Kurdish Women: Pioneers of Struggle Against Iran’s Regime
By Gordyaen Benyamin Jermayi
“Although the enemy thinks their captivity will silence me, let them know that every corner of a prison cell is a library. My thoughts of freedom only expand in captivity. Doomed are those enemies who believe prison will break us.”
— Zara Mohammadi, after being released (February 2023)
The modern history of the Kurdish people contains the names of several women who were historical trailblazers in the struggle against the contemporary Iranian, Turkish, Syrian, and Iraqi states. Among them were Mastoureh Ardalan, Hapsa Khan, Kara Fatima Khanum, Lady Adela, Meyan Khatun, Leyla Bedir Khan, and many others. Following in their footsteps, their descendants from Leyla Qasim in the 1970s to Leyla Zana in the 1990s, are defending themselves from the four aforementioned states, as well as from patriarchy and misogyny across cultures and religion.
The Rojava Revolution is commonly regarded as the first fruitful Kurdish women’s revolution, during which Kurdish women organized the YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) to defend themselves, their families, communities, and homeland from ISIS. However, the formation of the YPJ was the result of the Kurdish women’s historical struggle against colonial and imperial forces for at least over a century.
Women are the key innovators and are fighting for their basic human rights on the front lines of today’s revolution across all four regions of Greater Kurdistan. As with other Kurdish movements, the recent uprising known as ‘Jina’s Revolution’ (after Jina Amini) inside Iran, with the Kurdish slogan of Jin, Jîyan, Azadî (Women, Life, Freedom), has been making headlines for months and has strong roots in the Kurdish people’s long history of freedom struggles.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has a reputation for being one of the most misogynistic and anti-woman in the world, depriving women of their most fundamental human rights both by the state and within society. This regime has been specifically targeting women from Eastern Kurdistan (northwest Iran) because of their long-standing opposition to the central Iranian state. Under the Iranian government, the situation for Kurdish women has increasingly become worse over the last few decades. This article will discuss the experiences of three well-known Kurdish women who have encountered different types of injustice and discrimination at the hands of the Iranian state.
Zeynab was born on March 10th, 1982, to a Kurdish family from Dim Qişlaq, a village close to Maku in the province of Urmia. In the entire Iranian prison system, she is the only female political prisoner who has been given a life sentence. She has been held captive for almost 15 years, and during that time has endured horrendous torture, lack of medical care, a ban on visiting family members, and a denial of access to a lawyer.
Zeynab was imprisoned in Kirmaşan (Kermanshah) on March 2008, and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Court later sentenced her to death for allegedly being a member of PJAK (Kurdistan Free Life Party). The Iranian court accused her of “Moharebeh,” which means “waging war against God” and is punishable by death under Iranian law. She was sentenced in a quick hearing that took place while she was unwell from the conditions of the prison and the torture she had endured and without the presence of her lawyer. Despite Zeynab Jalalian’s rejection of all charges, her death sentence was confirmed by the Iranian Supreme Court in November 2009. On June 28, 2010, her family announced that Zeynab had informed them that she was being held at the notorious Evin prison. Later, Zeynab’s family and attorney were informed by the prison authorities that she had passed away. She was held in Ward 209 of the Evin Prison for five months without being allowed to contact her family or lawyer. Later, she was returned to Kermanshah Central Prison. Finally, the prison administration informed her verbally that her sentence had been changed to life in prison in December 2011.
Zeynab Jalalian had been afflicted with a number of illnesses as a result of the cruel conditions of the Iranian prisons and the physical and mental torture of prisoners. In 2016, while in Khoy prison, she was suffering from a severe dental infection and heart problems and was denied access to proper medical treatments by the Iranian authorities.
Her father revealed that she had been quarantined at the Gharchak Women’s Prison in Varamin, close to Tehran, since April 29, 2020, and that she had tested positive for COVID-19 in June 2020, during the global pandemic.
Likewise, health standards are not observed in Iranian prisons, and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence did not allow her to be transferred to a medical center outside the prison. She continues to suffer from a range of other health issues, yet remains untreated.
In late July 2020, Zeynab was transferred to Kerman Prison while in poor health. Later, on September 24, 2020, she was returned back to Dizel Abad Prison in Kermanshah. She was placed in hand and leg cuffs and transported to Yazd Central Prison in November 2020 while being physically assaulted and verbally threatened. The Iranian government frequently subjects prisoners and their families to these instantaneous relocations as a form of physical and mental torture. The family of Zeynab Jalalian has also been threatened by the Iranian government. Guzel Hajizadeh, Zeynab’s mother, was detained by Iranian security forces on February 21, 2022, in their home in Mako (Maku), during the ongoing women-led Revolution throughout Rojhilat and Iran. This was due to her statement urging the international community to exert pressure on the Iranian government to release her daughter.
Zeynab is only permitted to make sporadic phone calls to her parents, with whom she can only communicate for a brief period of time in Persian (not Kurdish), and is not permitted to have visits. This is despite the fact that her elderly parents are unable to speak Persian.
Despite Zeynab Jalalian’s severe health condition, mental and physical torture, threats against her family, and international organizations’ calls for her release, the Iranian state continues to hold her in prison and constantly relocate her, which is against all international and basic human rights.
Zara Mohammadi, a Kurdish language teacher, activist, and director of the Nojin cultural NGO who holds a master’s degree in geopolitics from Birjand University, was born in 1990 in the city of Dewilan (Dehgolan) in Eastern Kurdistan. Since 2013, she has been voluntarily teaching Kurdish language to the Kurdish children in villages close to Sine (Kurdistan Province), near where she was born. She was recognized as one of the BBC 100 Women of 2022 for her work defending the Kurdish people’s mother tongue and advancing this fundamental human right, which approximately 10–12 million Kurds living in Iran are deprived of.
Zara was detained along with two of her co-workers on May 23, 2019, by the Iranian Intelligence Forces for allegedly collaborating with Kurdish political parties: Rebwar and Edris Menbari. She was temporarily released on bail after serving roughly six months in prison.
Zara Mohammadi was sentenced to 10 years in prison on July 14, 2020, by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Court in Sine on charges of “framing a group against national security” while being denied access to a lawyer. The court of appeals reduced her sentence to 5 years later, in October 2020. On January 2, 2022, the Nojin NGO announced that Zara Mohammadi was being sent to prison to serve her sentence.
Approximately one year later, Zara Mohammadi was released from prison without any previous notifications to her or her lawyer. She announced this via a video on her Instagram page moments after her release, stating that she was “thrown out” of prison without any requests for a pardon from her or her lawyer.
Her release was a part of the nationwide pardon that the supreme leader of Iran announces every year on the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution’s victory, which is typically used for propaganda purposes.
Zara’s persecution has not spared her family either. On January 3, 2023, her husband, Seyvan Ebrahimi, a Kurdish language teacher and activist from Kamyran, was arrested by the Iranian security forces with no clear charges against him. He was later released on January 16, 2023.
The fight to protect the Kurdish language has continued despite Kurdish being restricted and banned by the Iranian government for more than a century. Thanks to the growth of the internet and social media among Kurdish youth, the Kurdish people are now more aware and informed of their right to their mother tongue.
As one of the leading figures in Kurdish resistance to the Iranian government’s discriminations, Zara Mohammadi has become one of the main pioneers and inspirations for the Kurdish people’s desire to demand fundamental rights such as education in their mother tongue. Luckily, she is not the only one. In addition to Zara Mohammadi, a number of other Kurdish activists and educators are also being investigated and prosecuted for no other reason than teaching Kurdish to younger generations.
Suda is a 33-year-old Kurdish woman from Pîranşar (Piranshahr) who was detained on October 14, 2021, by Iranian intelligence forces and transferred to Urmia Central Prison two days later while pregnant.
The Iranian criminal court accused her of aiding her husband’s escape and conspiring with him to murder Khidir Pirouti, an IRGC member, on October 5, 2021. She was also charged with membership in the PDKI (Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan)
In a voice message, she refuted every charge and claimed that she was being held as a hostage and that the prison officers had offered her unethical recommendations after threatening her. She also went on a hunger strike for over 10 days to protest the conditions she was kept in despite being in her 8th month of pregnancy.
On June 21, 2022, she gave birth to her daughter Ala in the hospital, while her family had no information about her health. Only 10 hours after going through labor, she was sent back to the prison. Due to unfavourable conditions in prison and psychological pressure, she attempted suicide on August 18, 2022, in the Urmia Central Prison by hanging herself and then making a second attempt by giving a pill to her two-month-old child.
Suda was held inhumanely as a political prisoner in the drug-related crimes ward at Urmia Central, without access to proper food, while carrying a child, and being in poor health after having her appendix removed in a medical facility in Urmia and suffering from heart issues and back issues. Additionally, she was denied the right to contact an attorney and visit her family while she was detained.
The report of Suda Khidirzadeh and Zahra Sadighi Hamedani’s suicide attempt was made public in the middle of September 2022. As a result, the prisoners protested when the Iranian security forces, working with the prison authorities, installed hearing devices on the prison’s phones, and searched the inmates for communication devices while stripping them of their clothing.
On September 6, 2022, Suda was sentenced to 12 years and 6 months in prison by the Iranian judiciary. She has been kept in prison with her child since then, and there is little information about their condition now.
The Struggle Continues
In addition to the aforementioned cases, there are countless other Kurdish women who suffer the worst forms of discrimination, physical abuse, and psychological torture. This is due to the fact that Kurdish women are regarded as third-class citizens for three reasons: first, they are Kurdish; second, many of them are non-Shia Muslims; and third, they are female.
In essence, Kurdish women suffer significantly more than Kurdish men, and Kurdish men suffer significantly more than other Persian citizens of Iran. The ongoing illegal detainment of Kurdish women, the threat of sexual and physical violence, and other forms of torture during detainment is meant to serve as a form of deterrence against the Kurds. Yet, despite these obvious threats, Kurdish women continue to pioneer the freedom struggle of their people. Non-Persian and non-Shia peoples such as the Kurds and Baloch continue to suffer extensively at the hands of the Iranian regime. It is no wonder that they continue to pioneer and lead the struggles for basic human, cultural and linguistic rights throughout the country.