Art by Hushidar Mortezaie
Like any human child, I brimmed with the ecstasy of being alive, eager for exploring and celebrating life. Soon, too soon, came the hushed warning of the adults at the kindergarten: I had been born a convict, both female and Kurdish in a state that prided itself on its misogyny and chauvinism.
All I wanted was to run up the hills of mountainous Kurdistan that shone bright red with poppies in the spring. What a breathtakingly beautiful world it was that had wildflowers and singing birds, rivers, music, and laughter. But at age six, I was ordered to stop, to wear the black hijab—a shackle to my childhood—and be inconspicuous because the female body was sinful, a source of temptation, the unnameable that led men to the inferno. If I weren’t seen or heard, it seemed, God and other men would be just fine. But why were butterflies so stunning and free to fly? How could I become one?
I learned to find joy indoors, in friendship, in books. In middle school, I was told a woman’s laughter should never go higher than a certain decibel, that good women wouldn't appear much in public. My very existence—there to strictly serve the family—was something to be molded into obedience, otherwise a male’s honor would turn into disgrace. Indeed, manhood, mardanegi or gheirat, was measured based on a man’s level of control over female bodies, bodies whose job was to offer pleasure, never to receive or demand it. I repeatedly got into trouble in school, for my loud voice, my loose headscarf, my love for lipsticks. What crimes!
At the same age that my body was ordered to be hidden away, my mother tongue was also pushed to the margins. Educated to be fluent in Persian and illiterate in Kurdish, my dissociation with my heritage, my culture and history, started at elementary school. The linguistic oppression created cognitive dissonance between generations that have difficulty communicating. Only in graduate school did I learn that the deliberate targeting of a culture was ethnocide, a tried method of creating void shells out of humans. But that’s not all. Most people in our region lived with entrenched poverty, dysfunctional or nonexistent infrastructure, limited and under-equipped medical, educational, and cultural facilities. What Kurds received in abundance was imprisonment and execution, oppression and discrimination. There were always people who had it far worse than I did, the friend who loved a woman and was dismissed from school for it, the ones with a serious disease or a disabled parent, the ones whose only solace was opium. Some of us were broken beyond repair, it appeared, and yet there were always unusual groups who’d go out of their way to serve the community, activists, writers, journalists, artists who knew suffering and worked to minimize it. We only had ourselves to rely on. Our pain was intertwined, our liberty interdependent.
For as long as I can remember, I have carried a tightness in my throat, a heavy pressure on my chest. My suffocation was literal and figurative. At the most oppressive moments, I’d instinctually burst into singing, realizing that it was medicinal. But female vocalists are by law forbidden from singing solo. Our voices, it was declared, just like our bodies, were tools for Satan to wreak havoc. My passion for dance and music died alongside my other desires for freedom, for celebrating the gift of life.
In my solitude, I found a meaningful, nuanced, and redemptive world in literature. They allowed me to travel across the globe. When I wrote, most of my writing was censored or deemed unpublishable for breaching Islamic laws. There’s an entire ministry dedicated to the censorship of books and media titled the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, Vezarat-e-Farhang va Ershad-e-Islami. While a graduate student in Tehran, I worked at Asia Daily as a journalist, and the paper was shut down. After graduation, I taught English at Azad University and was harassed for not following the laws properly. The state was, in one word, against life.
I found one safe and quick way out of Iran and that was through education. Using dial-up internet, I applied for and gained admission and a scholarship to study for my master’s degree in English and Creative Writing in Canada. In my early twenties, my years of writing and activism in exile began. Ever since, I have lived in different cities on the East and West Coasts of the US and Canada, have written three books and hundreds of articles, and have delivered speeches across schools, colleges, and conferences in Europe and North America, including at the United Nations, Geneva. I take pride in being a voice, a bridge, in having honed my literary voice despite all the structural forces in place to muffle me. My debut novel Daughters of Smoke and Fire has been prescient in portraying the morality police, the enforced hijab, protests, imprisonments, hope, fears, and complexities of life in Iran.
I was able to rise above oppression because I stand on the shoulder of giants. Kurdish freedom fighters and Iranian feminists have separately resisted tyranny for over a century. The two aspects of my identity that had enmeshed me empowered me. But I also live at the crossroads of a conflict. You see, the problem is that while Kurds have made women’s rights central to their resistance, Iranian feminists have largely failed to embrace intersectionality. And at this pivotal moment in Iranian history, intersectionality marks the difference between victory and defeat in the fight against religious dictatorship.
Women in Iran have fought for gender equality since the 1910 Constitutional Revolution era. In the 1930s, fourteen magazines discussed women’s rights, and by the 1970s women had gained some freedom of education and occupation. Sadly, the pendulum swung and in the early 1980s, after the Islamic Republic took power, women lost freedom and dignity. Nonetheless, they refused to give up fighting. As Iranian feminists became more outspoken and organized by the 2000s, the government enhanced the charges against them, indicting them with “threats against national security.”
The courageous women of today—bravely chanting “woman, life, freedom” and tossing their headscarves into bonfires despite the threats of persecution—did not emerge out of a vacuum. They’re the grandchildren of women who have fought for gender rights and paid heavy prices for it.
Women have been a pivotal aspect of the largest uprising that started in September 2022, but it would be a grave mistake to neglect other groups fighting alongside them. The young generation—men, women, and nonbinary individuals, the seculars and followers of different religions, middle class and working class, heterosexual and LGBTQ+—have also been at the frontlines. But, so have the Kurdish and Baloch ethnic minorities, who have paid the heaviest price and have received the least recognition.
Over 60% of the children killed during the protests were Kurds and Baloch, according to Amnesty International. While real bullets were used in Kurdistan and Balochistan, blanks or rubber bullets were used in Tehran and other rich cities. Fighter jets, tanks, and convoys of armed vehicles loaded with troops were deployed in Kurdistan. The first massacre happened in Balochistan and ever since people have been consistently protesting every Friday. Yet their courage and resistance have been overlooked in Iran and abroad.
Ethnic minorities have been misrepresented in their own country and underrepresented in the West. The rulers, of course, are the main culprit for having created the division between the dominant Persian ethnicity—which makes up about half of the Iranian population—and the remaining ethnic groups, Arab, Baloch, Turks, etc. But Persian intellectuals and activists, for the most part, have failed to rise above the propaganda and celebrate the historic diversity of Iran.
The negligence started to repair itself in the latest wave of protests. The young generation showed some willingness to include and support women and minorities. It’s as if they intuitively understood that the path to freedom in Iran is through centralizing the historically marginalized. But the youth need intergenerational support to implement this liberating insight, this radical act of inclusion. The long-overdue ethnic unity has finally sprouted and nourished diverse groups, but it is fragile. For it to bloom, the voiceless must be heard in a safe space, away from biases and shortsightedness. We need acknowledgements, sincere apologies, and forgiveness to start on the long path of reckoning and reconciliation. At this stage, however, many Iranians are still terrified of the disenfranchised, still perceiving them as threats, still deeply attached to their limited views.
I can offer a glimpse into Kurdish realities here—for more see Daughters of Smoke and Fire—and hope that other ethnicities will also be given the chance to be heard.
Though they comprise ten to twelve percent of the Iranian population, Kurds are a majority among political prisoners, the UN reported. Despite the gross discrimination, they are the ones who coined the slogan “woman, life, freedom” and have fought for it. They are the only group who have opposed the Islamic Republic since its inception in 1979, and have been consistent and well-organized in their opposition. Kurds weren’t offered the right to live and so they have had to fight for the right to exist and to live in peace. They live by their motto, barxodan Jiyana, resistance is life.
However, Kurds are not only fantastical gladiators. Iranian music owes much of its prowess to Kurdish musicians and their ancient melodies. Kurdish filmmakers have won international awards. Kurdish group dance, halparke, and colorful women’s dresses–in stark contrast with the black veils imposed on the other women in the region–have offered much vibrancy and beauty.
Yet, Kurdish gifts have only been appropriated or neglected. Even now that Persians are finally showing some curiosity about Kurds and Baloch, they cannot overcome their sense of superiority. Minorities are never seen as equals. The assumption is that uptown Tehranians are entitled to their privileges and the ostracized minorities deserve to suffer. At the dawn of the largest uprising that has weakened the Islamic government, it’s a ripe time for those who demand justice to recognize and overcome their sense of supremacy. Freedom and equality is for everyone, not only a selected few.
Ever since the allies redrew the map of the Middle East after World War I, denying the Kurds a country of their own, the Kurdish population—estimated to number between thirty-five and forty-five million as of 2022—has suffered innumerable brutalities at the hands of the states that ruled over them: Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria.
Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA), a current replacement for the loaded term “Middle East,” is home to many ethnic groups, the largest being Arabs, Persian, Turks, and Kurds. The only group left without a country in the age of nation-states were Kurds. Because of their desire to have what others had, namely the right to self-determination, they have been perceived as threats to be annihilated. A few examples are the 1937–1938 Dersim Massacre at the hands of the Turkish government, Saddam Hussein’s 1986–1988 Anfal Genocide in Iraq, the denial of citizenship to Kurds in Syria in the controversial 1962 census, the 1979 attack on Kurds in Iran, and the ongoing executions there.
Many decades ago, Kurds realized that independence was a means to an end, not a goal in of itself. There isn’t much benefit in replacing a Persian dictator with a Kurdish one, after all. They demand justice and equality, and for the past few decades have tried to gain it within each separate country they live in. Iranian-Kurdish political leaders after the 1979 revolution sought autonomy, not independence, and yet for the past forty-four years accusations of separatism have continued. Some Kurds are so fed up with the social oppression rooted in ethnocentrism—on top of state violence—that they do demand separation. Yet, their view is perceived not as a political choice or a protest to inequality, but as an act of treason! There has been no official referendum, but I suspect that like the Francophones in Canada, Kurds in Iran see value in being part of a larger entity, as long as that country accepts them as equals, entitled to the same privileges as the rest of the population.
Even some feminists have been unreliable allies when it comes to ethnic oppression. By fearing and overlooking the Kurdish plight, by preferring nationalism over intersectional feminism, some have sadly turned into (unwitting) agents of patriarchy.
At this juncture in history, when brave Iranians have fought peacefully against a brutal government for months and months, authors and intellectuals need to become acutely aware of the necessity for the internal liberation of Iranian society. A truly democratic and free country would embrace diversity as its strength and would dismantle the foundations of dictatorship that are empowered through divisions. Our freedom is intertwined. No group can be liberated alone, at least not for gone.
Spring / Summer 2023
The Iran Issue
Ava Homa is an award-winning novelist, a journalist, and activist. Her words have appeared in the Globe and Mail, BBC, Guardian, Literary Hub, Literary Review of Canada and more. Her debut novel Daughters of Smoke and Fire, the story of a Kurdish woman’s search for justice and freedom, won the 2020 Nautilus Book Award, was a finalist for the 2022 William Saroyan International Writing Prize and was Roxane Gay's book club pick.
Hushidar Mortezaie is a fashion designer, visual artist, and graphic designer whose work explores the paradoxes of contemporary culture through fashion, gender identity, iconography, and branding. He combines traditional and modern textile techniques with political pop art fashion statements that share his Iranian immigrant culture. His work has been featured in publications including Vogue, Huffington Post, W Magazine, and worn by Linda Evangelista, Beyonce, Brad Pitt and featured in the TV series Sex and the City. Mortezaie has shown his work at galleries including Southern Exposure, Somarts, the Roski School of Arts USC, and the De Young Museum.He lives and works in Los Angeles, California.