A women-led uprising against systemic gender discrimination and repressive theocratic rule in Iran is entering its fourth week after demonstrations began in response to the murder of Jina Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, by Iranian ‘morality police.’
The iconic slogan of the protest movement— “jin, jiyan, azadi” or “woman, life, freedom”— is rooted in over 40 years of Kurdish women’s struggle against NATO-backed authoritarianism in Turkey and ISIS extremism in Iraq and Syria. Kurdish women in Iran, the first to use it in early protests, have an equally powerful history of resistance to foreign intervention, repressive regimes, and religious fundamentalists.
This history has been erased from mainstream narratives around the protests–but it is essential to understanding how the uprising fits into a longer history of revolutionary struggles in the region.
“Jin, jiyan, azadi” originates in the Kurdish resistance movement in Turkey. It reflects the unique role of women in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and groups inspired by its ideas.
Women were present in the movement’s struggle from the beginning, albeit in small numbers. Sakine Cansiz, the only female co-founder of the PKK, brought a proposal for the formation of women’s units to the group’s founding congress in 1978, inspired by examples from other socialist movements. The PKK’s first female combat commander took charge of a mixed unit in Eruh just weeks after the group’s first armed attacks there in 1984.
As the war in Kurdistan intensified and more women joined the guerrilla forces, they faced the same contradiction that women in revolutionary movements have encountered throughout history. Conflict created opportunities for women to challenge conservative social norms and escape oppression at home. Yet they were still expected to subordinate their concerns to the national cause, and their male comrades often held the same patriarchal attitudes that were prevalent in their communities.
In response, during the harshest years of the armed conflict with the Turkish state, women in the PKK began to fight another battle: an internal ideological struggle over the question of women’s liberation.
In 1993, they organized the first all-female guerrilla units, predecessors of the YJA-STAR forces that fought in major battles against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and formed the blueprint for the Syrian Kurdish Women’s Defense Units (YPJ). Based on that experience, in 1995, the PKK’s 5th Congress issued a decision calling for the creation of more autonomous women’s structures in the political, cultural, and economic spheres.
Theoretical shifts occurred alongside these practical developments. Abdullah Ocalan, the founder and leader of the PKK, began to argue that women’s oppression is the basis of all other forms of oppression—and so society can’t be free if women aren’t free.
On International Women’s Day in 1998, the “Ideology of Women’s Liberation” was put forward. This outline of the principles that women should abide by in the struggle for freedom stressed the need for complete autonomy and self-organization: women had to break free not only from traditional social roles and the mindset that justified them, but from reliance on men altogether.
As these changes took place, male leaders in the PKK questioned the need for autonomous women’s structures and tried to fold them back into a male-dominated chain of command. Yet women had accrued a high enough degree of political and organizational power to successfully protest these efforts and preserve their autonomy.
With its restructuring in the early 2000s, the PKK became the only Kurdish political movement to make women’s liberation a priority of equal importance to the national cause. Its theories quickly made their way into legal pro-Kurdish politics and Kurdish civil society in Turkey and beyond.
It was around this time that ‘jin, jiyan, azadi’ arose as a slogan, used by Kurdish women resisting state violence against their people and male violence against women in their communities. It condensed a legacy of struggle and revolutionary innovation into three powerful words.
In 2012, when Syrian Kurds established an autonomous government, these ideas about women’s liberation and how it ought to be achieved were at the heart of their project. The YPJ fought ISIS on the frontlines, while autonomous women's organizations in all areas of governance and society took on entrenched patriarchal attitudes, violence, discrimination, and other threats women faced in their families and communities.
As more territory was liberated from ISIS, women from Syria’s other communities joined in. Today, Arab, Syriac-Assyrian, Yezidi, and Armenian women not only participate actively in the Autonomous Administration’s women’s institutions, but also have their own organizations to meet the specific needs of women from their communities.
The common fight against ISIS terrorism and Turkish occupation and the common experience of patriarchal oppression has united women across ethnic and religious lines—highlighting the universalist potential of the Kurdish women’s movement’s theories.
It’s no coincidence that Iranian Kurdish women identify with this slogan. They have a decades-long tradition of resistance of their own informing their leading role in the ongoing protest movement.
Women were politically active in the Republic of Kurdistan, which was established in Mahabad in 1946 and is widely considered to have been the first Kurdish state in the Middle East before it was crushed by the Shah’s regime.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, women in Iran’s Kurdish regions participated in the struggle to overthrow the U.S.-backed monarchy— and then resisted the establishment of a right-wing, repressive Islamic Republic in its place. Many took up arms: the Kurdish socialist party Komala had all-female peshmerga units.
Their fight for freedom has not been constrained by national borders. Kurdish women from Iran joined the fight against ISIS as members of different Kurdish groups, including the Women’s Defense Units (YPJ) in Syria. Viyan Peyman, a YPJ commander famous for the song she wrote and recorded while fighting in besieged Kobane, was originally from the Iranian Kurdish city of Maku.
In Iran, the Kurdistan Human Rights Network documented the politically-motivated arrests of more than 30 Kurdish women between March 2020 and March 2021 alone, including human rights activists, environmentalists, protestors and members of Kurdish opposition groups. The longest-serving female political prisoner, Zeynab Jalalian, is a Kurdish woman.
The meaning of ideas and symbols can change as they cross borders and causes. But for Iranian women in the streets today, “jin, jiyan, azadi” is just as revolutionary a sentiment as it was for the Kurdish women who developed and spread it. In Iran and in Kurdistan alike, women are leading mass movements in unprecedented ways, and women’s insistence on freedom from male and state violence is at the center of a fight for the freedom of an entire society.
For women in the region, these parallels are clear. Women in northeast Syria braved constant threats of Turkish shelling and drone strikes to organize a mass march in Qamishlo in solidarity with women in Iran. Kurdish feminist political prisoners in Turkey cut their hair and expressed support for the uprising in their court defenses.
Yet internationally, mainstream media, politicians, brands, and celebrities divide these women’s revolutions by erasing the Kurdish roots of this slogan and the struggle it represents. It is common to see “woman, life, freedom” written in English or “zan, zendegi, azadi” written in Farsi with no mention of the original Kurdish words at all. Western leaders who proudly say “woman, life, freedom” to offer opportunistic support to women in Iran have criminalized the movement from which “jin, jiyan, azadi” originated and provide Turkey with the weapons it uses to target those women.
Genuine solidarity with women’s resistance requires us to remember that “jin, jiyan, azadi” is not a hashtag or a trend. It is a political philosophy that represents countless women from all walks of life at the forefront of the fight for a democratic, peaceful, and pluralist Middle East free from all forms of oppression and exploitation.
To support these women, it is essential to stand with all of them against all of the threats that they face—and not allow their struggles against different manifestations of patriarchy, imperialism, repression and war to be divided, commodified or decontextualized.
Meghan Bodette is an independent researcher focusing on Turkey, Syria and Kurdish affairs, with a particular focus on women's rights in these regions and contexts. Her work has been published by the Wilson Center's Middle East Program, the National Interest, and the Northern Press Agency. Bodette is a former editor at The Region, a news website based on underreported stories and perspectives from the Middle East, and the founder of the Missing Afrin Women Project, which monitors the abduction, disappearance and other rights violations of women in Afrin, Syria.
Photo: Kollektiv ohne Namen
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