Reflecting on Jîna’s Legacy: One Year After Her Murder
By Dr. Hawzhin Azeez
A year has passed since the 22 year old Kurdish woman, Jîna Amini was brutally murdered at the hands of the Iranian morality police for incorrectly wearing her hijab. The Iranian regime and the coroner unequivocally rejected accusations that she died from blows to her head and limbs. Following her shocking death, mass protests erupted across Eastern Kurdistan in Iran, which soon spread to the rest of the country. Over the past decade, but especially since 2017, at least one major protest has erupted across the country per year. Yet, none have been so widespread, supported by various ethno-religious groups across Iran, and lasted as long as these latest protests.
Undoubtedly, the mass protests which erupted in the Kurdish regions of Iran in support of Jîna’s life and against the ongoing brutality of the regime against the Kurds and other minorities, was propelled and continued to maintain momentum long after other non-Kurdish regions had reduced their activism and protests. Experts noted that this latest round of protests were reflective of “a deep crisis of legitimacy on the part of the regime”, following years of economic stagnation and inflation across the country.
The Kurdish slogan of ‘Jin, Jiyan, Azadi’ (Women, Life, Freedom) took on a global resonance as Jîna’s death was seen as a result of patriarchal, oppressive, exclusionary, and capitalist state practices that violated the rights of oppressed minorities and ethno-religious communities. Jîna’s death came to represent a powerful symbolic act of feminine resistance and struggle, not just for the Kurds, but many other oppressed groups and communities across the world who similarly struggled with authoritarian regimes. Just as importantly, other oppressed communities in Iran such as the Baloch, Ahwaz Arabs and Azeris held mass protests and awareness raising campaigns in support of the Kurds and the legitimacy of their mutual plight in the country. Cross cultural empathy, awareness and fraternity reached an all-time high across communities which the traditional state system has endeavored to divide and pit against.
But a year on, we are left wondering just how much has changed? And if there have been tangible long term positive effects from the tragedy of Jîna’s death and the mass protests in Iran. Furthermore, whether the situation of oppressed groups such as the Kurds, Baloch, Ahwaz, and others in Iran have changed as a result of the mass protests. Whether the thousands of protestors arrested, tortured, murdered or disappeared have found any semblance of healing or justice? Three key points of contention remain for the Kurds including economic marginalization, political exclusion, and ethnic oppression. So long as these three conditions remain within the system of Iran the Kurds will remain key agitators and anti-regime protestors and the intense and heavy cycles of protests will continue.
A cursory review over the events of the past year show the plight of the oppressed minorities, despite the fact that they number in the millions. The situation of arrested protestors and their families, alongside the socio-economic and political condition of women in Iran, have been in a state of relative decline. In one example of many, a new bill introduced attempts to reimpose the infamous morality police back into Iranian society. Additionally, new punitive punishments are being introduced for those found to have violated Iran’s strict dress codes. Mass purges of critics across universities, plus arrests and harassment of protestors and their families continue weeks and months after each protest occurs.
Nevertheless, the death of Jîna has been a turning point in Iranian politics and the global perspective of the Iranian regime, who has to take on a conciliatory approach to appease the protests that erupted across 165 cities across the country. Even traditionally pro-regime cities such as Naziabad, Fallah, and Valiasr have broken out in mass protests highlighting the critical nature of the social-state relations in the country. Critics argue that the Mullah’s continue to remain nervous despite efforts to re-consolidate power. But the genie so to speak is out of the bottle, experts muse.
According to observers, however, “The fight for freedom has come at a heavy cost. Human rights groups report continued arrests of protesters, journalists, doctors, lawyers and academics. Religious and ethnic minorities, from Baha’is’ to Sunnis, to Kurds and Baloch continue to face persecution.” For some it seems, the cost in lives has not yielded enough long-term change for the uprising to have been viable.
As mass protests erupted globally in support of the uprisings in Iran the international community engaged in extensive dialogue in relation to what could be done to support the protestors as a spate of horrifying human rights violations ensued. According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency at least 19,200 protestors were detained and at least 537 protesters have been killed with that number increasing weekly. Universities, university students and school girls were the key drivers and organizers of the protests in at least 140 universities across all 31 provinces. Additionally, the average age of protestors arrested and detained is 15 years old raising global alarms as to the regime’s treatment of minorities during the protests. Likewise, the widespread, mysterious use of chemical gas poisoning of school girls, called an act of ‘biological terrorism’ was used to instill further terror and fear in a deliberately gendered way to punish women in their participation in the protests. At least 7 protestors have been executed resulting in the international community including the UN to strongly condemn the death penalty and call for an an immediate cessation of the execution of protestors and other political activists and detainees. According to a UK House of Commons briefing at least a 100 more protestors remain in immediate and imminent danger of execution.
A number of measures have been taken by the international community and states as a way of limiting the ongoing brutality of the Iranian regime and its retaliatory violence against the protestors including sanctions and travel bans. The United States declared the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, but many other countries such as Australia, Canada, and Europe have refused to adopt the same measure. Likewise a number of sanctions have been imposed on the regime recently. The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has sanctioned a network of individuals and entities across Iran as response to the protests. Even war-torn Ukraine has imposed sanctions on the Iranians.
Experts however have argued that sanctions rarely work or have the desired outcomes involving effective reforms. According to Agathe Demarais, author of the book Backfire: How Sanctions Reshape the World Against U.S. Interests, “The reality is that sanctions are sometimes effective, but most often not, and it is hard to accurately predict when they will work.” In this regard, sanctions have had a minimal effect in threatening change within the Iranian regime who continues to use its economic and diplomatic relations to impose its regional aspirations and curtail the protests violently and often effectively. The Iranian government continues to consolidate its power and it is likely that it’s authoritarianism, its heavy surveillance of society, social media, internet and technology will only increase in time.
The Iranian Economy
The economic conditions within the country have been detrimental in the rise of popular discontent against the regime. An increasingly crippling economy, an inflation rate of 50%, and the repeated decline of the value of the Iranian rial against the USD have resulted in worrying levels of poverty and dissatisfaction.
Economic experts have observed that “Prices continued to increase steadily while household purchasing power fell and the GDP growth rate slowed; that the economy did not contract was largely due to high oil prices. The steps the government have taken to deal with the economic challenges facing the country have been insufficient.” The new economic reform efforts of the hardline Iranian government and new leader Ebrahim Raisi, have fallen well short of expectations. The flow on effects have flowed down to the lower echelons of Iranian society, of which long oppressed minorities such as the Kurds, Baluch, and Bahá’í communities have been disproportional affected.
For instance, the termination of wheat and flour subsidies by the government have hit the poor the hardest, in the awkwardly labeled ‘economic surgery’ plan. Basics such as rice, a staple food in the Iranian diet, has become a luxury good that costs in excess of $33 per 10 kilograms. Likewise, meat consumption per capita has declined dramatically. As the protests continued together momentum widespread shop closers and mass strikes heavily effected the economy.
When oil workers in state-owned petroleum facilities and refineries joined the ranks of the protestors the situation became increasingly serious for the regime. Globally, according to the World Bank, Iran is ranked second in natural gas reserves and fourth in crude oil reserves, as oil revenues are a major contributor to the GDP of the country. Moreover, the mass protests which continued for weeks and months also severely affected the economy and halted markets across the country. So long as economic conditions continue to decline or stagnate, the possibility of mass protests continue across the nation, especially across the most poverty stricken regions and communities. Yet the regime’s total dominance of the country’s natural resources ensures that its ongoing dominance over its people too.
Nevertheless, Jîna’s death propelled collective discontent towards a new direction. Previous protests had focused on the increasingly precarious economic conditions and visible economic division between the wealthy strata of Iranian society and the ever expanding levels of poverty across the rest. The new waves of protests focused on regime change, challenging the state towards an ideological shift that would better align with an increasingly progressive, if not entirely homogenous Iranian society. The Jîna protests called for a collective restructuring of the ethno-religious boundaries and discriminatory policies of a system which since the 1979 Iranian revolution had presented one dominant and exclusionary identity to the detriment and collective stability for the rest of society. Iran’s incredibly heterogenous society no longer could withstand the violent imposition of a single identity.
Jîna’s Death and Kurdish Freedom
Jîna’s death also propelled the long neglected plight of the Kurds in Rojhilat (officially viewed as “northwest Iran”), to international attention. Global awareness of the situation of the Kurds has steadily increased following the Saddam regime’s al-Anfal Campaign in the 1980’s, the 1991 No-Fly Zone imposed by the United States to protect the Kurds of Southern Kurdistan (Başȗr) in “northern Iraq”, the Kurd’s bravery in fighting ISIS across northern Iraq and Syria in the Rojava region, as well as the brutality of the AKP government in Turkey and Erdogan’s ongoing campaign of terror and bombing of the Kurds. Yet, the Kurds in Rojhilat continued to suffer silently from decades of state repression and exclusionary politics, often manifesting in mass economic decline and political marginalization, imprisonment, and regular execution of Kurdish leaders, activists, and intellectuals.
The Kurds in Iran have had a contentious and marginalized status since the start of modern and recent history. Beginning with Reza Shah Pahlavi’s backlash against the Kurds in 1922, and continuing with the violent backlash that has never really stopped since the declaration of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad in January 1946 which lasted only 11 months. Assassination of leaders and clerics, mass arrests, widespread militarization of Kurdish regions, mass burning of forests and Kurdish lands and farms, leveling of anti-regime villages, torture and deaths in custody, disappearances, and more mark the Iranian regime’s relations with Kurds, especially since 1979. Cultural and linguistic restrictions have also been part and parcel of the regime’s response to the Kurds.
Iran has also utilized ongoing missile and drone strikes against Kurdish groups including Komala and the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan in Basur of Kurdistan (Northern Iraq) under the guise of “opposing separatism” and “fighting terror” raising further global ire and condemnation. More recently it has attempted to pressure the Baghdad government to disarm and expel the Rojhilati-Kurdish political parties and exiles in the north of the country.
The deliberate government policies of marginalization and economic decline in Kurdish regions has resulted in poverty stricken communities resorting to increased child labor and self-reliance outside the modes of official government avenues; all of which continue to limit and reproduce poverty and misery. In addition, yearly, hundreds of desperate Kurds, including many women and children, join the illegal porters called Kolbers, who face intense state and security repression, including border guard shootings, arrests, and beatings on top of the terrible conditions they already face while carrying heavy loads on their backs across the Iran-Iraq-Turkey borders. The mass protests in Iran following Jîna’s death have not effectively changed the economic condition of the Kurds, but rather has made their plight even worse. Consequently one of the key conditions for Kurdish discontent remain in place, guaranteeing ongoing protests and resistance by the Kurds in the future.
Politically the Kurds continue to be marginalized in their participation and the disproportionate sacrifices and losses they have incurred since the start of the protests. According to the Washington Institute, of the estimated 224 protestors killed by the regime to date, “roughly 90 percent are from the country’s ethnic minority populations”, involving primarily the Baluch and Kurdish communities.
The Kurds, and Kurdish women especially, continue to protest the erasure of Jîna’s Kurdishness as well as the ongoing colonization of her death through the deliberate perpetuation of her Iranian and Persianized name Mehsa. In Iran, the regime has deployed large number of troops, armored vehicles, heavy machine guns, tanks, artillery and regime personell across the Kurdish, Baluch, Ahwaz, Azeri and other regions in a bid to militarize, terrorize and quell protests. In contrast, the more heavily Persianized areas including the protest hotspot of Tehran only primarily saw the use of Basij’ guards using clubs and beatings as a form of deterrence. The contrasts are obvious and speak loudly as to the priority of the regime as well as the objective of the Persian segments of Iranian society who continue to be driven by ethnic supremacy dating back to the colonial era of Shah Reza Pahlavi. So long as there is continued erasure of the intersecting layers of oppressions imposed by the regime and condoned by the Persian elite within society popular discontent is likely to only continue, foment and simmer.
A Year On
Jîna’s death presented a seismic shift in Iranian and regional politics. It also rallied similarly oppressed communities globally. It created bridges of solidarity, empathy, and love across colonial borders. It raised the voices of globally oppressed woman who had experienced state discrimination, patriarchal violence, and systematic injustice at the hands of governments and their institutions of oppression and discipline. Jîna will forever represent that unheard, feminine cry of pain silenced before her time, but she also, like her namesake, represents new life, hope, and possibilities. Through her death she became a symbol of resistance, of empowered communities, of mutual aid and solidarity, of dialogues and conventions, of mass protests and decolonization of relations and connections. The popular protests may have died down, but the impact of Jîna’s death remains immortal, her impact set in stone, her blood birthing rivers of change and tolerance.
As the washed out body of the little Kurdish boy Alan Kurdi propelled global sympathy towards not only the plight of refugees – but especially the Kurds, and as the fight of the brave young women and men in the YPJ and the YPG highlighted the liberatory, democratic and inclusive nature of Kurdish societies, Jîna’s murder too propelled the Kurdish women’s need for liberation from decades of state violence, colonization, and gender-based discrimination to the top of the global awareness. Despite their ongoing targeting by the regimes they are colonized and oppressed within, the Kurds, but especially Kurdish women, continue to be further marginalized, erased, and talked over, while their voices and demands are dismissed.
Jîna’s impact will be one of longevity and progressive change for years and decades to come. What has been done can never be undone, can never be unseen, never reversed, and never unexperienced. But all of Iranian society, starting from women, ethno-religious communities, and other marginalized segments of society are in a better position to renegotiate state-society relations than previous to Jîna’s death. Yet, despite these changes, the upper echelons of Iranian society continue to exercise ethnic supremacy and propose an exclusionary and illiberal vision of Iranian society for the future. It remains for Iranians to continue the internal dialogue as to the positionality, agency, and role that non-Persian Iranians should have vis-à-vis the systems of power and authority.
The hardline regime in turn has resorted to extreme acts of violence, terror, and executions against the most radical elements of society, involving primarily the Kurdish and Baloch communities. Jîna’s death, however, demonstrated, that no matter the number of arrests, the number of deaths, the amount of executions, the prevalence of violence and terrorism by the regime, the oppressed will continue to carry the torch of hope and progress and remain the rallying voice for mutual collective liberation. Like the Kurds in Rojava and their heroic fight against ISIS terrorism, like the Kurds in Bakur and their ongoing fight for inclusive democracy, the Kurds in Rojhilat continue to push progressive voices and reforms to the forefront of discussions.
Too much blood has been spilled, too many young and hopeful souls continue to reside in the dark pits of prisons, too many freshly dug graves and broken hearted mother’s wails have been raised for Jîna’s death to be anything but a permanent wind for change and progress.