After years of gaining widespread attention for their crucial role in fighting and defeating the Islamic State in Syria, Kurdish women have made it to the headlines again, after 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini died while in custody of Iran’s “morality police.”

Amini was arrested for allegedly breaching the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code for women.

The death of the Kurdish, Iranian woman sparked widespread protests that have spread throughout the country and garnered support around the world. Protests started after Amini’s funeral in northwest Iran – a Kurdish area of the country.

Her death also cast a spotlight on Iran’s persecuted Kurdish minority. Even Amini’s Kurdish name, Jina, is not permitted on official documents of the Islamic Republic, which is why she is referred to by her Persian name,  Mahsa.

Another little known fact is that, “Women, life, freedom” (Jin, Jiyan, Azadî) – the slogan widely used at the current protests – is Kurdish and was coined by political prisoner Abdullah Öcalan, founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), in the early 2000’s.

Öcalan is currently being held in prison by Turkey which, along with the United States and other countries, listed the PKK as a terrorist organization. The PKK has a wide network of affiliated Kurdish groups in the Middle East and Europe.

THE KURDS AND REGIONAL GOVERNMENTS 

The Kurds living in Syria, Iran, Turkey and Iraq have never had their own state but have played a unique role in trying to democratize the region through their political parties and youth movements, a position that has brought them a lifetime of tense relations with those governments.

The Middle East Kurds are often referred to as the “largest stateless group in the world,” with an estimated population of over 40 million that has spread through southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran and northern Syria.

Most Kurds are Sunni Muslim and speak their own language which is related to Farsi. Some 8 to 10 million Kurds live in Iran – 10% of the population – and face discrimination under Iran’s Shi’ite clerical establishment.

“Kurds in Iran have long suffered deep-rooted discrimination. Their social, political and cultural rights have been repressed, as have their economic aspirations,” Amnesty International said in a report.

The Kurds themselves are significantly divided along political lines which, in Iraq in the 1990s, led to a civil war between rival Kurdish factions. Nevertheless, the governments of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria fear the Kurds’ aspirations for independence.

In Iran, the government recently blamed Kurdish separatist groups for inciting the anti-regime protests following Amini’s death. Tehran’s suspicions prompted the Iranian regime to attack the Iranian Kurdish opposition that is physically based in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The opposition group that was targeted was the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan, a left-wing Iranian political party and militant group established in 1969 to promote Kurdish rights in Iran and the region.

The group’s first enemy was the Pahlavi dynasty, led by Mohammad Reza Shah, the last shah of the Imperial State of Iran. Later, the group engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Islamic Republic of Iran, which assassinated the founder of Komala, Foad Mostafa Soltani, in 1979.

KURDISH MOVEMENT SPARKED DISPUTE BETWEEN TURKEY, WEST

Since 2014, the United States’ dependence on Syrian Kurdish fighters has sparked tensions between the U.S. and Turkey, an important NATO ally. Turkey has accused the Syrian-Kurdish “Women’s Protection Units” group, or YPJ, of being part of the PKK – a sworn enemy of the Turkish state and a U.S.-designated terrorist group.

Kurdish militants in Syria – the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Council, which was founded in October 2015 – have done most of the critical work of clearing and holding territory conquered by ISIS.

The U.S. decision to support the Syrian Kurds in taking on ISIS, or the Islamic State, in Syria followed the failure of a U.S. program to train and equip the Syrian Sunni opposition, a project that cost $500 million.

After years of successful coordination between the West and the Kurds of the Syrian Democratic Council in the fight against the Islamic State, the West embraced many former PKK figures, including the general leader of the Syrian Democratic Forces, Mazloum Abdi. Western support for these figures further complicated the West’s relations with Turkey.

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