For over a week, people have taken to the streets in Iran to protest the murder of Jina Amini, a Kurdish woman killed by Iran’s ‘morality police.’ Demonstrations began in Amini’s hometown and have since spread across the country.
The Iranian state has responded with violence, killing dozens of protestors, injuring hundreds more, and arresting countless civilians.
Internet access in the country is now severely limited or shut off entirely, limiting the flow of information to the outside world. At least 18 journalists reporting on the events have been jailed.
To better understand Kurdish perspectives on the protest movement, KPI spoke with a Kurdish human rights activist who is currently on the ground in Iran. For security purposes, the identity of this activist will be kept anonymous. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Kurdish Peace Institute: Can you briefly outline the general situation for Kurds in Iran today?
Anonymous: The Kurds in Iran have been dealing with deep-rooted racism and discrimination since the 1920s. Their language, their identity, and their basic human rights have been denied by the Iranian state under both the Shah and the Islamic Republic.
East Kurdistan (Rojhelat in Kurdish) has been securitized—or perhaps it is better to say kept under de facto martial law—since the 1980s. Over 1,800 military bases and outposts have been built from Maku to Kermanshah and Ilam, which means Kurds are under constant regime surveillance.
The regime also has put sanctions on East Kurdistan since the 1980s. The region suffers from two kinds of sanctions: the ones the regime has enforced on us internally and the ones that the United States and the international community have enforced on Iran.
Kurdish provinces receive the least investment and have highest percentage of poverty and unemployment because of this economic exploitation. This has resulted in a phenomenon called “kolbari” [unofficial cross-border trade]. Today there are over 70,000 kolbars in East Kurdistan. The regime considers them to be smugglers. Each year hundreds of them are killed and injured by direct shootings from the Iranian border guards.
Kurdish women suffer more than others under the current regime. They face extreme discrimination: first because they are Kurdish, second because they are women, and third because they are non-Persian and non-Shia Muslims.
Kurds and women face violence and structural oppression in Iran, and the murder of Jina Amini is not the first tragedy of its kind. Why do you think this case has sparked such widespread outrage at this particular moment?
During the past few years, many similar cases of Kurdish women subjected to violence by regime agents have been reported. For example, on May 3, 2015, a Kurdish woman named Farinaz Khusrawani was killed by an Iranian agent at Hotel Tara in Mahabad.
At that time, protests occurred in Mahabad and several other Kurdish cities—but nothing happened in Iranian cities.
The main reasons that today all Iranians are paying attention to Zhina’s murder are as follows.
First, she was killed in Tehran, the capital, by the ‘morality police,’ an institution Iranians of all ethnicities really despise.
Second, she was targeted because of the regime’s enforcement of mandatory hijab laws. Since fighting enforced hijab has been the biggest form of resistance against the regime for Iranians, her case gained a great deal of attention. I can say this happened because opposition to mandatory hijab is a grievance that Kurds and other Iranians share. In contrast, history shows that most Iranians usually stay silent about instances of state violence in Kurdistan, such as the killing of kolbars.
Third, Jina’s case received more attention because, for the first time, Iranian activists showed solidarity with a Kurdish woman and spoke about her death on social media. However, we should not forget that some Iranian activists have refused to mention that Jina was Kurdish and have instead insisted that she was only “Iranian”. Many Kurds have criticized this approach. They argue that these activists are using Zhina’s murder for their own political goals and agendas and that they are displaying racism by refusing to acknowledge Jina’s Kurdish identity.
Who is participating in these protests? What are the main demands of protestors? What kind of changes do they want to see?
Based on my observations, the majority of the protesters are young people. Both men and women are participating in the protests. In most protests, women lead the people and chant slogans.
Also, based on information provided by human rights organizations such as Hengaw, Kurdpa, Kolbar News, and Kurdistan Human Network, women make up almost one-third of the wounded protesters who have been shot by Iranian military forces. This means the regime forces are directly targeting women too.
According to the slogans, the people’s biggest demand is the total abolition of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Their slogans are usually directed to Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Supreme Leader.
At the same time, the main slogan and the symbol of the protests has become “jin, jiyan, azadi” [“woman, life, freedom” in Kurdish]. This Kurdish chant is used not only in Kurdistan but in other Iranian cities. This highlights how protestors in East Kurdistan and Iran are all demanding equal rights for women.
Kurds also use nationalist Kurdish slogans, which means they are asking for recognition of their basic rights as a people.
Ultimately, Kurds mostly want freedom and the end of the Iranian occupation of our homeland through independence or autonomy. That might be possible if the Islamic regime is overthrown.
Iranians mostly want to change the current system and create a new secular and democratic state.
Kurds and Iranians have always had different demands and different struggles, but today, all Kurds and Iranians protesting demand one thing: the total abolition of the Islamic Republic of Iran and resignation of Ali Khamenei, who is personally responsible the for death of tens of thousands of people since he came to power.
How has the regime responded to the protests?
This regime is one of the most brutal states in the world when it comes to human rights. They have always responded to peaceful demonstrations with violence. They have turned the streets in Kurdish cities into bloodbaths.
So far, dozens of civilians have been killed by direct shootings and hundreds have been injured. The number of arrests is not clear yet but I assume there have been many more. These numbers are likely to increase because everything is developing very fast.
The regime forces use tear gas, rubber bullets and in some cases real bullets against people. They have attacked people’s houses and broken their doors and windows.
As usual when something like this happens, the regime cuts off internet lines or reduces the internet speed in areas where protests happen. They cut off the internet across the entire country for two weeks in 2019 during the November protests. 1,500 people were killed during that time.
Today we fear that the same thing will happen as the protests are getting more intense in Kurdistan and spreading to other cities in Iran. Without internet, the situation will get much harder for the people, and the regime may slaughter hundreds or maybe thousands in silence.
Protests have spread beyond the Kurdish cities where they originated, and videos have shown demonstrators using the famous Kurdish resistance slogan “jin, jiyan, azadi.” Do you think these events will cause more Iranians to become aware of the specific oppression Kurds in Iran face? If so, what do you hope this will lead to? If not, why not?
The slogan “jin, jiyan, azadi” has definitely left an impact on all Iranians, and the fact that no society can be free until its women are free is clear.
As I said, if today they’re showing solidarity, it’s mainly because of the common struggle against the Islamic regime and its main symbol, which is forced hijab.
The anti-Islamic Republic Iranian media and activists have so far not been honest about the situation in Kurdistan. Almost all of them refuse to mention Jina’s true Kurdish identity and ethnicity. They also refuse to speak about the Kurdish people’s call for an end to the Iranian occupation of their homeland.
Also, Iranian cities did not join Kurdistan in the general strikes which led to the protests— first in Jina’s hometown, Saqqiz, and then in all other cities. The Iranian opposition did not support the strike which was announced by all Kurdish parties from East Kurdistan. Instead, they announced a general mourning day, which didn’t result in anything good.
This shows that many Iranians are not fully in solidarity with Kurds. And as I mentioned before, they have been silent about the massacre of Kurds by the Iranian regime over the past 44 years.
I wouldn’t trust much in this selective solidarity, but because human beings are capable of change, maybe Jina’s murder will be a starting point for people in Iran to change, to understand Kurdish people’s struggle better, and to show more true and honest solidarity.
On Friday night, it was reported that protestors took control of the Kurdish city of Oshnavieh (Shino) for some time. This is the first time demonstrators have done this anywhere in Iran. Can you explain what happened?
As people were protesting on Friday, they took over the houses of some IRGC members and set them on fire. Many of these IRGC fled the city and went to Mahabad. That motivated people to resist harder. After a few hours, they took control over most quarters and streets of the city and the Iranian regime forces all were driven out of the city. The people also set fire to some of the IRGC bases. The people also closed the main roads from other cities to Oshnaviyeh to prevent more Iranian forces from entering their city.
[Note: Local human rights organizations report that regime forces re-entered the city on Saturday and arrested dozens of people. Residents have reportedly gone on strike in protest.]
Is there anything else that you would like people to know?
As a Kurdish activist who has been active in the human rights field for years, I have always criticized Kurdish media, Kurdish activists, and friends of Kurdish people for staying silent or ignoring East Kurdistan’s struggle.
I kindly invite all of them to investigate Kurdish people’s issues under the Iranian state and to pay attention to their issues as much as they pay attention to Kurds from other parts of Kurdistan, especially West and North Kurdistan.
There is never a lack of information on East Kurdistan, and accessing it is much easier than it was in the past. They should invest more in our issues and be a voice for us on the international stage.
People should know that East Kurdistan is in the worst situation compared to other parts of Kurdistan. Many people don’t know this, because Iran is extremely isolated itself, and it has isolated Kurdistan even more. But we live in the internet age, and the regime can no longer prevent all information from getting out.