Jina in Iran, Erased Kurdish Histories, and the Worlds We Need

The shouts.   The demands.  The pleas. The cries.  The voices, the protests, and the (possible) alliances rising from so many corners.  They stretched from Tehran to Kurdistan across borders, lands, and waters.  Yet, with so many voices there still seemed to be something singular and unified.  There is something wrong here.  Iran. Iranian women. Iranian feminism.  Is Iran singular and unified?  Each word and category, in every socio-historical context, needs to be interrogated.  There is more to this.  There is more to this story.  There is more to history.  The protests in Iran in the contemporary moment needs to be situated in a more holistic socio-historic context.

There is more to “Mahsa Amini.” There is more to “Iran.” There is more to “Iranian women.” There is more than “Iranian feminism.” A silence structures our local and global conversation.  An erasure becomes foundational to the call of support for Iranian women in the name of Mahsa Amini (her Kurdish name is Jina/Zhina) who was captured, tortured, and killed by the morality police in Iran.  The uproar locally in Iran and across the world constantly evokes “Iranian women,” “Iran,” and “Mahsa Amini.”  The presence of “Iran” in the discourse as the legible, palatable category for social justice and structural change fails to address the social context whereby a gap, an erasure, and a (genocidal) refusal of the struggles, lives, and death of Kurds and non-Persian others does not enter into the conversation. 

The intricacies of violence are never simple and singular.  Thus, there is a refusal to name the forms of colonialism and imperialism that exceed Western practices and Western histories in the South West Asia and North Africa (SWANA) region.  Thus, making demands for “Iranian women” without acknowledging Jina/Zhina Amini means that we are not foregrounding a universal Iranian woman and acknowledge the state-enforced name of Mahsa in ways that continue to dismiss the Kurdish histories and histories of non-Persian Others that are crucial in understanding racism, ethnocentrism, ethno-national populism, and the contours of state-sponsored-violence.  At the same time, not naming her as Jina/Zhina falls into the traps of the Persian nationalist assimilationist project and presents monolithic imagery of the area that is not too far from the Orientalist renderings of the SWANA region.

With the protests escalating alongside Iranian state-violence across Iran, are the answers to this social context understood through Iranian women in a general sense? What we have is two words, Iran and woman, colliding to erase complex histories.  Nation becomes the taken for granted category, the social glue, that elides local contestations, complexity, and identifications that exceed the national identity.  The heterogeneity and expansive ethnic diversity in the country is dismissed when we use national categories.  The national category of “Iran,” as in Iranian women and Iranian feminism, is so deeply imbedded in the assimilationist politics of a nation-state, and assumes a cultural, ethnic, and religious equivalence. This equivalence eschews the lived experiences of difference and spills over in how we imagine womanhood, women’s liberation, women’s activism, and women’s stories. 

Just like that the mention of Iranian women and Mahsa Amini blankets over entire histories, lived experiences.  It foregrounds Iran and Persian nationalism’s naming practices rather than indigenous names and histories.  During my ethnographic research on Kurdish communities in Nashville, Tennessee and the northeastern US, diasporic Kurds shared the racist practices of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey that disenfranchised, marginalized, and excluded Kurds.  Thus, this erasure of Kurdish stories and Jina/Zhina Amini is part and parcel of the larger structures of race and racism in Iran that is tied to Persian nationalism. 

Race and racism are not practices that occur only in the West.  Part of the consolidation of the Iranian nation-state has been the racialization of many ethnic and religious others in Iran.  By saying Mahsa and refusing Jina/Zhina, the name Mahsa correlates with the assimilationist dictates of the Iranian nation-state and falls into the trap of equivalence.  Thus, the killing of Jina/Zhina is conceptualized as an issue of patriarchy instead of long histories of racist practices against Kurds.  When we hear “Iranian women,” there is a sameness across the lives of women in Iran that does not account for the lives of ethnic and religious minority women in Iran, including the Kurds. 

Kurds face various forms of disenfranchisement, forced assimilation, and displacement, while also experiencing marginalization differently from other non-Persian Others.  Persian nationalism is woven into the functioning of the Iranian nation-state and thus the mention of Iran and Iranian women perpetuates the nationalistic project.  We need to hear and center Kurdish voices to understand the history and the protests in Iran in the contemporary moment.  Kurdish scholars Farangis Ghaderi and Ozlem Goner name Jina/Zhina in order to underscore Kurdish histories and the particular reasons also why Jina/Zhina Amini was killed by the morality police.  Through their scholarship, we have a window to understanding the continued hegemony of Persian state-enforced names.  We must not forget the histories of Iran actively prohibiting Kurdish place names and prohibiting Kurdish names for children.

With various groups, parties, and organizations across the world aligning in support of the protests in Iran, the continual reference to Jina/Zhina as Mahsa (the Iranian state name given to her) and naming this protest led by women in Iran generally and calling this Iranian feminism falls into the traps of nationalist feminism and global feminism that are ahistorical and cannot make substantive change. Thus, these calls for change position the problem and the issue that led to Jina Amini’s death as a matter of Shi’ite religious patriarchy.  As a result, there is a sensationalism of Muslim women’s freedom without understanding how difference operates with the very heterogeneous categories of Muslim, Islam, and Iranian.

Conflating and collapsing Iranian women with Mahsa is to perpetuate the Iranian nation-state’s continual erasure of the historical, lived experiences of Kurds in Iran.  Thus, the calls of support for Iranian women have unfortunately centered Mahsa without mention of Jina/Zhina.  In the process, the structural problems in Iran are seen as an issue of patriarchy alone.  This, as I have mentioned before, is an Orientalist rendering of the context – as if patriarchy has ever existed alone.  Patriarchy in Iran must be theorized within the anti-Kurdish genocidal landscape.  Patriarchy is just one facet of the larger structure of Iranian state violence.  The mention of Mahsa without saying Jina unwittingly contributes to nationalist campaigns to suppress the Kurdish language and replace Kurdish names for people and places with Persian names.  The Jina/Zhina movement and protests illustrate powerfully how a peripheral and decolonial feminism can be appropriated and transformed into a totalizing and recolonizing feminism.

Attacks by the Iranian nation-state against protestors and the attacks against students and faculty also cannot be understood as patriarchy.  “For example, “jin, jiyan, azadi,” [woman, life, freedom,] a slogan of the Kurdish movement that represents a unique approach to gender equality, has become a common slogan, tying these protests across Iran together.” As various activists and supporters of the protests in Iran take up the saying “jin, jiyan, azadi,” the slogan and Jina Amini’s social location must be illuminated to understand violence and resistance.  By naming this as simply Muslim patriarchy embedded within a theocratic nation-state, we unfortunately and intentionally/unintentionally use the same rhetoric of the Iranian nation-state and Persian nationalism that denies ethnic and religious diversity in Iran.  We then fall into the quagmire that narrows the political context in favor of dominant national and global voices that can also problematically align with Persian nationalism. 

We should not work with universals and generalized conceptions of Kurdish women’s lives nor should we work with singular conceptions of Iranian feminism and Iranian women.  When we work with a generalized (often universalized) understanding of Iranian feminism, we fail to account for the deliberately selective stances taken by Persian Feminists with regards to non-Persian women in the periphery.  Thus, we must ask why the highlighting of Mahsa comes with complete silence with regard to Jina/Zhina, Zara Mohammadi (a young Kurdish woman jailed for teaching Kurdish), and Zeinab Jalalian (a Kurdish political activist fighting for justice in expansive ways).  Thus, Jina/Zhina is often spoken for and spoken of as Mahsa with a subsequent silence regarding the material, social, and political conditions of her life and death.  In this regard, we must pay attention to the Kurdish feminists who have urged for a deeper investigation of the social context.  Persian and Iranian Feminism have also emerged through a stigmatization of Kurdish women and Kurdish feminism.  Persian feminism does not always stray far from the footsteps of Persian nationalism. 

Across the globe and in Iran the phrase “jin, jiyan, azadi” has become the rallying cry for a social movement.  Kurdish feminists interject the Kurdish history of this phrase and how it emerged in Kurdish leftist circles in Turkey to challenge local racist, gendered violence.  Even though this phrase has become a global slogan, knowing the history of the words can open opportunities for expansive demands for change in Iran and elsewhere.  “The name Jina in Kurdish means both life and life-giving, reminding us of Jiyan, the middle term of the slogan now chanted everywhere,” a group of Kurdish feminists explains. “For us, Jina is an appropriate name because we believe “Berxwedan jiyan e” [a reference to the Kurdish slogan, “life is resistance”].”

To understand woman, life, and freedom, there is a need for a broader deciphering of Jina’s life, Kurdish lives in Iran, and the political and economic conditions.  Jina’s trip to Tehran and subsequent death presents a space to examine the place of Kurds within the nation.  Kamal Soleimani and Ahmad Mohammadpour (2019) have illustrated brilliantly the deliberate Iranian nation-state policies of de-development that have greatly impacted, impoverished, and made precarious the Kurdish region (Rojhelat) of Iran.  The intentional underdevelopment of the Kurdish region means that Kurdish communities must migrate for survival.  Jina’s trip to Tehran must be understood within the precarity of Kurdish life that requires migration under treacherous and dangerous conditions.  This is evidenced in the brilliant work by Ahmad Mohammadpour on the Kolberis (Kurdish migrant workers) who risk life and death crossing goods between Iran and Iraq under treacherous political and natural conditions. There is a political climate and political context that cannot be explained by the term Iran, Iranian women, or Iranian feminism alone.

To say Iranian women and to say Iranian feminism requires that we address Orientalism in Western demands, while foregrounding the forms of ongoing colonialism and ethnic violence built into the state structures of Iran and Iranian society.  There is an expansive possibility for a sisterhood that is transformative and structurally destabilizing.  However, that sisterhood cannot be through normative Iranian feminist models. It has to be through the margins that showcase where powers seeps, occupies, slips, and is challenged.  We must foreground all voices to realize the broadest terms of justice.  The nationalist model of feminism and dominant models of feminism will not free us all if the very nation is at the heart of the problem.  There is no transformative resistance to power if we continue, as the great Audre Lorde theorized, to “use the master’s tools.”  Our calls for change must be a call to work against power.  Refusing Jina’s name and calling it an Iranian revolution and Iranian feminism, no matter where we fall on our political spectrum, perpetuates the continued erasure of Kurdish histories, silences Kurdish women’s voices, and elides Kurdish feminism in the larger Iranian national landscape and national story. 

To seek remedy and justice, there must be a more holistic understanding of violence and resistance.  Only through understanding the Kurdish struggle in Iran can we understand the reason for Jina/Zhina Amini’s death and state violence more broadly, as well as the potential for equitable, justice-oriented solutions. Stateless communities, such as the Kurds, encounter state-violence and state-sponsored vigilante violence.  When the nation is the problem, the nation cannot be the solution.  Let us dive deeper into histories to understand the present, say her name Jina/Zhina, center the voices of marginalized communities, and collaborate for broad coalitions for justice in Iran and across the world. 

Stanley Thangaraj is the Inaugural James E. Hayden Chair for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Social Justice as well as the Director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Social Justice at Stonehill College.  He studies immigrant and refugee communities in the U.S. South to understand how they manage the black-white racial logic through gender and the kinds of horizontal processes of race-making.  His monograph Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (NYU Press, 2015) looks at the relationship between race and gender in co-ethnic-only South Asian American sporting cultures.  His newest research is on Kurdish America, which received the 2015 American Studies Association “Comparative Ethnic Studies” award.