By Rojin Mukriyan
Jin, Jiyan, Azadî (woman, life, freedom), a Kurdish slogan, is the leading motto for a revolutionary movement in Iran since September 16, 2022. It was triggered by the killing of Jîna Aminî at the hands of the infamously brutal ‘morality’ police. Since then, men and women have been chanting Jin, Jiyan, Azadî across Iran. This slogan goes beyond the monolithic identity of the nation-state and breaks all the artificial divisions such as ethnic, linguistic, religious, class, and, more importantly, gender boundaries. But the question is, what does this slogan entail? Why did it become a unifying motivation for this revolutionary movement?
The original thinking behind the phrase Jin, Jiyan, Azadî was generated in the Kurdish Qandil mountains from the political philosophy of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and its various offshoots. For Öcalan, the 5,000-year-old history of civilization is first and foremost the history of the enslavement of women. It can be said that civilization is, for Öcalan, a series of overlapping forms of domination and enslavement. This slavery has been perpetuated on three levels.
First, there is an ideological slavery that dominates the mind and which consists in a kind of society-wide mass self-delusion, or false consciousness, concerning the legitimacy of the series of dominations that makes civilization possible in the first place. This is exemplified most clearly in religion. Second, there is the more literal and physical use of force that civilizing processes requires, up to and including actual chattel slavery. Third, through the seizure of the economy and monopolization of the productive forces of human labor, there is the universal condition of wage slavery. Öcalan insists that these kinds of slavery that were essential for early civilization, as witnessed in the earliest known civilization of Sumer, have persisted into our age, what he calls ‘capitalist modernity.’ Neoliberalism is the political ideology that champions capitalist modernity and thus the various forms of slavery that make civilization possible.
For Öcalan, the condition of possibility for the advent of the kinds of slavery that constitutes civilization is the enslavement of women. Öcalan regards women as the first, and thus, the most thoroughly dominated and enslaved group. Before there could be any civilizing process, women must have first been enslaved and dominated. Öcalan also believes a gender revolution is fundamental in breaking the chain of these overlapping forms of domination. No other kinds of liberation from enslavement will fully improve the human condition until women are liberated. Therefore, Ocalan argues that society will not be free without the liberation of women as women represent the power of the organic, natural, and egalitarian societies that characterized the hunter-gather-forager lives of humans prior to the collapse into civilization.
The phrase Jin, Jiyan, Azadî expresses this liberatory intent of Öcalan’s understanding of the origin and overcoming of civilization and its attendant forms of slavery. It has long become the leading slogan for the Kurdish women’s liberation movement, especially in the revolutionary struggle of Kurdish women forces against ISIS in Northern Syria, widely called Rojava. It can be said that certain Kurdish women are leading a new wave of feminism under the banner of this slogan. This new wave of feminism could be called confederalist feminism, based at it is on Öcalan’s overall political project meant to overcome and replace civilization, democratic confederalism. Confederalist feminism champions a radical republican notion of freedom as non-domination, not merely non-interference. It is constitutionally egalitarian and yet also deeply libertarian. It prioritizes a genuine liberty over a merely formalistic equality or state-bound breed of inclusion. In other words, confederalist feminism believes that equality based on genuine diversity is achievable if, and only if, a genuine liberty is provided, a kind of freedom wherein women are not subject to any possible degrees of arbitrary interference. Confederalist feminist liberty is thus here understood in both positive and negative terms. In positive terms, it is understood as a both an individual and collective means for the realization of the human potential for self-determination and flourishing. In its negative sense, it is understood in a radical republican manner as the overall systematic prevention of any asymmetries in power to ever realize themselves through the overlapping slaveries and forms of domination that constitute civilization.
Now, the question is how could we achieve this freedom? From a confederalist feminist perspective, society could achieve this liberty if it could establish a form of governance based on democratic confederalism. Öcalan proposes the concept of democratic confederalism as a solution to the Kurdish question and the decades of oppression and violence imposed on them. To put it in other terms, he tries to resolve the Kurdish question, and even the prevailing conflict in the Middle East, through a reconceptualization of the concepts of nation and democracy. He redefines the concept of nation in a subjectivist sense. He portrays a nation as a community of those who share a common mindset based on solidarity and equality. In other words, having a shared mindset and culture makes one eligible to be classified as a nation despite possessing different ‘national’ backgrounds, ethnicities, races, languages, and genders. These nations, as described by Öcalan, can become truly democratic if they organise themselves based on the principles of democratic confederalism, thereby forming a ‘democratic nation.’ In contrast to the nation-state, a democratic nation signifies plurality and inclusive communities in which free and equal citizens coexist together in solidarity. For Öcalan, this democratic nation is not seeking to become a nation in the sense of a hierarchical, racist, and violent nation-state.
However, as Öcalan puts it, defining nationhood only through the prism of a collective mindset would itself be rather incomplete. As a mind cannot exist without its body, the nation cannot function without its body as well. In a nation-state, the state is the body of the nation. It is the people understood as a collective entity. But in a democratic nation, democratic confederalism itself is supposed to be the body of the nation. Öcalan formulates democratic confederalism as an alternative to the nation-state. Strictly speaking, it is a non-state direct democracy. He describes it as a network of non-hierarchical political self-administrations based on an inclusive ethical politics. It is a flexible, multi-cultural, anti-monopolistic and consensus-oriented system. ‘Feminism (Jineologî)’, ‘ecology’, and ‘democratic autonomy’ are its three constituent pillars.
Theoretically, democratic autonomy essentially denotes the self-governance of communities and individuals who share a similar mindset through their own will. This could also be called democratic governance or authority. As noted by some, the project of democratic autonomy is based on the twofold mechanism of Athenian-style direct democracy and Kantian autonomy. According to Athenian democracy, all citizens could and should participate directly in political decision-making to create and nurture a common life. In other words, the public and private lives of citizens were intertwined, and ethics and politics were integrated into the life of the political community. In the Athenian or classical model of democracy there is no distinction between the city-state and society. That is, the people- read at the time as strictly a certain group of men only- govern themselves and possess sovereign power or supreme authority in making legislative decisions. Democracy in this sense is a form of life, not merely a form of government. Democratic autonomy is similar to Kantian autonomy insofar as it is the people themselves that must determine and decide for their own future. Under a principle of democratic autonomy, all people have the right to freely make policies for themselves in order to govern their communal life.
In the spirit of Athenian democracy, democratic autonomy is an attempt to break from centralization and the representative system common to presently existing democratic states. Unlike contemporary democracy, it strives to empower locals. That is to say, political power is not concentrated. Rather it is delegated at the local level through assemblies and councils which then coordinate at a confederal level. The autonomous communes, as the smallest local units, are the main body of political decision-making. The higher autonomous self-administrative units exist to ensure that the decisions of different communes do not conflict. In such a system, people freely make decisions concerning their communities and organizations through a grassroots participatory democracy. In other words, people govern themselves.
As we can now see, confederalist feminism fits into democratic confederalism quite nicely. It seeks to bring a fundamental change to the structure of the existing domineering institutions of the state. It seeks to liberate woman and generate an egalitarian society that allows for co-existence and equal direct participation in the political process. Doing this, it seeks to establish a form of governance in which the distribution of power is horizontally balanced. It offers an alternative to all the other waves of feminism. Nowhere in western feminism does one find an explicit identification with direct democracy as a necessary condition for the achievement of freedom for women.
One example of confederalist feminism in action is the system used in Rojava, or the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANEAS). The women in Rojava are governing themselves based on the principles of democratic confederalism. Political power in Rojava has been distributed in a balanced and horizontal way, or at least such a practice has been the intention. They established all-women councils that are dealing with women-specific issues such as divorce, inheritance, child custody, domestic violence, access to the public sphere and more. At the same time, they have equal presence in all other bottom-up and top-down institutions. A man and woman are co-chairing all the institutions in Rojava. More importantly, women possess their own self-defense units. The Rojavan style of governing is fascinating for many reasons. First, the Kurdish people have somehow found a way to implement the most radical version of governance and feminism in one of the most patriarchal societies in the world. Second, they managed to organize themselves in the middle of the Syrian civil war. And, third, they have been doing achieving this while facing many existential treats such as ISIS and Turkey. Despite all these threats, the Rojava project continues to improve itself.
It is, however, important to contrast confederalist feminism with other waves of feminism. No other form of feminism has attempted to achieve liberation from the very dominating structures of civilization itself. Confederalist feminism, under the banner of Jin Jiyan Azadî, offers a universal, yet concrete alternative for women. Feminist movements generally emerged from the late 19 century to end women’s oppression and to bring gender equality to different domain of life, for example, in politics, economy, and society in general. Since then, different waves of feminism have formed to achieve this goal. For example, liberal feminism, the first wave of feminism, sought to end women’s oppression by seeking to obtain legal rights for women. Therefore, it sought to bring gender equality in the legal domain, such as the right to vote and property ownership, the right to divroce or enfrenchisement for women. Liberal feminists in general seek equality of opportunity within the existing framework of hierarchy of domination. In other words, liberal feminists are seeking inclusion within the existing system, which is hierarchical and domineering. For liberal feminism, liberty is only a negative and individualistic phenomenon. This form of liberty is understood as interpersonal non-interference. A suitable system that would let the practices of liberal feminism thrive would be what we already have in the West, representative democracy with a capitalist economy.
Second wave feminist alternatives, like Marxist feminism emerged around the 1960s. From a Marxist feminist perspective, the reason for women’s oppression is the capitalist economic system. This wave of feminism also could not, in the end, break its tie with the existing structure of the state. It believed that a socialist state could eventually replace the capitalist state. The third wave of feminism regards itself as the most radical form yet. It emerged around the 1990s and believes that the root of women’s oppression is the patriarchal nature of society itself. For them, patriarchy, the state, and the capitalist economic system are the backbone of each other, and so mutually reinforce each other’s dominance. This wave of feminism is much closer to confederalist feminism. However, this wave still neglects a truly egalitarian intersectionality. This criticism led to the emergence of the fourth wave of feminism, which greatly emphasized intersectionality. The idea here is that identities are different and not all women are oppressed in the same way. For example, Kurdish women are oppressed both as women and as Kurds. These intersecting oppressions means that the efforts towards liberation is not all the same and equal for women, since some women are more oppressed than others.
With confederal feminism we can say we have a version of a fourth wave kind of feminism that focuses on achieving a degree of constitutional egalitarianism that would truly overcome the deep structures of domination that characterize human civilization. One can have different readings of the slogan Jin Jiyan Azadî based on the differing waves of feminism. However, if one captures the true meaning of this slogan, it would be clear that the people in Iran are not merely demanding the end of the Iranian regime, but to establish a system of governance based on the principles of genuine equality and freedom. The true meaning of Jin Jiyan Azadî is found in the confederalist feminism that makes truly egalitarian and directly democratic confederalism possible. The phrase’s true meaning is that all systems of hierarchy, slavery, and domination must be overcome. Jin, Jiyan, Azadi is thus not a baseless-slogan devoid of an accompanying ideology. Rather, it’s rich and critical analysis of all hierarchies of power and oppression means that there is a specific formula for the liberation of diverse groups of peoples within the confines of a state such as Iran.