The slogan “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” (Woman, Life, Freedom), which became the anthem for protests across Iran last year, has actually been the cornerstone of the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) for the past 20 years. Zîlan Vejîn, the party’s co-chair, explains that this slogan has not only unified women but also various ethnic groups within Iran. “The societal landscape has evolved; women are now self-aware. A woman belongs to herself, not to anyone else,” she states. Zîlan Vejîn, who is the only woman leading a political party in Iran, says that the journey to this point has been fraught with challenges for her and the women of Kurdistan. “We have introduced many alternatives for women, including the concept of co-leadership as opposed to a single leader,” she adds. Zîlan Vejîn discussed these matters earlier this week with Jiyar Gol on BBC Persian. Below is the interview, transcribed by Kurdane.com and translated into English by MedyaNews.
Why opt for co-leadership instead of a single-person leadership? And why specifically a man and a woman, rather than a council leadership?
Our leadership is grounded in a specific ideological, intellectual, and philosophical system. This philosophy informs our council-based leadership structure, where men and women are equally represented. In other words, there’s a 50-50 balance between men and women at the leadership level. In all aspects of our work and struggles, men and women participate equally.
Does this mean that in all branches of the Kurdistan Free Life Party, everything is 50% men and 50% women, both in terms of military and political aspects?
Yes, the situation differs somewhat in the military sector, but when it comes to politics, civil activities, organisation, and other domains, gender equality prevails with a 50-50 representation. Our belief is that without the active participation of both men and women across all aspects and arenas of the struggle, they cannot effectively guide society in a positive direction. If you examine various governmental sectors, you’ll notice an individualistic approach dominating, predominantly led by men. This stems from an individual-focused and gender-biased style of governance. In our party, we have achieved equality, and the co-leadership system serves as a means to combat gender discrimination.
In your organisation, many men have been present. Has it been an easy journey for women like you to be seen as a woman, leader, and commander?
Certainly not. We women have had a long struggle to prove ourselves and become influential individuals within the party and the system we have created. There have been flaws in our organisation and system, and we have made great efforts to rectify these flaws. Any member of the party who does not believe in the ideology and method cannot become a member of the party.
I think this is a quote from Mr. Öcalan, who says, ‘In any historical context where women have become leaders, they have been successful and had statues erected in their honour,’ but why, despite such women in our society, have their struggles not been able to eliminate discrimination? I’m not referring to the Iranian government but to our traditional society.
The root of this patriarchal mindset is deep and ancient, so achieving the goals of our struggles is not easy. As I said, we have made great efforts and have had a widespread impact. Look, we Kurdish women have created many alternatives for women. In contrast to single-person leadership, we have offered a co-leadership system. The global feminist movement in the Middle East and Kurdistan, even when it was influential, ultimately could not provide an adequate solution to our problems. This was because it was not a powerful alternative; it could not unite all freedom-seekers, democrats and women. In contrast, what alternative have we provided? Our leader, Abdullah Öcalan, theorised Jineology, the science of women, meaning self-awareness and self-knowledge for women. Self-awareness in the sense that women, until they know themselves, cannot achieve freedom for themselves or others. Moreover, what is the essence and spirit of women? It is social, and the roots of oppression against women, such as honour killings and gender discrimination, stem from this. As a Kurdish woman with a freedom-seeking philosophy and with the knowledge and awareness of Jineology, our progress and achievements have been significant. These achievements are not only for Kurdish women but also for Persian, Arab, Baloch, and other ethnic women. Conditions are no longer like they were 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago because women have gained Jineological awareness and self-awareness, meaning a woman belongs to herself, not someone else. Until she has control and will of her own and is independent, she cannot lead her society.
I see you speak of Abdullah Öcalan, known as Apo, as your leader. How is it possible that as a co-chair, you follow the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), use his ideology, and many of his military tactics, yet you are not considered part of this party?
Apoism, Öcalan’s philosophy, is not limited to a specific party; it transcends being merely an ideology confined to a single political entity. This ideology has extended beyond the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Apoism, akin to socialism, represents a philosophy rooted in democracy and freedom. Numerous movements and parties have the opportunity, should they choose to embrace it, to establish and sustain their organisations and struggle based on this philosophy. In the Kurdistan Free Life Party, we acknowledge Abdullah Öcalan as our leader and vigorously advocate for his freedom at the highest level. Our association with the PKK revolves around the national cause, akin to our relationships with other Kurdish parties. Our engagement with the PKK pertains to the struggle for the liberation of Kurdistan.
After the killing of Jina Amini in the custody of the Morality Police, we saw a widespread uprising in Iran, especially in Iranian Kurdistan. How do you assess the role of women?
Look, many protests have occurred in Iran, there is a lot of dissatisfaction, and many demands have emerged. However, what united all women and peoples of Iran was the slogan ‘Jin, Jiyan, Azadi’. Why was this slogan so impactful? It started with the leadership of Kurdish women and spread throughout Iran. What could unify the common points of women and peoples? This reflects the power, dynamics, energy and leadership of Kurdish women. In the 21st century, Kurdish women can be the pioneers of freedom with the philosophy of Jineology. In this way, Rojhilat Kurdistan influenced all of Iran, uniting it. This stems from the nature of women and the role of women in society. The reality of Kurdistan society is also not irrelevant in this matter, as women in Kurdistan have endured many hardships. Look, Persian women don’t have issues with identity, language and culture; they live with their own language, identity and culture. Their existence as a nation is not endangered. But it’s not the same for Kurdish women; we Kurdish women to fight for being women, for our language and for our national culture and identity. That’s why the reaction of Kurdish women against the oppressive system was more intense. The common point that united all women was the slogan ‘Jin, Jiyan, Azadi’, which is related to women, defends life and demands freedom. All women want freedom; all women are under pressure. It’s not just Kurdish women who face the issue of honour; Iranian women, Persian, Arab, Baloch, Azerbaijani and Mazani women all face challenges related to honour. ‘Jin, Jiyan, Azadi’ was a mindset that united all women. A revolution is underway that we have framed within the context of a new life, a social revolution. A social revolution that began with the leadership of women in Rojhilat Kurdistan and encompassed all of Iran and influenced all women worldwide. Women in the 21st century have shown how impactful they can be, and this is tied to the reality of Kurdish women and the reality of Kurdistan.
Many think that the ‘Jin, Jiyan, Azadi’ movement in Iran has come to an end, while it has shaped a mindset and spirit that doesn’t stop. It’s true that there are no street protests now, but a transformation has occurred in the minds of individuals that want to change this situation. This revolution is time-consuming; it won’t reach a conclusion quickly with just one protest. When we’re talking about a social revolution, we need to consider all social aspects and fight for them. Fighting against a 5,000-year-old patriarchal mindset and a 5,000-year-old nation-state mentality takes time. If we want quick results, we’ll become disappointed. Therefore, with a new mindset and spirit, we need to take stronger and better steps that will inevitably lead to victory.
What is your vision for post-Islamic Republic Iran?
Our party has offered various alternatives in several dimensions. The Free Life Party of Kurdistan was established in 2004 and after 10 years, in 2014, we concluded that we need something beyond a political party. Therefore, we formed the Democratic and Free Society of Eastern Kurdistan (KODAR). The KODAR system is a model that offers democratic ways for all the peoples of Iran.
Every nation, tribe and belief, with its culture, language and symbols, can be part of this system. This system has not yet been implemented in society, but we are fighting for it because we, as the PJAK, are part of the KODAR and are fighting to implement the KODAR system. We also have political, social, and military domains. Therefore, our proposal for the future of Iran is the KODAR system, a system with a joint Kurdish female presidency and a 50-50 management council with the presence of pioneering women. This can become a democratic system in the future of Iran from which all the peoples of Iran can learn.
You mentioned the Democratic and Free Society of ‘Eastern Kurdistan’. Many critics argue that when you talk about Eastern Kurdistan separating from Iran, similar to Rojava, Bakur and Bashur in Kurdistan, you are thinking of a Greater Kurdistan. Are you seeking separation from Iran?
We are moving towards a global identity with our Kurdish identity in the region, meaning we are moving from our region towards globalisation. If we don’t solve our Kurdish identity problem, we can’t solve the problems of Arabs, Balochs and Azeris either. We need to move from Eastern Kurdistan towards the rest of Iran.
Do you believe in a specific country or borders at all?
We are in the 21st century, a century where borders will no longer remain, like many other things, and nation-states will no longer be able to maintain these borders; these borders will disappear. In the system of democratic nations or democratic confederalism, there is no such thing as separatism, and we, as Kurds in Eastern Kurdistan, are not looking for the Iranian experience. We want to live democratically on our own soil and in the geography of Iran with other peoples of Iran. Some of our problems and demands in Iran, such as culture, identity, and language, are different from an Arab, Azeri and Persian, but many of our problems are common. For example, in Urmia, Kurds and Azeris live side by side. Can we say Urmia is for Kurds? No, Urmia is for the people of Iran; that is, Urmia belongs to Kurdish, Azeri and Armenian people. Therefore, borders are no longer functional and cannot prevent the activities of peoples and freedom and democracy forces; these borders also cannot remain unchanged against the efforts of women.
In one of the interviews you had conducted, you apparently said that women’s freedom takes precedence over national freedom. I think this is a quote you had taken from Mr. Öcalan. Why do you think women’s freedom takes precedence over national freedom?
As a woman in the PJAK, we fight both for the freedom of women and for the freedom of Kurdistan. Therefore, we have two important responsibilities. With our female identity, we want to fight both for the freedom of women and for the freedom of our nation and land. Our ideology is based on the liberation of women in Kurdistan. Having willpower, free thought, struggle and patriotism is our approach. We have defined our duty.
In another interview you conducted with the Fırat News Agency (ANF), you said that PJAK was established due to social needs and the political void seen in Eastern Kurdistan and Iran. We know that Komala had a women’s committee from the early days of the revolution. Why do you think, despite the existence of old parties like Sineh, which is more than 75 years old, or Komala, which is about 50 years old, that Kurdistan or the people of Kurdistan needed a new party that was established around 20 years ago in 2004, especially when women have played a role in some of these parties? What is the reason for this need?
Komala and the Democrats have a long history in Kurdistan and have fought extensively against the Islamic Republic, paying a significant price, and counting martyrs among their ranks, which is deeply valuable and commendable. However, the question arises: why was PJAK established alongside these parties? The people of Eastern Kurdistan genuinely felt the need for change. The Democratic Party, Komala and Kurdish parties in general seemed unresponsive to these evolving needs. A new philosophy, ideology and paradigm were required to rejuvenate the spirit of struggle and resistance in Eastern Kurdistan. We firmly believe that the founding of the PJAK, based on the philosophy of the leader Apo, injects fresh vitality into the veins of the Kurdish movement. The true differentiator between the PJAK and other parties in Eastern Kurdistan is the active presence of women and their prominent role in the party, which isn’t merely theoretical but fully embodied in our practice. Certainly, there have been shortcomings, and valid criticisms have been raised. We are frequently asked why we have not managed to represent the aspirations of all people and women, and these criticisms are indeed legitimate.
You, who chant the slogan ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’, speak about life and the environment, but you are armed. You have engaged in [armed clashes] with the Revolutionary Guards in the border areas of Kurdistan, killed some of them and also lost martyrs. How can a party with this philosophy take up arms and kill others? What is your answer to these matters?
Both as a woman and as a Kurd, we must not forget one fact: Kurdistan has enemies, and we cannot ignore these enemies. We want to continue our political and civil activities within Iran and Kurdistan, but is this environment available? Are the conditions for our activities present? Definitely not. We have a comrade named Zeinab Jalalian who has been in prison for 16 years. When she was engaged in political and civil activities within Iran, she was not armed, but she has been in prison for 16 years and has been subjected to all kinds of torture and oppression. We are facing an enemy like the Iranian government.
Women’s defence forces have organised themselves across the countryside of Eastern Kurdistan. This organisation is not for attack but for defence. The enemy attacks our positions; we are not in an offensive position, but when they attack us, we defend ourselves with weapons, and any regional force that tries to challenge us, we confront them with our intellectual and ideological weapons. The Women’s Defence Units (HPJ) were established to defend women in Eastern Kurdistan.
You have often talked about creating a united front among Kurdish parties. Why haven’t you been able to create a united front among the parties opposing the Republic?
We have had many successes in this path. Since 2004, we have tried to create a National Democratic Front in Eastern Kurdistan, but it did not happen. We have a better relationship with some parties; there are some parties with which our relationship is stronger, but the political and geographical situation of these parties does not allow us to form a National Democratic Front. The revolution of “Woman, Life, Freedom” has provided a good ground because people in Kurdistan have created this solidarity.
A few days ago, General Baqeri, the commander of the Joint Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, issued another ultimatum, stating that if the Iraqi government does not expel Kurdish parties, military operations will be resumed. You are in mountainous areas and are not under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government. If these Kurdish parties like Komala and the Democrats are forced out, will you allow them to settle in your mountainous areas?
We are a guerrilla force; we organise ourselves wherever possible and settle there. This is Iran’s policy to break the will of Kurdish parties and dominate them. At the same time, it uses this as a pressure card against both the central government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Now, it remains to be seen how much the parties opposing the Islamic Republic can resist. Kurds at this stage cannot put down their weapons. Anyway, we must ask those parties what their decision will be.
In recent weeks, we have witnessed clashes between your forces and the Revolutionary Guards in the Kowsalan area and other border regions. Does the ultimatum given by the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces not concern you that attacks against you will intensify?
These threats against Kurdish parties are not new; the threat has always been there but has no impact on us. However, in recent years, attacks have been made against our forces in Eastern and Southern Kurdistan. This situation has existed for years, and clashes have occurred. The recent clash in Kowsalan Kamyaran was one of these cases. They attack us and other parties based in Southern Kurdistan simultaneously. This is a common method to neutralise our influence. Their pressures do not yield results.
It’s not just Iran exerting pressure; Turkey is doing the same. Pressure on Kurds is the foreign policy of Iran and Turkey, but we have our measures. We are a guerrilla force and are not stationed in one place; they cannot eliminate us. We use guerrilla tactics to protect ourselves and have managed to endure against these attacks.
The United States, Iran and Turkey have listed the PJAK as a terrorist organisation. Why do you think you are on the terrorist list of a country like the United States?
This is a general policy; powers like the United States and regional governments never want to accept that Kurds have an independent identity. Both regional governments, Iran and Turkey, want to give this as a card to the United States, and the United States uses it against the Kurds. There are many Kurdish forces operating based on a philosophy and paradigm and fighting against ISIS with American forces.
Why, when the United States has listed you as a terrorist organisation, are you fighting alongside American soldiers in Rojava against ISIS? I have seen that PJAK guerrillas are fighting alongside American soldiers against ISIS.
Our activities and our war are based on an ethical and humanitarian responsibility and defence of oppressed peoples. We do not agree with American policy, but we are willing to have specific collaborations with any force in the humanitarian field and to repel attacks against the Kurds. For example, we collaborated with them in Shingal to defend the Yazidis, and in Rojava, we collaborated against ISIS. Many PJAK members are present in Europe and operate freely; these activities are also official. We are recognised as a force in Europe and America, but as I said, the issue of the Kurds is like a card in the hands of America and regional governments. Whenever conditions are normal, they don’t care, but under specific conditions, this is used as a lever to weaken and fragment the Kurds. Our inclusion in the American sanctions list is due to Turkey’s NATO membership, which is NATO’s representative in the region.