“Jin, Jiyan, Azadi:” the Kurdish roots of the Iranian protests and how the arts can help us to feel interconnected struggles

By Lisa Tilley|July 4, 2023|Uncategorized|0 comments

Author: Zoë Ciara Miller

This blog is an original submission for the course Feminist Political Economy and Global Development and was written in January 2023.

I slip on my jacket, plug in my earphones and step outside, pulling the door behind me. I scrape my hair into a bun, a few strands escaping loose around the sides of my face. I’m on my way to the Barbican Centre to see Rebel Rebel, an exhibition featuring the miniature portraits of 28 feminist icons from pre-revolution Iran by Soheila Sokhanvari. I reach for my phone and press play. I’ve been listening to the same song on repeat. When it’s not playing, the notes and lyrics echo inside my head. Baraye. It means “For the Sake of” in Farsi. If you haven’t heard it already, it was written by Shervin Hajipour and has become the anthem of Iran’s current intersectional feminist protest movement. The penultimate line, “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” translates as “Woman, Life, Freedom.” It is the rallying cry that can be heard rising from the streets and flooding social media feeds.

Image of Jina Mahsa Amini on sign held by protester in Iran: Ozan Köse/AFP/Getty Images

The current uprisings were sparked by the murder on the 16th of September 2022 of Jina Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old, Kurdish-Iranian woman. She was arrested and subsequently brutally beaten by the morality police of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) for violating Islamic dress-code through her “improper” wearing of the hijab. Under the IRI’s Penal Code, girls over nine years of age must cover their hair and neck, conceal their figure with loose-fitting clothing and ensure that no skin is visible from wrist to ankle. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, governs with an extreme interpretation of conservative, fundamentalist Islam incompatible with progressive interpretations of gender equality.

Iranian authorities deny responsibility for her death; claiming that she suffered from a heart attack after being transported to a station to be “educated.” Jina’s death has reawakened and added fuel to a collective trauma and rage; galvanising people across Iran and internationally, to demand an end to the violent oppression of all women in Iran by the patriarchal, theocratic state.

The struggle is for autonomy and choice and against the objectification, hyper-sexualisation and nationalistic politicisation of women’s bodies. Over 500 protesters have since been killed and around 20,000 arrested. There have been accounts of torture and rape leaked by those held in custody and widespread “poison attacks” on thousands of schoolgirls across the country. The female journalists Niloufar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi who broke the story of Jina’s death after reporting her funeral in her hometown of Saqqez, in northwestern Iran’s Kurdish region, have been silenced and imprisoned for “conspiring with foreign intelligence agencies to undermine national security.” Shervin Hajipour was also arrested for the release of “Baraye.”

Beside Jina’s grave lies a picture of her smiling defiantly with her thick, dark hair on show. Women’s hair, and the cutting of it, is a symbol of protest and mourning in Iran, dating back to references made in the 1st century CE, by Ferdowsi, in his epic poem Shahnameh. This act, along with the burning of headscarves, has re-emerged as an act of solidarity, a political statement, an expression of anger and grief. Her headstone reads: “Dear Jina, you won’t die. Your name will become a symbol.” Despite the fact that most news and social media outlets refer to her as “Mahsa,” she did not use this name. That was the name she used for official documents that was given to her in compliance with the Iranian law that all names must be rooted in Persian or Islamic history. Her real, Kurdish name, Jina, means “life-giving.” In death she has reclaimed her name and Kurdish identity, her hair and her body. They have metamorphosed into symbols of resistance, liberation and power.

A large protest last year in Tehran: Agence France-Presse, Getty Images

Women in Iran have a long history of being instrumentalised by patriarchal regimes and as agents of political struggle against them. Their physical bodies have been used as symbols of national identity and their labour and reproductive power have been utilised for political and economic gain. In Caliban and the Witch: Women the Body and Primitive Acculumation, Silvia Federici (2004) expands the notion of enclosure to include women’s bodies, arguing that they are both targets and the lifeblood of patriarchy and capital accumulation due to women’s reproduction of the labour force and their unpaid domestic and care work. In the Iranian context, Razavi (2022:12) states that Khomeinei’s, “New Clergy actively sought to control and direct the structures of labour, reproduction, women’s sexuality, and the family, and to inhibit or co-opt labour-organising among workers.” Women are also seen as the guardians of tradition and customs due to their role in socialising the next generations yet are simultaneously second-class citizens.

The Iranian nation-state’s legitimacy rests on the control of women’s bodies. Under the Shah in pre-1979 Iran, many of the seemingly progressive reforms of the White Revolution in fact resulted in the generation of surplus value from women’s unpaid labour. Following the 1979 Revolution, state legislation was restructured to usher in more conservative gender roles, curtail women’s rights and cement an image of the “authentic” Iranian Muslim woman in opposition to the “Westoxified” woman that had been promoted by the outgoing imperial Pahlavi monarchy and the liberal intelligentsia. Many Islamists as well as their secular, left-wing opposition believe the unveiled woman is emblematic of the erosion of cultural identity and a Western imperialist attack on traditional Iranian values.

A Dream Deferred: Portrait of Haydeh Changizian by Soheila Sokhanvari, 2022.

“Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” originates from the Kurdish slogan “Jin, Jîyan, Azadî” used by the Kurdish Freedom Movement: a network of grassroots organisations actively practising resistance to patriarchy, nationalism, imperialism and capitalism. Their ideology is rooted in the science of Jineology coined by Abdullah Öcalan who has been imprisoned in Turkey since 1999 and who was influenced in part by Murray Bookchin’s theory of social ecology. Jineology is built on the principle that until all women experience liberation, no society is free. It focuses on praxis and critiques Western feminisms for their failure to provide alternative realities. Öcalan contends that bodies gendered as women were the first exploited colony upon which all subsequent systems of domination (including ecological destruction) were established and so to abolish these violent systems we must target the cancerous root by dismantling patriarchy and the centralised, capitalist nation-state. Jineology rejects all forms of hegemony and advocates for democratic confederalism, autonomy, cooperative economy and principles of political ecology, feminism and multiculturalism.

I’m standing in front of a painting of Haydeh Changizian. In the early 1970s, she was the prima ballerina of the National Ballet of Iran. Her unveiled hair is adorned with a golden headpiece and pearls. Her gaze drifts softly towards the top left-hand corner of the frame as though she is looking to leap from her 2D confines. There’s a rebellious flicker in her eye. I imagine her gracefully soaring off the canvas, pirouetting around the exhibit hall. Her portrait and her dance mournfully reminisce elements of the past, yet stand as hopeful, solid reminders of a possible alternative future. In the words of Öcalan: “the most urgent need is to conquer the thoughts and emotions of subjugation.” Art, literature, dance and music are critical in efforts to bring about radical change. They relay stories and embody memory and imagination, guiding people to feel, understand, then think and act. The movement today stretches far beyond resisting mandatory hijab. The veil is merely the most visible manifestation of state control. This is about how gender, race, the nation-state, capital and religion are used as tools for oppressive power. Just as this movement has grown from the Kurdish Freedom Movement, it has the potential to forge more solidarity networks making ties with transnational and intersectional groups facing distinct but connected struggles.

References:

Federici, S., (2004), Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, Brooklyn: Autonomedia.

Moghadam, V. M., (1993). Modernizing women: gender and social change in the middle east. Boulder, USA: L. Rienner.

Öcalan, A., (2013), Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution.

Razavi, S., (2022), ‘Rocks and Hard Places: Gender, Satire, and Social Reproduction in Pre-Revolutionary Iran,’ Review of Middle East Studies, 55, pp.69–90.

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