What's in a name: Kurdish martyr Jîna Amini and the struggle for culture and history

A young Kurdish woman made famous in death still has a lesson to teach us: Call her by her name

Published October 15, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Demonstrators hold up placards with images of Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Amini who died while in the custody of Iran's morality police, during a demonstration in support of women and the Iranian protesters, on September 28, 2022. (JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images)
Demonstrators hold up placards with images of Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Amini who died while in the custody of Iran's morality police, during a demonstration in support of women and the Iranian protesters, on September 28, 2022. (JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images)

"Life." That's what Jîna Amini's name meant in Kurdish, her native language. But after her death at the hands of Iran's "morality police" last month, the world began to know Jîna by what she considered her government name, Mahsa. 

Protests have erupted across the Middle East and the rest of the world for women's liberation with the rallying cry "Women, Life, Freedom" or "Jin Jiyan Azadi." But what many people don't know is that this phrase originated with a movement called Kurdistan Women's Liberation in Turkey in 2006. 

More than 16 years later, the phrase is being adopted by activists, fashion brands and news outlets, but few understand the historical context behind the chant, or the significance of centering Kurdish women in this movement. A chant that was intended to universalize the Kurdish struggle to women's democratic movements worldwide has been watered down. It was a specific phrase with important historical context, and that should not be forgotten.

More than 25 million Kurdish people live without a formal state across Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Although they are among the oldest ethnic groups to inhabit the Middle East, they constantly face persecution, and sometimes literal erasure, within the nations where they live today. 

Amini's Kurdish identity has been little noticed, and sometimes entirely ignored, in reports of her death. She is frequently only described as an Iranian woman, and her regime name, Mahsa, is almost exclusively used in the media. Many reports also fail to mention that she was only in Tehran that day to visit family, but actually came from Saqqez, in the province of Kurdistan. 

The erasure of Jîna Amini's Kurdish identity is purposeful: Iran has a long history of discrimination and genocidal violence against the Kurdish people.

This is purposeful: There is a long history of Iranian state discrimination against Kurds, exacerbated by Ayatollah Khomeini's 1979 fatwa that authorized the massacre of the Kurdish people of Rojhelat. He called the Kurdish forces "the party of Satan," and named them traitors to Islam; over the next few months, hundreds of Kurds were wounded and killed by Iran's Revolutionary Guards. 

To this day, Kurds make up almost half of Iran's political prisoners. There is a widespread ban on Kurdish given names, which forces many families, like the Aminis, to register their children under official non-Kurdish, Islamic names. This creates an internal dichotomy where Kurds have an "official" and "unofficial" identity, with the apparent goal of gradually erasing their culture and history. 

For many years, Turkey banned specifically Kurdish letters from the nation's official alphabet, and although this law was lifted in 2013, Kurdish first names are still not permitted. For example, Yılmaz Baysal, a 30-year-old Kurdish man raised in Turkey, discovered his official name differed from his one at home. He told a local Turkish news outlet that his parents wished to call him Rêber, but the civil registration office chose Yılmaz, a familiar Turkish name. 

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As Jîna has become the face of this movement, it is no accident that her true identity has been altered or concealed. A name is one of the most powerful indicators of a person's background and family history, and hers has been criminalized even in death. 

In 2019, actress Medalion Rahimi made history as the first hijab-wearing series regular on the "NCIS" TV franchise. As an Iranian-American, Rahimi frequently visited her homeland as a child, which was when her family was first told her American name wasn't appropriate in the Islamic Republic. 

Her unique name was chosen by her parents after what they described as her glowing birth. It was seen as too "Western" or non-Muslim for Iran, so for official purposes her father named her Fatimah, after the Prophet Muhammad's daughter. 

"Fatimah" was approved and is the name on her Iranian passport, but Rahimi doesn't think of it as her true name. "Both of my parents are fully Iranian, both Muslim," she said in an interview. "So it's interesting that [the government] wouldn't accept my birth name. It's as if it wasn't nationalistic enough."

In the past few weeks, Rahimi has helped the Iranian Diaspora Collective raise more than $350,000 to buy billboards all over the U.S. and help mainstream news outlets cover the current women's liberation movement in Iran. She has taken to social media to spread the word, and feels it's necessary to use Amini's legal name, Mahsa, in order to gain traction. 

"We use the hashtag #mahsaamini is because it's the most used one," she said. "We have to use whatever resources and tactics that we can to make this case more mainstream and reach more audiences, especially the Western world."

It's also important, Rahimi adds, to continue spreading awareness on the ethnic cleansing of Kurds in the region. "A lot of us are also adding #jinaamini as an alternate hashtag, and I think it's important to include that in the narrative. We should honor Jîna's true heritage and we should bring awareness to what's happening to Kurds in Iran, because they are a part of us." 

Names are a central part of one's identity, which is why they are often the first to be stripped away in acts of genocide, ethnic cleansing or "assimilation." 

In the summer of 2015, for example, the first administrative order banning Islamic names in Hotan, China, was issued. Included in the "List of Forbidden Names" were Arafat, Hüsein, Nesrulla, Sadam, Muslime, Fatima and others branded as "extremist." That law seven years ago was one of the first signs that the Uyghurs, a Muslim Turkic ethnic group, were going to be targeted by the Chinese government.. 

"The most intimate parts of people's private lives — from their daily attire to names given to children to the length of their beard — are controlled," said Ilshat Hassan, president of the Uyghur American Association in 2017. 

In the summer of 2015, China published a list of "forbidden" Islamic first names. It was among the first signs that the Uyghur people would be targeted for ruthless ethnic cleansing.

What started as a simple name change can turn into something much more insidious, as researcher Rachel Harris found in the Uyghur "re-education camps" in Xinjiang, China. "Before meals, inmates chant, 'Thank the Party! Thank the Motherland! Thank President Xi,' and sing revolutionary songs such as 'Without the Communist Party, there is no New China,'" she writes. "They must apologize repeatedly for wearing long clothes in Muslim style, praying, teaching the Quran to their children. Those who refuse to do so are punished with solitary confinement, beatings and food deprivation."

Chinese officials have denied they are practicing ethnic cleansing — at least most of the time. One religious affairs official wrote on a Xinhua Weibo page, however, that the government's aim was to "break [Uyghur] lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins. Completely shovel up the roots of two-faced people, dig them out, and vow to fight these two-faced people until the end."

According to Human Rights Watch, the Chinese approach to "breaking Uyghur roots" involves forcing them to learn Chinese, forbidding them from speaking their native tongue and rewarding those who regurgitate state propaganda. Chen Quanguo, the former Communist Party chief, also instructed authorities to take down all Arabic signage, mosques and murals.

India has also participated in acts of erasure, especially with the rise of Hindu nationalism under current Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In 2018 his party changed the name of the city long known as Allahabad to Prayagraj, the name of a Hindu pilgrimage site. 

This practice goes back even further: After British colonial forces left India in the late 1940s, right-wing Hindu nationalist leaders replaced many Anglicized place names with Hindu ones. Bombay became Mumbai, Madras became Chennai, Calcutta became Kolkata, Bangalore became Bengaluru. The aim was to restore India to its "rightful" Hindu identity — but in the process, the histories of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and other groups who have lived on the subcontinent for centuries began to be erased. There were also forced conversions of Christians and Muslims who belonged to the Dalit caste (traditionally the lowest social stratum), in an act called "ghar wapasi" or "returning home" — a Hindu nationalist term that supposes all religious minorities in India are simply Hindus who have lost their way. 

When Hindu nationalists changed Anglicized place names in India, they began to erase the histories of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and others.

"The nationalist project of the present ruling party is based on the idea of making invisible and subjugating an entire population to keep the majority in a permanent state of dominance," says Apoorvanand Jha, a professor at Delhi University. "This renaming is part of a cultural genocidal project."

The United States certainly has a long history of renaming and cultural genocide as well. When enslaved Africans were brought to America, their names were usually identifiers of their families and homeland, and were rapidly stripped away and forgotten. "To refer to a person by their given name is to recognize the individual as a person," wrote University of Kentucky librarian Reinette F. Jones. Slave owners saw Black people as commodities or livestock, and typically forced slaves to adopt their last names as a form of property insurance, even a brand. After emancipation, many Black people chose the surname Freeman or Freedman — a significant identifier. Others, as in the famous case of Frederick Douglass, adopted new names from stories or myths, or simply made them up.

Revolutionary activist Malcolm X rejected his legal surname, saying he refused to be called by his "slave name." The "X" stands in place of his unknown African name, lost through the Atlantic slave trade.

In 2002, Berdan Acun, the father of a Kurdish boy who was forced to change his son's name in Turkey, said, "There is no more basic human right than to name your child as you wish." When we ignore the power and meaning found in someone's name, we participate in cultural erasure, very often with no awareness we are doing so. If we remember Jîna Amini by the name her family used, rather than the one that was forced upon her, we honor her life, her death and the future she should have had.

By Samaa Khullar

Samaa Khullar is a former news fellow at Salon with a background in Middle Eastern history and politics. She is a graduate of New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism institute and is pursuing investigative reporting.

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Analysis India Iran Jîna Amini Mahsa Amini Malcolm X Narendra Modi Turkey Women's Rights