Kurdish Moorhead woman shares story of Iranian women fighting for their rights

A Kurdish American highlighted the recent struggle for human rights for women in Iran during a speech to the Moorhead Human Rights Commission.

Siham Amedy from Kurdish Iraq recently gave a speech to the Moorhead Human Rights Commission about the struggle led by women in Iran.
David Samson/The Forum

MOORHEAD — Siham Amedy was carrying centuries of pride and struggle with her as she approached the podium at the Hjemkomst Center auditorium. With her Kurdish heritage at the front of her mind, she spread her papers out and turned to a nearby digital monitor.

Displayed across the screen were the words “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi,” meaning "women, life, freedom."

A picture of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, also known as Jina Amini, came next. Amini, who was also Kurdish, a minority population in Iran, died in Tehran on Sept. 16, 2022. She was arrested by the Iranian morality police for improperly wearing her hijab, a head covering.

Police claimed Amini died of a heart attack, but eyewitnesses who saw her bruised and bloody in the hospital say she was beaten by police.

What followed was months of civil unrest led by Iranian women, demanding civil rights that many Americans take for granted. Liberties like the choice to wear a head covering, or to drive a motorcycle, or to dance in public. Women in Iran are even forbidden from watching men’s sports in stadiums.


At the podium on March 15, Amedy, who grew up in Iraq, did not wear a hijab. She didn’t have to. She is now an American, chair of the Moorhead Human Rights Commission.

As part of the Kurdish ethnic group that has been scattered across southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, northern Iraq and northern Syria, collectively called Kurdistan, she remembers the oppression she felt as a child growing up in northern Iraq.

“Her name is Jina, and her identity mattered. Jin, Jiyan, Azadi," Amedy said. "It pained a lot of individuals to see a young lady killed because her hair was uncovered. However, in Iran, a lot of women don’t cover their hair."

Six photos on a slideshow display women holding protest signs in Arabic and English, many reading "Women, Life, Freedom."
Posters that women in Iran used during the days of protest following Mahsa Amini's murder, which were a part of Siham Amedy's presentation before the Moorhead Human Rights Commission on March 15, 2023.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

That's a fairly recent change to the culture in Iran, according to Politico and Human Rights Watch .

Amedy gave the speech before the Moorhead Human Rights Commission because she wanted to highlight the women involved in the Iranian protests, but more importantly to point out the movement began with a Kurdish woman, whose cultural name was Jina. Her government name was Mahsa, Amedy said.

“In Jina’s case, they looked at the region she was from and said, ‘Oh, you are a Kurd,’ which accelerated the arrest. It led to a movement, but the phrase, ‘Jin, Jiyan, Azadi;' 'women, life, freedom,’ we’ve been saying for 40 years, and they’re erasing the Kurdish identity of it,” Amedy said.

“I would see all these advertisements in Iran, which was great, they gave light to the movement, but I wish that light was given to the proper people,” she said.

Amedy left Iraq when she was 6 years old. In 1997, her family was selected to resettle in the United States because of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s genocidal policies against the Kurdish people.


“We were constantly threatened by Hussein’s regime and the Turkish regime and persecuted by the Iranian regime. We had nowhere to go,” Amedy said.

“Because of our identity, we never really felt safe," she said. "We’re ferocious fighters, we’ve fought ISIS, and we’ve always been on the side of freedom. We just don’t have the resources because we’re not a state."

A woman with dark hair in a gray sweater stands at a podium and gestures widely.
Siham Amedy, chair of the Moorhead Human Rights Commission, speaks about "Jin, Jiyan, Azadi," or "Women, Life, Freedom," the women's movement that began in Iran after Mahsa Amini, whose Kurdish name was Jina, was killed by morality police for not wearing a head covering.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

The Kurds are primarily Muslim but allow other religions to exist without hindrance, Amedy said.

“I was born in the Gulf War during Hussein’s chemical war campaigns. And then moving to the United States, which was a struggle, as well, just acclimating to a new culture. Being a Kurd, you know struggle, you know survival. It’s just a part of us,” she said.

Although Iran has had decades of political unrest and civil protests, the recent protests were called a “spontaneous civil rights movement made up of people at their wit’s end” by Politico.

After Amedy’s speech, Deb White, a Moorhead City Council member, said women are still too often overlooked by society, even in the United States.

“Activists have not gotten the representation or the attention, even if you look at Black Lives Matter — it was started by three women, and often that’s not how people envision it,” White said.

“There are not enough people talking about what happened to Jina, talking about the way women are standing up and then are often the victims of political oppression. We often don’t give that sufficient attention," she said. "For some, even sexual violence has been used as a way of going after whole communities. ... Gender oppression is really tied into this."


Led by Generation Z, the cries of women and protesters in Iran to end hijabs and push for change have evolved into calls to end the aging leaders of the Islamic Republic itself.

Their cry, “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi,” is what rallies them together and can be heard in the heart-wrenching Persian lyrics of Shervin Hajipour’s song “Baraye,” or “Because of ,” which has become the anthem of the revolution, according to The Guardian.

The Kurds have been recognized as a people with a distinct language since the 10th century and number about 45 million across Kurdistan. In recent wars throughout Syria, women soldiers within the Peshmerga forces, or all-female brigades, frequently made headlines as ferocious warriors.

For generations, women have been fighting for their basic civil rights across the Middle East. Sometimes, they achieve a few goals, but time and extremist leaders curtail their freedoms over and over again, according to Human Rights Watch .

In the 1990s, women activists regained some of their lost rights under family laws for divorce and child custody. During that time, many women in Iran committed daring acts of disobedience to highlight the conditions they lived under.

In February 1994, Homa Darabi publicly removed her hijab and immolated herself in protest against mandatory veiling in Iran. In 2019, Sahar Khodayari became a symbol of the regime’s oppression of women following her death by self-immolation after she was arrested for trying to enter a soccer game.

Today, the protests in Iran have died down, but citizens are worried about government reprisals.

Amedy believes the struggle is not over. But she takes heart with photographs of Iranian women outside their homes without hijabs and the fact that a handful of leaders surmise that the days are numbered for some of the restrictions that women in Iran and elsewhere face.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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