By Guy Fiennes
Kurds and Baluch have long complained of discrimination within the Islamic Republic of Iran. The nationwide protest movement following the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in police custody has pulled the issue of longstanding tensions and state repression between the regime in Tehran and the minorities of Iran back to the fore. The regime specifically blamed secessionist elements – such as the exiled Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI) in northern Iraq – for fomenting the protest movement and smuggling weapons into Iran. Beginning days after Amini’s death in September, Tehran launched various ‘retaliatory’ strikes against KDPI targets in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq which killed at least 18 people, and even went so far as to threaten an unprecedented land offensive. Meanwhile, a separate protest movement was already underway in the south-eastern, majority Baluch province of Sistan and Baluchistan at the time of Amini’s death. These regional tensions were inflamed and underscored by a particularly bloody incident in the regional capital of Zahedan on 30 September in which at least 82 were killed and hundreds injured, including four security service members.
Mahsa Amini was detained for allegedly wearing ‘bad hijab’ – a notoriously ambiguous term – and died on 16 September in custody of the controversial ‘morality police’ or gasht-e-ershad, who operate across Iran to enforce religious law. While some Kurdish activists argued that Amini’s Kurdish identity likely made her a target, making the incident an example of wider discrimination against Kurds, there is no hard evidence to support this view. Rather, what Iranians saw in Amini and her story was a woman who could have been any one of them – their mother, sister or daughter – regardless of Kurdish identity. Indeed, she was far from the first woman to be brutalized for alleged violation of the conservative dress code, and prior incidents in the same year had already set the stage for public anger against clerical rule to burst through.
Despite Amini’s Kurdish identity being somewhat incidental to the wider protest movement, the protests in Kurdish-majority regions and cities were nonetheless more intense, as was the regime crackdown. From November 18, the regime sent military convoys into Kurdish cities such as Mahabad and established military suppression of the protests, a step-up from the use of the Basij paramilitary forces and the police. The higher intensity of unrest in Kurdish majority regions stems from historical and ongoing discrimination and repression, exemplified by the more heavy-handed regime response in those regions, as well as Amini’s Kurdish background. A gathering of thousands marking the anniversary of Amini’s death was met by a strong security presence and gunfire amid clashes in her hometown of Saqez. Many Kurdish activists objected to using her non-Kurdish name, Mahsa, instead of her Kurdish name, Jina, as yet another form of cultural erasure and argued that media reporting should recentre her Kurdish identity. However, the sentiment is far from unanimous. Not only did her father refer to her as Mahsa in interviews following her death, but also insistence on framing her as a particularly Kurdish symbol rather than one of the Iranian women regardless of ethnic identity would weaken the wider protest movement and corroborate with the regime’s narrative that the source of the unrest is primarily dissident minorities (besides foreign conspiracy), rather than frustration with the regime from Iranian society at large. Ultimately, her death came as a result of a conservative religious law in Iran which targeted Iranian women rather than one which targeted ethnic minorities.
The Baluch make up around 2% of the Iranian population at an estimated 1.5 – 2 million and form the majority in Sistan and Baluchistan province, south-eastern Iran. The Baluch people, like the Kurds, have long complained of state discrimination, both religious and linguistic, and held surpressed aspirations for statehood and autonomy with the 5 million Baluch across the border in Pakistani Balochistan. Life expectancy and literacy in the province trail far behind the average in Iran with 45% of the population reported to live below the absolute poverty line and water scarcity considered a growing issue. Several separatist militant groups, such as Jundullah and Jaish ul-Adl exist in the region and are considered terrorist organisations by the central government in Tehran and the international community, with the line between Baluch anti-regime ethnonationalism and Sunni extremism blurring.
The alleged rape of a Baluch minor by an Iranian police commander led to protests in multiple cities and rare condemnation of the regime from the influential religious leader of the region, Molavi Abdolhamid. On 30 September, during a protest in the capital city of Zahedan, a police station was attacked, and the head of regional intelligence was killed along with three other members of the Basij paramilitary force. According to Amnesty International, at least 82 protesters and bystanders were killed and hundreds injured as the security services fired upon protesters. While the regime sought to paint the unrest as an issue purely of minority separatism, slogans such as – az Zahedan ta Tehran, janam fedaye Iran (from Zahedan to Tehran, I sacrifice my life for Iran)– reject the state narrative that separatists are driving unrest in the region, although targeted killings of security service members have spiked after the incident.
Forty days after the Zahedan massacre – forty days being an important mourning date in Iranian tradition – demonstrations were held, and businesses shut down in Tehran and across Iran, including in majority Kurdish cities such as Amini’s hometown of Saqez. As the regime stepped up its repression in Kurdish-majority cities, protesters in Sistan and Baluchestan chanted in solidarity: “Kurds and Baluch are brothers, thirsty for the leader’s blood”. (kurd o baloch baradarand, teshneye khoone rahbaran).
It would be misguided to suspect any tangible coordination between the two groups, as the protest movement has been characterized by grassroots, spontaneous collective action rather than directed by specific organizations. Instead, as the chant suggests, the two groups are bound by similar, even parallel, grievances against the regime in Tehran – as is the case for the various other participants in the protest movement. The two groups are ultimately bound by their being Iranian, as with everyone else in the movement from Zahedan to Tehran to Saqez.
Curiously, while the protests have highlighted the divides and tensions between Tehran and the minorities of Iran, they have also sharpened and foregrounded Iranian nationwide solidarity. The Iranian public have mostly rejected the regime’s attempts to frame the protests as secessionist or foreign conspiracies. The protests are also notable for their ubiquity throughout Iran. Deaths and crackdowns on one side of the country have inspired demonstrations in solidarity on the other, and the popular anger echoes the 1979 revolution in its clear crossing of the geographic and ethnic lines of Iranian society. Despite a sense of discrimination along ethnic lines playing a key role in the unrest in Kurdish and Baluch areas, the protests have so far united them – and their fellow protesters regardless of ethnic affiliation – as Iranians with a common cause against a repressive regime, to the extent that the unrest manifests more as a popular, patriotic movement than the explosion of ethnic separatism decried in state media.
Whether the newfound sense of national unity will be maintained in the case of regime reform or continued intransigence is uncertain. It is possible that protest momentum in ethnic minority areas will outlive and alienate the Farsi-speaking majority, with the regime sticking to the fearmongering narrative that foreign powers seek to turn Iran into a Syria-esque civil battleground. Indeed, in the context of the 2011 Arab Spring protest movements, nationwide unity against dictatorial regimes quickly descended into inter-communal rivalry and conflict. It is possible that the same process would occur in Iran, in the unlikely event that the protest movement leads to significant militant resistance or regime change. In the more likely event of limited regime reform, it is unclear to what extent the Iranian people would remain in solidarity with ethnic minorities without the momentum of a dynamic common cause – for example, if Tehran tones down conservative religious laws and further restricts the morality police. However, for the moment at least there is a sense that Iranians have never been more united, regardless of ethnic identity and in spite of the regime’s best efforts.
This piece was published as part of “Zan, Zindagi, Azadi”: A series of weekly articles and interviews that unpack different symbols and concepts at the heart of the most recent developments in Iran