PJAK and KODAR co-leaders Zilan Vejin (left) and Zilan Tanya pose at an undisclosed location in Iraqi Kurdistan. Karlos Zurutuza

Between Erdogan and the Ayatollahs, These Women Lead the Kurdish Battle for Freedom

On the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, leaders of the insurgency outline vision of 'radical decentralization'

IRAN-IRAQ BORDER — It's been an hour since the road disappeared under our wheels, but we still manage to maneuver across mud tracks that the torrential rains of the last days left almost impassable. Both the driver and his companion are members of the Assembly of Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), a guerrilla group formed mainly by Iranian Kurds, which has waged an armed struggle against the Iranian government since 2004. Actually, their house is not far from this steep valley in Iraqi Kurdistan.

“The border is right behind those peaks,” notes the copilot, pointing at an imposing snow-capped massif. Ten minutes later, half a dozen fighters, both men and women, welcome us from a cluster of huts conveniently protected by the dense forest. The leadership of the Iranian Kurdish insurgency has agreed to meet us on the condition that we take neither pictures of the fighters nor of any spatial reference that can provide clues about their location.

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Karlos Zurutuza

Two women in their mid-30s invite us to sit down around a table inside one of the huts. Zilan Vejin and Zilan Tanya introduce themselves as co-leaders of the PJAK and the Democratic and Free Society of Eastern Kurdistan — known as KODAR, ­the umbrella organization for the Iranian Kurdish movement — respectively. The gender parity in the hierarchy of command is one of the hallmarks of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), led by Abdullah Öcalan, who is serving a life sentence on a Turkish prison island since his arrest in 1999.

Today, the Kurdistan Communities Union is the main organization committed to implementing Öcalan's ideas in the four parts of Kurdistan, with branches that root from Syria's northeast to Iran's northwest, crisscrossing both Iraq and Turkey. Unsurprisingly, the jailed Kurdish leader is highly revered in this mountain range. However, the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution that brought the ayatollahs to power is much regretted.

“For four decades, the peoples of Iran have been deprived of their most basic rights to protest or express any opinion that the regime doesn't want to hear. It is a monolithic state based on just one religion, Shi'ite Islam, and a single ethnic group, the Farsis. Besides, gender equality is just a chimera,” explains Tanya. She hails from Howraman, a valley bordering Iraq, and claims to have spent 20 years in the guerrilla ranks.

Life for the Kurds wasn't much better during the rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and that's why several among their organizations did support the revolution against the shah. However, the new regime failed to address the issues of the Kurdish people, discriminated against on the basis of their different language, culture and traditions and accused of being allied with foreign powers. Ayatollah Khomeini’s declaration of jihad against the Kurds led to a full-scale war where mass murder in Kurdish cities, towns and villages became common currency.

Karlos Zurutuza

“The Kurds in Iran were not expecting such quick turmoil but they rapidly adapted to the situation and rebelled against the shah's regime, led by Abdulrahman Ghassemlou, the then-leader of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan,” Dünya Basol, a Turkish political scientist with a Ph.D. on Iranian Kurds from Bar-Ilan University in Israel, explained over the phone. Although the Kurds are predominantly Sunni, the religious factor was never a determining one in their political identification. According to Basol, organizations such as the PJAK “never establish any kind of links with radical Islamist groups also operating in Iran, as their main goal is to overthrow the Islamic regime.”

Repression and discrimination

“Today we are subjected to repression at all levels: from exclusion from the labor market to the persecution of anyone who claims our most basic rights as a nation,” claims Tanya. “It's nice to be a Kurd, but it's also hard,” she adds.

International organizations such as Amnesty International have condemned the entrenched discrimination faced by ethnic minorities such as Ahwazi Arabs, Azerbaijani Turks, Balochis, Kurds and Turkmen, whose access to education, employment, adequate housing and political office is curtailed. Moreover, women, regardless their ethnicity, appear to be one of the targets of theocratic government. According to Human Rights Watch, half of Iran's population is marginalized when it comes to marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody. A married woman cannot obtain a passport or travel outside the country without written permission from her husband. He even has the right to prevent his wife from having certain occupations if he deems them to be against “family values.”

“The West talks of a lack of democracy in Iran, but the sad truth is that it's just a huge prison,” laments Tanya. Sitting next to her, Vejin nods while she says she wants to add something:

“The economic crisis in the country is so serious that the lines between ethnic groups are vanishing,” says this fighter, who left behind her hometown of Urmia, near the Turkish border, to join the guerrilla fighters 18 years back. "The differences between the Farsi elite and the rest of the people have been replaced by [the differences] between the elites ruling the country and the vast majority of the population who live in poverty."

The withdrawal of Washington from the nuclear treaty and U.S. sanctions on Tehran are seen as the main factors behind the brutal devaluation of the Iranian currency. However, many analysts also point to an inherent structural weakness in the system and the high cost of maintaining Shi'ite militias and Hezbollah to support the Syrian regime. In a televised speech during one of the events marking the 40th anniversary of the revolution, Iranian President Hassan Rohani himself admitted that the country was facing its biggest economic challenge since Khomeini’s rise to power.

Trump’s foreign policy may look successful to many when it comes to Iran, but Vejin remains sceptical. “We do not need his help. The solution will come from within; it will be the Iranian people who will succeed in provoking the change because the government can no longer control them. In fact, such an unsustainable situation has turned the people into the regime’s greatest enemy,” stresses Vejin, who also rules out the viability of any foreign military intervention: “They did it in Iraq and we've all seen the outcome of it.”

A male fighter then brings out lunch: rice and boiled vegetables. Many would argue that vegetarian food cooked and served by a man is a revolution in itself in the Middle East.

Radical decentralization

The fighters invite us to continue with the interview while we walk across the thick forest, which protects them from the myriad of drones monitoring this contested border. Tanya notes that even if war has not reached the Persian state, the whole Middle East is in turmoil. She goes even further by saying that Kurdistan is at the “epicenter of a third world war involving Russians, Europeans, Americans as well as the Gulf Powers.” Turkey, she adds, is a “battering ram” against her people.

Karlos Zurutuza

“We are very much a pebble in the shoe for [Turkish President Tayyip] Erdogan and his neo-Ottoman policies. He wants to exterminate the Kurds, and he won't give up until he's done,” the Kurdish leader says before she points to Ankara’s recent threats to invade the Syrian Kurdish territory after Trump’s announcement to withdraw his troops. Syria's northeast region — called “Rojava” by the Kurds — has turned into a key territory for the Kurdish liberation movement. “Turkey is afraid of Rojava,” blurts out Tanya. With around half of the total Kurdish population worldwide within its own borders, Ankara fears Rojava could turn into a base for PKK attacks on Turkish soil.

When the war started in Syria, the country’s biggest minority distanced itself from both the government and the armed opposition, implementing a political model known as democratic confederalism on the ground. Since the early 90s, Öcalan himself had discarded the idea of a Kurdish state in favor of a radical decentralization: Instead of redrawing the map of the Middle East, traditional monolithic states such as Turkey, Iran and Syria would undergo an atomization of authority by empowering municipalities and even smaller administrative entities.

Yahya Ahmed/AP

“It is a democracy built from the bottom up where the people, regardless their gender or ethnicity, can rule themselves by adopting and executing their own decisions. That system is successfully being tested in Syria, and that’s what we want in Iran,” says Tanya, just before both women agree on a safe place to pose for a last picture.

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