Tribal organization based on patrilineal descent is typical of Kurdish nomadic pastoralists. Pasturage is collectively held by the clan within the tribe's territory, and migrations are coordinated at the tribal level. Among the seminomads and in the sedentary villages, clans and lineages come into play only in response to conflict, often in the form of blood feuds; however, not all sedentary agriculturists are organized along kinship lines. A traditional distinction was made between tribal agriculturists, who owned the land they worked, and nontribal peasants, who were subservient to the landowning tribals. These peasants did not own the land—they were bound to it and "belonged" to the tribal leader who controlled it. They owed him their labor and/or a percentage of their crops. Thus, Kurdish society includes both tribal and feudal systems, with clan, lineage, or village leaders serving as feudal lords.
As most Kurds have settled and become agriculturists, and because of the impact of government policies such as land reforms, changes have occured in Kurdish social organization. Through his contacts with government authorities, the agha was able to register communal lands in his own name. Thus, whereas in some areas village membership includes the right to a plot of land, in others entire villages are owned by a single absentee landlord, for whom the villagers work as sharecroppers or wage laborers. The mechanization of agriculture has reduced the need for village labor, and villagers have sought wage employment in urban centers both within and outside Kurdistan. The following recent events have clearly also had a major impact on Kurdish social organization: the Iran-Iraq War, the forced resettlement of tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds, Iraq's gas-bombing of Kurdish towns and villages, the Gulf War and the resultant flight of Kurds to Iran and Turkey, and the establishement of a U.N.-enforced safe haven; however, the long-term consequences of these events remain to be determined.
Because of its rugged terrain, Kurdistan acted as a buffer area between a series of competing empires. Kurdish political organization is therefore best understood as a response to the state. Kurdish tribal leaders were able to increase their power vis-à-vis one another by leading warriors in the service of the various empires. Their loyalty to the state was rewarded with titles and the backing of the central government in local disputes. Other tribal chiefs could submit to this paramount chieftain or establish relations with the competing states. Eventually, confederations of tribes arose that were ruled by a single mir . These emirates encompassed large territories and were granted considerable autonomy. In the 1500s many of the Kurdish emirates were incorporated into the Ottoman Empire. The mirs maintained local autonomy but were under the administration of regional governors who reported directly to the sultan. The emirates were abolished in the 1800s, and local rule reverted to several paramount chieftains.
In the 1900s government control penetrated further into the local level, and administrators dealt directly with the leaders of individual tribes and villages. Thus, Kurdish leaders are now found at the local level, and their influence is derived from personal attributes such as generosity, honor, and the ability to persuade and to deal with government officials. Tribal and lineage leadership is inherited, although there may be several contenders within the family, and other families may challenge and take over the position. Larger tribes generally choose their leader from a royal lineage, but different branches of the lineage may compete for the title. The shaykh (pl. shuyukh ) also plays an important role (see "Religion and Expressive Culture").
The Kurds have been much affected by the different national policies and are now engaged in a long-term effort to gain some form of self-rule. Demands range from local autonomy to the formation of a Kurdish nation-state. Political parties and demands, guerrilla forces, and support from foreign governments are all part of modern Kurdish politics.