Originally published: https://newint.org/immersive/2023/02/23/iran-kurdish-feminist-revolution

Around the world, people are chanting ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ in solidarity with the women’s uprising in Iran – dubbing it the ‘first feminist revolution in the world’. Not so, argues Rahila Gupta, as she examines its precursor: a Kurdish feminist revolution in Rojava.

23 February 2023 | New Internationalist

The killing of Jina Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish Iranian woman who allowed a wisp of hair to escape the confines of her hijab, by the morality police on 16 September 2022, has set the streets of Iran on fire with an intensity that threatens to bring down the Islamic regime.

Feminists around the world have been staging solidarity protests and mass hair-cutting rituals. I too chopped off a lock of my hair at London’s Piccadilly Circus in an event organized by Maryam Namazie, an Iranian activist, from One Law for All campaign.

Media interest has been at an all-time high. Western support for the uprisings in Iran has been described by Jacobin magazine as ‘a kind of “intersectional imperialism” that seeks to justify military and diplomatic escalation with Iran in the name of female emancipation from Islamic “barbarism”’. Iranian activists, though, argue that not enough has been done to isolate the government of Iran.

In the high-pitched enthusiasm for the Iranian uprising, some vital truths are being lost. In an interview in The Observer, Iranian writer Shiva Akhavan Rad, refers to the slogan Zan, Zindagi, Azadi (Woman, Life, Freedom) without mentioning that this was in fact adapted from the original Jin, Jiyan, Azadi: a Kurdish slogan protesting the death of a Kurdish woman, Jina Amini.

This is not an act of sectarian point-scoring, but an acknowledgement of the fact that the Kurds are a historically oppressed minority in Iran and across the border in Syria, Iraq and Turkey, and their struggles must not continue to be invisibilized.

That this cause has been embraced by Iranians strengthens the opposition to the country’s oppressive government. But it is the Kurdish regions of Iran, known as Rojhelat in Kurdish, that have borne the brunt of regime brutality.

This brings me to the second trope: that the protest movement in Iran is ‘the first feminist revolution in the world’. Actually, no. The first feminist revolution in the world is in progress in Rojava, northeast Syria, led by Kurdish women (and men) since 2012. It is here that the slogan, Jin, Jiyan, Azadi was first popularized.

The Rojava women’s revolution has hardly been covered in the mainstream media, perhaps in deference to Turkey, a NATO ally, which sees the movement for Kurdish self-determination as ‘terrorism’ – and is bombing Rojava at the time of writing. In the meantime, a protest movement with the potential to bring down the Islamic regime of Iran gets unprecedented coverage: because Iran is an implacable enemy of the West.

Jin, Jiyan, Azadi

A slogan that was little known before the death of Jina Amini, and was enthusiastically chanted in Kurdish political gatherings, now reverberates in meeting halls and demonstrations across the world. An opportunity to discuss its origins is an opportunity to raise awareness of Rojava and so the universal embrace of this slogan is a positive development.

Yet Kurdish women warn of the danger of slogans becoming empty words. As Dilar Dirik, a Kurdish academic and activist, noted at a conference organized by Kurdish women in Berlin in November 2022: ‘Radical and revolutionary slogans and symbols increasingly become commodified, mass-produced, emptied of their meaning, and sold back in plastic to the same people that gave their lives creating these values.’

Jin, Jiyan, Azadi was first chanted on 8 March 2006 at International Women’s Day demonstrations by Kurdish women in cities across Turkey. Within the Kurdish freedom movement, the words are attributed to Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who has been languishing in solitary confinement in a Turkish prison since 1999. He used them in 1993, not as a slogan, but as a pithy evocation of the goals of the movement.

Jin is the Kurdish word for woman and the root of Jineolojî (or ‘the science of women’) proposed by Öcalan. His revolutionary history began with Marxism-Leninism and the demand for an independent nation-state of Kurdistan in 1978, when he set up the PKK in Turkey. However, Öcalan’s thinking evolved in prison. Influenced partly by Murray Bookchin’s ideas on radical municipalism, Öcalan renounced the state as an inherently patriarchal, violent and anti-democratic institution, in favour of a model of participatory grassroots self-administration which he called ‘democratic confederalism’.

Along with anti-statism, Öcalan came to believe that women are the vanguard of the revolution. Öcalan’s reading list in prison included the feminist works of Judith Butler and Maria Mies which, alongside his lengthy discussions with Kurdish feminist revolutionaries like Sakine Cansiz, are credited with influencing his feminist beliefs.

Without wanting to diminish the contribution to the feminist cause of Öcalan and his Kurdish compatriots, it is important to reflect on whether Öcalan’s evolution would have been possible without the theoretical outpourings and extensive activism of second-wave feminism. It is a pleasing cross-fertilisation of ideas. The internationalist outlook of Kurdish feminists is reflected in their knowledge of a range of Western thinkers, a compliment that is not returned – typical of Western orientalism which rarely grapples with ideas and theories that emerge in the Global South.

For Öcalan, ‘Women’s freedom is more precious than the freedom of the homeland’.

He believes that after the workers’ revolutions and national liberation struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries, the 21st century is that of women’s revolution. The pre-eminence of women, the emphasis on our freedom as a precondition for the freedom of the whole of humanity, is an idea that drives the revolution in Rojava and animates the Kurdish movement for self-determination.

This latter-day Nelson Mandela’s analysis of patriarchy stands equal to that of any feminist, and his position is without precedent among male leaders of liberation struggles.

‘Woman’s biological difference is used as justification for her enslavement,’ he writes. ‘All the work she does is taken for granted and called unworthy “woman’s work”.

‘Her presence in the public sphere is claimed to be prohibited by religion, morally shameful; progressively, she is secluded from all important social activities… Thus, the idea of a “weak sex” becomes a shared belief. In fact, society treats woman not merely as a biologically separate sex but almost as a separate race, nation or class – the most oppressed race, nation or class: no race, class or nation is subjected to such systematic slavery as housewifisation.’

Öcalan found the term feminism limiting: it focussed on women’s oppression by men, thus failing to capture all the contributions made by women to history, society and life.

‘It suggests the meaning that she is merely the oppressed woman of the dominant man. Yet women’s reality is more comprehensive than that and includes other meanings beyond gender with far-reaching economic, social, and political dimensions.’

Not only were the women fighting for Kurdish self-determination in the armed struggle in the mountains, they were also resisting the patriarchal attitudes of their male comrades in the guerrilla movement

In meetings with Kurdish political activists in prison in 2014, he elaborated: ‘Feminism needs to be a more radical movement against the system and to purify itself from the effects of liberalism. Jineolojî will contribute to this.’

He elevated it to the status of a science, a subject worthy of study like any other, such as sociology or pedagogy, an ‘ology’. The only reason, he argued, that this science did not exist was because the production of knowledge has been skewed by male dominance.

Öcalan’s view of feminism as the rebellion of the oldest colony turbocharges Jineolojî as an instrument for decolonizing the curriculum from a gender perspective, not a perspective common in Britain where decolonization is mainly about race.

While Öcalan is to be credited with formulating the original principles of Jineolojî, it is Kurdish women who have continued to develop and add nuance to it, based in part on practical knowledge gained from their activism and the experience of establishing the women’s revolution in Rojava in 2012. Discussions began among the women guerrillas in the mountains of Kurdistan before spreading through the rest of society.

There are Jineolojî committees across the four parts of Kurdistan, Europe and Russia. There have also been several international conferences to develop their theories. Dilar Dirik devoted only a few pages to Jineolojî in her recent book on the Kurdish Women’s Movement because it is a ‘constantly evolving process and defining it too much can be limiting to its evolution’.

Self-determination and armed struggle

As early as the third congress of the PKK in 1986, it was announced that an autonomous women’s organization would be set up.9 In 1987, the Kurdistan Patriotic Women Union (YJWK) was founded. This group hosted the movement’s first theoretical discussions on patriarchal exploitation, women’s liberation and the social construction of women and their role in the family.

These ideas were contextualised by Öcalan in his book, Woman and the Family Issue in Kurdistan (not available in English).

The founding of the women’s armed wing in 1993, in an attempt at autonomous organization in all areas of political activity, generated new understandings and knowledge.

Not only were the women fighting for Kurdish self-determination in the armed struggle in the mountains, they were also resisting the patriarchal attitudes of their male comrades in the guerrilla movement.

This made them understand the importance of fighting for women’s liberation alongside class and national liberation struggles.

Given the emphasis that Öcalan placed on women’s freedom, this was not a matter to be postponed until after the solution of the Kurdish question. This was a significant lesson taken from previous national liberation struggles against colonial powers, particularly in Asia and Africa, where women were asked to postpone their own struggles until after independence was won. Women began organizing in the cities as well, where they came to understand the patriarchal structures of capitalist modernity.

The theory of “Eternal Divorce”, aiming to make the issue of freedom visible for both woman and man, became an important step to enable both genders to become aware of their own reality,’ as the booklet on Jineolojî explains. Öcalan’s theory on ‘Killing the Dominant Male’ – dealing with toxic masculinity – is based on women’s struggles to free themselves from the oppression of men.

The first women’s party (PJKK) was formed in March 1999, soon after Öcalan’s arrest, to address his regret over having not formed one thus far. The party dropped the reference to Kurdistan in the following year and renamed themselves PJA (Free Women’s Party), to signal that all women of all nationalities and backgrounds were welcome to join, an inclusiveness which transcends the narrow nationalisms based on ethnic identity.

The dynamism of the movement is reflected in the number of different organizations that have been set up in the last 20 years, with a number of name changes to reflect nuances of political positions. However, it is a veritable alphabet soup to be decoded only by the most fervent scholars of the movement.

Central to the project of Jineolojî is the attempt to achieve a transformation in the social sciences, which claim to be a systematized production of knowledge of lived reality, an objective, rational, scientific study of human behaviour and social relations. ‘Jineolojî is a science born out of objections to conventional science,’ says the booklet.

It enumerates the areas in which women played a central role but have slipped below the horizon of history, insisting that ‘women are not the sediment of society, but are the core’. Its function is to provide the ideological foundations for a system that is centred on women and engages with nine subject areas: history, ethics and aesthetics, demography, health, education, self-defence, economy, politics, and ecology.

Importantly, Jineolojî is a template for action, a solutions-based approach which posits the establishment of democratic confederalism, with women at the centre, as the only way to fight capitalist and patriarchal oppression.

Positivism in the dock

Positivism is given a hard time by Jineolojî. Western reliance on evidence-based, objective truths and scientific principles, on what is provable, and which denies the relevance of other forms of learning and traditional wisdoms, is critiqued for its short-sightedness. Jineolojî examines how science, apparently so emotion-free and rational, has become corrupted by power, racism and sexism.

While acknowledging the negative patriarchal values embedded in subjects like mythology, religion and philosophy, Jineolojî believes there are truths contained in them which should not have been cast aside by positivism as it developed in 17th century Europe.

Around the same time, women’s traditional wisdom as healers was seen as a threat to society and women’s behaviour was disciplined by the mass burning of ‘witches’, a history that is now reclaimed and recast by writers like Silvia Federici in Caliban and the Witch as part of the journey from feudalism to capitalism.

Jineolojî questions the great claims made for the Enlightenment, critiquing the principles of positivism by which it was shaped. It questions the fragmentation of social sciences and the value of specialisms like economics, sociology, history and philosophy, when knowledge should be whole and indivisible.

The ‘harsh materialism’ of positivism is seen as more regressive than metaphysics and religion. Yet in Öcalan’s ‘three ruptures’ theory, the role that religion plays in shoring up patriarchy comes in for a thoroughgoing critique. In his pamphlet on women’s revolution, Liberating Life, Öcalan advances his ‘three sexual ruptures’ theory of women’s enslavement and eventual liberation.

The first rupture, or turning point, was the rise of patriarchy when Neolithic times ended and ‘statist civilization’ arose; the second sexual rupture was the intensification of patriarchy through religious ideology.

As Öcalan says: ‘Treating women as inferior now became the sacred command of god’. The third rupture is yet to come, the end of patriarchy or as Öcalan puts it ‘killing the dominant male’, which is about reshaping masculinity so that it no longer defines itself in relation to its power over women.

Claims to exceptionalism

The booklet on Jineolojî hopes to clarify how ‘Jineolojî’s approach differs from the other currents of thought’.

This is where the trouble begins – it lays down a gauntlet to feminists to respond to, with examples of feminist theorizing that cover the same ground as Jineolojî. Many of us, who are allies of the movement, have been exercised by this claim, particularly as there are so many strands of feminism in the West that all the theoretical approaches in Jineolojî have already been articulated by women at some point.

In making its claim to exceptionalism, Jineolojî does appear to homogenize Western feminism as mainly liberal without recognizing the more radical strands.

Dilar Dirik critiques liberal feminism’s individualistic and legalistic approach to change as ‘forms of ideological assimilation that pacify movements rather than transform the system’. This criticism is also articulated by women who subscribe to radical, socialist or Marxist ideologies.

We cannot just make revolution happen by changing the system and then expecting that the system will change the people within it. We see from history that this is not enough

But, as Kurdish feminists rightly point out, this plethora of perspectives has driven a fragmentation of transnational feminism, while Jineolojî has been able to coalesce elements of these various thought systems into a single framework behind which Kurdish women have united. Their anti-state position, for example, has brought many anarchists flocking to the cause.

Others have been attracted to the equal emphasis placed on changing the system and the self, each standing in a symbiotic relationship to the other, and the theory of xwebûn, or being and becoming yourself – unlike classical Marxism which proposed that the individual was shaped by class relations and that once the system changed it would shape human character in a more progressive mould.

The booklet on Revolutionary Education argues: ‘We cannot just make revolution happen by changing the system and then expecting that the system will change the people within it. We see from history that this is not enough.’

The ‘freedom’ part of the Jin, Jiyan, Azadi slogan is also a reference to changing mentality in both men and women. ‘Transforming the man is essential to a free life,’ says Öcalan. Dilar Dirik tells us that the women’s liberation ideology is not a framework reserved for women. It is also taught to male cadres, whose militancy is assessed by their approach to women’s liberation and by their engagement with ‘men’s freedom problem’.

In an email, the Academy of Jineolojî explained that one of their main research topics currently is the analysis of ‘co-life’ (hevjiyana azad) and dominant masculinity. How to build the potential for freedom instead of the potential for slavery in all, including sexual relationships between women and men.

As Havin Guneser, translator of Öcalan’s works into English, points out in her book, The Art of Freedom: ‘What we are seeing is that the relationship between men and women is deemed to be a private domain, but it is, in fact, the first and foremost locus of the colonization process.’

While Western feminists have analyzed toxic masculinity, the work of changing men and their patriarchal mentality is more often seen as a job for men and not the responsibility of women. There are some women’s organizations which have established perpetrator programmes, such as anger management, aimed at men who have been violent towards their partners.

The importance of personal transformation for both men and women while at the same time engaging in a struggle to change the system with its anti-capitalist, anti-state and ecological focus, is a syncretic political tradition the like of which we have not quite seen before. ‘It refuses to choose between a materialism, which takes the object as the absolute, or an idealism, which takes the subject as the absolute.’

The emphasis on ethics and aesthetics as the fundamental basis of the perspective and practices of Jineolojî is also unusual for a liberation struggle. This is seen by its proponents to be the main difference that distinguishes Jineolojî from scientism and from the dominant understandings of social sciences. Beauty is not about appearing attractive to men but is reconceptualized as synonymous with freedom, cultural and ethical values.

This is how Öcalan expresses it: ‘The one who fights becomes free, the one who becomes free becomes beautiful, the one who is beautiful is loved’. Aesthetics should be informed by a commitment to justice, autonomy, truth and liberation.

Zozan Sima, from the Jineolojî Academy in Rojava, expands upon Ocalan’s statement: ‘Women, who democratize politics, women, who risk their lives to protect communities and other women, women who educate themselves and those around them, women who live communally, women who save the ecological equilibrium, women who struggle to raise children in free countries, with their own identities, and many others are all women who become beautiful through struggle.

‘In today’s world full of ugliness, injustice and evil, it is not physical, augmented forms of aesthetics which constitute beauty; only women who defend life through struggle can create beauty. In this sense, is there anything more beautiful than the young women who fight against Daesh fascism?’

But these claims to exceptionalism do not convince Nadje Al-Ali and Isabel Käser, feminist academics.

In their essay, ‘Beyond Feminism? Jineolojî and the Kurdish Women’s Freedom Movement’, they locate Jineolojî within standpoint theory, a perspective that empowers marginalized groups by validating the knowledge produced from their subjective positions.

They also point to transnational feminists who challenge the binary between secularism and spirituality common in Western thought and recount the number of feminists who have critiqued the social sciences and dedicated themselves to unearthing women’s histories.

At one level, this is academic.

If Jineolojî provides the template for the first and only women’s revolution in the world, its claim to exceptionalism is totally justified. Why should it matter whether there is an overlap or not with other strands of feminist thought? It is surely the science of the women’s revolution which is its primary distinction from other feminist theorizing.

Al-Ali and Käser are unnecessarily defensive in the face of their Kurdish interviewees’ critique that global feminism is divided and unable to translate its critical perspectives into political action, in pointing to ‘the long history of feminist mobilization globally, which, despite many setbacks and unresolved inequalities, has been central to challenging structural inequalities and improving women’s everyday lives in many contexts’.

The fragmentation of women’s struggles, the different strands – radical feminism, anarcho-feminism, Marxist-feminism, ecofeminism – has undeniably held us back. The Jineolojî booklet describes Western feminism as ‘hope movements’ without revolutionary potential.

In Liberating Life, Öcalan argues that feminism can never be totally successful in a capitalist system, which thrives on division; that class and race equality in a secular democratic system is part of the struggle for women’s liberation. Many feminists, such as the Combahee River Collective of black feminists, would agree with this analysis, but they are unable to put into practice ideas of race and class equality in a capitalist system.

No wonder that transnational feminism is often derided as a middle-class affair which excludes working-class and minority women.

The response of the Jineolojî committee, Europe, to Al-Ali and Käser’s article was also unnecessarily defensive – surprisingly so, given the value that the Kurdish women’s movement places on criticism and self-criticism.

The committee critiqued the authors’ methodology, felt that interviewees had been quoted out of context and noted the fact that they did not read any of the work available in Kurdish or Turkish – a criticism that could equally be made of this article.

Criticizing the authors for ‘patroniz[ing] and trivializ[ing] our work,’ is an unfair criticism as the piece was attempting to engage seriously with Jineolojî and appraise it from a position of solidarity with Kurdish women.

As Al-Ali and Käser acknowledged, ‘Jineoloji’s transformative potential has not been realized by any other feminist politics’.

Rahila Gupta is a journalist and activist. Her last book was a novella in verse, The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong