By Jules Lavallee
Los Angeles, California (The Hollywood Times) 06/16/2020 – Zarya Azadi is a powerful force in raising awareness on gender inequality. She was born in the Kurdish region of Turkey in Diyarbakir and belongs to the Yezidi religious community. During the civil war in Turkey Zarya’s family fled to Germany as refugees in 1991. Zarya is the first woman in her family and community that decided to leave her parents’ home and to study abroad. This was very controversial at the time as the Yezidi community is very traditional. Zarya has been walking the catwalks at the Fashion Weeks in London, Los Angeles, Berlin, Milan and Paris. At the beginning of her career Zarya also participated at various competitions including, the Miss Germany, Miss Oxford, Top Model Worldwide and Top Model UK. She is an Ambassador and Cooperate Partner with the NGO Mundo Cooperante from Spain with the focus on fighting against female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kenya and Tanzania. She is taking her fight for social causes to the catwalk, working with the iKonic, “House of iKons” in the UK. As a champion for women, she has launched a new campaign, “ Evolve Your Heritage,” with the aim to shed old tradition and customs to ensure equality for women and to fight for oppression.
With the help of your artistic and creative work, how are you drawing attention to important social issues?
As part of my new campaign ‘’Evolve Your Heritage’’ I have organized an editorial photo shoot with the House of iKons team called ‘’Red Ribbon’’ to raise awareness on gender inequality and to mirror and publish exactly this topic and raise awareness of women’s oppression around the world. Through the fashion editorial shoot, I wanted to highlight the journey of women in my culture as well as in other cultures from the age of innocence to breaking free. It was very important for me to highlight the red ribbon in the images without being tacky. To highlight how women have to make a choice to either suffer and be subservient or choose her life and freedom, both options will be at a high cost.
The Red Ribbon also known as the Maidenhood Belt is tied around the bride’s waist during the wedding ceremony as a symbol of her virginity. This form of oppression is practiced in many cultures around the world. The virginity of the bride is proven on the honeymoon night after a white sheet with blood is shown to the family. It was very important for me that the images have a clear message without attacking a specific culture because this sort of oppression can also be found in other Western cultures. Just remember the very controversial interview with the American rapper T.I. when he revealed that he regularly tested his daughter for her virginity at the gynecologist on the radio before Christmas 2019. The much more controversial statement was then made by Kanye West, who supported T.I.’s statement and referred to his behavior as ”God’s approved”. We are second class citizens by birth because of something so small like that. In most societies, there are only two types of women in this world – either a virgin or a whore. Even the famous comedian Hannah Gadsby said it in her very controversial Netflix special ‘Nanette’.
Right after my Red Ribbon photo shoot I heard about the news in Turkey, about the so-called ‘’Marry Your Rapist ‘ Law. I decided to dedicate one of my images as a protest against this new law. It has been justified as recognition of cultural value placed upon female virginity at marriage. The UN has warned the law legitimizes child rape, child marriage and allows child abuse and sexual exploitation to become rife. My good friend Mrs Çiğdem Gül who is a journalist and economist once told me: ‘’The honor of a woman doesn’t lie between her legs, it lies in her heart!’’ I totally agree with her statement. The hymen has no function whatsoever. This is a humiliation, degradation, and devaluation of a woman going on for centuries. This sort of special value of purity, honor, and worth is an ancient behavior and should be addressed. I try to address these issues of oppression with fashion and art.
You are fighting against female genital mutilation (FGM). Please tell us about your initiatives.
I am an Ambassador and Cooperate Partner with the NGO Mundo Cooperante from Spain with a focus on fighting against female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kenya and Tanzania. Mundo Cooperante is working in the field of development and humanitarian aid since its establishment with the main focus to fight against poverty and inequality. I have connected with Mundo Cooperante as FGM is also practiced in the Muslim Kurdish community in Iraq.
With the practice of FGM, which has no medical reasons, the total or partial surgical removal of the female genital organs takes place. FGM affects more than 140 million girls and women in the world women between 15 and 49 years old and more than 3 million each year are at risk even though it has been internationally recognized as a violation of women’s rights. It clearly shows that there is more work needs to be done to end FGM. In cooperation with African civil society in Kenya and Tanzania, Mundo Cooperante has been fighting against this horrific practice for years and also raising awareness in Spain.
With the project ‘’Maasai Bracelets Against FGM’’ the organization also supports and helps the Maasai women to create and produce hand-made Maasai Bracelets in order to sell them worldwide to generate a real income for those women. I represented the organization at the House of iKons Fashion Show in February 2020 at my stand in the exhibition showroom. I purchased 200 Maasai Bracelets against FGM and cooperated them in my campaign ‘’Evolve Your Heritage’’ and ‘’Red Ribbon’’ to raise awareness against child marriage, forced marriage, women oppression, the humiliation of proof of their virginity, domestic violence and female genital mutilation (FGM).
As a sponsor of the House of iKons February’s Show this year, I filled the goody bags with my own Red Ribbon Pins, the Maasai Bracelets, and Flyers about the campaign and the organization to raise awareness about this barbaric practice.
Tell us about “Evolve your Heritage.”
I start by using one of the most powerful quotes by Nelson Mandela: ‘’Freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression.’’ Evolve Your Heritage tries to do just that by shedding old traditions and customs to ensure equality for women and to fight oppression.
It is already known in the West that Asian, African and Middle Eastern men live their freedom to the fullest, while their women stay at home to protect their ‘’honor’’. Unfortunately, the term honor is associated with the reputation of the family which is often equated with the reputation of women, especially in small societies and minority groups. In my opinion, it is a very old-fashioned point of view and is no longer up-to-date and one cannot speak of equal rights here either.
Most of the time it is the women who are more educated and who can do several jobs at the same time to support themselves and their families. This is clearly a form of oppression which, in my opinion, is not justified here. However, equality means so much more for me than sexuality, e.g. inheritance, caring for parents, free choice of partner, and sexual orientation.
According to the UN Women, 243 million girls and women globally between the ages of 15 and 49 experience sexual and/ or physical violence by an intimate partner annually. This number has significantly increased due to the global lockdown. This proves that even during a worldwide pandemic caused by COVID-19, women are not only the majority working at the frontline and as first responders – they make up 70% of the health and social workforce but also being the most suffering caused by domestic violence, rape and honor killing. The lockdown causing high unemployment also has proved the increase of violence against women. A woman’s home is now becoming the most dangerous place with little to none access to support networks. It is difficult for these women to access psychological, health, and security support.
There have been honor killings during the pandemic in the Kurdish community of which four women have been murdered only in Germany. In Pakistan, two teenage girls were shot dead by family members after an online video showed them with a man and the list goes on.
That is what Evolve Your Heritage is fighting for – The same rights for everyone within the community. I believe that ‘’Evolve Your Heritage’’ can apply to many countries around the world especially regarding humanity, equal rights, and racism. It is time that we stop allowing old traditions to repeat history. This also applies to my small community. Instead of hiding and keeping a small inner circle practicing our culture, tradition, and religion we should embrace ourselves and accept the modern changes, especially in the western countries we are living.
I wouldn’t want our community to turn into an ultra-conservative community after the recent genocides just like it happened to the Jewish community in New York after the Second World War as seen in the new Netflix series Unorthodox. It has never been more important to speak about women’s equality and safety as it has been during this worldwide pandemic. I hope I can be of any help and support to raise awareness on some issues. My aim with the ‘’Evolve Your Heritage’’ campaign is to help women, all around the world, that it is their birth right to be free and fight the cultural oppressions and be able to pursue their dreams and use their talents to the fullest.
And the ‘’Red Ribbon’’ images should raise awareness of the inequality they are living every day within their communities based on the hymen. I don’t want to feel cursed and oppressed just for being a woman and neither should they.
How are you helping minorities to be seen and heard?
I aim to draw attention to the really important topics and to found new social projects that focus primarily on minorities. The aim of these social projects is to establish a foundation to give these minorities the opportunity to be seen and heard, in order not only to support their communities but also to help them to develop further. It is precisely these minorities who are so attached to old traditions and customs due to fears of existence/ losing their identity and mostly it is the girls and women who do not receive sufficient education and are therefore still financially tied to men even still in the 21st century. Because I too belong to a minority group, I am Yazidi Kurd and immigrated to Germany with my family at the age of three as a war child in 1990.
Who inspires you?
The strength of communities inspires me a lot. As a teenager, I watched a lot of movies highlighting the struggles and fights of the African American community in America as well as the Jewish community living in Germany during WWII. Now we are all very familiar with the histories of both communities especially now with the on-going Black Lives Movement Protests around the world caused by the death of Gorge Floyd to fight against racism and oppression. It is impressive to see how the communities stick together and support each other and also finding allies when being oppressed. Comparing this to my Kurdish community, I wish we had more support and understanding for one another, regardless of our different religious backgrounds, in order to gain an independent country one day, since we are the largest ethnic group in the world without an independent country.
I am also inspired by great leaders, activists, sports athletes, and artist like Nelson Mandela, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Ghandi, Princess Diana, Barack, and Michelle Obama, Muhammad Ali, and Frida Kahlo, as their defined their times and shaped ours. These were people who dared to dream of a brighter future and then made it happen by not giving up.
In the recent speech of President Barack Obama at the HBCU class of 2020 he said: ‘’No other generation has been better positioned to be warriors for justice and remake the world.’’
I feel part of that generation and couldn’t agree more!
How important is financial independence?
In many cultures and especially for minorities it is the women who are financially dependent on men due to lack of education. One has to help and educate the communities in order to help the women to gain financial independence but in most cases, it is not an easy task. The reason for financial independence is simple, not to be treated as property by anyone. Unfortunately, that is the reality for many women if they aren’t financially independent. With my education and my financial independence, I gained respect from a lot of people in the community. At this stage, I would want to be of an encouragement and voice for the women who suffer oppression to fight for their independence and to educate themselves to gain financial independence.
What challenges have you faced? Share advice for young women today.
When I wanted to study in England at the age of 20 years, it was very difficult for my parents to accept this. Before me, no girl had dared to take a step that my parents could use as an example, so my parents needed time to accept it. In my day it was unthinkable for a young, unmarried daughter to go abroad alone because it was not only about the safety of the daughter but also about the reputation and the honor of the family. Through many conversations and my persuasiveness and eloquence, I was ultimately able to convince my traditional and conservative parents. I have definitely created new opportunities for others from my religious community with this path and my career. It is always difficult for those who are first to try something new. The path is then paved for the new generation of women and considerably easier. Also going on vacations without a male companion has now become the norm through this step.
Today I am an international Yazidi-Kurdish model, human rights activist, and entrepreneur and business woman.
If you want to see a positive change in your life, in your community, and in this world, you’ll have to be part of it and get used to being criticized for it.
Share your upcoming projects. What is your vision for 2020?
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic that has affected the entire world; I have decided to postpone some of my projects to next year. With my campaign Evolve Your Heritage and the Red Ribbon I am still focusing on publishing more images in different magazines to raise awareness on the issue this year. I am still collaborating with the NGO Mundo Cooperante and will continue the work as much as possible this year. My trip to Spain to do a photo shoot with Mundo Cooperante as well as my plans to travel to Kenya to meet the Maasai Tribe and the women who make the Maasai Bracelets had to be postponed till next year. I am supporting my local Yazidi community by donating money to the Ezidi Association Niederrhein e.V. – Mala Ezdai Kalkar to help the most vulnerable during the pandemic.
I am also supporting an old friend of mine from Oxford who is currently in Nairobi to help the local communities. My friend Mario Konyen Joseph has started an emergency feeding program called Tujilishe Emergency Fund to help the most vulnerable in the villages. Tujilishe means ‘’let’s feed ourselves’’ in Swahili. People who want to help this program can donate on GoFundMe.com https://www.gofundme.com/f/tujilishe
I am also a member of the CDU, who put me up for election as the chairman of the board and spokeswoman for the Women’s Union in my local authority. We have already spoken about projects that focus on the integration of women with migrant backgrounds in order to not only integrate within the society and get the support and help they need but also to help maintain their heritage and identity. Due to the refugee crisis in 2015, the local authorities are in need of support, especially from people of color. I am also planning to launch my own fashion collection as a mix of modern and traditional clothing representing women’s equality for the September’s House of iKons Fashion Show in London in 2021.