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Sahar Ghorishi

Our history is not Insta-activism: on Jina, Mahsa, and the trendification of Kurdish feminism

From coopting Kurdish slogans to using Amini’s state name, the wave of online activism around the protests in Iran is erasing Kurdish women’s crucial contributions to this movement.

16 Dec 2022

In October, having just completed one of its most successful fashion seasons in recent years, Balenciaga deleted its entire Instagram portfolio and replaced it with one black-and-white text photo that read: “Woman, Life, Freedom. Zan, Zendegi, Azadi”. It was captioned with a statement of solidarity with “all Iranian women, in memory of Mahsa”. Gucci followed suit by posting the same phrase on its Instagram stories, as well as a declaration of support for Iranian women and the hashtag “#mahsaamini”. Gucci and Balenciaga (the latter is currently the subject of major controversy over an ad campaign) are just two brands adding to the expansive wave of digital activism concerned with women’s rights in Iran, triggered by the death of Jina Amini under the custody of Iran’s morality police on 16 September. 

Digital and social media have been vital tools for the continuation of the protests over the last four months, with many people sharing their demands to dismantle the morality police and all restrictions imposed by the regime. Protesters are using social media to spread messages and update the Iranian public, the diaspora and international observers. This digital activism has also, however, contributed to the near-total erasure of the role of Kurdish women in the movement, as is perfectly exemplified by Gucci and Balenciaga’s solidarity for Iranian women, rather than women in Iran.

Most mainstream digital and social media outlets have chosen not to refer to Jina by the name she was born with, the name used by her family and friends, and the name that is now written on her tombstone. They have instead called her by her state name, Mahsa, which she was given in compliance with the Iranian law that all names must be rooted in Persian or Islamic history. Variations of #mahsaamini have subsequently trended on most social media platforms since the demonstrations began, thereby mischaracterising her while attempting to raise awareness about her life.

“Kurdish women have had many things taken from them throughout history”

The phrase “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” is in fact a Farsi translation of the Kurdish phrase “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi”, conceptualised by Kurdish feminists in the early 2000s as part of their philosophy of Jineology, literally meaning the study of women. Rooted in democratic confederal theory, Jineology is a profoundly anti-colonial and anti-capitalist philosophy, born from a spring of revolutionary thinking in Eastern Kurdistan in the 1980s that has driven the modern Kurdish liberation movement. These ideas were designed to challenge behaviours in Kurdish communities that were considered a product of their colonial subjugation, such as patriarchy, capitalism and social hierarchy. Democratic confederalism is now practised by a number of Kurdish communities and groups like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has engaged in violent struggle in pursuit of Kurdish autonomy.

“Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” was first chanted by Kurdish women in Turkey at an International Women’s Day protest in 2006. It has since been used by Kurdish women’s movements in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey to symbolise this historic dedication to resistance and liberation. There is boundless irony and bitterness, then, in seeing such a historically rich phrase, which so strongly rejects capitalism and women’s commodification, serve as a fashion house hashtag. 

Because of its historic use by the PKK, which Turkey considers to be a terrorist group, Kurdish women have experienced state violence, unlawful arrests and terror charges for espousing Jineology and its feminist principles. In the case of Iran, Kurdish women have experienced multifaceted discrimination, both as women and as Kurds.

“Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” was introduced and disseminated throughout the movement by the Kurdish women who led the very first waves of demonstrations after Jina’s death. Now, stripped of its associations with political violence, a language revamp has allowed it to serve as a palatable catch-phrase for the social media masses. Meghan Markle, for example, wore a Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” t-shirt at a Spotify event in October, sparking comments enquiring where the shirt was available, with links to versions on eBay, Redbubble and Etsy. 

“This social media saga has silenced one of the most vulnerable and discriminated against social groups in the region”

Of course, social media can be an important and useful tool for spreading news about global issues. But while participation in online activism has in this case taken the simple form of buying a T-shirt, its consequence for Kurdish feminists has been the commodification of a philosophy that they continue to give their lives for, with no accreditation or reference to its origins. Meanwhile, the Kurdish east of Iran has been the focus of brutal violence from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, demonstrating that, for the regime at least, Kurds have been recognised as playing a singular role in this movement.

Kurdish women have had many things taken from them throughout history. Beginning with the denial of a state, they have had their rights to political freedom, language, and cultural expression removed in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. What I see with the trendification of “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi”, then, is the theft of our very history. This is not an attempt to detract from what Iranians have given to this movement – which has grown to encompass the whole nation – and it would be inaccurate to try to characterise the movement as a solely Kurdish one. However, it has become acceptable to discuss the protests with no reference to Kurdish women. This is despite the fact that the death of a Kurdish woman sparked the protests, which in itself began in ethnically Kurdish regions, and has adopted a pivotal phrase from Kurdish feminist history as its rallying cry.

This social media saga has perpetuated the exclusion and silencing of one of the most vulnerable and discriminated against social groups in the region. In a continuation of normal practice, traditional media outlets have swept up only the largest and most convenient crumbs of the narrative and dispersed them into public discourse. In doing so, they are erasing Kurdish women’s seminal contributions to this remarkable moment in feminist history.

Western public discourse has chosen to translate “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” as “Women, Life, Freedom”. I much prefer the Kurdish interpretation: “Women, Life, Liberty”. After all, freedom can be a state of being, but liberation must be fought for.