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Revolutionary Voices: Non-Persian peoples in Iran Demand Freedom and Equality

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“It is safe to say that the Iranian revolution has begun and will eventually result in regime change”.

The Iranian regime mobilised its full military against the Balochistan region in southern Iran on Saturday in its latest brutal effort to crush an uprising across the country, which has seen the highest death toll to date among protesters in the poverty-stricken and marginalised Balochi people. This came the day after dozens of Balochi protesters, eight of them women, were reportedly killed by regime forces as anti-regime protests continue to surge there and across the country, with the regime’s efforts to crush the demonstrations only fuelling the anger and further protests nationwide.

The demonstrations, which many believe are a precursor to full revolution, were ignited by the murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish-Iranian woman who died on 16 September of injuries inflicted by the regime’s ‘morality police’ after they arrested her for ‘improper veiling’ in the capital, Tehran. In Balochistan, the protests were further driven by an Iranian regime officer’s rape of a 15-year-old Balochi girl; as with Mahsa Amini, there has been no justice for the victim, despite the horrific crime and the identity of the perpetrator, Colonel Ebrahim Khouchakzai, the commander of the police in the city of Chabahar, being widely known.

Despite the regime’s brutal efforts to crush these protests as it usually does any uprising, the people are not backing down, with more and more taking to the streets. 

While the protests have brought some belated international focus to the regime’s medieval ISIS-style misogynistic dress codes and other proscriptions on women, far less attention has been paid to Mahsa Amini’s Kurdish status and the intersection between the regime’s Persian supremacism and persecution of ethnic minorities; these features which have shaped the regime’s and its monarchist predecessor’s worldview are ignored or simply denied, even by most Persian dissidents, despite being key features of the Iranian rulers’ identity, inflicting a multi-layered oppression on the ethnic minorities who collectively make up around 70% of Iran’s population.   

The stark difference in Tehran’s treatment of different ethnic groups can be seen in the regime forces’ brutal reaction to the protests, including these latest ones. While the regime is savage in its retaliation against any demonstrations, even the levels of savagery unleashed depend on the ethnicity of the target; thus, protesters in Tehran and other Persian-majority cities are attacked by police wielding batons or truncheons, while in Balochistan, Iranian Kurdistan, Arab Ahwaz, and other ethnic minority regions around its perimeter, the regime deploys its full military forces against protesters, using snipers, heavy artillery, armoured vehicles, tanks and helicopter gunships.   

These protests are also framed differently by the international media; Persian-Iranian demonstrations are described in positive progressive, internationalist terms, citing feminist solidarity, a hunger for freedom, and an escape from brutal regressive theocracy. For minorities, by contrast, protests against the same regime, for the same freedom, are generally depicted in negative terms, of troublemaking, extremism and separatism.  

Speaking about the regime’s murderous crackdown against Balochis, Faiz Baluch, now based in London, said. “I think it shows the state’s [Iran] discrimination and securitised view of Balochis and other non-Persian nations. There have been protests in Persian cities but the state has not used brutal violent force against them to the same extent. Also, I have heard that in other places the police disperse protests using gentle methods and even negotiating with the protesters, but in Balochistan the police and IRGC are directly involved and they have shoot-to-kill orders from their higher-ups.” 

For the regime, as for its predecessors, this racism also serves the useful purpose of creating and reinforcing resentment and distrust between Persian-Iranians and members of other ethnic groups, undermining cohesion and unity between the regime’s opponents, and making the minority groups mistrustful and wary of Persian-Iranian dissidents. The shameful failure of much of the Persian-Iranian opposition, in the country or in exile, to even acknowledge this racism, even replicating its language and worldview in many cases, means that many Kurds, Ahwazis, Balochis and other ethnic minority citizens are unsurprisingly reluctant to support a Persian-Iranian opposition who they see as wishing to replace the current oppressive tyranny with another simply to benefit themselves. Having experienced the crushing betrayal of their aspirations following earlier generations’ sacrifices to help overthrow the previous dictator Shah regime in 1979, hoping this would finally result in the end to racist oppression, minorities remain wary of the current opposition parties. 

Iran’s ethnic minorities – the Kurds, Ahwazi Arabs, Balochis, Azerbaijani Turks and Turkmen – have faced such gross injustice and discrimination for generations; this Persian ethno-supremacism has been encouraged by successive authoritarian regimes in Iran since its previous colonial era in the 1920s,  with the leaders relying on the glorification of the historic Persian empire and Persians’ ‘superior’ culture, and with minorities in the annexed outer regions expected to simply accept and even welcome assimilation, casting aside their own history, culture and language in exchange for this ‘honour’.

Underlining the regime’s efforts at quashing minority rights, many of those protesting at Mahsa Amini’s death are also using the name ‘Zhina Amini’, the name her parents chose for her at birth, which they were forbidden by regime authorities from using due to its being Kurdish and thus not on the officially ‘approved’ list of Persian-language (Farsi) names. 

In the words of Abdulrahman Hetteh, an Ahwazi Arab activist now living in exile in London, “What is happening, including the protest in Iran, is a way of exercising the right to self-determination by different groups in Iran, including women. The killing of Zhina (Mahsa) Amini in the custody of the morality police triggered the protest. The tragedy is only the tip of the iceberg of discrimination against women practised by the theocratic state in Iran. The Islamic Republic denies the basic rights of women. It aims to control half of the population, namely women, and tries to remove them from public spaces and neutralise them so they won’t pose a threat to the current political establishment. Women are demonstrating their demand to determine their future and decide for themselves what they want to be and what role they want to play in the political system and societies post-Islamic Republic.”

Protests by ethnic minorities in Iran at this colonialist mindset and demands for freedom, democratic governance, and recognition and protection of their own rich civilisations, cultures, languages and history, are viewed and treated by the regime as treachery, sedition and troublemaking separatism, with minorities far more likely to be imprisoned, tortured or summarily executed for minor infractions or any expression of cultural pride. As is the case with all authoritarian and colonial powers, the Pahlavi monarchy and now the so-called Islamic Republic have relied on maintaining division and establishing an elite which helps to crush dissent; in Iran’s case, this is achieved partly through promoting this ultra-nationalist Persian worldview in which Persian ethnicity confers the right to colonial dominion and to rule over the ‘lesser’ minority populations. While this has been overlaid with an additional stifling theocratic fundamentalism since 1979, the same bigotry and ethnic oppression remained embedded in the system. 

Without the inclusion of the ethnic minority populations, however, any uprising against the regime which is as much an exceptionally brutal military dictatorship as a theocracy, is doomed to failure.

In the words of Kurdish-Iranian journalist and activist Soran Khedri, now living in exile in the UK, “The ethnic nations colonised by the Persians are the dynamic force behind the radical transformation of the Iranian legal, political, social and economic changes. The increasing national consciousness and sense of awakening are sufficient to make a revolution or to prevent any form of changes contrary to the rights of these nations.”

 Khedri, also notes the differences between the current uprising and the 1979 revolution, saying, “During the 1979 revolution national identity didn’t have the same impact; the central feature of the revolution was, first, religion and secondly the discourse of class struggle. Today we can see the change in this discourse and the redefinition of national identity outside the traditional Iranian citizenship and nation.” 

He warns, however, that the inclusion of consideration of the factor of ethnicity in the current uprising “does not mean we are not going to face domestic and international barriers. I believe the key threat to the pacification of these nations is the liberal problem of imposing solutions in a post-colonial state which do not represent our actual identity but rather a form of liberal utopian values which are going to be imposed on us by force if we are not careful enough.” 

Haifa Assadi, an Ahwazi Arab activist in Washington DC, said that there’s also a need for deep-rooted change within the ethnic minority communities, particularly the Ahwazi and Balochi communities, to bring women to the fore: “I believe women are leading this change,” she asserted. “The absence of Arab Ahwazi women and Balochi women from the protests is a clear sign that they – I mean Ahwazi and Balochi women – almost have no identity of their own, that it’s suppressed by patriarchy, tribalism and traditional rituals, with this oppression coupled with the Iranian regime’s misogynistic anti-women rules: Ahwazi and Balochis and other ethnic minority women in Iran are hammered by Iranian regime oppression and their own communities.”

Younger generations of Persian-Iranian activists are increasingly rejecting the regressive, racist, ethno-supremacism of earlier generations. In the words of one such activist, Mehdi Jalali Tehrani, from Tehran, now based in Washington DC, “It is safe to say that the Iranian revolution has begun and will eventually result in regime change. As a result, modernist values will triumph over traditional values, pushing them from the underground to the surface.”

“Values like life, woman and freedom are emerging, against the prevalent values in the patriarchal society—whether these are related to ownership or legal authority. All the diverse Iranian communities have proved that they all want a decentralised authority incapable of considering itself a guardian over the people. Life and freedom with women is the best alternative to the prevalent rhetoric which idolises death, jihad and the promise of the hereafter.”

Tehrani also noted the crucial intersectional nature of the current uprising: “The revolution’s start was sparked by the death of a Kurdish girl, which points to a multi-layered phenomenon – ethnicity, identity, beliefs and origin – in Iran. Mahsa Amini was both a woman and a Kurd, one of the ethnicities facing repression and discrimination in Iran.”

Condemning Persian-Iranian opposition figures who refuse to acknowledge the centrality of racism in the regime’s system, Tehrani said, “Opposition figures of the traditional Persian ethnicity, including Reza Pahlavi, treated the death of Mahsa Amini as an event similar to past events, addressing it with their standard, customary rhetoric. But the Kurdish parties and civil society responded to the killing of Mahsa Amini through protests and strikes, which prompted Persians to take to the streets.” 

He continued, “The Kurdish protests are a new, growing phenomenon in the Iranian society. The protest movement in the past year they’ve also grown from the Ahwaz region, with those protests met with historic support from the Turkish ethnicity in South Azerbaijan provinces. 

“The awareness of ethnic identity is growing among non-Persian peoples on an unprecedented scale. Most of the protests in Iran in the past few years started in neighbors populated by non-Persian citizens. Hence, it could be said that the modern revolution broke out in Iran from peripheral non-Persian regions, not from the center as was the case in the past.”

Tehrani was optimistic about his hopes for the revolution and for a post-theocratic Iran, saying, “Finally, due to the increased trust between the non-Persian peoples and women in Iran, we will see a change in the social values and role of women. We will also see a change in the centralised political structure, which makes the establishment of a federalist state in Iran necessary. The uprising is led by non-Persian peoples. It is the uprising of the periphery against decades of injustice, marginalisation, and racism of the central government against the peoples of Ahwaz, Kurds, Azerbaijanis, Balochis and Turkmen.” 

Yousef Alsarkhi, an Ahwazi political activist in the Netherlands, called for greater awareness of the need for a genuinely representative revolutionary movement prioritising inclusivity and unity of Iran’s long-oppressed minority ethnic and religious communities: “A radical movement for change opposing the theocratic government in Iran requires a radical anti-governmental movement,” he stressed. “Whether it’s the central cities involved in this process or ethnic groups communities, it means that the participation should be beyond a central-oriented discourse and include all ethnic and religious communities plus civil society and its pressure groups. However, this movement must identify and propose solutions to the national identity issue regarding non-Persian micro-movements in order to achieve the maximum unity among all peoples in Iran. To sum up, non-Persian communities are in a bidding conflict with the central government, and it’s the national-religious discourse of power.”

Another Ahwazi activist, Kamil Alboshoka, now living in London, also stressed the importance of the regional and global community’s role in instituting fairer policies towards Iran, saying, “The international community should provide fair and equal platforms to ethnic minority activists and listen to their demands for a federalised systems instead of allowing only the Persian opposition to present its traditional narrative, which minorities see as being no different to the regime’s current structure.”

Alboshoka underlined the need for greater media coverage of the regime’s persecution of minorities in Iran, not only to expose these crimes, but to give a truly accurate picture of events in the country that’s been missing to date in international media: “Media and human rights organisations and activists need to reach out to minorities in order to gain a full understanding of events and to gather full and clear information on human rights abuses. It’s long past time for these victims to finally get justice in coverage since the Persian opposition only promotes the demands from the country’s [Persian-Iranian] centre and focuses only on any victims in Tehran.”

Co-authored by Rahim Hamid and Ruth Riegler

 Rahim Hamid, is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42.

Ruth Riegler, is a Scottish writer, editor and supporter of universal freedom, democracy and human rights who previously lived in the Middle East.   Riegler tweets under @Syrians4J 

 

 

 

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