The Kurds are an ethnic group native to the area of eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, western Iran, and northern Syria, an area which they call Kurdistan. The northern part of Iraq is called Iraqi Kurdistan and is an autonomous region. Kurds are related to Persian peoples and speak various dialects of Kurdish, which is most similar to Persian. In Iraq, Kurdish is an official language, alongside Arabic. There are approximately 30-35 million Kurds worldwide, with the most significant population in the Western world being in Germany. Kurds comprise about 18-20% of the population of Turkey and about 15-20% in Iraq. They are the fourth largest ethnic group in west Asia after Arabs, Persians, and Turks. They are considered to be the largest ethnic group without a state.
Early Kurds were groups of central Asian nomads, and were converted to Islam from about 600-800 CE due to Arab conquerors. Kurds are one of the most religiously diverse peoples in Western Europe; today, the majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslim, but significant minorities of Kurds follow Shia Islam, Yazidism, Yarsanism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity.
The Kurdish nationalist movement and push for an autonomous state began in 1880 under Sheik Ubeydullah, who led an uprising against the Ottoman Empire and Persia. His efforts were suppressed, however, and many Kurds, including himself, were exiled. Nationalism gained support after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and persecution by the Young Turks of Kurds (along with the Armenians) where thousands of Kurds were displaced. Kurds were at this time staunchly religious and also did not approve of the continued secularization of Turkey. Kurdish uprisings continued through the 20th century. In the 1970s, the movement incorporated Marxist-Leninist ideology and created the Kurdish Workers’ Party or PKK, but nationalist movements have since abandoned this ideology.
The Kurdish people have recently garnered attention due to the war with ISIS and the Arab Spring. The PKK continues to operate, adding another layer of complexity to the war in Syria and Iraq, as another force in addition to the Free Syrian Army, ISIS, and the Assad Regime. The Kurds are enemies of ISIS, and have fought against them bravely while continuing realize their dream of an autonomous Kurdistan.
Kurds are reported to be more progressive than many of their Middle-Eastern Muslim counterparts in their interpretation of Islam. One of the ways this has been manifest is their apparent gender equality, at least in terms of fighting forces. The PKK and Kurdish armies have units of female combat soldiers who have fought valiantly in recent years. Enigmatically, research suggests that Kurdish people also have high rates of female genital mutilation, which seems to be at odds with their otherwise seemingly progressive positions. However, the extent of this practice in Kurdistan is disputed, and seems to be declining.