Women Life Freedom – the revolutionary call of the Kurdish Women’s Movement
These three words – Women Life Freedom – have rung out across the globe thanks to the extraordinarily brave and inspiring women and men of Iran, and are being chanted in many different languages. But their deceptive simplicity has been allowed to obscure their full revolutionary meaning, just as their translation from the original Kurdish hides their origin in a movement that is criminalised across large parts of what likes to think of itself as the ‘free world’.
Jin Jiyan Azadi – the original Kurdish version – was first chanted by the Kurdish Women’s Movement on International Women’s Day in 2006 to give voice to their revolutionary philosophy. It has become the slogan of the movement, especially in Rojava, which describes itself as a women’s revolution. Jina (Mahsa) Amini, whose murder at the hands of Iran’s ‘morality police’ triggered Iran’s uprising, was Kurdish, and Rojhelat – East or Iranian Kurdistan – was the epicentre of the protests that are now developing into a revolution. Jina was her Kurdish name, which was not allowed to be officially recognised, and the brutality of her treatment may have been enhanced because she was Kurdish and not Persian.
The slogan, Women Life Freedom, has spread outwards with the protests, but what does it mean to those who created it? Through internal struggle and debate, and the powerful words of its undisputed leader, Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdish Freedom Movement has put women’s freedom at its core. This is a very different sort of freedom from that envisaged by liberal feminism, which worries about individual success. The Movement wants nothing less than fundamental social change. Their radical feminism does not demand a place for women in our hierarchical ‘civilisation’, but an end to hierarchy itself, and its replacement with those mutually supporting community structures that have been increasingly pushed to the margins. When it seeks to end toxic masculinity, it also challenges the structures of dominance and power that have come to be taken for granted at all levels – from family roles to the state. It puts forward a different way of thinking about the world, where wellbeing is valued over financial wealth, and mutual aid over competition, and where human society is seen as part of the natural world and not it’s master.
Of course, we cannot expect most of those who are now repeating this powerful phrase to realise all that it stands for. This is true in Iran itself, where political discussion has been severely restricted, as well as in the liberal democracies where the phrase has received an enthusiastic echo. There have even been reports of Iranian students twinning it with a call of Men Homeland Prosperity, effectively negating the original meaning – a development which seems to have been pushed by conservative monarchists and repeated through ignorant naivety. In the West, journal articles have been written pontificating on the slogan’s origins without once mentioning the Kurdish movement; and it has been adopted as a useful marker for displaying liberal credentials by both big business and politicians. The luxury fashion house, Balenciaga, cleared its Instagram feed to replace it with the slogan in English and in Persian, and politicians have posed holding the words on placards.
Some of those politicians are involved in governments that persecute the Kurdish Freedom Movement and shut down Kurdish voices. Turkey has persuaded many states to put the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, on their terrorism lists. This is a political decision not a legal one. When Belgium’s highest court ruled that the PKK was actually a non-state actor involved in a war, and not a terrorist organisation, the Belgian government responded that this made no difference. At the time that the European Union listed them, the PKK was in the middle of a long ceasefire and calling for peace negotiations – as they have done for more than 30 years. Terrorist listing is used to criminalise all Kurdish political activity, and Kurds in the diaspora have become used to seeing their homes and community centres raided.
Turkey is able to wield its influence because of its strategic position at the junction of ‘East’’ and ‘West’, and also because Europe relies on them to act as the European Union’s border guards and keep out refugees and migrants. Other states do not want to upset them. On top of this, liberal democracies belie their name when it comes to allowing breathing space to movements that challenge their view of the world. In their relations with the Kurds, the terrorist designation of the PKK makes it easy for western governments to be neither liberal nor democratic.
Last week, a leading scholar and activist in the Kurdistan Women’s Movement, Nagihan Akarsel, was assassinated outside her home in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. No-one doubts that the murder was ordered by the Turkish Security Services. The Turkish government has made little comment about events in Iran, but this assassination makes clear their contempt for Kurdish women’s freedom. Despite all their statements of solidarity with the people of Iran, Western governments will continue to work with – and sell arms to – Turkey.
The Kurdish Freedom Movement stresses that its ideas for a better world are for everyone. They are pleased to see their call of Jin Jiyan Azadi being taken up by those struggling against the regime in Iran and to hear it repeated in different languages on the streets of Europe and beyond. But this will mean little if it is allowed to be emptied of content and if the people who created it continue to be written out and persecuted.
[Image credit: Stencils seen in Iran featuring the names and faces of women murdered by cops during the ongoing protests following the death of Jina Mahsa Amini, a 22 year old woman who was killed by the morality police after being arrested and beaten for supposedly incorrectly wearing a hijab]