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Women’s rights activist who took up arms and fought Ayatollah Khomenei’s Iranian army tells her story

PUBLISHED: 17:26 01 April 2020 | UPDATED: 17:26 01 April 2020

Girl with a Gun. Picture: Unbound

Girl with a Gun. Picture: Unbound

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“They bombed us and 35 of my comrades were killed – it was a very difficult time,” said Diana Nammi.

Image ©Licensed to i-Images Picture Agency. 13/10/2019. London, United Kingdom. Karen Attwood and Diana Nammi. Karen Attwood and Diana Nammi Authors of Girl With A Gun editing at Karen's home in London. Picture: Andrew Parsons / i-ImagesImage ©Licensed to i-Images Picture Agency. 13/10/2019. London, United Kingdom. Karen Attwood and Diana Nammi. Karen Attwood and Diana Nammi Authors of Girl With A Gun editing at Karen's home in London. Picture: Andrew Parsons / i-Images

Diana is a socialist who joined the Peshmerga when she was 17 and took up arms to defend her native Kurdistan province from the forces of Ayatollah Khomenei after the Iranian revolution.

After 12 years of warfare and “sleeping between graves”, Diana fled the battlefields with her daughter and was granted asylum in the UK in 1996. She moved to Islington where she founded Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO).

IKWRO exits to combat ‘honour’-based violence, female genital mutilation, forced marriage and domestic abuse.

Diana’s story starts with one of her earliest memories of witnessing injustice. She was four or five years old and at a three-day wedding in the Kurdistan province of Iran.

Diana Nammi speaks after receiving the Barclays Women of the Year Award during the Women of the Year Awards 2014 at the Intercontinental Hotel, London.Picture: Anthony Devlin/ PADiana Nammi speaks after receiving the Barclays Women of the Year Award during the Women of the Year Awards 2014 at the Intercontinental Hotel, London.Picture: Anthony Devlin/ PA

“The whole situation was so happy and when it became dark everything changed,” she said.

“Women started crying, men started shouting, some people saying: ‘She deserves to be killed and she brought shame on her household.’

“The bride was crying in the corner, and the groom was saying: ‘I don’t want her, she is not a virgin she has to go back to her family.’

“She was crying and begging the groom not to send her back because her brother and father would kill her.”

Family and friends of Surjit Kaur Athwal, who was the victim of an honour killing organised by her husband and 70 year old mother-in-law, (from the left) Diana Nammi, Iranian & Kurdish Womens Rights Org.; Kathryn Zoechild, Treasurer of Justice for Surjit Campaign; Hannanah Siddiqui, Southall Black Sisters; Jagdeesh Singh, brother of Surjit; Paramjeet Kaur, wife of Jagdeesh Singh; Susanne Lamido, Islington Community Activist and Charanjit Kaur, sister of Paramjeet Kaur, hand in a petition to 10 Downing Street requesting a public inquiry be carried out to investigate the handling of the case. Picture: Carl Court/ PAFamily and friends of Surjit Kaur Athwal, who was the victim of an honour killing organised by her husband and 70 year old mother-in-law, (from the left) Diana Nammi, Iranian & Kurdish Womens Rights Org.; Kathryn Zoechild, Treasurer of Justice for Surjit Campaign; Hannanah Siddiqui, Southall Black Sisters; Jagdeesh Singh, brother of Surjit; Paramjeet Kaur, wife of Jagdeesh Singh; Susanne Lamido, Islington Community Activist and Charanjit Kaur, sister of Paramjeet Kaur, hand in a petition to 10 Downing Street requesting a public inquiry be carried out to investigate the handling of the case. Picture: Carl Court/ PA

Diana’s says her father, a baker named Abdul Karim, persuaded the groom not to send his wife away – and saved her life.

Diana added: “It was the fist incident in my life that really changed my perceptions about everything, ‘why women should be killed for not being virgins’, it became a big question for me.”

Another key moment that politicised Diana was when twelve of her neighbour’s sons – who were Peshmerga fighters – were executed by soldiers loyal to the ruling Shah.

She added: “Anyone who had different opinions was arrested and put in prison. But in Iran at that time we had some freedom – for example women could walk freely, choose what to wear.

Diana Nammi receives the Barclays Women of the Year Award from Valerie Soranno Keating during the Women of the Year Awards 2014 at the Intercontinental Hotel, London. Picture: Anthony Devlin/ PADiana Nammi receives the Barclays Women of the Year Award from Valerie Soranno Keating during the Women of the Year Awards 2014 at the Intercontinental Hotel, London. Picture: Anthony Devlin/ PA

“But the Shah didn’t tolerate any opposition. Prisoners were executed and many were suffering from poverty. Iran was a very rich country in oil but it’s people during the winter didn’t have any fuel to use for keeping warm.”

She added: “So many people started to come to the demonstrations and it took a year-and-a-half because the government didn’t leave power easily and killed so many people. Demonstrations in Kurdistan were very left-wing and not religious at all.”

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But Ayatollah Khomenei, a Shia cleric and politician, became a figurehead for the 1979 revolution.

The monarchy was overthrown and, following a referendum in March of that year, the Islamic Republic of Iran was created.

A Kurdish rebellion soon followed, which involved myriad factions including left-wingers like Diana who wanted the greater autonomy or independence for the Kurdistan province.

The Peshmerga took some territory near the Iraqi border in 1979 and the fighting continued until 1983, when the Iranian government regained control of most of the region. Khomenei ruled as supreme leader of Iran until his death in 1989, aged 87.

Diana said: “When Khomenei took power the first victim was women and children. They forced women to go home and cover themselves by throwing acid in women’s faces if they wore make-up. If they wore dresses or a skirt they would throw acid on their legs. They slashed women in public and executed them in the street. So in Kurdistan we were not accepting the regime’s power.”

During this period, Diana says she became involved with an underground socialist party, trying to raise awareness of women’s rights and organise those opposed to the government.

She added: “But the regime one-by-one attempted to identify us and arrested all my friends and the people in the underground committee, and they executed them. They tried to arrest me and my sister a few times but we managed to run away.”

Diana joined the Peshmerga fighters.

She said “At the beginning women Peshmera were organisers – we were not armed, we were not allowed to go to war or act as men would do.

“But little by little we made the decision we should be armed and treated equally with the men. It was the first time women joined men in battle against the Islamic regime.”

The Peshmerga were pushed towards the Iraqi border as the government regained territory. The Iraqi government initially allowed them to have bases in its country when it was also at war with Iran. But, following tit-for-tat violence, Saddam Hussein’s forces bombed one of their camps.

“They bombed us and 35 of my comrades were killed,” she said. “It was a very difficult time.”

Asked how she could justify participating in armed insurrection, Diana said: “War is very serious and upsetting but we had no chance other than to defend ourselves. It was scary, of course, because always your at risk of being shot – I was injured.”

Asked whether she shot anyone, Diana, who lived in the mountains at points during the conflict, said: “I shot, it was war. But I don’t know if I shot anyone – I hope not. But they wanted to kill us, they were shooting and bombing us and throwing so many rockets in our country.”

She said: “When I came to the UK I was so relieved and grateful I had been given refugee status. I couldn’t speak English at all. I came to Islington actually because the interpreter told me: ‘You should go to Islington because they’re all Labour.’”

Shortly after arriving, someone she had met was taken, she says, to the Kurdistan province of Iraq by her husband and killed – because he suspected she had been unfaithful. She says it was inadequately investigated by the UK because it happened in Iraq, and that was when she decided to found IKWRO, which was based in Islington for 17 years before moving to Newham.

Diana, who still lives in Islington, has co-written a book about her experiences called Girl with a Gun: Love, Loss and the Fight for Freedom in Iran. It can be found at online book retailers.


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