For over four decades, women of all ethnicities across Iran have engaged in a struggle to regain their fundamental rights, usurped by the clerics of the so-called Islamic Republic since 1979. A watershed moment in this struggle occurred on 16 September 2022, when Mahsa Amini, a 22-year- was killed by the regime’s ‘morality police’ following her arrest for ‘improper veiling’. Amini’s murder was the catalyst for a new episode in the fight for freedom and justice in Iran.
Mahsa Amini’s shocking, though sadly not unprecedented, death was a spark that kindled angry protests throughout the country, the largest seen since the Islamic revolution of 1979. The demonstrations marked an opportunity for long-suffering women across Iran to speak up and express their demands. These demonstrations have been widespread, with participants voicing the concerns of all women in Iran which transcend any specific ethnic or provincial interests and defy any centralised feminist doctrine. Despite this, however, Persian feminists and opposition groups have sabotaged the protests’ inclusivity and ethnic diversity for their own ends.
Ironically, the great majority of the ethnically Persian feminists now righteously lambasting the regime for its misogynistic repression of Iran’s female population and its denial of women’s rights share the regime’s disregard for the rights of Iran’s ethnic minorities; for Kurdish Iranians, Mahsa Amini is not simply another victim of regime brutality, but one more symbol of the long Kurdish struggle for freedom from Persian-Iranian ethno-supremacism and oppression. Rather than acknowledging this and expressing empathy with the anger of Kurdish women at this twofold injustice, however, Persian feminists have instead crafted their own narrative in which Mahsa Amini’s ethnicity is dismissed as a minor irrelevance, and she has instead been made a representative of the ‘struggle of all Iranian women’. Unfortunately, this revisionist version of historical and current events once again obscures the additional injustices and persecution faced by Kurds and other non-Persian ethnic minorities in Iran, denying the lived experience of women from these minorities and failing to acknowledge the intersectional nature of the oppression they face.
While those in the West now supporting the current uprising against the regime and eagerly repeating the rousing slogan ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ know about the regime’s misogyny, few are yet aware of the systemic racism it directs at Kurds and other minorities in Iran, which amplifies this brutality.
The invocation of Mahsa Amini’s name is a particular irony in this context; at her birth, the regime even denied Amini’s parents the right to give her the Kurdish name they had chosen for her, Jina(Zhina), forcing them to pick a Persian alternative, Mahsa, from a list of prescribed names.
Among the many cases showing the regime’s longstanding persecution of Kurds and other ethnic minorities in Iran is that of Zeynab Jalaliyan, a female Kurdish political activist detained for her human rights activism in 2010 and sentenced to death on the grounds of ‘engaging in acts of corruption on earth and waging war against God’. She was also accused of having contacts with exiled Kurdish political and armed groups, charges which she vehemently denied. Her punishment was subsequently reduced to life imprisonment. Since then, she has experienced severe health difficulties, including cataracts in both eyes and other sight-related issues, but has never been allowed to receive any sort of medical care.
Another Kurdish woman, Zara Mohammadi, was sentenced to five years in prison for educating Kurdish children in their mother tongue. These are simply two examples among many.
While Persian feminists and human rights activists also, undoubtedly, face brutal punishment for opposing the regime, their ethnicity protects them from facing the same injustice and persecution as their Kurdish and other ethnic minority peers. Indeed, the vast majority of the Persian feminists now asserting that they support the rights of all Iranian women have remained silent on and indifferent to the regime’s racism towards ethnic minorities; some argue that this silence may be connected to fear of facing Iranian regime security charges, though members of Iran’s ethnic minority populations would argue that Persian feminists have spoken out selectively. Either way, feminists from among the country’s ethnic minorities feel largely abandoned by their Persian peers in the face of the regime’s racism.
In fairness, a few Persian feminists and human rights activists do acknowledge the intersectional nature of the regime’s injustices and recognise the need to unite in order to confront and dismantle them collectively rather than treating them as discrete, unrelated issues; Sepideh Gholian, a prominent Persian Iranian feminist and activist, has been imprisoned on a number of occasions for her outspoken support for Ahwazi Arab women and her condemnation of the regime’s racist policies.
Gholian has been vilified by the regime for speaking out and writing about the horrific torture and relentless abuses against Ahwazi women by regime personnel which she witnessed during her imprisonment in Sepidar Prison, where she was imprisoned for providing sympathetic coverage of protests by sugarcane workers in Ahwaz over their salaries being unpaid for six months.
Gholian, a long-time civil rights activist, wrote about the Ahwazi female prisoners in Sepidar being subjected to torture to force them into making false confessions or simply to terrorise them, and about the horrendous effect of this abuse on the women’s bodies, emphasising that they were dehumanised and tortured with inhuman cruelty “due to their Ahwazi Arab and female identity”.
In her harrowing published book about her time in prison as a dissident, Gholian wrote about how the prison staff would reserve their most brutal violence and vicious abuse for her Ahwazi fellow prisoners, calling them ‘terrorists’, ‘ISIS’, and ‘Wahhabis’ amongst other terms, and even labelling the new-born baby of one woman who gave birth in prison as an “ISIS terrorist” simply because of his mother’s Arab ethnicity. Gholian also recalled how Ahwazi prisoners were routinely accused of being separatist insurgents and ‘foreign agents’ working on behalf of regional Arab countries to subvert Iran.
Unfortunately, however, while such awareness is slowly increasing among Persian activists, such cases are still in the minority rather than the majority, leading many feminists from ethnic minority backgrounds to feel doubly marginalised, not just by the country’s Establishment and political system, but by women who should be their comrades in arms.
This selective attitude to solidarity and justice on the part of most Persian feminists, even while viewing themselves as champions of women’s rights fighting for freedom from a brutally unjust system, is jarring; as feminists opposing Iran’s regime, how can they fail to be outraged by the twofold oppression it inflicts on Ahwazi Arab, Kurdish, Balochi and Azerbaijani Turk women for their ethnicity as well as their gender? Perhaps, however, most Persian women are simply blind to the systemic racism which was as much an embedded feature of the Shah’s regime as of the current one which it ousted; as the dominant elite, they’ve unconsciously absorbed the same ethno-supremacist worldview, according to which Iranian identity is homogenous are any ethnic minorities speaking out to condemn the systemic injustice they face are flatly dismissed or categorised as ‘extremists’ and ‘separatists’.
This is strikingly similar to the way in which many white feminists in the USA appear incapable of acknowledging their own white privilege, turning a blind eye to the US Establishment’s ‘othering’ of non-white ethnic groups and people of colour, which leaves non-white women facing intersectional injustices of institutional and societal racism, as well as sexism; like their Persian counterparts, these white American feminists are reluctant to acknowledge that, despite facing sexism, their ethnicity accords them privileges denied to their minority peers. This wilful blindness leads to a consistent failure on behalf of many Iranian and white American feminists to acknowledge that, in addition to facing sexism, women from minority groups are far more likely to be subject to marginalisation, poverty, and discrimination and to endure the worst forms of violence and deprivation, lacking basic needs such as schools, healthcare and other forms of protection. We should emphasise, however, that this similarity is a matter of degree – no American feminists currently risk torture and execution for demanding human rights like their peers in Iran.
To understand how such an ethno-supremacist worldview became so ubiquitous in Iran, to a degree where it’s not even recognised or acknowledged, one should remember that Iran’s imperial past is a glorified part of Persian identity, and that modern-day Iran was formed by annexing and colonising parts or all of many non-Persian nations around Persia’s peripheries. To succeed in this colonisation process, it’s essential that the colonised peoples be subjugated and assimilated; since the 1920s, successive Iranian regimes have attempted to achieve this not only through repression but through crafting a narrative in which the histories, cultures and identities of these colonised peoples – Kurds, Ahwazi Arabs, Balochis, Azerbaijani Turks, etc. – are simply erased and denied, with only one, monocultural Persian identity being ‘legitimate’; even their languages and traditional garb are proscribed, with brutal punishment and severe penalties for those who reject this false, enforced Persian identity.
This homogenous, monocultural Persian image is heavily promoted by the regime as representing all Iran’s peoples; members of these minorities who celebrate their own culture are depicted at best as backward, primitive and parochial, and compared unfavourably with the supposedly innately urbane and sophisticated Persians whose culture and history are relentlessly acclaimed. Insulting and dehumanising stereotypes for minorities are common; for example, regime media routinely depict Ahwazi Arabs and Arabs generally as physically grotesque, mentally defective simpletons or terrorists, whose diet consists of camel milk and lizards, with insults like ‘lizard-eater’ being a commonly used insult aimed at Arabs. ‘No Arabs’ signs are common in medical clinics, property letting agencies and other facilities, and Arabs are denied all but the most menial jobs, with managerial and other senior posts reserved almost exclusively for Persians.
The acquiescence, inaction and silence of Persian civil society institutions, human rights groups and ordinary citizens toward the long decades of human rights abuses against Ahwazis, Kurds, Balochis and other ethnic minorities have lent legitimacy to this brutal systemic racism. The public silence from Persian society and its human rights and civil institutions and political opposition provides an unspoken but starkly clear endorsement of the ethnic cleansing of and racist policies towards Ahwazis, Balochis and Kurds.
Through promoting Persian nationalism, othering subordinate ethnic minorities and producing constant media propaganda portraying the demands and actions of Ahwazis, Balochis and Kurds as extremist and even as an existential threat not only to the Iranian state but also to the interests of the dominant Persian grouping, the Iranian regime has won the cooperation of the Persian population, even from those opposed to the regime itself.
The Holocaust is the most shocking example from modern history of the culpability not only to of those directly engaged in tyranny but of the facilitating role played by ordinary citizens from all walks of life who failed to act to stop the unfolding horror against the defenceless Jewish community and other groups targeted by the Nazi death machine. Bar-on points out, “Behind each Nazi perpetrator, there must have been at least 10 bystanders who enabled the perpetrators to commit their evildoing.”
Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony holds that power is maintained by dominant groups in society less through the use of overt force than by securing collective consent. In a similar way, we can understand the denial, indifference and apathy of Persian groups towards the plight and persecution of ethnic minorities in Iran; under an authoritarian system, even those who oppose the regime’s rule are more likely to be bystanders than to actively defend minorities persecuted by the regime whose ethnicity they share.
Speaking with DIRS, Mehdi Jalali Tehrani, an Iranian political activist based in the USA, said that exposure to the Iranian regime’s incessant ultranationalist, Persian supremacist discourse has even affected the mindset of politically liberal, ethnically Persian Iranian dissidents, including feminist activists, leading them to unconsciously adopt the regime’s profoundly chauvinistic worldview which refuses to even recognise the state’s racism and oppression of Ahwazis and other ethnic minorities; Tehrani said that this, in turn, means that while these Persian dissidents and activists may accept Ahwazi Arab or Balochi female activists as fellow Iranian citizens speaking against the regime’s and its predecessor’s misogyny or oppression of dissent, they cannot (or will not) see or acknowledge the same activists speaking about their experience of ethnic oppression at the regime’s hands since they refuse to recognise its existence.
Since successive regimes have promoted this Persian supremacist worldview, refusing to recognise or address the 1925 annexation of Ahwaz, creating an alternative, ‘revised’ history in which Ahwazis were simply always Iranians, this means that most Persian Iranians follow suit, dismissing Ahwazis’ heritage and history as “separatist fantasy”. This means, Tehrani said, that Iranian female dissidents experience a different reality of Iran to that of their Ahwazi Arab peers; for most Persian Iranians, the decades before the current regime meant greater freedom, while for Ahwazis, it meant a more secular version of the same injustice, racism and oppression.
In Tehrani’s words, “The Ahwazi Arab female activists have no mutual reference points with a Tehran-born feminist now writing from European capitals. For them [Persian-Iranians], ‘The Shah’s age was good. We had everything. Curse those who rebelled against the king.’” This means, despite their shared antipathy to the current Iranian regime and support of women’s rights, that the worldview of these two women – a dissident Iranian feminist in the West and an Ahwazi feminist and activist in Ahwaz – are diametrically opposed, Tehrani said, with the Iranian feminist who sees Shah-era Iran as an ideal for women actually denying the rights and equal humanity of Ahwazi women for whom it merely meant a different flavour of oppression. For Ahwazis, there has simply been a change in the oppressor.
Tehrani added that far greater awareness is needed in Iran and internationally of the incredibly dark and painful experience of Ahwazi women and Ahwazis and other ethnic minorities generally, who have endured almost a century of oppression and injustice at the hands of successive Iranian rulers, made doubly bitter due to its not even being acknowledged by the wider world. For example, he said, if an Ahwazi female activist’s mother or grandmother grew up illiterate and impoverished, she could have blamed these injustices on the repressive authoritarian rule of the Shah. Activists are now more likely to be literate and educated. However, they still suffer from the same repression, they are simply better informed about the historical and contemporary underlying reasons, and must constantly fight to overcome the double injustices of racism and of political oppression, as well as the regime’s misogyny. Other than the regime’s misogyny, Persian-Iranian women don’t face or even acknowledge the existence of the same obstacles, Tehrani said, adding, “It’s clear why these two women are the opposite of each other; one side is unable to acknowledge the existence of the other.”
In the end, Persian feminists and other activists must ask themselves how much their support for equality actually means if it doesn’t extend to demanding racial as well as sexual equality; all Iran’s peoples face a daunting battle to overthrow this monstrous regime, with minorities fighting for freedom not only from misogyny, but from systemic racism and injustice on the basis of ethnicity. ‘Woman Life Freedom’ is a fine slogan, but without acknowledging and working to eradicate the deep-rooted phenomenon of Persian supremacism that underpins the regime’s regressive brutality, it’s just more empty words.
By Rahim Hamid
Rahim Hamid, an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate based in Washington, D.C. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42.