Unity in Diversity: On Overcoming the Erasure of Kurdistan and Jina Amini




THE LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS is devoted to narrative, and a narrative we have seen almost entirely missing in the press covering the current protests in Iran is the story of Iranian Kurds. After some calls for essays, our Iran-born Iranian American senior editor Porochista Khakpour was approached by two Kurdish activists. Their essay below is an incredibly important message to the world.

This is Ala Riani and Rezan Labady.

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We the writers are children of war. Our perspectives and insights stem from being born under the rule of the Islamic Republic. I, Ala, was born in the wake of Ayatollah Khomeini issuing his first ever fatwa, a war against Iranian Kurdistan. My mother at 22 years of age gave birth to me in the basement of an abandoned dark hospital, overwhelmed by alarming bombing from the Iranian regime forces fighting against the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in my hometown of Mahabad. One of my early memories is of starting kindergarten being forced to speak Farsi instead of my mother tongue, Kurdish.

And I, Rezan, was born inside Tehran’s infamous Evin Prison as my mother was arrested while six months pregnant. She was only 23 years old and already a prisoner of conscience. A month after I was born, she was tortured, so I was separated from her and sent to my grandparents. Torture was part of her everyday life — many of her cellmates did not make it, so the fact that she survived her imprisonment can only be considered luck.

This is the world we came into. To this day we are battling generations of trauma: our own trauma, the trauma of our parents and grandparents, and the trauma we will inevitably pass onto our children.

Our fates are merely two drops in an ocean filled with stories of war, shattered families, and displacement.

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Iran is on fire. A fire so massive that the world can see it even from afar. 

What lit that fire you may have already heard about? The brutal murder of a young Kurdish woman visiting Tehran who was detained and killed by the Iranian morality police. Her violation? Showing strands of her hair underneath her hijab. 

You may have also heard of how the regime immediately tried to cover up the crime and demanded her family have a burial at night with no mourners attending. But Jina Amini’s death was too big of a crime to go unnoticed in her little Kurdish town of Saqez. The funeral soon turned into a protest of enraged mourners, the women taking off their headscarves and chanting the Kurdish slogan “Jin Jiyan Azadî” (Women, Life, Freedom). The protest became protests as it spread quickly to all of the Kurdish cities with a massive general strike: a silent method of protest often used in the Kurdish provinces. 

We know the killing of Jina was only one of countless innocent lives taken by the Iranian regime since its earliest days. And protests have erupted more often than the rest of the world has bothered to take notice throughout the years. This time, however, as the streets of Iran filled with protesters, the entire country of Iran rallied round Kurdistan.

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The world is watching and cheering on as women across Iran are removing their hijabs to show their defiance against a regime that for over 40 years has beaten down anyone bold enough to criticize it; under this regime, subordination is law. The state’s dehumanization of women has been a constant gender apartheid that infuses all spheres of society, private as well as public. Women are viewed as threats to the very foundation of the ideology that the state is built upon, which insists that they be curbed into obedience rather than viewed as full members of society. 

It is important to state that the defiance against the hijab in these protests stands for the many layers of violation people endure under this regime. Therefore, this is not only a hijab revolution. The murder of Jina was a catalyst for change and has become a symbol of a collective yearning for freedom and a call for the abolishment of the regime. It is an organic movement led by the people, with women in the front. 

The disparate peoples in Iran seem to have finally found a true commonality for once: becoming free of the dictatorship of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Never during the regime’s rule have any large protests been carried out simultaneously across all ethnic and religious groups in the country. 

While all living under the regime of the Islamic Republic are oppressed, minorities like Baluchis, Arabs, Baháʼís, Azeris, and Kurds face severe and systematic discrimination because of their ethnicities and their beliefs. Iran has a long history of Persian supremacy against its ethnic and religious minorities, characterized by a colonial approach with deep-rooted views about the country’s oneness. Persian-centrism has long been the dominant ideology in the country.

As the protests spread throughout the country, the question was: could this be the moment the marginalized groups of Iran have been waiting for?

But the answer we had to face was that the broader Iranian movement seemed reluctant to highlight the background of Jina. Persian-centrism manifested itself clearly in regards to the denial of Jina’s Kurdish roots. Despite urges from the Kurdish community to honor Jina by saying her forbidden Kurdish name, which means “life,” the Iranians have in many ways ignored this important detail and continued calling her Mahsa. This is especially upsetting as Kurds are often not allowed to register their names but must instead have a name approved by the state — in Jina’s case, “Mahsa.” Jina has become a modified and Persianized token molded to suit the majority in this revolution. This is a fundamental act of diminishing one’s identity that most Iranians will never have to face and perhaps therefore do not comprehend the severity of.

Instead, the response from the Iranian community when trying to elevate a Kurdish perspective has been to victim-blame Kurds for contributing to division. How is it that something as fundamental as recognition is perceived as a threat to the unity of Iran? 

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All too often, it is clear that Iranian self-perception does not leave room for any other identity because, in their eyes, we are all Iranian. But a minority group like the Kurds cannot and have not identified themselves with this concept as they have never been treated as equal citizens under that banner. It makes sense then that the majority of the Kurds identify with their ethnicity rather than a nationality that has been forced upon them.

The division seems even more pronounced outside of Iran than among the protesters in Iran. On social media, the distance between many diaspora Iranians and Iranian Kurds further reflects the policies that various Iranian regimes have enacted towards the Kurdish issue at large. Skeptical Iranians find it provocative that the Kurdish angle is emphasized when the whole of Iran is under fire, while angered Kurds see an identity yet again minimized and made invisible. We see cultural appropriation along with blatant disregard to the fact that the young woman whose face has become a worldwide symbol for the revolution in Iran is not even known by the birth name her mother gave her. This is also endorsed by celebrities and influential people around the world who never second-guess their reproducing this erasure. So many Iranians regard these remarks as an act of instigating Kurdish separation and thus the collapse of Iran. And the fact that we have to reassure them that claiming our Kurdishness does not constitute a threat against their idea of an Iran where the identity “Iranian” is the norm really says it all.

It is true that fragmentation is one of the great challenges now when unity is a must during the ongoing protests, but an easy fix, for starters, would be the acknowledgment of the Kurdish women’s role in a revolution that the entire world is now watching.

It cannot be stated enough how much this could foster a feeling of togetherness instead of encouraging an air of deprivation in a group that is already invisible to the outside world. 

Now is the time to learn a lesson from the mistakes of this and previous regimes as the peoples in Iran need to be united and form a strong resistance against the brutality of this dictatorship. This means that those who constitute the majority must allow and create an atmosphere that is inclusive and grants Iran’s various ethnic and religious groups the choice to freely embrace their identities during this uprising.

This responsibility does not exclusively fall upon the mentioned but also on international media and news outlets that reproduce these mechanisms, instead of nuanced reporting that gives room to the voices that dissolve in the masses. 

This issue must also be examined as a shortcoming of many eras, as the country’s extensive oppression of Kurds reaches far beyond the timespan of this regime. The Iranian society has well-established traditions of alienating the Kurdish people by keeping alive the narrative of Kurds being culturally inferior and uncivilized — thus legitimizing the state’s violent methods. The fact that Kurds make up almost half of Iran’s political prisoners even though they constitute only 10 percent of the population is telling, not to mention the disproportionately high number of Kurds who are sentenced to death in those prisons. 

And of course this has meant Kurdish women have suffered disproportionately for over a century under oppressive regimes, both the monarchy and the Islamic dictatorship that have imposed policies of assimilation, forced displacements, and economic deprivation. The oppression has extended to the assassination of Kurdish political leaders in exile. Alongside this, the horrors of patriarchy have profoundly permeated the lives of Kurdish women; it is well known that conflict and post-conflict regions have societies infused with trauma and persecution, which lead to higher levels of domestic violence and abuse. 

The Kurdish women have for years fought to make room for themselves in the political as well as the private spheres. As the Kurdish slogan “Jin Jiyan Azadî” was first repeated by the protesters, the intent was to echo the slogan as it was chanted in the Kurdish cities where the protests first started. These simple three words have become a symbol for the Iranian women when it in fact comes from the Kurdish women’s movements in Turkey and Syria, as well as Iran, against colonizing regimes that have occupied their lands and suppressed their identity. As the outside world’s attention to the events grew, the slogan has in a powerful and inspiring way been translated into countless languages all across the globe — all to, in the end, have its origin and history completely lost. 

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The coming days and weeks are crucial for the outcome of these protests. All of us must remember that the real threat to the people’s right to freedom and life is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In late September, when the Iranian regime carried out drone and missile attacks against Iranian Kurdish opposition groups in Iraqi Kurdistan, one of the aims was to cause disunion among the protesters. The attack was a punishment against the Iranian Kurds as the regime clearly recognizes them as instigators of the protests. The general strike that took place when Jina was killed was urged by the Iranian Kurdish parties. The attack aimed to kill all hope, and what better way than to target a minority that no international entity will hold the regime accountable for? It is crucial that the whole of Iran and the international community see through these tactics; it might be the only way to prevent a pending massacre, worse than what we are seeing now, of those that the regime is portraying as scapegoats to the country’s unrest.

This is a movement that is fundamentally diverse — therefore, it could be much more inclusive and powerful if open to otherness. And there is at times so much solidarity that it costs lives. Who could forget Hadis Najafi, 22, a young woman with a following on TikTok who joined a protest where she was killed by at least six bullets? Her mother cried out in an interview that her daughter died for “Mahsa.”

The reality in Iran is such that there are several parallel struggles led by different ethnic and religious groups. These must be fueled with oxygen in order for the protests to continue and not die out. The only way resistance against the dictatorship of the Islamic Republic can endure is if all struggles obtain recognition and are represented in the narrative of this ongoing revolution.

To make room for others does not equal stepping aside. If there is no room for all, there is room for none.

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Ala Riani and Rezan Labady are activists.

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Featured image: “Solidarity with the People of Iran” by Matt Hrkac is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

 

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