The future of Iran could be changed forever by the protests in September 2022 sparked by the death in police custody of Jîna (Mahsa) Amini, a Kurdish woman from the city of Saqez who was arrested for wearing her hijab “improperly.”
The protests have generated an inspiring and newfound solidarity among Iranians of all ethnic backgrounds, as well as promising internationalist feminist solidarity. However, as two Kurdish women, we have been deeply disappointed to see Jîna’s Kurdish background routinely ignored by mainstream media and among allies in diasporic solidarity rallies and in expressions of international solidarity.
In particular, we focus on three types of erasures we see even among progressive and feminist circles. The first relates to the ways people use or don’t use the name “Jîna” and the broader significance of such choices. Second, we draw attention to a patterned failure in acknowledging the origins of the slogan “Woman, Life Freedom,” which was developed by the Kurdish women’s freedom movement affiliated with the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK) against colonial, patriarchal states and societies. The third points to a wider dismissal of the significance of Kurdish struggles and demands both inside Iran and beyond it.
Dismissing Jîna’s Kurdish identity, downplaying the systematic and structural oppression of ethnic minorities, and ignoring the origins of the now popularized chant, “Women, Life, Freedom,” risks fueling rifts, distrust, and resentment among Kurdish populations. To start, overlooking the likely relationship of Jîna’s Kurdishness to the fatal violence she was subjected to, reveals deeper patterns of violence that Kurds have experienced in modern Iran. In short, Jîna’s Kurdishness is critical to understand marginalization in Iran and the broader Middle East and a feminist movement that is simultaneously anti-colonial and anti-imperial.
Say Her Name
Jîna means “giving life.” Her grave is inscribed with the words: “Dearest Jîna, you shall not die, your name will be a symbol.” The Iranian state has denied Kurdish families the ability to give Kurdish names to their children, and it is common for many to have two names, a Kurdish name at home and an administrative name. Article 20 of Iran’s Civil Registration Law prohibits names that “denigrate Islamic sanctities as well as repulsive and obscene titles.” The same law empowers Iran’s Supreme Council of National Organization for Civil Registration to decide if the chosen name is prohibited or not.
While it is often at the discretion of local Iranian government authorities to decide whether a name is acceptable or not, the law has been systematically used to deny ethnic and religious minorities to choose their children’s names. Moreover, some Kurds living in Iran would be wary of giving an official Kurdish name to their children as it could intensify social and economic discrimination if they move outside the Kurdish regions for education and employment. And given the Iranian regimes’ colonial underdevelopment policies in such regions, looking for job prospects outside their own communities has become more necessary for many Kurdish youths.
More broadly, there is a general suppression of the Kurdish language. In an article on language policy and language rights in Kurdistan-Iran, Kurdish scholar Jaffer Sheyholislami notes the prohibition of the use of Kurdish signs and names in public by some government departments. He cites a memorandum issued by the Ministry of Commerce (West Azerbaijan branch), which states: “In public places, signs must be in Persian […] and only Persian language [are to] be used on billboards, signs, windows or doors of places and stores.” Sheyholislami’s article cites another example, a letter issued by the Security Forces Office of Public Domains (Fars Province) to the Culture and Guidance Office declaring the name of a particular business cannot be a non-Persian word. The name chosen in this instance by the business was interestingly “Jîna” and the reply reads “since this name is not Iranian but Kurdish it is not allowed.”
Without understanding this history and what it means to preference “Mahsa” over her Kurdish name, Iranian protestors and their supporters around the world are knowingly or unknowingly participating in a type of erasure. For instance, the National Women’s Studies Association in the United States released a statement using the name “Mahsa” alone, and referring to her as a 22-year old Iranian woman, with no reference to her Kurdish name, identity, as well as to the struggles of Kurdish movements. Similarly, in their episode on the protests, the Democracy Now hosts, who are usually attentive to issues of oppressed groups, referred to Amini as “Mahsa” alone and touch upon her Kurdishness in passing only.
The lack of reflection among experts and solidarity statements on why Amini had two names has been an opportunity missed to recognize the intersectional struggles of Kurdish women in Iran.
“Women, Life, Freedom”: More than a Slogan
Beyond the issue of ignoring Jîna’s Kurdish name, many analysts, activists, and even artists inside and outside Iran minimize or overlook the significance of decades of Kurdish struggle and resistance, as well as the impact of this history on this current revolutionary moment.
One of the clearest examples of this is the way commentators and activists ignore the Kurdish revolutionary origins of the slogan now being used for the Iranian movement: “Women, Life, Freedom” or “Jin, Jîyan, Azadî.” What many do not understand is that the slogan was developed by the Kurdish women’s freedom movement in Bakur and Rojava and built from Abdullah Öcalan’s theories of women’s central role in creating a free society. Those analyzing the protests completely disregard this history and connection. For instance, in an interview with BBC Persian, Abbas Milani, Professor of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, gave a convoluted answer to a question on the origin of the slogan with no reference to Kurds. Other commentators have similarly been either too vague on the history of this slogan, or like Milani, erased its history entirely.
Beyond the slogan itself, there are other ways that the Kurdish struggle are being ignored or sidelined by protestors and those who support them. Kurds constitute almost fifty percent of Iran’s large body of political prisoners despite only making up ten to fifteen percent of Iran’s population. The Kurdish struggle for recognition and freedom in Iran predates the Islamic Republic. Iranian nationalism is Persian-centered and an erasure and assimilation of non-Persian identities has been at its core. Following 1979, Kurdistan has witnessed intense securitization and militarization. It is not a coincidence that the state’s response to Kurdish protesters has been harsher. Kurdish regions have been the scenes of bloodiest clashes and security forces have fired heavy machine guns into civilian houses. And yet these facts and history are ignored.
Chia Madani, a Kurdish musician and songwriter, published a song in response to the very popular protest song by Iranian singer, Shervin Hajipour, titled “Baraye” [for the sake of], in which Hajipour used protest Tweets starting with the word baraye written in support of the protests—a song that resulted in Hajipour’s arrest by Iranian authorities. In his song, Madani acknowledges Hajipour’s words that “made the pains of millions into a flying message” but offers to share “some of his endless pains” about ethnic oppression in Iran, which is absent in Hajipour’s song, although he mentions Afghans’ suffering. As Madani says, “forgive me for saying my wounds are older and deeper than yours/ there are thousands of ‘fors’ in my heart.” Madani begins his words by referencing Jîna and the erasure of her Kurdish name in life and after: “For Jîna, who was not allowed neither in life, nor after death, to be called by her own name, nor written in history by that.” Madani sings of the “invisible” pains of “Kurds, Lors, Arabs, Balochs;” for “centuries of oppression, of submission;” “for cultures and identities buried alive;” and for “an imprisoned language.” Diyako Khaleqi also published a Kurdish rendition of Hajipour’s song, which references violence against “kulbars” [Kurdish cross-border porters,]  and “Shin Abad”  among others. These are cries from a people unheard to remind fellow Iranians of their unseen pains, at a time of emerging solidarities.
There have also been reports that Kurds have been shut down in solidarity demonstrations in the diaspora for raising a Kurdish flag or objecting to the erasure of Jîna’s Kurdish name/identity. An article in the Welsh paper, Nation Cymru, noted that the Kurdish All Wales Association (KAWA) was not allowed to bring Kurdish flags to the Senedd and “the only flags visible in photos of the demonstrations are those of the flag of Iran prior to the Islamic revolution of the 1970s”. As a result, Kurds held their own demonstrations in Cardiff.
More promisingly, inside Iran, never-before-heard protest chants such as “Kurdistan, the light of Iran” in various non-Kurdish parts of Iran and slogans such as “Azerbaijan is awake, and standing by Kurdistan” in Turkic cities of Iran, show there is a new form of solidarity forming on among those on the streets. For example, university students in Tabriz chanted “Jin, Jîyan, Azadî” in Kurdish to show solidarity with Kurdish cities under the siege of the state. This is a promising sign of unity in a country that has long been deeply-divided.
Kurdish Feminism and Feminist Solidarities
Women on the ground in Iran weaving such solidarities among different groups in their resistance against the gender-apartheid system is both exciting and promising. However, without due attention to the marginalization of these various groups, as well as their struggles of freedom, mainstream representations and calls and statements of solidarity can play into two conservative and essentialist types of feminism rather than a progressive, anti-colonial feminist movement with a broader freedom agenda, signs of which are present on the ground.
The first is an imperialist pseudo-feminism, which seems to support women’s struggles in the Middle East without problematizing the role of European/North American governments and institutions in the criminalization and oppression of the people in the region. While it is a good sign that women in Europe and the U.S. are showing support for the women in Iran in their struggles, solidarity messages in the West otherwise silence around their governments’ anti-immigrant policies impacting the lives of millions of women in the Middle East raises questions. For example, a Swedish member of the European Parliament, Abir Al-Sahlani, cut her hair in solidarity with the protestors saying “Until the women of Iran are free, we are going to stand with you”.
While asking for concrete actions by the European Parliament to show their solidarity, it was most ironic that Al-Sahlani ended her speech, with “Women, Life, Freedom”, a slogan of the Kurdish women’s movement that Sweden decided to further criminalize to appease the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has objected to Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership. In a trilateral memorandum, signed in June, the governments of Turkey, Finland, and Sweden outlined a plan to monitor Kurdish and pro-Kurdish political movements in Finland and Sweden. This memorandum further criminalizes many Kurdish women who have actively created mechanisms and procedures of gender equality in the Kurdish movement. Hence while standing in solidarity with the protests in Iran, Western feminists need to stand against their governments’ criminalization of freedom movements and refugees’ escaping the very regimes in the Middle East they recognize to be oppressive.
A second type of feminist gaze one needs to be wary of is an essentialist feminism with a universal category of “woman” devoid of layers of class, racial and colonial oppressions and divisions. Kurdish women in Iran have faced religious, ethnic, and gender marginalization, and have decades of civil disobedience and activism experience. Kurdish women in the broader Middle East have been criminalized and assassinated by other regimes, exemplified by the recent assassination of Nagihan Akarsel by the Turkish state in Sulaymaniyah within the borders of Iraqi Regional Government. The timing of Akarsel’s assassination is most ironic because as the editor of Jineology Magazine  and a member of the Jineology Committee of the Kurdish Women’s Freedom movement, she was personally involved in coining the chant “Jin, Jîyan Azadî.” While the chant went viral around the globe, there was complete silence around her assassination.
For Akarsel and thousands of other Kurdish women, the emancipation of women and a revolution toward a free society led by women must go hand in hand. Similar to intersectional theories and methods developed by Black women in the U.S., Kurdish Women’s freedom movements have been aware that a feminist movement that is centered around “equality” of women alone or “women’s empowerment” in otherwise racist, capitalist, and colonial societies will not bring the ultimate freedom that all women need. That is why the Kurdish Women’s Freedom Movement has organized women’s autonomous institutions and practices like self-defense to fight simultaneously against the colonial states and patriarchal structures and mentalities within their own societies. This conception of women freeing societies in all spheres of life from patriarchal states to male-centered positivist sciences and more is the core of “Jin, Jîyan, Azadî.”
For Kurdish women in Iran more specifically, leading anti-assimilationist cultural activities despite gender codes and against ethnic oppression is already an intersectional struggle. Playing key roles in decades of Kurdish resistance and activism, Kurdish women activists have paid the heaviest price for resisting gender and colonial codes of the state. A case in point is Zara Mohammadi, Kurdish language teacher living in Iran and co-founder of Nojîn cultural association, who was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment for teaching Kurdish in 2021. The intersectional oppression these women resist on a daily basis, as well as their aspirations for freedom, is a lesson for a democratic feminist struggle with broader demands of freedom. As such, centering their struggle has an emancipatory potential for Iran and the broader Middle East.
Protestors know Jîna is Kurdish and have shown a courageous readiness to face their own privileges and recognize the state has been built upon the marginalization of women, and ethnic and religious minorities.
Call Jîna by her Kurdish name and remember the struggle behind the slogan of “Women, Life, Freedom.”. It is a vital act of recognition, as well as a call for an intersectional feminist movement that is simultaneously anti-racist and anti-colonial.
 According to Hengaw Human Rights Organization in 2019, “at least 74 Kurdish kulbars were killed on Kurdistan’s borders and roads, and 174 were injured. Of those killed, 50 were directly shot by security forces and border guards, 23 lost their lives after falling off the mountain, avalanches and freezing to death, and one was killed when a landmine exploded. Of the injured, 144 were directly injured by security forces.”
 Shin Abad is a Kurdish village in Piran Shahr. In 2012, a girls’ school caught on fire due to inefficient heating facilities. 29 students were burned, 3 of whom lost their lives. 12 students were in critical condition and had to undergo numerous surgeries, but they have been struggling with expenses, despite the efforts of campaigners.
 Jineology is a scientific approach centered on women’s experiences and perspectives and provides an alternative to patriarchal positivistic theories and methods of science dominant in capitalist societies.
 From Sojourner Truth’s activism in the mostly while Women’s Suffrage Movement in the US, to the Marxist feminist Claudia Jones in the Communist Party of the US in the 1930s, to Frances Beal’s theories of “Double Jeopardy” against Black women in the 1960s, to the concept of intersectionality first developed by the Black feminists of the Combahee River Collective in the 1970s, Black women have advocated for a struggle that is simultaneously anti-racist and anti-patriarchal.