What role is Eastern Kurdistan (Rojhelat) playing in Iran’s ongoing protest movement? And why are these uprisings transformative for Iran? The formation, demands and direction of these protests show how new and changing relationships between Kurds and Iranian society as a whole are shaping a protest movement with the ability to challenge the Islamic Republic like never before.
State and Society in Iran
Taking the establishment of the Iranian nation-state in 1925 as the starting point, one can argue that the social contract between state and society in Iran was born paralyzed and dysfunctional. Iranian society is similar to the societies of other Middle Eastern states that never experienced real freedom and democracy. Modernity was enforced on these societies under authoritarian rule. A top-down form of nationalism was been imposed on their multi-ethnic and multi-religious communities.
In response to these conditions, the struggle for democracy, inclusion and change has been a continuous undertaking in Iran, carried on by different peoples and communities.
Iran is a country of many failed revolutions and uprisings, including the Constitutional Revolution, the 1979 Revolution, and the Green Movement. They can all be described as ‘failed’ because none of them satisfied the popular desire for democratic change—often as a result of state repression and the marginalization of progressive forces. However, they have given the peoples of Iran valuable experience in resistance.
What we observe today is the continuation of a century-long desire and struggle for change and improvement in Iran. A review of the ongoing uprising suggests that it is too early to call the protests truly nation-wide, but they are certainly widespread. People from major cities and provinces, including Tehran, Shiraz, Rasht, Kermashan, Saqqez, Ahwaz, Zahedan, Zabol, Sanandaj, and many others, have been participating for nearly three weeks.
The Revolutionary Catalyst
According to Dennis W. K. Khong and P. C. Lim, every uprising and revolution has a catalyst. For instance, the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010 became the catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and the wider Arab Spring. The brutal murder of Jina (Mahsa) Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, by Iranian security forces on September 16, 2022 and the Kurdish protests that followed have similarly become the catalyst for Iran’s current uprising.
Jina was murdered “while she was visiting Tehran with her family when she was stopped by ‘morality police’ for wearing ‘improper’ hijab—a criminal offence in Iran. She was detained, taken to a state-run Islamic ‘re-education’ center, and ultimately hospitalized because of head injuries sustained from beatings in police custody. She went into a coma and was pronounced dead hours later.”
Despite threats from Iranian security forces against Jina’s family and the local Kurdish community, thousands gathered for her funeral in the Kurdish city of Saqqez the next day. Jina’s tombstone read: “Dearest Jina, you never die! Your name becomes a symbol!”. Her name quickly did just that.
A synthesis of grief, anger and deep desire for change transformed her funeral into a manifestation of resistance. Mourners sung revolutionary Kurdish songs and chanted anti-regime slogans, like ‘death to the dictator.’ The women of Saqqez removed their headscarves in protest of Jina’s murder and in resistance to the Islamic regime’s conservative gender policy. Protesters in Saqqez tore down images of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader.
Anti-government protests then spread to the neighboring town of Diwandare. People in Sine (or Sanandaj), the capital of the Kurdistan Province, and in other Kurdish provinces like Kermashan, Lorestan and Ilam joined the protests the day after. Two Kurdistan-wide general strikes, one on September 19th and one on October 1st, saw the support of all five Kurdish provinces in Iran.
The protests quickly spread to more than 30 provinces. They have been met with a brutal response from Iran’s security forces, with reports of the death of at least 75 people and several thousand more detained and injured. Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi threatened to deal with protestors ‘decisively’ if they did not cease their demonstrations.
The Transformative Uprisings
It is not yet clear how the protest movement will evolve or how successful the regime will be in suppressing it. However, whatever happens next, the uprisings have already reached a milestone, redefining the state-society relationship in Iran and “shaking the Islamic Republic to its core.” Changes in the relationships between the country’s Persian center and its non-Persian periphery exemplify this transformation.
Nationalism and Diversity in Iran
Iran is a diverse country, composed of Persians, Azeris, Kurds, Baluchis, Arabs, Turkmen and many others. The people of the country can be categorized as those of the centre and those of the periphery—not only in terms of geographical location, but also politically and in terms of access to decision-making, wealth and privilege.
As scholars like Mostafa Vaziri and Reza Zia-Ebrahimi show, Iranian nationalism is divisive and exclusionary. Thus, in terms of identity, Iran can be classified as a fundamentally fragmented society. The domestic feeling of ‘us’ and ‘the other’ is quite strong. The state, however, has attempted to conceal this through the use of violence and coercive force. Barzoo Eliassi argues that Iranian nationalism is, in essence, a decoration of Persian supremacy. Unlike Turkish nationalism, which proudly asserts its Turkish origin and supremacy, Iranian nationalism is elusive. It conceals the Persian particularity that has gained dominance through ideological and political violence.
As a result, inter-communal solidarity has been a missing feature of Iranian society. It is difficult to find satisfactory examples of the privileged and dominant (Persian) segment of Iranian society offering solidarity to the struggle of the subaltern and excluded nations and communities located in Iran’s periphery.
This arrangement, while inherently unstable, has worked out well for the state far: Iran’s communities and national groups have usually carried out their struggles for freedom in isolation from each other. This is clear evidence of the absence of a unified and voluntary shared spirit of nationhood among Iran’s diverse national communities.
New Pattens of Solidarity?
In this context, the current protest movement represents the turning of a new page: both in the participation of people from both the center and the periphery and in the relationship between these regions.
Central regions of Iran, including Tehran, have been relatively immune from massive protests challenging the authority of Islamic regime since the Green Movement was crushed in 2009— especially when compared to peripheral regions of the country like Kurdistan, Khuzestan, Sistan and Baluchistan.
This is the first time in the history of the Islamic regime that communities in the center are expressing solidarity with and following the lead of the periphery. As described above, protests began in Kurdish regions and spread to other parts of the country. Demonstrators across Iran share a common spirit and use the same slogans. For example, “jin, jiyan, azadi,” [woman, life, freedom,] a slogan of the Kurdish movement that represents a unique approach to gender equality, has become a common slogan, tying these protests across Iran together.
From a Kurdish point of view, what we see in other parts of Iran is the recognition of the Kurdish dynamic of democratic change. Theoretically, a metropolis like Tehran might be expected to be the hub of revolution, and the provinces and peripheries might be expected to follow its lead. This time, however, Tehran followed the lead of Kurdistan. The 21st century is rich with examples of acts of civic activism across Kurdistan, where general strikes and street protests are common methods of opposition to Tehran’s discriminatory policies toward Kurds. Nevertheless, Kurdish suffering, like the suffering of the people in Khuzestan and Sistan and Baluchistan, has been ignored by the majority of Iranian society, and no solidarity has been attributed—until now.
To understand why this is transformative, it is important to understand why it has not happened before. The Iranian state has denied the existence of the Kurdish people and made them an invisible ‘other.’ Their struggle for basic rights and democracy has not only been excluded but has also been labelled as treachery. This exclusion, denial and criminalization means that non-Kurds are unfamiliar with Kurdish efforts to resist authoritarianism and oppression in Iran. Kurdistan was the only region in Iran that boycotted the referendum for the Islamic Republic in March 1979, right after the Iranian Revolution. In the post-revolutionary era, when the Islamic regime succeeded in suppressing opposition voices, the Kurdish people’s resistance and accommodation of opposition groups from different parts of Iran made the region a ‘stronghold of the revolution’ for progressive forces.
Recent events and incidents in Tehran, Mazandaran, Sistan, Baluchistan and other regions of Iran show that these protests, which began in solidarity with the protests in Kurdistan, are now a widespread movement for regime change. Another action led by an oppressed segment of society highlights this: women’s removal of their mandatory headscarves, a central symbolic challenge to the Islamic regime’s authority. Demonstrators are not fighting against dress codes and ‘morality police’ alone, but are targeting these oppressive symbols as part of a struggle against systemic human rights abuses, decades of state-sponsored terror and intersectional oppression, and the exclusion of non-Persian and non-Shia communities. This uprising is a revolt against state racism, misogyny, and exclusion.
Obstacles to Change
Despite its unprecedented impact, the protest movement faces serious challenges. Demonstrations are still scattered, and the regime still has the capacity to crack down when the situation escalates in one city oro region. Decisive sectors, like bazzaris (merchants and shopkeepers), workers in Iran’s major industries, and state employees have not yet joined in large numbers.
As a result, national minorities, women, and university students are the main sections of Iranian society that have carried the burden of crackdowns and repression to ensure that demonstrations continue. In Shno (Oshnavieh), Kurdish protesters were able to control the entire city for one night. Local official and security forces have evacuated their families out of Kurdish cities or re-located them to military garrisons and bases. However, many Kurds fear that unity and solidarity may disappear if and when Kurds claim equal citizenship rights and the right to express their unique national identity.
The fear of unpredictable and severe state violence is also immense in Kurdistan and other regions populated by oppressed nations. On September 28, Iran’s notorious Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) conducted multiple attacks on the bases, schools and civilian compounds of Kurdish opposition parties Komala, Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and PAK (Freedom Party of Kurdistan) in Iraqi Kurdistan. These resulted in material damage and several deaths and injuries, including of women and children. Kurdish society sees these attacks as a sign of the regime’s fear and desperation. In Sistan and Baluchistan, where security forces have for decades repressed the Baluch people, local communities have attempted to defend themselves. Pro-regime Tasnim News Agency reported the death of Ali Mousavi, the IRGC’s Intelligence commander in Sistan and Baluchistan. The resulting state crackdown lead to the deaths of dozens of civilians and the injury of many more.
Lessons from the Protest Movement
Three weeks of sustained demonstrations show that, even in a society as divided as that of Iran, unified anti-regime uprisings are possible despite a weak or absent sense of belonging to an official national identity. In this regard, gender struggle is an important unifying dynamic. Because of the marginalization that Kurds face and their history of struggle, the recognition of Kurdish concerns by progressive forces is an important precondition for fundamental change in Iran to succeed. The fact that this movement has followed the lead of Kurdish demonstrators is an important sign that new forms of solidarity are developing along these lines. Moving forward, attempts to keep the struggle against Iran’s Islamic regime unified should respect the differences in demands raised by people from different backgrounds of Iran, not enforce homogenization.