Zarya Azadi: Her Fight for Equality Worldwide – Women of Vision

You are on a mission to change the world. Tell us about your work as an Activist.

Being an Activist for gender equality and women’s rights is still controversial in many countries. I understand and am fully aware of the conversations regarding these issues in western countries. However, this is still an uncomfortable, difficult and sometimes even risky conversation in other parts of the world. I personally decided to break the silence and to speak about certain cultural behaviors that oppress women’s human rights around the world. Many cultures in different countries still maintain the tradition of keeping women as virgins until marriage. Any non-virgin women will face public cultural shame, torture, domestic violence and in some extreme cases even honor killings. 

It’s not an issue that affects one particular country, it’s happening all around the world and predominantly in Muslim countries. The 2020 Best Countries report has shown that people around the world believe strongly that Arab nations and countries like India and South Korea have a lot of work to do regarding gender equality. 

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The United Nations has stated that gender equality is a fundamental human right and a much-needed foundation for a peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable world which I absolutely agree with. And despite the UN’s efforts and investments into protection and promoting human rights they are unconsidered in countries as mentioned above.

This has made me realize that everyone who stands up for basic human rights can do something by keeping this conversation alive. My activism is to promote girls’ and women’s empowerment to protect their human rights. My main goal is to empower women to break their silence and to take action for themselves. This is what I am doing and working with different international NGO organizations like Mundo Cooperante from Spain, Plan International UK and the UN foundation initiative girlup campaign which I have been introduced to by the subgroup girl up Arab world. We all agree that there is still so much work and activism to do in order to keep these issues relevant in the mainstream media for a positive change worldwide. I have recently been given the Club leader’s handbook to create and to lead the girlup Kurdistan group. I’ve also communicated this with the Kurdish civil organization and will get support from them as well. 

I’m also working with local and national registered societies such as the Verein der Eziden am unteren Niederrhein e.V., Kurdische Gemeinde Deutschland e.V. (KGD) and the CDU Women’s Union to discuss these issues locally as it is also being practiced in Europe by communities originating from the affected countries and also in my own community. I’ve also recently joined a newly formed Kurdish organization called Kurdish Diaspora Centre e.V. (KDC) which will also include a women group which I’ve already agreed to act as an ambassador and coordinator. With the new HQ in Düsseldorf I’ll be organizing meetings with Kurdish women to highlight relevant issues regarding women’s rights but also working on the inclusiveness of Kurdish women for new projects and even political events to make sure our gender is also equally represented. 

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Since the COVID-19 pandemic, it has shown drastic issues against women around the world and especially for those living in the world’s most fragile countries. The impacts of this pandemic for women have been outrageous. According to the UN Women source, 137 women across the world are killed by a member of their own family every day. The curfews were a dangerous place for many women. A new word I’d like everyone to look up and research about is ‘femicide’. The more we speak about it openly the more we raise awareness on these serious issues. There has already been some positive changes this year e.g. Sudan criminalized FGM, New Zeeland passed a bill for equal pay, US Supreme Court protects LGBTQ+ workers, Costa Rica legalized same-sex marriage and the number of women CEOs hit an all-time record according to the UN Women source. So ‘get up, stand up’ and most importantly speak up until you reach positive changes. 

As an International Yazidi-Kurdish model, how are you bringing your artist work to build awareness for social causes?

I use my artist work to build awareness for social causes with a collective focus on creating real and meaningful change by highlighting social issues using art. The fashion industry is also a form of art one can use to draw attention and raise awareness on serious matters such as gender equality and basic human rights. I must say even though the fashion industry has been more in negative press regarding racism in the last few years than ever, it is still a tool that can be used for the better in my opinion. It’s been very disappointing and hurtful to watch the news how fashion has been used in racist ways e.g. the H&M ads using a black boy wearing a jumper with the writings ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’ and the Gucci ‘blackface sweater’. This is unacceptable. It’s racist and shows that the companies lack of diversity in their workforce and need to be changed drastically. These things can be prevented working with people of color. We can do so much more and definitely better using fashion to help create positive change. 

I personally have focussed on gender equality and basic human rights for women and started a new campaign called ‘Evolve Your Heritage’ and did my first editorial photoshoot highlighting women’s oppression in countries where virginity is seen as an honor of the family until marriage. I called the photoshoot ‘Red Ribbon’ as this is wrapped around the bride’s waist during the wedding ceremony to prove the bride’s virginity to the families and relatives. I organized the photoshoot with the creative team from the House of iKons Fashion Show London using the Lady K Production by Savita Kaye. Everyone understood the message perfectly as we were a group of diverse creatives, artists and designers. The creative team included two fashion designers Sigrun and Ana De Sa, jewelry designer Tigerbite Jewels, handbag designer Carat23, MUA Makeup by Cindy and the photographer J. Rosales Photography. Each element of the designs highlights a major importance to the issue. I wanted the images to be powerful and strong but not too aggressive nor attacking a specific culture as this tradition is still practiced in many countries around the world. 

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Other social issues that I’m fighting against and trying to raise awareness are the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and child marriage and forced marriage. Therefore, I’ve decided to act as an ambassador and cooperation partner of the Spanish NGO Mundo Cooperante to fight against these barbaric practices and will also join forces with Plan International UK for another project highlighting these issues. 

Another major project that I’ve been working on together with the House of iKons Fashion Show is the Kurdish solo segment as part of the show from the 20-21 February 2021 at the Millennium Gloucester Hotel in London. The title of the Kurdish solo segment is called ‘The hidden beauty of Kurdistan’. The reason behind it is to showcase and highlight the rich and colorful art and culture that we have as Kurdish people. It was important to me to do a project in order to give Kurdish artists an international platform to be heard and seen as we are the largest nation in the world without an independent country. With the involvement of my very talented Kurdish designers and some other Kurdish creatives and musicians, we are very positive for the show to be successful. The aim is to bring our art and culture closer to the western audience, which they otherwise do not know about us. My Kurdish people suffer from centuries of persecution, murder and genocide. We have been driven from our own homes for centuries. Nevertheless, with this show, I would like to emphasize the importance and essential role of women. Because in our communities, too, our women are oppressed in many ways because of their sexuality. As much as I know the suffering of my people and want to draw attention to these atrocities, I cannot close my eyes to the oppression of our women. A lot of my Kurdish designers also want to highlight the importance of our women who are fighting on the front for our independence but also of women in general with their creative and brand-new collections. I can’t wait for you to see it live on stage. 

Tell us about the House of iKons Fashion Show on Sept. 19, 2020. 

The House of iKons Fashion Show on the 19th September 2020 is a digital show that you can watch and stream on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram. That will be the first digital fashion show the House of iKons ever created due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the cancellation of the live show. As we like to say in the entertainment industry ‘The show must go on’ so do many fashion shows worldwide and using the internet and digital platforms to continue with their shows. The CEO of the show Savita Kaye decided to offer her designers a digital show as a good will gesture to help and motivate them to continue with their work. Even though my Kurdish designers have been signed for the live show from 20-21 February 2021, Savita still allowed them to participate for the digital show to introduce our Kurdish solo segment for next year. You’ll see international fashion designers from around the world showcasing their new collections or simply introducing themselves and their work on the screen. You’ll also get to see me giving a short introduction about the Kurdish solo segment with the beautiful title ‘The hidden beauty of Kurdistan’ and my five Kurdish designers introducing themselves and showing their boutiques and ateliers including some of their designs. This will be a sneak peek of my very talented designers who are all creative and unique in their own way. It’s important to me and my Kurdish community as this has never been done before and will be the first time in the history for Kurdish designers to be showcasing their collections during the London Fashion Week. It will give us an amazing and beautiful opportunity to represent our nation as a colorful, creative, artistic, and visionary community. The beauty of Kurdish designs is enriched by deep colors and traditional and unique patterns. However, our fashion has become very modern and we will showcase from traditional clothing to streetwear, high fashion, bridal and evening gowns, and haute couture. I am very excited to work on this new project as it will open new doors and highlight the beauty and treasures of my culture. We want to be seen and recognized as people and as one nation and this is my way of giving them the opportunity to be seen in the world. I have been saying this so many times and will continue saying this; we are more than a war zone. It is important for us to support each other regardless of our differences in order to be recognised as a nation in the world. We really want it to be good and professional and to give the wow-factor to the audience live on stage. 

Tell us about your designers.

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The five designers that I have chosen so far and who will be part of the digital fashion show as well as the live show are very talented and have been in this industry for many years. All of them have their unique life story of how they moved from Kurdistan to Europe and how they pursued their dreams of becoming a fashion designer with all the hardships they faced. I am immensely proud of each one of them as they all have come a long way. As I mentioned earlier all designers and creations are unique in every way. This is not a competition but rather a celebration of the uniqueness and diversity we share as Kurdish people as one nation. I have connected with all of them on a very personal level. One thing we all have in common is that we enjoy connecting and networking together to create something so beautiful and unique. Let me start introducing the designers in the order they will be shown during the digital show. 

(Picture © 2020 Courtesy of Atelier by Khoshkar Horre)

@atelier_by_khosh 

Atelier by Khoshkar Horre is originally from Afrin, Kurdistan now based in London, UK. Khoshkar Horre creates from the heart and soul in order to empower women. He is encouraging women to show their femininity, to learn new styling habits, while being taught how to dress, not with just clothes but to dress their spirit with confidence and uniqueness. This is the main ethos of his brand. With the strong yet feminine designs can be worn casually, professionally and on the red carpet. He is constantly complimenting the female form with high-end fashion and couture fashion. He comes from a family of tailors with established business since the 1850s based in Afrin. Now he has gained a tremendous following and designing for VIP’s and athletes like football players David Luiz, Willian Borges Da Silva, and Giani Franco. 

(Picture © 2020 Courtesy of Yadê Couture)

@yade_couture

Yadê Couture by Sadiye Demir is originally from Mardin, Kurdistan now based in Bern, Switzerland. Sadiye Demir works with a lot of joy and passion to develop ideas for clothes together with her customers. These individual creations and designs are unique for casual and evening wear. She uses feminine colors in combination with masculine mixed cuts to embody elegance. This will be Yadê Couture’s first fashion collection starting and showcasing at the House of iKons Fashion Show London. We have already seen a huge transformation and progress of her during the last few weeks, she’s a true professional and I personally am very proud of Sadiye’s ambitions and hard work. This is exactly what this fashion show is about, providing emerging designers an international platform. 

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(Picture © 2020 Courtesy of Inci Hakbilen)

@incihakbilendesign

The designer Inci Hakbilen is originally from Haymana, Kurdistan now based in Hamburg, Germany. With the fashion brand of the same name Inic Hakbilen is mainly focused on bridal and evening wear but also designs traditional Kurdish clothing and streetwear using Kurdish fabrics. The combination with modern style and traditional patterns are extremely interesting and beautiful. For the last 5 years, Inci Hakbilen has been creating modern streetwear using the colors of Mesopotamia and traditional fabrics for her own fashion shows. I personally like to see more of this on the runway. She’s been in the fashion industry for over 30 years and would like to create a fashion show in Diyarbakir or Instanbul as one of her last fulfilling dreams as a fashion designer. I would like to support her with this dream.  

(Picture © 2020 Courtesy of á la mode) 

@alamode.schneiderei 

The fashion brand á la mode by Ala Hadji is originally from Zaxo, Kurdistan now based in Berlin, Germany. Ala Hadji is very diverse in her work; she not only designs her own collection of modern, elegant and western fashion but also Kurdish traditional clothing. She also offers her services to various designers from Berlin for the completion of their collections for the Berlin Fashion Week and also teaches sewing classes 1-2 days a week. Her customers range from a normal audience to designers and VIPs. She designed clothing for one of the judges of Germany’s Next Top Model by Heidi Klum and also the international music singer Ilira. 

(Picture © 2020 Courtesy of Zarya Azadi and JoJo Braut & Abendmode)

@jojo_braut_abendmode 

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And last but not least the fashion brand JoJo Braut & Abendmode by Nesrin Hassan originally from Rojava now based in Bochum, Germany. This fashion brand only focuses on bridal and evening wear with the specialty in haute couture bridal dresses. Nesrin Hasan designs the dresses, fits them and also accepts special requests. Her bridal dresses are princess-worthy gowns. Her customers travel from various countries from Europe to choose a wedding dress and have it adjusted according to their wishes. JoJo Braut & Abendmode will be closing the Kurdish solo segment ‘The hidden beauty of Kurdistan’ with her extravagant and royal-looking wedding dresses. 

During the digital show on the 19th of September you will get a brief insight into the work of my Kurdish designers. So join us on the House of iKons social media platforms on the Youtube Channel, Facebook and Instagram at 4 PM BST.

Another Kurdish designer I am currently communicating with to join us for the live show from 20-21 February 2021 is Avesta Isso who also has her very own personal story. We immediately felt connected because we belong to the same religious minority, the Yazidi (Ezidi). Like many Yazidis (Ezidis), she also had to flee her hometown Afrin in Kurdistan. Together with her family, they escaped from the terror group ISIS in 2014. She has achieved so much since her escape. Established her own fashion brand, Avesta Isso is based in Saarbrücken Germany. Already showcased her own collections and established an online shop. We are currently trying to get the Visa papers done for the live show for the House of iKons Fashion Show. We would love her to be part of the show as it demonstrates the pain, struggle, loss but also the strength, power of endurance and overcoming of my people and highlighting our beautiful art and culture. As we Yazidi-Kurds like to say, “Ya Xode u Tausî Melek” everything will work out for her to join us next year. 

Your campaign, “Red Ribbon” and “Evolve Your Heritage,” how are they about breaking free from cultural oppression living in the western world and to fight for equality?

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With my campaign “Evolve Your Heritage” and the visualization with the editorial photoshoot “Red Ribbon” I’m highlighting and raising awareness on the cultural issues and oppression of women that still exist in the western world by communities originating from the affected countries as well as in my own country. Forced marriage, child marriages, domestic violence, relegation, and honor killings are still happening within these communities living in the West. I want this campaign to inspire, empower and motivate other women around the world and most importantly the ones living and raised in the West as they could do so much effective work for positive changes for women living here as well as in their homeland. Using the western legal systems could be a great tool and support to get things started to achieve positive change for gender equality. 

Let’s take Germany for an example; it has been reported and complained about these so called “parallel communities” and their oppression of their own women. Communities e.g. from the Middle East, Turkey, India and Pakistan still have a bad reputation of disrespecting and oppressing their own women. 

This is all caused by old traditions such as the virginity of women until marriage, which reflects the honor of the family. I have symbolized this oppressive tradition with the ‘Red Ribbon’ images. A bride wearing her wedding dress, the red ribbon wrapped around her waist as proof of her virginity, gold jewelry that’s been bought for her from the groom’s family. The reason behind it is that in the past, women were not self-sufficient and therefore without any financial security. So the gold jewelry, which she had for herself in the event of a divorce, she would not fall into poverty with her children. In some narcissistic cases the family and the husband even claim to have bought the bride and that she’s their property. In many cases the dowry of a bride has turned into a business nowadays. Regarding the virginity of the bride, there are plenty of cases where the bride didn’t bleed in the honeymoon, for whatever reason and the husband rejected her. 

(Picture © 2020 Courtesy of photographer J. Rosales Photography)
  • ‘Red Ribbon’ Photo Shoot by Zarya Azadi 
    • House of iKons – Lady K Production: CEO Mrs Savita Kaye 
    • Designer: Ana De Sa 
    • MUA: Makeup by Cindy 
    • Jewellery: Tigerbite Jewels by Mrs Mary Katrisiosi Baldwin 
    • Handbag: Carat23 by Carolina Riffi Ollite 

With the ‘Red Ribbon’ photoshoot, I chose a soft approach in a beautiful artistic way for the audience to not only understand the serious message behind it but also in a digestible way to maintain their interest instead of shocking them. The ‘Red Ribbon’ ritual is still a taboo subject, like an open practiced secret within many cultures. But apparently, it is also an issue within western societies. I must say I was pretty shocked and surprised when I heard the news about the African-American rapper T.I. who openly and publicly spoke about checking his underage daughter’s virginity at the gynecologist on a regular basis. He not only humiliated his own daughter in front of her doctor but also in front of the entire nation during a live interview on a radio show. He later apologized to his daughter at the Red Table Talk Show hosted by Jada Pinkett Smith as he got highly criticized by the public for his parenting methods. However, he even got support from non-other less than Kanye West who then added that T.I.’s action is, and I quote, “God approved.” The only thing I can say about this is that this sort of behavior is a form of shaming women and I don’t believe that these men understand this. 

Another recent shocking news surprised me also a couple weeks ago about a new law from Arkansas, USA. They passed a law allowing rapists to prevent victims who want a surgical abortion. It actually gives power to a pregnant woman’s husband to stop her from having an abortion, even in cases of spousal rape. These sorts of laws remind me of the treatment of women in the Middle East. 

It is time to speak about these old traditions that still oppress women in a “parallel community” within western societies but also apparently in some cases in western societies as well. 

How important is financial independence? 

Financial independence is very important to me and it plays a big part in the work I do. A lot of women from countries and communities I’ve mentioned earlier still depend on their spouses or families financially or have to provide for them. And in the case of educating the girls and women, studying and even working and earning their own money a lot of these communities still carry a tradition of financially supporting the families. So in a way you are independent but still tied to traditions of how to spend your earnings. Taking care of your family is part of the tradition for women before and after getting married. I personally was also raised that way and it was and still is normal to me to financially support my family but I also had to set boundaries in order to take care of myself. However, in most cases it will be taken for granted and a lot of women find themselves only providing for others and not themselves. This is also a major reason why so many women lack of self-love. They feel needed and used and not loved. 

In the case of women not being educated and financially independent and being the sole care takers of their own family, husband and children as well as their in-laws they aren’t much appreciated either. I believe this issue is also very accurate and current in western societies. I understand that creating a family and raising children as well as being a wife and the daughter-in-law brings a lot of responsibilities with you. Everyone has their own responsibilities and you should support each other as a family and partner. However, there are many cases where the entire responsibility, be it bringing up the children, taking care of the entire household, looking after your own parents as well as your in-laws and additionally having a part-time job, is often given to women. The biggest issue for most women is being taken for granted and the physical and mental exhaustion. Now if you add domestic violence to it and realise that it is difficult to leave that marriage without a stable income to provide for yourself and your children, it is comprehensible to me that a lot of women tolerate the abuse and become numb to it. If you are raised in a community where domestic violence is being looked at as part of the culture you’ll start to believe it and to tolerate it. Fighting it would bring shame to the families as it would look like you as a woman wouldn’t want to fulfill your role as a mother and wife. 

I’ve experienced a lot of these cases within my own community as well as in different communities. The women then usually realized that they shouldn’t have married and educated themselves before they started a family. When you get to see these issues as a child you take the advice of these women and educate yourself before getting married. That’s what I did anyways. Equal pay is another fight you have to fight as a woman when you become financially independent but that’s another topic. 

I’d like to speak about these issues publicly so women who suffer from these issues feel empowered to do it too. The UN foundation initiative girlup campaign is already raising awareness on all these issues and with the subgroup girlup Kurdistan I will be using this platform as well to speak about it within my own community. I will be also working on new projects with the Kurdish Diaspora Women Centre (KDC) to address these issues. The Spanish NGO Mundo Cooperante helps the women from the Maasai tribes in Tanzania and Kenya to be financially independent by producing handmade Maasai Bracelets against FGM which you can purchase online. 

Financial independence is very important. During the Covid-19 pandemic, UN Women also reported that women were more affected and suffering financially than men. According to the source, there are 740 million women working in the informal economy and during the 1st month of the pandemic, their income fell by 60%. This pandemic has clearly shown the effects of women not being financially secure. The fact that domestic abuse increased during the pandemic is even more upsetting. According to the source less than 40% of women who experienced violence reported these crimes or sought help. Now, this issue was affecting women all around the world. 

Share your vision for 2020.

My vision, my actual vision for 2020 is being observant. We had a lot of losses this year and as we are coming to the end of 2020 and believe that we have had a lot of struggles facing nationally and internationally as a community and nation worldwide, I have only one quote I’d like to share to keep people positive and motivated, “If you want to move the world, you first have to move yourself.” Don’t let anything or anyone stop you in what you believe is right. 

I know it has been hard, also for me, but we must keep our goals and fight for the things that we believe in and have to learn to speak our truth. It’s a process but eventually we will get there. A lot of people and celebrities keep writing that 2020 has already been over for them and they are waiting for 2021. I don’t think the following year will be any better if we don’t focus on the problems that we faced this year to come up with solutions to prevent these things from happening again. 2020 has definitely highlighted a lot of social, economic, and environmental issues worldwide. I’d like to take this year as a lesson learned and help to create better ways of understanding for all issues the world has faced from the pandemic to gender equality, to racism, and natural disasters. There was no way we could have closed our eyes on these issues even if we wanted to. Maybe that’s the new vision that we take from 2020 to be more aware of serious issues worldwide as we have to realize that all of it affects all of us worldwide. 

How can we join forces with you? Please share your social media links

You’ll find all information about me and my work on my website www.zaryaazadi.com but also on social media on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter under @Zarya_Azadi. Please support my cooperation partners’ @mundo_cooperante and @plan_uk, as well as @girlupkurdistan. 

For donations and purchase of the Maasai bracelets against FGM please go to www.mundocooperante.org/pulseras/eng 

This is an initiative designed to eradicate the worst form of violence against women and girls. These bracelets are hand-made and carefully designed by socially vulnerable women within the Maasai tribe within Kenya and Tanzania. Thanks to the sale, women producers get income with which to contribute to their family. Mundo Cooperante gets funds to develop new projects for the benefit of women and girls and the people who wear the bracelet help us spread the message on the situation of women and girls worldwide. 

You can also follow my work on the online network ‘Intercultural Network For The Highly Gifted’ as I’ve started writing fashion related articles to raise awareness on current political events, cultural issues and women’s rights. The CEO Ms Çiğdem Gül has encouraged me to start writing my own articles which I’m very grateful for. Follow us on @interkulturellhochbegabte and www.interkulturellhochbegabte.de 

Please also check: https://www.interkulturellhochbegabte.de/london-our-participation-in-fashion-week-022020/ 

As for the fashion-related project, the Kurdish solo segment at the House of iKons fashion show with its beautiful title ‘The hidden beauty of Kurdistan’ please show your love and support to @house_of_ikons_official and www.houseofikons.com and my Kurdish fashion designers, 


By International Journalist, Jules Lavallee


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