There’s one sentence that Diana Nammi has been unable to forget since she was a young child: “Don’t send her back, her father and brother will kill her.” She’s telling me about an incident she witnessed when she and her family attended the wedding of a man who worked at her father’s bakery in a small town in the Iranian province of Kurdistan. “We were very happy. We wore our best clothes. We had good music and danced for three days and three nights,” Nammi recalls. “But on the day of the wedding, things changed drastically.
“It went from this very happy atmosphere to women crying and men shouting. My mother and I went to see the bride. She was so lovely with her long, shiny black hair, bronze skin and big eyes, but she was holding her knees and crying.” The girl, who was about 15, had been accused of not being a virgin because she had not bled when the marriage was consummated. “The groom was standing in the middle of the room, yelling that he was going to send her back to her family. Her mother came forward and begged him not to do it, as she would be murdered. Some of the women were crying for her and the rest said that she deserved it for bringing shame.”
Nammi’s father, who was a progressive thinker and the groom’s boss, threatened to fire him, so he chose to accept her. “It was a nice ending for her in a way,” Nammi says. “But it changed the whole of my life – that question of why someone should be killed over her virginity. As I grew up I saw more violence and more discrimination, and I realised that women’s lives always belong to men. They could simply be sent back to their family homes be- cause they had no power. All they were allowed to do was reproduce, give pleasure to men and clean the house — they had to act like slaves.”
Nammi was 16 and training to be a teacher when the Iranian revolution began. She quickly became active on the political scene in Kurdistan, which was spared the new theocracy’s exhaustive restrictions until the Islamic Republic won out over the Kurdish separatists in 1981. “The first thing they did when they came to power was force women to wear the hijab. All of them. They threw acid on women’s faces and cut their lips if they wore make-up. They threw acid on their legs for wearing a skirt and they would pin the hijab over their foreheads to teach them to show no hair. The only colours they could wear were black, grey, brown and navy, nothing else, and the people of Iran used to wear very bright and happy colours.”
The citizens of Kurdistan, however, had a period of freedom before the new republic took over. During this time, when she was 17, Nammi joined the Peshmerga freedom fighters – who she would continue to fight with, often on the front line, for the next 12 years. Eventually the draconian laws of the Islamic Republic rolled into her province. “The government took [Kurdistan] back and started to arrest everyone you could imagine,” Nammi remembers. “They looked at the hospitals and collected injured people and even started to execute them. They would just look at people’s faces and say, ‘This group is for execution.’”
After becoming pregnant in 1991, a chemical bomb attack killed 35 people at a local radio station in Iraq where Nammi was work- ing, forcing her to seek exile in the UK in 1996. Once there, she was driven to found the Iranian and Kurdish women’s rights organisation IKWRO after a Kurdish interpreter who she had met in north London and who had helped Nammi and her young daughter settle in the country, was killed by her own husband, and her in-laws, after being taken back to Iraq by him. At the time, police in Britain did not consider it an “honour crime” and instead deemed it a cultural issue. No one in Iraq or the UK has been prosecuted.
As such, supporting the victims of honour based violence is at the crux of everything Nammi and IKWRO do. The organisation provides advice to Middle Eastern, North African and Afghan women living in the UK who are at risk of, or have experienced, any form of brutality, including forced marriage, child marriage, domestic abuse and female genital mutilation. IKWRO was notably key in getting two of the killers of the Iraqi-Kurdish woman Banaz Mahmod extradited to the UK for prosecution. Mahmod had been murdered in south London in 2006 on the orders of her family after leaving a forced and abusive marriage to start a relationship of her choosing.
Now, in light of the current insurrection, IKWRO is in the process of drafting a statement imploring the UK government and European Commission to act in favour of Iranian women and girls by taking harder stances against the regime. She is also concerned about how Iranian and Kurdish women living abroad are being affected by the insurrection and so is in the midst of setting up group counselling sessions for women and girls to air their anxieties.
“You know, I’ve dedicated my life to women’s safety and I cannot just sit and not be moved by these brutal things,” she says. “In Iran it’s not just that people are angry, they’re ambitious too. They can’t tolerate this government any more, and they’re willing to see this revolution grow. Now that the regime is executing people, people are getting angrier, the demonstrations will be stronger and I’m hoping that it will mark the end of this government.”
With regard to what can be done abroad, she stresses that the West must not tell the people of Iran what to do, but rather support them in any way they need. “First of all, the West needs to cut ties with the Iranian government and close down embassies and consulates around the world. Up until the 14th of December, Iran was still a member of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. It was such a joke. The silence coming from the British government is deafening.”
Nammi wants people to come out in greater numbers – “and come out into the streets to finish this brutal regime,” she says. “This government has been feeding on the blood and the brains of young Iranians. They are the heart of the country and they are the only ones that can finish it. But they need us to help them, we need to go to work too.”
Taken from HUNGER Issue 27: Call to Action. Available to buy here.