woman displaying a sign reading "jin, jiyan, azadi" or "woman life freedom" in Kurdish

The Kurdish Roots of “Woman, Life, Freedom”

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Since the start of the ongoing Mahsa Amini Protests, which began in Iran in September 2022 after the murder of Jina Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Morality Police for not wearing her veil properly in public, we’ve heard the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” travel around the world. In Persian this is “zan, zendegî, âzâdî” (زن, زندگی, آزادی), but the slogan originates in the Kurdish language and the Kurdish struggle for autonomy.

The fight for women’s rights has long been intertwined with the Kurdish independence movement. The Kurdistan Free Women’s Union was established in 1995, and in the same year the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which had been co-founded in 1978 by a woman, Sakine Cansız, decided to promote the establishment of more independent female political, cultural, and economic organizations. These establishments were part of broader trends in Kurdish society and the liberalization of  Kurdish views on women’s roles. Abdullah Öcalan, also a co-founder of the PKK, theorized that the subjugation of women is the root of all other types of oppression and that society cannot exist in freedom unless women are free.

woman displaying a sign reading "jin, jiyan, azadi" or "woman life freedom" in Kurdish

In 1998, on International Women’s Day, the “Ideology of Women’s Liberation” was presented (possibly by Öcalan, though this is disputed) as a list of principles for women to follow in their emancipation battle. It stated that women had to break free not only from old social roles and the attitude that supported them, but also from total autonomy and self-organization. The Kurmanji Kurdish slogan “jîn, jîyan, azadî” started to become popular just a few years later. Its exact origins remain obscure, but it appeared after the arrest of Öcalan and the Kurdish independence leaders’ decisions to prioritize women’s rights as part of their movement.

​​In 2012, after the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, Syrian Kurds established an autonomous government that platformed, among other planks, women’s liberation. The Syrian Women’s Protection Units engaged in combat against ISIS, while women’s civilian organizations continued to address patriarchal attitudes. As more territory was liberated from ISIS control, women from various non-Kurdish communities joined in the movement. They not only participated in the Autonomous Administration’s women’s institutions but also established their own organizations to cater to their specific needs. This bringing together of women across ethnic and religious lines showcased the universalist potential of the Kurdish women’s movement.

It is the history of this Kurdish women’s resistance tradition that has led Iranian Kurdish women to play a leading role in the ongoing Iranian protest movement, which was sparked by the murder of Jina Mahsa Amini, herself a Kurdish woman, but fueled by the desire to demonstrate against the Iranian regime. The slogan “jîn, jîyan, azadî” soon became the rallying cry of these protests, a reference to Amini’s Kurdish origins, and Persian speakers quickly picked it up, translating it to “zan, zendegî, âzâdî.” Although other slogans started circulating, “zan, zendegî, âzâdî” became the most popular one, thanks to social media and the efforts of the Iranian youth in spreading it outside Iranian and Kurdish borders. A notable example is the song “Barâye…” (برای”, “for”) by Shervin Hajipour, composed of various tweets explaining why people were protesting, or the anthem “Sorôde Zan” (“سرود زن”, “Women’s Hymn”) written by Mehdi Yarrahi. Both of these songwriters have since been arrested and sentenced to prison.

This slogan has now been translated into many languages, as people worldwide have shown solidarity for the cause and begun protesting against the current Iranian government. According to the scholar Handan Çağlayan, “the slogan is attractive for its spelling and rhythm and significant for its connotations.” Jîn and jîyan are two closely related words, but jîn in this case should not signify a glorification of womanhood; rather it means “claiming and supporting womanhood as a valuable identity independent of manhood.” Jîyan symbolizes the right to life, and azadî, the right to freedom, “symbolizing the mutuality between womanhood and Kurdishness in women’s political participation.”

Catalan government leaders hold a minute of silence for Mahsa Amini and all victims of gender-based violence outside the Barcelona City Hall beneath a sign that reads "woman, life, freedom" in Catalan and Persian.
Catalan government leaders hold a minute of silence for Mahsa Amini and all victims of gender-based violence outside the Barcelona City Hall beneath a sign that reads “woman, life, freedom” in Catalan and Persian.

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endangered languages by continent and status

Language Endangerment and How to Fight It

Reading Time: 6 minutes

In a world characterized by linguistic diversity, each language serves as a unique expression of culture, identity and heritage. However, the numbers of speakers of some languages are declining; these “mother tongues” are not being taught anymore. When this happens, the language becomes “endangered.” These endangered languages are at risk of disappearing forever, taking with them centuries of cultural wisdom, knowledge and tradition. Happily, we now have a better understanding of how and why this happens and what we can do to prevent it.

Sometimes it is debatable whether a language is actually endangered or not, as this topic is studied by different branches of social science such as linguistics and anthropology, and the experts don’t always agree. However, there are common characteristics and guidelines to identify vulnerable languages. Being informed on this topic is important to help us all work to preserve the cultural heritages these languages are associated with.

The languages that we often classify as “endangered” are often spoken by indigenous or minority communities around the globe, and they are at risk of disappearing as their speakers either pass away or transition to using other languages that have higher prestige, more social advantages (such better job or migration opportunities) or are imposed or favored by a government, institution or educational system. The next generations become bilingual, speaking both the community language and the favored language, but at some point they tend to pass on only the favored language to their own children.

When a language no longer has any native speakers, it is considered a “dead language.” If this language is not spoken even as a second language, it is classified as an “extinct language.” Even if a dead language is still studied through recordings or written materials (as for example with Latin or Ancient Greek), it is still considered extinct unless there are proficient speakers. While there are over 7,000 languages in the world today, experts expect 1,500 of them to be gone by the end of this century.

This bar chart, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, shows UNESCO’s count of languages spoken on each continent and their endangerment status as of 2019.

While languages have always been dying through human history, the current rate of decline has accelerated due to factors such as globalization, mass migration, cultural assimilation, imperialism, (neo)colonialism, and linguicide — the intentional suppression or eradication of a language. It is estimated that 45% of the world population speaks one of only a handful of “majority” languages, such as English, Spanish or Chinese. The rest of the population speaks “minority” languages; these are not necessarily endangered (many of them aren’t), but the numbers certainly put things into perspective.

Ethnologue is the go-to resource for linguists looking for speaker statistics of all the world’s languages (it also demonstrates the familial relationships between languages). UNESCO also has multiple projects documenting the languages of the world, such as the World Atlas of Languages, and it also has an atlas which focuses specifically on vulnerable or endangered languages; so does Google, with the Endangered Languages Project. Here you can find information and resources on endangered languages divided by country, but you can also find materials and resources written or spoken in these languages.

To get a better idea of what makes a language endangered, let’s consider the cases of two NaTakallam languages: Western Armenian and Kurdish.

Western Armenian is one of the two main varieties of the Armenian language (the other is Eastern Armenian; both dialects are offered by NaTakallam). Despite sharing a nearly identical vocabulary, the notable disparities in pronunciation and grammatical structures between the two variants are substantial enough to make an argument that the two varieties are different languages—though they are mutually intelligible. Western Armenian is based on the dialect spoken by the Armenian community living in present-day Turkey—a population which declined sharply due to its genocide and forced displacement by the Ottoman Empire in 1915.

The language today is spoken mainly by the Armenian diaspora living in Turkey, Georgia, Lebanon, Iraq and the United States, but being a “diaspora language” puts it in danger, as people are more inclined to speak and pass on the language of the country they are living in. Turkey has recognized Armenian as a minority language with certain rights since the Treaty of Lausanne in 1925, but the degree to which this treaty meets modern international standards for minority language rights has been disputed. Armenian within Armenia, of course, is not endangered, but it is the Eastern Armenian variety which predominates in this country.

The Armenian alphabet is unique to its language and has a rich calligraphic history, as this example page from the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows.
A Kurdish woman displays traditional Kurdish clothing. Photo by Daroon Jasm.

Another vulnerable language offered by NaTakallam is Kurdish. Like Armenian, debate exists over whether Kurdish can be considered one language or a group of related languages; its various dialects are often not easily mutually intelligible. Only Zazaki is unanimously considered to be endangered, but while Kurdish is spoken in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and beyond, it is only recognized as an official language in Iraq, and this is the only country where Kurdish-language education is available. Since the Kurdish population faces different degrees of discrimination across the countries in which they live, the language can’t always be spoken freely by its community.

Luckily, language decline can be reversed; if enough people are interested in the culture and in the language itself, it can be revitalized. Many people with an immigrant background or from minority communities take an interest in their roots and want to know more about the language their parents or grandparents spoke, so they teach themselves or engage in other efforts to revitalize a language. Such revival efforts are still ongoing everywhere in the world for various languages, and it’s too soon to say whether or not they will take off, but any community that takes an interest in keeping its culture alive has definitely taken the first step to success.

If you’re interested in learning more about endangered languages in general, we recommend you check out The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice and Sustaining Linguistic Diversity.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alice Zanini is a copywriting intern at NaTakallam. She is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in linguistics and Middle Eastern studies. Her research focus is on sociopolitical and sociolinguistic issues in modern Turkey and the Persian-speaking world.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mikaela Bell is a freelance editor and content writer with a background in anthropology and linguistics. An American based in France, she is also fond of reading, cooking, studying languages, fibercrafts and Irish stepdance.

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deq, the art of Kurdish tattooing

Deq: The Art of Kurdish Tattooing

Reading Time: 6 minutes
examples of deq, the art of Kurdish tattooing, with symbols inspired by nature

Tattoos and other forms of body art are a type of cultural expression shared by many communities across the world, but many of these unique cultural traditions are in danger of being lost to time and cultural hegemony. Across the Middle East and North African regions there is a rich tapestry of tattoo traditions, dating back thousands of years: Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs and nomadic tribes living in Eastern Anatolia wear them, as do Arab and Amazigh women living in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. “Deq” is the art of Kurdish tattooing.

One Woman Takes Up the Ancient Art

woman applies Kurdish deq
Elu works on a client.

Elu is a tattoo artist and a Zaza Alevi Kurdish diaspora woman from Dersim, in northern Kurdistan, eastern Turkey. She is one of the very few tattoo artists committed to keeping the art of traditional Kurdish tattooing, known as deq or xal, alive for another generation. Deq is the Kurdish word for “tattoo,” but the word has come to refer specifically to tattoos in the Kurdish style. I had the pleasure of interviewing Elu to learn more about this centuries-old tradition.

Elu entered the tattoo world by doing machine tattoos, but while traveling in Thailand she learned about Sak Yant, a sacred form of hand-poked tattooing done by Buddhists in southeast Asia. Inspired, she started hand-poking tattoos herself.  “As I was researching traditional skin markings around the world, I wondered if Kurdish people had any tattoo traditions, as I didn’t grow up seeing them in the diaspora (awaretî, derbiderî or sirgûn). Through an online search I came across deq and immediately found myself mirrored in it,” she says. “Later I found out my great-grandmother, whom I never got to meet but thank my path for, also had deq on her face.”

An Artistic Heritage of Women

There are many factors that make deq different from other forms of tattooing. First of all, the ink for deq is traditionally prepared with a mixture of soot and breast milk from a woman (jin) who has given birth to a girl (keç). It can also be made from a mixture of herbs and animal intestines. The tattoo itself is created by piercing the skin with a needle (derzî) that has been covered with the ink. Secondly, deq is traditionally done on women by women, on various areas of their body, such as the hands, breasts or even the face. Tattoos on men used to be rare, but this has changed: the younger generation is interested in keeping the deq tradition alive regardless of gender.

Kurdish tattooing
All photos in this article are examples of Elu’s work.

Tattooing is often done at a young age. Usually mothers or other women in the community tattoo their children (mindal or zarok), but sometimes kids try to tattoo themselves, mimicking the designs of their elders. As a result, traditional tattoo art endures across successive generations, evolving into a valued cultural heritage (kelepûr).

Kurdish tattooing

The symbols and patterns people choose to tattoo on their bodies are deeply inspired by nature and daily life. Common symbols include: the sun (roj), moon (heyv), and stars (stêrin); animals (ajel or lawir) like gazelle (xezal), birds and snakes (marin); plants (rewik); and daily life objects such as scissors (meqes or cawbirr), spindles and dolls (bûkoke). Lines and crosses are also common motifs and they can also be used to combine multiple drawings. And each symbol can have multiple meanings depending on the region, cultural background and individual desire.

People mark their bodies with deq for different reasons: some women believe their deq is a sign of beauty; others believe that deq has healing powers (tattooing dots on the side of the forehead can help against headaches, for instance); while others get tattoos for protection — for example, women may get them to ensure a safe pregnancy. They can also be an expression of nobility, pride, faith or belonging to a specific lineage — or simply of being in an exceptionally good physical state. Overall, deq is deeply rooted in spirituality, but it’s also a symbol of heritage and cultural pride.

Kurdish tattooing

From One Generation to the Next

When asked what deq means for Kurdish people, Elu says: “Nowadays, deq has become a cultural tool to build bridges between generations and over geographic distances. Some people mark the same deq as their mother (or dayik), grandmother (pîrik) or great-grandparents have, and others do it to create a bond with their culture and identity. While there are many personal reasons why Kurdish people practice deq, there is a collective desire to reclaim this almost-vanished tradition as a form of self-identification.”

deq on a Yazidi family

Elu mentions that the placement of the tattoo is also important. “The placement can also determine the meaning, which can be determined collectively or by the individual. A dot, for instance, can have a personal meaning for every individual.” She showed me an example of a Yazidi family without a gap between the generations practicing deq. All the children have received the same dot as their mother.

Unfortunately, deq remains an endangered tradition (kevneşopî). Over the years, fewer and fewer people have been practicing deq. It has even become frowned upon, and women may be averse to showing their tattoos or to talking about them. Religion (ol) could be one of the possible reasons: Islam, the dominant religion of the region, often forbids body modifications that are not done for medical reasons, and belief in any kind of spirituality apart from God is forbidden. Another reason could be the desire, or sometimes the necessity, for Kurds to assimilate into a mostly non-Kurdish society.

Elu, however, remains optimistic. When I asked her what could be done to prevent this art form from dying out, she replied: “The continuation is the biggest factor in saving this tradition from disappearing. I am sure we are currently experiencing and witnessing the renaissance of this tradition, especially through the Kurdish diaspora community (civaka derbiderî ya Kurd). Many more tattoo artists are beginning to mark deq again.”

Kurdish tattooing

However, she is also quick to add: “The tradition needs active practice as well as preservation in order not to be watered down into remains of what it once was. Therefore, a lot more research, documentation and archival work is needed. I truly hope to contribute to this with my work, as I truly believe in the power of ink, on skin as well as on paper.”

To look at and support Elu’s work, please visit her Instagram page.

Kurdish tattooing

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5 Ways to Say “I Love You” in Kurmanji Kurdish

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Blog contributors: Hadiya Ahmed, Maria Thomas, and Baran Hasso.

Valentine’s Day may have just passed but why run out of words to say how much you love someone? This week, we bring you five sweet words and expressions in Kurmanji Kurdish!

1. Dilê min
This expression literally translates to ‘‘my heart’’ and is used to address a loved one – a romantic partner, a friend or a family member – endearingly.

2. Ji te hez dikim
What better way to express your love and affection for a loved one than to say those magical three words – ‘‘I love you’’? In Kurmanji Kurdish, that would be Ji te hez dikim.

3. Kezeba min
Literally translating to ‘‘my liver’’, this phrase is an expression of endearment much like جیگر طلا ‘‘jigar tala’’ in Persian. It conveys their significance to your life!

4. Ronîya çavê min
This expression literally translates to ‘‘light of my eyes’’. It is commonly used to refer to a beloved family member, friend or significant other.

5. Hevalrêya min
Literally translating to ‘‘my way mate’’, this heartwarming phrase encapsulates what love is all about – companionship, a sense of belonging, and warmth! It refers to someone who is your “traveling companion” through life’s journey. Use this expression (and the others listed above!) to tell someone how much you care for them.

Learn how to express words of love, endearment and more in Kurmanji Kurdish with NaTakallam’s native Language Partners, today! At NaTakallam, every language session contributes to the livelihoods of our skilled tutors from refugee/displaced backgrounds.

Join a session today, learn a language and make an impact!



This piece was contributed by Hadiya Ahmed, Maria Thomas, and Baran Hasso:
– Content support: Hadiya Ahmed is a Language Partner with NaTakallam specializing in Kurmanji Kurdish and Arabic. Originally from Qamishli in Syria, she has a degree in English literature and loves spending her spare time reading, playing basketball and practicing Zumba.
– Copywriting: Maria Thomas is a copywriter with NaTakallam. She is currently pursuing her doctoral studies in art history. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, powerlifting and going on hikes.
– Proofreading support: Baran Hasso is a Language Partner with NaTakallam specializing in Kurmanji Kurdish and Arabic. He graduated from Aleppo University with a degree in Philosophy before going on to study Philosophy for Children in Turkey. Baran enjoys playing music, reading and traveling for recreation.

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