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Iran’s protesters find inspiration in a Kurdish revolutionary slogan

For 41 days, thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets in anger over the death of a young Kurdish woman in police custody, despite the authorities’ continuing crackdown on her. The demonstrations in honor of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, whose Kurdish first name was Jina, have become the largest women’s rights movement in Iran’s recent history.

A resounding slogan has become the movement’s rallying cry: “Jin, jiyan, azadi!” — or “Woman, life, freedom!”

The slogan, first chanted by mourners at Amini’s funeral in her hometown of Saqez, quickly spread from the country’s Kurdish cities to the capital, Tehran. It was revived in its Farsi translation – “Zan, zendegi, azadi” – and the message continues to reverberate across solidarity protests from Berlin to New York. Also fashion brands like Balenciaga and Gucci posted the slogan on their Instagram feeds.

The words “jin, jiyan, azadi” and their various translations have united Iranians across ethnic and social lines. They stand for the demand for women’s bodily autonomy and for a collective resistance against 43 years of oppression by the Iranian regime.

But Kurdish activists say some Iranians and the media are overlooking key elements of the Kurdish background of both Amini herself and the slogan that has been pulsing through the mass protests sparked by her death.

“It’s supposed to be a universal slogan for a universal women’s struggle. That’s what it always meant,” says Elif Sarican, a London-based anthropologist and activist in the Kurdish women’s movement. “But the root needs to be understood, at least in terms of the people who gave their lives for it, but also to understand what that says. … These are not just words.”

The slogan was popularized during women’s marches in Turkey in 2006

The slogan comes from the Kurdish freedom movement led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group that has been leading an insurgency against Turkish authorities since the 1980s. The State Department has long classified the PKK as a terrorist organization.

The slogan was inspired by the writings of Abdullah Öcalan, co-founder of the PKK, who said that “a country cannot be free unless women are free”.

Öcalan championed what he called “jineoloji,” a Kurdish feminist school of thought. This ultimately led to the development of an autonomous women’s struggle – the Kurdish women’s movement – within the broader Kurdish freedom movement, Sarican explains.

She says the slogan first broke on March 8, 2006 during International Women’s Day marches in Turkey. With around 15 million Kurds, Turkey is home to the largest Kurdish population in the Middle East. Although they make up an estimated 18-20% of the country’s population, they face discrimination and persecution.

Kurdish women demonstrate March 10, 2007 during International Women's Day celebrations in Diyarbakir, Turkey.  Their protest signs read: "woman, life, freedom," "Long live March 8th," "No to the massacre of women" and "No to molestation and rape." More than 1,500 women gathered for International Women's Day in the predominantly Kurdish city.

/ Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images

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Mustafa Özer/AFP/Getty Images

Kurdish women demonstrate March 10, 2007 during International Women’s Day celebrations in Diyarbakir, Turkey. Their protest signs read: “Woman, life, freedom”, “Long live the 8 molestation and rape.” More than 1,500 women gathered in the predominantly Kurdish city for International Women’s Day.

Since 2006, Sarican says: “Every year, based on ‘jin, jiyan, azadi’ as the philosophy of freedom, there have been various campaigns announced and declared by the Kurdish women’s movement on every March 8th of the world – to say that this our contribution, this is our call and our encouragement for a common struggle of women against colonialism and patriarchal capitalism.”

Five years ago, Kurdish female guerrilla fighters from the YPJ militia chanted the slogan during the Kurdish-led Rojava revolution in northern Syria that began in 2012.

Kurds in Iran face discrimination and many live in poverty

Ignoring the political history of the slogan contributes to the longstanding erasure of the Kurdish people’s identity and struggle, activists say.

That was also the case in the international coverage of Amini’s death, they claim, which uses Mahsa – Amini’s state-sanctioned first name. In interviews, Amini’s parents have used both her Iranian and Kurdish names.

Like many Kurds in Iran, Amini was not allowed to legally register her Kurdish name, which means “life.”

“I felt like she died twice because nobody really mentioned her Kurdish name or background, which is so relevant,” says Beri Shalmashi, an Amsterdam-based Iranian-Kurdish writer and filmmaker.

Kurds, who make up an estimated 15% of Iran’s population, not only face ethnic discrimination, but are marginalized in a Shia-majority country as Sunni Muslims. Their language is restricted and they make up almost half of Iran’s political prisoners. The country’s Kurdish regions are also among the poorest.

According to news reports, the Iranian government has blamed the Kurds for the current unrest in Iran and has attacked mostly Kurdish cities such as Sanandaj and Oshnavieh. Some Persian nationalists, meanwhile, continue to ignore the lived experiences of Kurds in the country.

Shalmashi believes it is important to highlight Amini’s Kurdish identity and Kurdish roots of “jin, jiyan, azadi” to remind of the need for greater rights for all people in Iran today – regardless of their ethnicity or gender. Without inclusion and unity, she warns, the current protests risk becoming meaningless.

“Because if you don’t make space for people to be in this together,” she says, “then what are you going to do if you succeed at all?”

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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