the Arabs, Turks and Iranians. They live in a region encompassing parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria – also referred to as Kurdistan. In addition, there are two main enclaves of Kurds living in northeastern Iran and in central Turkey.
The Kurds themselves are not only divided geographically, but also politically, tribally, linguistically and religiously. The majority are Sunni Muslims with a minority of Baha’i, Christians, Jews, Kakeyis, Yarsans and Yezidis. They have their own language (Kurdi), with three main dialect groups: Kurmanji in north Kurdistan, Sorani in central Kurdistan and Pehlewani in south Kurdistan.
Traditional Kurdish dress varies according to the community people belong to. For men, the main dress is the rank-o-chokha, which consists of a jacket and a pair of wide trousers, which are especially iconic for Kurdish dress in general. In southern, central and eastern Kurdistan very wide trousers are preferred, while Kurds from the west prefer a straight cut.
The rank-o-chokha used to come in a wide variety of colours and patterns, but today more subdued colours, such as brown, blue and green are preferred. Under the jacket men wear a long-sleeved, collarless shirt. A yelek, a sleeveless vest, can be worn under, over, or even instead of the jacket.
The different types of sashes (kemar, pestand, shella or shellema) tied around the waist are associated with different groups. For example, dark colours combined with a paisley or floral motif are popular in Turkey and Iran, a green colour indicates descent from the Hashemites (the House of the Prophet Mohammed), and black versions are worn by the Yezidi. The zbun, a long robe with or without sleeves, is worn instead of the rank-o-chokha and is combined with an abaya (a long robe of Arab origin) in western Kurdistan.
In some regions, shepherds and farmers also wear a sheepskin or large felt coat to protect them from the winter weather. The traditional headgear consists of a skullcap or a fez, often combined with a cloth wrapped around it to make a turban. In the past these caps were typically conical in shape.
Like the sash, the style of turban varies per region. To give a few examples, Turkish Kurds wear extra-large turbans, the Barzani tribe use a red-checked kufiya as a turban cloth, the Yezidi also wear the red-checked version, but inside out, while other groups wear the black checked kufiya.
Like men’s dress, traditional Kurdish women’s dress is very much dependent on the region. Typically, the outfits are very colourful (except among the Yezidi) and consist of several layers, starting with baggy trousers called darpe, followed by an underdress and on top a krass, a long diaphanous dress with long triangular sleeves that are richly decorated with embroidery or sequins. On top is worn a sukhma, a short buttonless jacket with or without sleeves. Instead of the sukhma, a kawa is sometimes worn. This is a long, often elaborately decorated coat.
The outfit is girded by a (metal) belt or a sash. In addition, a dasmal, a triangular sheer piece of fabric, may be thrown over the shoulders and in parts of northern Kurdistan an apron is worn. In some areas, Kurdish women have taken over the overgarments worn by their neighbours, such as the black abaya worn in Iraq. Similarly, in the past few decades some women have adopted the hijab headscarf.
Traditional headgear knows a great deal of variety: Women wear a long scarf in the west of Kurdistan. In the centre and parts of the east they wear a skullcap, in some areas embellished with coins and chains, and with a sheer scarf draped over it. In other parts of the east the women cover their heads with a turban; and in northeastern Syria and northern Iraq the women may don a fez decorated with a gold or silver disk and pendants.