As demonstrations against Iran’s ruling theocracy intensify, many observers have been struck by the slogan chanted by protestors and printed on t-shirts, posters and flyers: “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi”—“Women, Life, Freedom.”
These words are not from the Farsi language, but from the Kurdish one. While the international community largely perceives this latest wave of protests against the Islamic Republic as centered on the denial of women’s rights, other issues are coming to the fore, not least Iran’s systematic repression of its Kurdish population of 10 million — part of a larger, stateless nation of 25 million people distributed in the border areas of Turkey, Iran and Iraq, all states that have brutally attempted to crush Kurdish aspirations for self-determination.
The main symbol of the Iranian protests, Mahsa Amini, is also a direct and uncomplicated link to the Kurdish dimension of the current Iranian crisis. The 22-year-old, who was murdered last month while in the custody of the so-called “morality police” for allegedly not wearing her hijab, or head covering, was born in the Kurdish town of Saqqez and given the birth name Zhina. But because Zhina is a Kurdish name, many of which are banned from the Iranian birth registry, she was given the additional Persian name of Mahsa.
Although Kurdish groups in Iran maintain they are not fighting for a separate state, but equality and autonomy within Iran, the Tehran regime insists the Kurds are secessionists and zealously guards against any expression of Kurdish national feeling, right down to the naming of Kurdish children. For example, the name Qandil is not permitted under Iran’s Registry Act, which determines suitable names for children, because Qandil is a mountain in the Kurdish region where Kurdish fighters have been active. According to one cleric, Qadir Qadiri, the very act of giving a Kurdish female a Kurdish name is enough to distract her from her womanly duties. “The girls who have Kurdish names do not know anything about housework,” he once complained. “They are only good for texting and ambling about.”
In addition to these legally imposed handicaps, the Kurds have been exposed to the full might of Iran’s military and security apparatus. In 2017, when Kurds in the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq voted overwhelmingly for independence (an outcome recognized only by Israel and a handful of other countries), Iran’s response was to send its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and allied Shi’a militias to violently eliminate the prospect of a sovereign Kurdistan as the outside world wrung its hands and did nothing else.
Iran’s armed forces attacked the Kurds again last week, as the IRGC bombarded Kurdish positions and Iranian refugee settlements across the border in Iraq. At least 17 people were killed and more than 50 wounded during the onslaught. According to Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, the commander of Iran’s armed forces, the operation against the Kurds was necessarily “harsh,” as its goal was to root out “separatist terrorists.”
Prof. David Romano, an expert on the Kurds at Missouri State University, observed in an interview with the Washington, DC-based Kurdish Institute that “especially in Iran, the Kurds face a disproportionate amount of repression from the regime.”
“We know that roughly half the political prisoners and executions in Iran are Iranian Kurds, when they are less than 10 percent of the population,” Romano said. “Most of them are Sunni as well. So, they’re double minorities in a sense from the regime’s perspective and whatever the infraction one can imagine that if the person facing the regime is Kurdish, the reaction is more severe even now in the protests following [Mahsa Amini’s] death.”
Romano also made the point that the Islamic Republic’s insistence that “there is no place for ethnicity or nations and Islam” was grounded not only in theology, but in realpolitik as well. It was the “excuse” of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, “for not letting the Azeri region, the Kurdish region, the Baluchis, Khuzestan, all have some measures of self-determination and autonomy within Iran,” Romano said, referring to the other nationalities gathered under the Iranian regime’s rubric.
In the current context, the oppression of national and religious minorities in Iran has become part of a larger movement that regards the overthrow of the mullahs, and not some tinkering political reforms, as their explicit goal. Arguably more so than in the waves of protest that engulfed Iran in 1999, 2009 and 2017-18, the present demonstrations are geared towards regime change, uniting Iranians of different classes and ethnicities.
Just last week, there was a major development when workers in Iran’s critical oil industry announced a strike in solidarity with the protestors. “Now is the time for widespread protests. Get ready for backbreaking strikes,” a committee representing contract oil workers said in a statement quoted by The Wall Street Journal. “This is the beginning of the road and we continue our protests every day, together with people all over the country.”
Encouragingly, the protests appear to have derailed efforts to restore the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran, the U.S. and five other world powers. For several months, President Joe Biden’s administration has been sending mixed signals about its intentions; during the summer, especially, there was widespread talk of an imminent agreement. Then, last Thursday, State Department spokesman Ned Price offered the clearest statement of the American position thus far. “The Iranians have made very clear that this is not a deal that they have been prepared to make, a deal certainly does not appear imminent,” Price said. Instead, he added, the U.S. government was shifting its focus onto “the remarkable bravery and courage that the Iranian people are exhibiting through their peaceful demonstrations, through their exercise of their universal right to freedom of assembly and to freedom of expression.”
“Jin, Jiyan, Azadi”—“Women, Life, Freedom”—represents a complete about-turn on the cult of terror and death promoted by the Iranian regime in the name of the Islamic faith. It is a pithy rejection of the ideology and purpose of the Islamic Republic as well as a vision of the type of government that might replace it. Yes, there is a distinct chance that the regime will employ sufficient violence to crush Iranian civil society yet again, but there is no hiding its true nature any longer.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.