While the ongoing coronavirus crisis in Iran and the regime’s typically woeful response are decimating all sectors of society, it is the ethnic minorities of the country who are hardest hit. The most socially vulnerable and economically poor are Ahwazis, who live in the South and South West of the country and are demonised twice over.
The Iranian regime’s handling of the crisis reflects its uncaring attitude towards the population within its own borders. Iran has flouted humanitarian aid to its spheres of influence in the region, while leaving most of the country without access to basic medical care. But its claim to be the helper to the downtrodden lies hollow.
The Iranian regime likes to position itself as an ardent supporter of the Palestinian people while treating Ahwazi residents worse than second-class citizens. In reality, it is simply using the Palestinian cause for propaganda, playing on the ignorance of most of the region about its stark hypocrisy and abuse of the Ahwazis.
The marginalisation of Ahwazis in Iran has a historical trajectory, predating the current crisis. While Ahwaz contains over 90 per cent of the oil and gas resources claimed by Iran’s regime, the vast majority of Ahwazis live in grinding poverty, are denied the most basic rights and are subjected to relentless persecution. Even their native Arabic language is off-limits, with the regime forbidding any education in the people’s mother tongue.
Activists are routinely imprisoned for years or decades or simply executed for the ‘crime’ of teaching or talking about their own language or history.
With this backdrop, the position of street vendors who scrabble to make a living is particularly precarious and wretched, with the female members of this group being the most vulnerable. Another very vulnerable group are the ragpickers of Ahwaz, or those who look through the trash to find a way to make some money. There is also a heavily gendered aspect to this sort of work.
Considering the position of street vendors first, we see that their situation arises primarily due to destitution and the lack of a safety net. Street vendors can be seen at every roadside in the Ahwaz region, making a precarious living by selling dates, bread, handicrafts, fish, fruit or vegetables and often simply whatever goods they can find. Often, they are unable to afford the licenses that the regime demands for such public trade.
The Ahwazi vendors are a natural target for greedy and corrupt regime officials who routinely seize their merchandise, especially if it has any value. The regime apparatchiks also will often help themselves to any money the vendors managed to make, which makes the chances of their survival doubtful and often means less or no money for the day to feed their families.
The regime municipal officials’ attacks are often violent, with age being no protection. In December 2016, for one example, ten municipal officials in Ahwaz city used electric stun guns to attack a 70-year-old female street vendor in the city’s Taleghani Street, knocking her unconscious and almost killing her.
According to her son, the officials used the lethal weapons in response to the elderly lady’s desperate efforts to stop them from impounding her merchandise, her only means of making a living.
In an interview with the Khuzestan News site, the victim’s son, who gave his name only as Samir, said that following her release from hospital, he had to rush her back to the casualty unit on a daily basis because the attack had severely affected her health. He added that the police have refused to take any action against the officials responsible for the brutal assault. As always, there was no possibility of any redress or compensation for the victim.
Female vendors are often widows or women and girls forced to leave education early with no skills or any other way to make a living; this is a large-scale problem in Ahwaz, whose indigenous people are routinely verbally and physically abused at the region’s state schools which are scarce and grossly underfunded to start with, with many pupils dropping out due to familial poverty and lack of any educational support from the regime without mastering reading and writing, further perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Ahwazis are effectively encouraged by the regime to accept and internalise the regime’s own racist and demeaning view of their status as Arabs, as being intrinsically inferior to that of Persian Iranians. In the words of the governor of the Ahwaz region, Gholamreza Shariati, “Cultural poverty and distance between schools in rural areas are among the reasons why girls leave school”.
Since the official announcement of the coronavirus outbreak, small businesses and vulnerable groups have endured a lot of pressure which has been doubled for Ahwazi women who make a living through home-jobs. Zahar, 53, one of these women in Ahwaz, tells DIRS: “my only source of income is producing and selling spices and pickled cucumber, but the past month after the coronavirus outbreak, I could not sell any of my products. I had many problems.” She further elaborates: “I buy the raw materials in debt, but now I cannot pay my home rent, and I am in debt. On the other hand, I have no refrigerator to keep my product, and I am worried that they spoil”. Zahra has two student daughters, 18 and 16 years old, and she suffers from foot disability. She continues: “I have been living with welfare help for a month now, and I am supposed to be paid 200000 tomans a month, but this money is not enough to support our living. It is beneath our dignity. I do not have a family and anyone to help me, and I have made my family living by working during years. I expect the government to help us to pass through this crisis and make up our losses.”
American human rights lawyer Irina Tsukerman comments: “Street peddling once characterised a significant portion of the newly immigrant population from Eastern Europe and even older communities from the Arab countries, such as Syria, in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. It was a way of survival for both low-skill and professional workers who struggled with language issues and predictable social and economic barriers at that point in time in the urban areas of the United States. However, it was a stepping stone to better opportunities in the future. While the children of these streets’ peddlers may not have been able to complete education, they did have opportunities to start their own businesses and prosper as entrepreneurs. Moreover, most peddlers were men, while women pursued other professions or got married once they grew up. In Ahwaz, however, this situation appears to be permanent rather than temporary.”
“There is no opportunity for an individual business to prosper; the corrupt Iranian regime bars any undertaking that is not connected to some of the regime’s leading families and certainly would never allow successful ventures in Arab or Sunni areas. The idea is to drive the population out of the oil-rich areas and to destroy their identity rather than to lead them to succeed. And any government that seeks to destroy the population will go after the women in particular since women are key to sustaining traditions at home and are centres of homemaking and stability in any traditional society.”
“The fact that these women are driven to the streets makes it harder for them to get married, to take care of their underaged siblings, or to find other opportunities. This means they can never find a way to educate and improve themselves. Instead, they will busy trying to sell things at low prices on the streets and become vulnerable to attacks, assaults, and mischief by Iranian officials. This is not considered a reputable profession by any means, and for a woman to be doing that, it means the society has hit the rock bottom. The regime, rather than providing some basic opportunities for such vulnerable women, such as stipends to continue education or providing openings for them to do other, still menial, but skill-building jobs that can lead them to a better future, instead imposes all possible measures to keep them – and through them, their entire families and society – broken, desperate, and downtrodden.”
“The fact that Western feminists are ignorant of these endemic societal and communal issues and are not reaching out to the communities to find some quiet solutions or ways of ameliorating this unacceptable situation indicates that most Western NGOs and human rights and women’s rights activists are more concerned about making headlines than about resolving complicated long-term issues.”
There are, of course, other factors that lead women and girls to become street peddlers, also including divorce, the imprisonment of their fathers or husbands, family illness or drug addiction in the women or their partners. In addition, the lack of education and skills, along with the dearth of any institutional or government support from those state organisations which are supposed to help the destitute like the State Welfare Organisation known as the Behzisti or the Komite Emdad (aid committee), are other factors that force women into this precarious and often dangerous profession, left with no alternative way to feed their families.
The conditions facing these women who spend their days breathing in exhaust fumes from passing traffic are already arduous, with summer temperatures routinely reaching 120 degrees and winter plunging below freezing, while regime officials and robbers are an ever-present threat.
Illness and poor diet are the norms rather than the exception. Now the COVID-19 coronavirus has brought one more potentially deadly virus, which not only threatens their lives through illness but means the little money they rely on to live will dry up for the foreseeable future as customers slow to a trickle, with most who have a choice not keen to expose themselves to the risk of infection through buying products from roadside street vendors if it can be avoided.
Unsurprisingly, the Khuzestan region – the Farsi name for Ahwaz – has the unenviable title of the highest number of households run by widowed or single women with no other breadwinners or ‘guardians’ in the home; these are known as ‘unattended’ or ‘ill-attended’ households.
In a recent interview with the Moj-e-Khouzestan news agency, Hossein Hossein-Zadeh, the assistant political director of Khouzestan governorate, revealed, “Twenty-three thousand unattended and ill-attended women in the province are receiving support from the Behzisti [State Welfare Organisation]” known as Behzisti administration in Farsi”.
Hossein Zadeh further revealed that the total number of women with household guardianship in Khuzestan is 117,640, whilst in Bushehr, it is 26,253, and in Hormozgan, it is 48,613.
In Tehran province, by comparison, the province is second to Ahwaz in the numbers of welfare recipients, the Behzisti provides aid to 13,000 ‘unattended’ and ‘ill-attended’ women.
Despite the region’s massive economic and industrial potential and the regime’s construction of massive oil and gas refineries and petrochemical complexes, as well as its other industrial facilities, Iran’s leaders deliberately withhold all but the most menial jobs from the Ahwazi people. Instead, Persian Iranians from other regions of Iran are encouraged to move to and work in the region by offering them financial incentives and well-paid jobs, along with homes provided with all mod cons and facilities denied to the indigenous Ahwazi population in specially constructed ethnically exclusive housing settlements.
As a result of these overtly racist anti-Ahwazi policies, the number of Ahwazis allowed to work in management positions in Ahwaz is less than 0.05 per cent. Thousands of Ahwazis whose families and ancestors worked as farmers and fishermen in the once-verdant region for generations have been forcibly driven from their land and homes to make room for the regime’s construction of oil and gas refineries and its economically and environmentally ruinous sugarcane program, which saw the regime requisition thousands of acres of farmland to grow sugarcane and process it at refineries constructed on the banks of the regional rivers, using the already scarce waters and pumping untreated chemical waste used in the refining process back into them. Many more Ahwazis have been forced to flee to ghettoes around the towns and cities in the region and elsewhere in Iran as a result of desertification caused by the construction of massive dams and rerouting of the three massive regional rivers that once irrigated farmlands and provided a living for generations of fishermen, especially in the renowned marshlands around the delta formed by the three rivers.
None of those forced to abandon their homes have received any compensation, and any complaint to the regime is likely to see the complainant imprisoned on fabricated charges.
Women digging in trash to make a living
The second most vulnerable category in Ahwaz are the women who collect waste. Ahmad (names have been changed for security reasons), a human rights activist in Ahwaz, says, “the rich on this planet consume far more goods than those consumed by the poor. They also produce more garbage. However, what is thrown by some people is necessary for others to use it to survive.”
Ahmad has interviewed poor Ahwazi women who are eking out a meagre survival amidst massive garbage dumps in the most impoverished areas of the city. In a shantytown near the capital city Ahwaz, many women, including a middle-aged woman named Maryam, search through the rotten piles of garbage for anything they could use to sustain themselves and their families, despite a high risk of being infected with the coronavirus. They sell these items to the recycling centres in order to earn a living in the capital city Ahwaz; the plight of these hundreds of women has become commonplace in recent years.
Ahmad reveals that Maryam, 39, races with the first breath of early morning to get to the garbage dump, afraid of being seen, wearing a coat and a pair of heavy men’s boots. She attempts to silence the creaking of her dilapidated cart, to which she is shackled by her painful burden. She does so in the hopes of promising garbage containers. She carries her stick, with which she drives away stray dogs, but she also has to use it for support and for defence against any human attackers. Maryam begins her day before the sun rises. She begins by searching through garbage thrown away by cafes and restaurants late in the preceding night. She is well aware of the timing in order not to be lagging behind those who may come before her in the heated morning. The plastic bags may contain some food which passed their expiration date the previous night but may still be edible, albeit no longer suitable for the market. After cafes and restaurants, she moves forward towards residential neighbourhoods to continue searching through the garbage in a dirty battle which always comes to an end before sunset.
Maryam is an Ahwazi mother of three. Her husband’s ailing health deprived him of the ability to remain the breadwinner of the family. Maryam is a low-skilled worker, who never had an opportunity to pursue sufficient education or professional qualifications that might have allowed her to engage in dignified employment. As she is turning 40, there is no chance of bettering her place in life, and she was not born to a wealthy family on whom she could depend on easing her burdens during these harsh years. Maryam could not stand the expressions of her powerless husband nor the imploring of her children’s empty stomachs. Therefore, she turned to the garbage piles and the collection of discarded plastic items.
Maryam says life is as tough as the asphalt of the streets she has been trudging through on a daily basis. She sometimes battles stray dogs attempting to take away the garbage sacks, and at other times she struggles with the ruthlessness of people who are ready to fight even elderly women for remnants of food or whatever can be peddled out. She cannot engage in a face-off with men who are similarly scouring the streets. When faced with men such as these, she leaves ‘the booty’ to them, emerging with the least possible losses. This is in addition to the dangers to her health due to searching through garbage and the exposure her skin repeatedly undergoes. On several occasions, she has gotten injured and sustained skin ulcers or other lesions from what she has touched with her hands.
Maryam says, “we are decades-long poverty-stricken people. Since we opened our eyes to life, we have seen nothing just hunger and discrimination just because we are Ahwazis. We are poor – which is why we are involved in waste collecting. ”
Many women like Maryam silently infiltrate the garbage spots every morning as the sun rises. They are too many to be counted, and all their faces are the same. Theirs is an endless cycle which words can barely express, a cycle in which only the garbage itself gets renewed, while the destitute women forced to harvest it wears out.
An amateur video circulated on social media last week shows an Ahwazi woman carrying her cart. She uses it for collecting plastic and bottles and whatever is useful to sell from the trash containers. She says: “I am 50 years old; I do not have anybody to support my family financially; my children are orphaned, in order for me to feed them, I have to collect plastic bottles.” To avoid embarrassment, and since people put out their trash in containers at night, she says, “I have to collect waste products, but I go out at night from around 12 or 1 AM till morning.”
Speaking about the tragic situation facing the female street vendors of Ahwaz, Scottish editor and writer Ruth Riegler said, “The world should be ashamed. How can we say ‘We are all in this together’ when we allow Iran’s regime to dehumanise and impoverish millions and risk worsening the spread of this terrible virus to the most vulnerable members of its own society? If the world is a global village, then we are the worst villagers ever.”
As other governments around the world rush to protect the vulnerable and minimise deaths from coronavirus, the Iranian regime’s reaction has been to neglect further the poorest who are suffering disproportionately as a result of the COVID-19 virus, with female vendors and those working in collecting waste, the poorest and most vulnerable of all, likely to suffer worse than anyone else.
By Rahim Hamid, an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42.