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Protests in Iran erupted in the wake of the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who died of unknown circumstances in September 2022 after being arrested by religious morality police for not wearing a hijab. This movement has received an unprecedented flood of global support and coverage on social media and news platforms. While this global attention has increased awareness of the human rights violations committed by the Islamic Republic, news outlets for Western audiences have not addressed one crucial element of the protests.

Since dubbed the “Mahsa Amini protests,” this name itself is actually something of a misnomer. In the calls to “remember Mahsa Amini’s name,”, Amini’s real Kurdish name, Jina, has been either erased or relegated to a footnote or offhand comment in most outlets’ commentary on the protests.

What may seem like semantics regarding naming is highly relevant to the ongoing sexism faced by women in Iran – considering that Jina could not legally register her Kurdish name as per Iranian law, continually referring to her as “Mahsa” serves the theocratic dictatorship by further suppressing her identity. This type of suppression is often worsened by other forms of racism and discrimination in Iran, such as that faced by the country’s sizable Kurdish population. Notably, the slogan, “jin, jiyan, azadi!” (or ‘women, life, freedom’!) popularly associated with the protests originates from contemporary Kurdish feminism and self-determination movements that have been ongoing throughout the Middle East for the past forty years. It is no coincidence that much of the state violence in retaliation to these protests has also been clustered in predominantly Kurdish areas, such as Sanandaj. 

The Kurdish dimensions of women’s rights protests in Iran cannot continue to be ignored by Western media. In many ways, the discrimination of Kurds has come from the same place as the discrimination of women and other marginalized groups in the Middle East. Whether discrimination came as a direct consequence of regime change, as has been the case of Iraq, or in part as a reaction to this foreign interference, as historically seen in Iran, both women’s rights and Kurdish movements have been suppressed through authoritarian regimes. This unfortunate reality has closely bound the two struggles together, as demonstrated in the contemporary Iranian protests. Understanding Kurdish oppression and its history is central to grasping the logic of state dictatorship in the region as it concerns this current flashpoint. 

Kurds in the Middle East: An Abridged History

Many countries’ borders in the Middle East were drawn along colonial lines, which excluded Kurds. The suppression of Kurdish identity long existed in the countries where they live, which informs and combines with the maltreatment of other oppressed groups face, such as women. The historical territory of Kurdistan, where most Kurdish people currently reside, spans an area now divided among Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 following World War I, this territory that had spanned most of these territories (excluding Iran) was divided by the Allies along French and English colonial rule. The Allies split Kurdistan up assuming that they would “aid” people living in the region to set up their own modern nation-state governments. Though some gestures were made by the Allies to carve out a sovereign Kurdistan, the Turkish War of Independence saw them concede on these territorial plans as they included parts of embattled Turkey, ultimately leaving the Kurdish people without a country of their own. 

Now split across four different countries that would eventually gain independence from Britain and France, Kurdish peoples’ presence as a marginalized group with their own nationalist claims to self-determination was seen as a threat to the new government’s authority after ironically gaining their own independence. Following decades of dispossession across the Middle East, the militant left-wing Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was founded in Turkey in 1974 and began to gain popularity amongst Kurds throughout the region. The PKK initially engaged in small-scale skirmishes with the Turkish state that later escalated in the 1980s into an armed conflict that saw them expelled to Syria. Moreover, their conflict continues to take place in both Syria and Turkey. 

Alongside this rising tide of Kurdish self-determination in the Middle East, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 saw a coalition of Kurds, left-wing demonstrators and Islamist groups working together to overthrow the monarch Reza Shah Pahlavi. Kurdish participants in this revolution were hopeful that their involvement would finally lead to some degree of autonomy under a new regime after decades of erasure under the Shah’s rule. However, the revolution’s hijacking by conservative, theocratic forces following US interference saw them backed in a similar discriminated position. Although women and Kurds fought back against the excesses of the post-revolutionary regime, with the latter engaging in a counter-revolution, the Iranian government nevertheless succeeded in establishing an authoritarian, theocratic regime. As Ayatollah Khomeini rose to become the leader of the Islamic Republic, he would proclaim a jihad (or “holy war”) against Iranian Kurds that has yet to be called off. 

Since then, the ways in which women’s rights throughout the Middle East have been variously leveraged and exploited to further the interests of other nations mirrors the struggle faced by the Kurds. Essentially, US support for Kurds and women in the Middle East ties to its own political aims: in Iran, Syria, and Iraq, the US has supported the Kurds and women’s rights issues. This assistance, however, has been tenuous, with America continuously abandoning its position when it has been either convenient or directed towards its allies, as has been the case for women in Saudi Arabia and Kurds in Turkey. Even in the Rojava area of Syria, US support for a promising project of simultaneous women’s and Kurdish liberation gave out as it began to cause a rift with Turkey after they were no longer “useful” in defeating the threat of ISIS in the region. 

Based on these actions, the historical distrust for the US has simultaneously allowed reactionary Middle Eastern governments to frame legitimate women’s and Kurdish movements as “foreign subversion.” During the Iraq-Iran War in the early-to-late 1980s, both countries armed and supported their Kurdish populations to create domestic unrest within their opponent’s borders, a strategy which ultimately resulted in the Al-Anfal Campaign, or Kurdish Genocide, orchestrated by Saddam Hussein in 1988. Syria’s limited support for the PKK as a buffer against Turkey ended after the 1999 Adana Agreement, which saw the two countries mobilizing against their respective Kurdish populations and resulted in the arrest of PKK figurehead Abdullah Ocalan. Altogether, the governmental use of these marginalized groups as pawns for political gain in the last several decades highlights why the relative exclusion of one group – the Kurds – over others from contemporary media narratives is disappointing. 

Lost in Transmission? The Consequences of Kurdish Omission

Protestors in Iran are likely aware of the history of the Kurdish plight in their country and how it relates to the broader authoritarianism they collectively face. The broad coalition of individuals participating in the protests come from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds and have found common ground in the discrimination women face in Iran; the use of a PKK slogan is a testament to this. Some Kurdish groups and activists have emphasized unity and collaboration with other Iranians as key to the protest’s success and in staking a solution to their own struggles. This practice of briefly setting aside their own aims of self-determination and greater ethnic representation has been seen as a more efficient way to organize for the more immediately tangible goal of ending the Islamic Republic. 

This pragmatic sidelining of the discrimination Kurds face by Kurdish-Iranian activists could not be more different than the flat-out non-inclusion of this nuance in Western reporting. Not recognizing the progressive, feminist influence Kurds have had in the region and the role of Kurdish-Iranians in the ongoing “Mahsa Amini” protests is nothing short of whitewashing. The catalyst, slogan, protested issues, and backgrounds of protestors all have Kurdish roots or influences to varying degrees.

The lack of Kurdish representation in reporting on the Iranian protests arguably risks bad faith actors exploiting public opinion that (rightfully) vilifies the Iranian government in order to serve their political interests in the Middle East. The US in particular has had a long history of exploiting the Kurds and other oppressed ethnic groups in the Middle East to justify military or covert intervention, which has only had disastrous effects in recent decades. 

Furthermore, this media trend puts forth a dangerous mischaracterization of what is being protested. The tired and harmful trope of Western countries needing to “save Muslim women” from “backwards religious zealots” manufactures consent for regime change that is not in the best interest of Iranian people, let alone women in Iran. There are no doubt legitimate reasons to criticize religious and government officials of Iran. Nevertheless, full-scale interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have only produced more instability for women throughout the Greater Middle East. Together with the abandonment of the Kurdish and women’s liberation project in Rojava, these instances show that this type of media justification for government action has almost always been a means of trying to hide national political interests as opposed to being a genuine call for improving human rights. 

What’s Next? Increasing Media Representation for Kurdish Struggles

If solidarity is going to be offered by Western observers, it needs to be done in a way that promotes learning outside of ‘trendy’ activism and is free from judgment or recommendation. How this story is currently covered and shared with Western audiences is failing on these two fronts. The historical context of intervention related to these current events can inform Western audiences of their governments’ responsibility in creating or supporting oppressive governments in other countries. Likewise, they can become aware of the nature of their governments’ foreign interventions – whether in the form of sanctions, embargoes, or other covert means of influence, these practices more often than not collectively punish the average person living in affected countries instead of those responsible for political decision making. 

While sharing a story as far and fast as possible is important, media outlets and social media pages must recognize that not properly considering and fact-checking the message and relevant history behind current news has potentially dangerous implications for how people can come to view a particular news story. Not only does this example of Kurdish “erasure” in the Iranian protests demonstrate some of the drawbacks of disseminating political messages across social media, but it also shows that outside observers must put in the work to truly understand what they are giving solidarity to so that they do not undermine the movement’s messaging, whether unwittingly or otherwise.

The anger and judgement we feel toward the Iranian government as we watch the protests unfold on social media are justified. Yet, we often fail to realize how Western governments and media exacerbate political conditions in other countries and, in turn, stir up guilt for ‘standing by’ and deflecting responsibility away from holding themselves accountable. If people are continually fed these kinds of false narratives, we are bound to see governments repeating the same violent foreign policy actions that result in the further death and oppression of women, Kurds, and other oppressed groups globally.

Edited by Majeed Malhas

Henry Stevens

Henry is originally from Waterloo, Ontario and is currently attending UBC in Vancouver where he is completing his B.A in history with a minor in international relations. His studies focus closely on global...