Azadî in the Homeland & inside the Home
By Gordyaen Benyamin Jermayi
International Women’s Day, observed annually on March 8th, honors women worldwide for their accomplishments, bravery in the pursuit of equal rights, and resistance to gender-based violence. But this year, the 2023 International Women’s Day had a special relevance in Eastern Kurdistan, Balochistan, and Ahwaz – because of the ongoing revolution taking place throughout ‘Iran’. A monumental collective upheaval from below that has deep roots in the Kurdish liberation movement and their decades of struggle against occupation, colonialism, and discrimination.
In this latest case, the foremothers and previous rebellions of Kurdish women have served as inspiration and a model for the most recent uprising against the Iranian State. However, although Kurdish women have been fighting alongside Kurdish men, and in some cases, leading movements against the four states occupying Greater Kurdistan, they have also been fighting against the patriarchal and abusive social structures within Kurdish society itself. In this way, the struggle of Kurdish women is simultaneously divided into two parts: the first against the oppressive states denying all Kurds their full human rights, and the second against the misogynistic arrangements present within their own often conservative society.
Jîna was the Spark
It has been over 170 days since the so-called “Morality Police” of the Iranian government brutally murdered the Kurdish woman Jîna Amini. Her tragic death sparked a full-scale revolution that has deep connections with the Kurdish women’s struggle for freedom and equal rights. The main slogan of Iran’s current revolution, “Jin, Jiyan, Azadî” (Women, Life, Freedom) reflects the demands of these women, who are fighting against both the occupation of their homeland which racistly represses them for their ethnicity, but also an Iranian regime that sexistly subjugates them for their gender. This duality is important in order to understand the forces that these valiant women are truly up against. Yet, there is a third dynamic at play as well, where Kurdish women are also trying to break free within their own families and community.
But as the revolution of Kurdish women in Eastern Kurdistan (northwest Iran) – also known to Kurds as Rojhilat – continues, this article will discuss their struggles against the Iranian state and within their own society, which due to a lack of information and Iran’s isolation have not received enough international attention.
Freeing the Homeland
The modern Iranian states – both the Pahlavi dynasty and the Islamic Republic – have subjected the Kurdish people to racism, demographic changes, wars, massacres, poverty, and discrimination in the past century.
As one would expect, the Kurds have continuously responded with resistance and have endeavored to defend their freedom. Simko Shikak’s revolt, Qadam Khair’s revolt, the Republic of Kurdistan led by Qazi Muhammad, the resistance of East Kurdistan in the 1970s and 1980s, and the recent Women’s Revolution are all attempts by the Kurdish people to achieve their basic human rights. The Kurds of Rojhilat are intimately familiar with what it means to struggle against Iranian despotism in Tehran that views them as second-class citizens.
In all these movements and uprisings, Kurdish women have played a significant role as leaders, decision-makers, and fighters. For example, Qadam Khair Feyli was one of the women who led an uprising against the central Iranian state led by Reza Pahlavi in the 1930s. The first women’s union, called the Kurdistan Democratic Women’s Union of Iran, was founded in 1945 by Mina Qazi, the wife of Qazi Muhammad, to advance the rights and education of Kurdish women. The Komala Party established the first female Peshmerga unit in 1982 to combat the Islamic Republic of Iran’s hostility toward Kurds. Likewise, under the Shah, Kurdish dresses were “considered as dirty and unsightly”, and women were forced into wearing ‘Western’ apparel against their wishes.
The current Islamic Republic of Iran, one of the most misogynistic countries in the world, has been repressing women, especially Kurdish and other non-Persian and non-Shia Muslim women, in order to impose its power and fear on the population. Thousands of Kurdish women have been killed, injured, tortured, and forced to flee their homes as a result of the Iranian government’s 40+ year brutal crackdown. Kurdish provinces in the northwest (Eastern Kurdistan) remain deliberately underdeveloped and deprived, have the highest rates of unemployment, and lack equal access to basic services. As an aside, the situation is even worse for the struggling Baloch community in southeast ‘Iran’ (Western Balochistan), a topic which merits its own article to fully summarize.
This recent deprivation against Kurds has its roots in the last “Iranian Revolution”. After the Kurds openly boycotted the “Islamic Republic” referendum in 1979, the new Iranian theocracy started attacking Eastern Kurdistan in its early months. The Iranian judge Sadegh Khalkhali gave the order to machine-gun Shirin Bawafa, a nurse from the Kurdish city of Sine (Sanandaj), for providing medical care to civilians who were being bombed by the Iranian Army. Later, the Iranian army brutally machine-gunned numerous Kurdish girls and women, including other nurses like Shahla and Nasrin Kaabi. As a result, thousands of women, including Shirin Alamholi, Zeynab Jalalian, Zara Muhammadi, Mojgan Kavusi, Soheyla Hijab, Faranak Jamshidi, and countless others, have been put to death, tortured, and imprisoned because they defended fundamental human rights, the environment, and educational opportunities for Kurdish people. This pressure against Kurdish women still continues, and with the beginning of the recent Jin, Jiyan, Azadî Revolution, the Iranian state has been increasing its acts of state terror more than ever on women.
In the recent revolution, nearly 130 Kurdish citizens were killed by Iranian forces in Eastern Kurdistan, of whom seven were women. While more than 7,000 other Kurdish citizens have been arrested, of whom nearly 240 are women. Many of these women have been shot as well. Because of the sexist and anti-feminist attitudes present in the Iranian army, the regime allegedly targets women’s faces, legs, chests, and genitalia in an effort to “destroy” or “downgrade” women by harming their innate womanhood. Undeterred, Kurdish women have played a significant role in the revolution despite facing threats of imprisonment, torture, rape, and death – which has inspired the wider movement of other ethnicities throughout Iran to continue their struggle as well.
Freeing the Home
In addition to Kurdish women’s resistance against the four states occupying Kurdistan, their fight closer to home (literally) against patriarchal traditions is interlinked. Men have historically been dominant and viewed as “superior” to women in all societies, and throughout the history of humanity women have been the target of discrimination based solely on their gender. Kurdish women are no exception; as they have experienced all types of discrimination and injustice, both in their own homes and in society.
Because boys are often seen as the family’s labor force and helpers in order to earn money for a better life, they are typically valued more highly in traditional Kurdish families than girls. The rural Kurdish way of life is based on agriculture, farming, and livestock, and the boys who are deemed to be “physically” stronger are valued more for working on the farms. Additionally, the girls are sometimes seen as temporary family members who will eventually leave the home when they marry another man, while boys are seen as lifelong members of the household. Additionally, overly conservative families will believe that the bloodline only runs through the male family members, making them the sole inheritors and protectors of the family legacy.
Under these beliefs, women and girls are treated as property, which is prevalent throughout the Middle East, creating a system where women can be exchanged for cash, livestock, land, and tribal relationships. Women are also the “Namus” (honor) of the family, representing modesty and honor. If they violate the rules or depart from the established order, they will suffer penalties such as abandonment, forced marriage, abuse, or even death.
Due to the fact that women are often viewed as the ‘lesser’ members of society, they are frequently denied access to basic human rights, education, and participation in society. This is because it is thought that women’s involvement in society will harm the “honor” of the family and that girls do not require education or employment because they will eventually get married and have to take care of their children. Since the men, as the “owners and leaders of the family”, have the duty to provide all what is needed, if women work too, it is considered a disgrace to the man’s honor. Naturally, there are differences between rural and urban locations. However, due to the ongoing pressure and gender-based violence imposed by the Iranian regime, and their specific targeting of women as the bearers of family honor in Kurdish society, even women in urban locations face many struggles.
The difficulties mentioned above are just a few examples of the problems Kurdish women, and women in the Middle East in general, have been encountering in their homes and societies. These problems have diminished to a certain extent as Kurdish society, particularly in Eastern Kurdistan, has become more educated and aware. This in part has also been due to the revolutionary struggles of Kurdish women in Western Kurdistan (Rojava), where the Turkish military and their jihadist proxies targeting of women – especially the YPJ forces – have led to a fundamental shift in patriarchal attitudes. The heroism of the YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) in defeating ISIS has also caused Kurds in all four regions of Kurdistan to re-evaluate the conservative traditions within Kurdish society. Nevertheless, some patriarchal practices are still present across Kurdish society, and more must be done to solve all of Kurdish Women’s historical problems.
Patriarchal practices are nothing new, nor endemic to Kurdish society. The violence against women as a global issue has deep roots in human history, which is based on capitalist and patriarchal ideologies and the false notion of “men’s superiority”. Even in some of the most advanced and developed societies globally, women continue to suffer greatly. According to UN Women, women are restricted from working in certain sectors and jobs in almost 50% of countries. In developed nations, women only make up 16% of corporate boards, while they earn $0.87 for every $1 earned by their male co-workers. Shockingly, one in three women globally will experience violence in some form in their lifetime. While women perform three times as much of the global unpaid care and domestic work worldwide, one in five girls under 15 grow up in extreme poverty. Finally, universally half of all female homicide victims in the past year died at the hands of a partner or family member.
Humanity must collectively undergo structural advancements in order to change this, which necessitates extensive education and the normalization of women’s rights as fundamental human rights. In addition, legislation from governments is required in order to pass laws that support women and equal rights for both sexes, which is also related to the level of societal awareness and demand. This is only part of the process however, as implementation of these laws remains an issue for many countries, despite their level of development and progress.
As seen through the Rojava Revolution and the gender revolution occurring there, we can see that by providing more opportunities for women to lead in the decisions regarding public policies, Kurdish political parties can also play a game-changing role in this process. The Kurds can undoubtedly accomplish their objectives of a free Kurdistan more quickly if women are given equal access to leadership positions and decision-making power. So, every Kurd involved in politics must demand that women have a full seat at every table and refuse to participate in movements that do not have equal numbers of men and women in leadership.
The Responsibility of Men
In Kurdish society, all men must realize that women make up over half of the human population, and without them there will be no progress. It can truly be said that a nation is not free, unless the women of that society are free. On the positive side, men have occasionally been supportive of women in greater Kurdish society. Although they were symbolic actions, they were crucial ones for Kurdish men to take in order to effect change and increase awareness of issues affecting women.
For example, in April 2013, the Iranian police dressed a Kurdish defendant in a red dress in the city of Merîwan and paraded him around the city as his punishment for the alleged crimes he had committed. This was to degrade and humiliate him because Iran is a sexist anti-woman state that views women as inferior and views femininity as a source of shame. Because of this, both men and women took part in protests across Merîwan. Later, thousands of Kurdish men inside Eastern Kurdistan and abroad created a Facebook page entitled “Being a woman is not humiliating and should not be considered as punishment”, where they shared photos in Kurdish clothes to show their solidarity with Kurdish women. Likewise, Kurdish women posted their photos in men’s clothes. In popular Kurdish-Iranian society, this was one of the first instances of men openly advocating for women’s rights. Such measures continue to create new waves of organic awareness and change within Rojhilati society, that continues to flow across the region and positively impact other nations and peoples as well.
In the recent revolution in Iran, Kurdish men across Kurdistan and the diaspora have also shown their full support for the women, and they have finally realized that the occupiers weaponize the condition of women as one of the main means of oppression against all Kurds. They realize that this oppression will not end against male Kurds, until Kurdish women experience fundamental changes in society and achieve their rights as well. The freedom of both genders are inextricably linked to one another and will either break free or stay in chains together.
While progress is certainly occurring in Kurdish society—like the rest of the world—it is still far from reaching a point where women and men truly enjoy equal rights. But equality is the goal, as it makes very little difference to a Kurdish woman from Kirmaşan whether it is an oppressive Mullah in Tehran or her abusive husband in the living room restricting her from going outside without a hijab and pursing her dreams, all she knows is that both are tyrants and need to be overthrown. That is the true essence of Jin, Jiyan, Azadî, giving Women their full Life and Freedom in the homeland and the home.