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Adela Khanem (Lady Adila)


Lady Adela or Adela Khanem was a famous and cultured chief of the Jaff tribe, one of the biggest Kurdish tribes, if not the biggest, native to the Zagros area, which is presently divided between Iran and Iraq. Lady Adela exerted great influence in the affairs of Jaff tribe in the Sharazor plain. She was born in 1847 to a leading family in Sanandaj, the major center of Kurdish culture in Iranian Kurdistan. She married Osman Pasha,a chief of the Jaff tribe, whose headquarter was in Halabja. Later Osman Pasha was appointed the kaimakam of Sharazor, thus allowing Lady Adela to take over. The revival of commerce and restoration of law and order in the region of Halabja is attributed to her sound judgement. She was known for saving lives of many British army officers during World War I and was awarded the title of Khan-Bahadur by the British commander.She died in 1924 and buried in Halabja.



             Gertrude Bell, British politician and writer, describes Adela Khanem in a letter in 1921 as follow:" The feature of Halabja is 'Adlah Khanum the great Jaf Beg Zadah lady, mother of Ahmad Beg. She is the widow of Osman Pasha, sometime dead, and continues to rule the Jaf as much as she can and intrigue more than you would think anyone could, and generally behave as great Kurdish ladies do behave. She has often written to me, feeling, I've no doubt, that we must be birds of a feather, and I hastened to call on her after lunch. She is a striking figure in her gorgeous Kurdish clothes with jet black curls (dyed, I take it) falling down her painted cheeks from under her huge headdress. We carried on in Persian, a very complimentary talk in the course of which I managed to tell them how well 'Iraq was doing under Faisal and to assure them that all we wished was that our two children, 'Iraq and Kurdistan, should live in peace and friendship with one another".Vladimir Minorsky has reported his meeting with Lady Adela in the region of Halabja in 1913.


Major Soane wrote about her in his book To Mesopotamia and Kurdistan in Disguise:" a woman unique in Islam, in the power she possesses, and the efficacy with which she uses the weapons in her hands... In a remote corner of the Turkish Empire,which decays and retrogrades, is one little spot, which,under the rule of a Kurdish woman has risen from a village to be a town, and one hill-side, once barren, now sprinkled with gardens; and these are in a measure renovations of the ancient state of these parts".


                                                            Lady Adela (center), ruler of Halabja, meeting with Major Soane in 1919.

                                                                          Adela Khanem, Ezzat Beg and  Ahmed Beg 1905 
                                                                                             (Courtesy of  Anne Jaff)




"At the beginning of this century, the Jaf were probably the most important tribe of southern Kurdistan. Like other large tribes, the Jaf constituted a rigidly stratified society, consisting of a number of subtribes that were considered as Jaf proper besides others, of lower status, that were client tribes. Together, these tribesmen dominated a non-tribal peasant stratum and they were in turn subservient to a ruling lineage called Begzade. The person occupying the pinnacle of this social pyramid was, somewhat surprisingly, not a man but a woman, Adela Khanum. 
   She was the wife of Usman Pasha, the Begzade chieftain whom the Ottoman government had appointed as the governor (qa'immaqam) of the entire district of Shahrizur. Even when her husband was still alive, it was Adela Khanum who gradually assumed effective authority. Upon Usman Pasha's death in 1909, she remained firmly in control, and her authority went unchallenged until her death in 1924. Adela Khanum was by all accounts a most remarkable woman and the authors of two classical books on southern Kurdistan, E.B. Soane and C.J. Edmonds, both of whom knew her well, write about her in the most admiring terms. several years, he set out on an adventurous journey through Kurdistan, disguised as a Persian.
    Travelling overland from Constantinople, he chose Halabja as his final destination, attracted by Adela Khanum's fame and reputation. He was not disappointed. Thanks to his command of Persian and other useful skills, Adela Khanum requested him to stay and enter her service as her scribe. Thus he came to know both the situation at Halabja and the first lady quite well. He makes clear that Adela Khanum's ambitions did not end with her reshaping the physical and human environment; she also resolutely assumed the leading political role:
    Gradually the official power came into her hands. Uthman Pasha was often called away to attend to affairs, and occasionally had to perform journeys to Sulaimania, Kirkuk, and Mosul on matters of government. So Lady Adela, governing for him in his absence, built a new prison, and instituted a court of justice of which she was president, and so consolidated her own power, that the Pasha, when he was at Halabja, spent his time smoking a water pipe, building new baths, and carrying out local improvements, while his wife ruled. (Soane 1926: 219; emphasis added)
Lady Adela's husband, Usman Pasha, appears to have quite happily consented to her assertiveness; his subjects must have been fascinated by this strong-willed and urbane personality in their midst. The Ottoman authorities, perceiving an increase of Persian influence in their domains, were not amused but there was little they could do about it. They put up a telegraph line to Halabja, in order to improve their control of the place, but the Jaf objected and cut down the line. Adela Khanum told the Ottoman officials not to repair it, threatening that the wires would again be cut, and thus she managed to keep those improved communications and Ottoman control at a distance (Soane 1926: 220).
    Another Englishman who came to know Lady Adela well, a decade later, was Cecil J. Edmonds, a political officer during the British occupation of Iraq. By that time she was a widow but remained, as Edmonds has it, "the uncrowned queen of Shahrizur". She was one of those chieftains whom the British called "loyal". In 1919, when Shaikh Mahmud of Sulaimaniya rebelled and declared himself king of Kurdistan, Adela Khanum and her Jaf sided with the British — no love was lost between the Jaf and Shaikh Mahmud. The British administration later decorated her with an Indian title, "Khan Bahadur", but it is not clear whether she attached as much value to it as the British authors who refer to it.
    The British appointed her son, Ahmad Beg, as the qa'immaqam, and it was through him that she continued to exercise her influence. That influence was drastically curtailed, however, for the British left the Kurdish rulers little autonomy. All local officials received their orders not from the qa'immaqam but directly from the (British) Assistant Political Officer who was stationed at Halabja. In calling Lady Adela an uncrowned queen, Edmonds must have thought of the constitutional and largely ceremonial royalty of his own country. Adela Khanum obviously did not take kindly to this curtailment of her powers, and the relations with the British were in the end rather strained. In 1924 she died, but even today she is still vividly remembered by the people of Shahrizur'.

Martin van Bruinessen,
‘From Adela Khanun to Leyla Zana: Women as Political Leaders in Kurdish History’ published in: Shahrzad Mojab (ed.), Women of a Non-State Nation: The Kurds, Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, Inc., 2001, pp. 95-112.

(Courtesy of  Hanna Jaff)

  Last Updated: 18.12.2014