The Kurdish Roots of a Global Slogan

How a women’s movement launched in Iranian Kurdistan in 2003 anticipated today's protests — and forced this author into exile

The Kurdish Roots of a Global Slogan
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – DECEMBER 19: Women protest outside the Iranian embassy in Mexico City to demand the release of football player Amir Nasr-Azadani, 26, who was sentenced to death for supporting the recent women’s rights demonstrations in Iran. On December 19, 2022 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo credit should read Luis Cortes/ Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

If I had been killed, would I have had the same impact on the Iranian people as what we have witnessed since the killing in September of the 22-year-old Kurdish woman Jina-Mahsa Amini? Definitely not. The use of heavy military weaponry to crack down on protests in Kurdish cities in Iran, which has shocked the world and led to mass killings and arrests of Kurds during the current uprising, is nothing new for Kurds. What is new is that what began as Kurdish protests then spread across the country, and later the world, chanting the slogan “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” (“Woman, Life, Liberty”).

Kurdish resistance to the Islamic Republic began on the first day of the regime’s establishment. On March 31, 1979, Iran held a nationwide referendum to vote yes or no to the Islamic Republic, with no other option. The Iranian people had never heard of the Islamic Republic, and the authorities had provided no explanation for the system. Although the number of people who voted yes in that referendum is debatable, Kurdish cities boycotted it altogether. That was the start of Kurdish suffering under the new Iranian regime.

When my friends and I began our struggle against the autocratic regime, we were in the same age range as many of the protesters in Iran today. We were high school students when we first protested against the cruelty of the Islamic Republic. In 2003, we established the Woman and Life (Jin, Jiyan) Committee in the northwestern city of Urmia to fight for our Kurdish and women’s rights. I was forced into exile from my homeland one year later due to my vocal activism for that cause. Shortly thereafter, our publication Khaton (“Woman”) was banned. In many ways, then, the very essence of today’s “Woman, Life, Liberty” slogan was the reason I was expelled from the land of my forefathers in 2004. Since then, I have been far from home – now living in the United States – and have been harassed by the regime, which seeks to silence me with relentless smear campaigns and attempts at online intimidation.

It is bittersweet to retrace the origins of how young Iranian Kurdish women weaved the core of this slogan, under what were then very different and difficult circumstances. One young Iranian Kurdish political prisoner, Shirin Alam Holi, had even carved the slogan on the wall of her prison cell before her heartbreaking execution in 2010. But to be clear: We, the Kurdish women of Iran, have not been fighting just for women’s rights; our struggle has always been for basic human rights. Iranian Kurds, much like other fellow Iranians of other ethnicities, have paid a huge price for our ethnic and religious differences with the ruling Islamist regime.

In high school, I remember sometimes wishing I wasn’t Kurdish so I could have a life like the rest of my classmates, who were not Kurds. Even at that young age, I knew and felt that discrimination against my identity. The regime’s education system deemed my Sunni identity to be that of an infidel, while, as Kurds, we were called savages. I was humiliated many times in school for being a Kurd. On the territory where my great-grandfathers founded the first Kurdish authority (the Dimdim authority in Urmia) in the 17th century, I and other Kurds had no political, social or economic rights. It was similar to how the Native Americans were treated when their land was taken.

Yet the people who abused us in school were all abused by the regime too. Every morning, before allowing us to go to class, they lined up the girls, checked if their hair was showing, and made sure there was no makeup or nail polish. I remember two of my friends being stopped in front of the class and humiliated by having their lips wiped to see if there was any lipstick. The two girls were crying hysterically, in a state of shock. Another classmate was frequently abused for having long, dark eyelashes; they would call her into the principal’s office and wipe her eyes, checking for makeup, though they could never find any, as her eyelashes were just naturally long and dark. Our Woman and Life Committee was fighting for our abusers’ rights too; they were women like me under the gender-apartheid regime.

Why and how did I start my struggle? For the first time since the last clash between the regime and Kurdish forces in the 1980s, Iranian Kurds launched significant protests in 1999, during the so-called reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami. I was there and witnessed how the regime’s forces beat and arrested people. I will never forget the memory of those days when I joined the protests with my older sister and cousins, who were arrested. I was in high school. Seeking to play the “Kurdish card” against Turkey, Khatami had authorized three days of protests after Ankara’s arrest of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan. Yet when the Iranian Kurds’ protests began, their slogans were against the Iranian regime too, for its decades-long discrimination against Kurds. So the regime withdrew permission for the protests and ordered a brutal crackdown on the protesters. Today, more than 20 years on, there are still people missing who were arrested that day in 1999. Many Kurdish students were also expelled from universities across the country. Following those protests, another mass uprising against the regime occurred in 2005 in Iran’s Kurdish region. None of these protests, nor the regime’s brutality against Kurds in Iran, received national or international attention. Perhaps this is why the regime did not anticipate a nationwide reaction after killing Jina-Mahsa Amini.

It took four decades for other Iranians and the world to hear Kurdish voices in Iran — the most forgotten people, not only in Iran, but also among their kin in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and around the world. The military attacks against civilians, including the shooting of unarmed people, that have been witnessed in the current uprising in Mahabad, Sanandaj and other Kurdish cities were a reenactment of the execution of innocent civilians following the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa of jihad (holy war) against Kurds issued in August 1979. According to Shiite religion, a fatwa is valid until a marja (senior cleric) issues an order to dismiss it. As such, Khomeini’s fatwa against the Kurds of Iran remains in force.

Since taking power, the Iranian regime has imprisoned, tortured and killed Kurds in Iran without consequence, while also attacking and killing them outside the country. Iranian Kurds have paid a disproportionately high price under the Islamic Republic, representing over half of Iran’s political prisoners and more than 55% of executions. Outside prison, Iranian Kurds have been shot at the border or in the streets. If Kurds flee Iran for Iraqi Kurdistan, they are often pursued and killed by agents of the Islamic Republic, or they keep waiting their turn in the long line of UN asylum seekers for decades. According to the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran, the Iranian regime killed 329 Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan during the 1990s, and 20 in the 2000s. The Joint Crisis Coordination Center in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq (KRG) estimates there are 10,548 Iranian refugees now residing in the KRG. This figure does not account for the population living in the camps of Iranian Kurdish opposition political parties, who are not counted in the refugee census. If Iranian Kurds flee to Turkey, they are likely to be deported to Iran, where they will face untold horrors. I myself fled on foot across the mountains, as a young Kurdish woman escaping Iran’s autocratic regime because I had demanded human rights for myself and my people. Like most Iranian Kurds, my destination was the KRG. I didn’t know Tehran would not leave me alone, allowing no end to my and others’ suffering.

While studying at law school in Erbil, I worked as a journalist for a student newspaper called Ruwanin. One of my first reports was on Kurdish unrest unleashed after the Iranian regime murdered Shuwana Qaderi, a young Kurdish man, in July 2005. He was shot, and the security forces tied his wounded body to the back of a car, dragged him around the city, before savagely torturing him to death. All of Iran’s Kurdish cities protested after the news emerged and photos of his tortured body were published, demanding justice and an investigation. The three-week protests went unanswered. Pressure to suppress and defeat the people intensified. Protests in Iran’s Kurdish region received neither domestic nor international support.

For my journalism, I was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison. I was also elected as the Iranian Kurdish students’ representative in Iraqi Kurdistan. In 2007, I was the first Iranian Kurd to be elected Secretary of the KRG Students’ Union, an unofficial youth parliament. Working with high-ranking officials in Iraqi Kurdistan made me a target for Tehran’s regime. For years, the Islamic Republic tried to discredit me and destroy my reputation by smearing me as an agent of their own; as someone doing their bidding while pretending to do otherwise, a common tactic they use against exiled activists. I was one of the first women whose name appeared on new websites such as Kurdistan Post, where unknown writers launched vicious political and even sexual attacks against me. That was the nightmare of my early 20s: crying behind closed doors while trying to smile in public to avoid being perceived as a weak woman. Unfortunately, they always taught us that women were weak and cry for everything, which is why I kept most of my tears to myself and tried not to share them with anyone.

After their years of attacks failed to prevent me achieving prominent positions in work and academia, the regime threatened to either make me work for them or kill me in a matter of weeks. I informed the Kurdistan region’s security, who advised me to remain silent, saying they would provide me a bodyguard and new living location. I could not agree to stay silent against the brutal regime and what it was doing; for me, silence was equal to death. The only option was to abandon what I had worked on for years in Iraqi Kurdistan and seek refuge in the U.S.

Threatened with death, I left my second home for a second forced exile. Because of my activism and regular appearances on Persian broadcasts into Iran, I still receive threats from the Iranian regime. Fars News Agency, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) media outlet, recently labeled me a terrorist for commenting on recent protests and mass killings in Kurdish cities and the rest of Iran. I have received threats that I will be found and killed here in the U.S. I had assumed that obtaining U.S. citizenship would obligate the American government to protect me from the Iranian regime and provide me with a safe haven in which to continue my struggle for human rights and against the Iranian regime. Yet Tehran’s recent killing of the Iranian Kurdish U.S. citizen Omar Mahmoudzadeh in a drone and missile attack on Kurdish camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Biden administration’s silence on this crime, have left me doubtful.

The reason Jina-Mahsa Amini’s murder sparked a revolutionary movement across Iran, rather than one limited to the Kurdish region, is that this time the Iranian people realized the regime cannot be reformed. The mask of the autocratic regime has fallen. For years, Tehran has attempted to divide and rule Iran by using its disinformation machine to demonize Kurds and undermine the Kurdish identity and those of other ethnic and religious groups. After four decades of division, Iranians are finally united, and they share a common goal: a democratic Iran in which all different groups with their different identities enjoy equal rights; the same goal that Kurdish political parties proposed after the 1979 revolution.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy