In recent years, many Persian opposition groups representing various political perspectives both inside and outside of Iran have made the same argument: all Iranian citizens suffer from the same amount of discrimination and oppression under the Islamic Republic.
In some cases, this is true. Every Iranian citizen suffers from the Islamic Republic’s theocratic rule, denial of basic democratic rights, and deep-rooted patriarchal social systems and culture. However, different groups in Iran experience different forms of discrimination at different levels of intensity in many areas of their lives. These systematic and deep-rooted forms of discrimination particularly impact ethnic and religious minorities.
With protests ongoing for more than one month after the murder of Jina Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, by Iranian ‘morality police,’ acknowledging the specific and compounding forms of discrimination that ethnic minorities, religious minorities, and women face will be essential if opposition movements and activists seek to build a truly democratic future.
This report will outline how relevant forms of discrimination against different groups in Iran manifest in the linguistic, educational, cultural, religious, and economic spheres, among other areas. It will then discuss how the Islamic Republic’s response to the protest movement has disproportionately impacted minorities. Finally, it will illustrate how attitudes behind these discriminatory realities have manifested in opposition movements—and why this is harmful for democratic aspirations.
Linguistic and Educational Discrimination
The first Iranian constitution, adopted in 1906 under the Qajar dynasty, declared that Persian would be the official language of the multilingual country of Iran. The modern Iranian state, established by Reza Khan Pahlavi in the 1920s, put this provision into force. New laws banned or restricted the use of other languages spoken in Iran, such as Kurdish, Azerbaijani Turkish, and Balochi.
Restricting the use of non-Persian minority languages did not only contribute to forced assimilation. It also caused several other problems—especially for children who had to attend school in a language they did not speak at home.
Non-Persian-speaking children have had serious difficulties understanding the lessons and materials taught in their schools. They must learn Persian quickly, and have sometimes faced punishment and even violence from teachers when they struggle to do so. These conditions have detrimental impacts on students’ mental health. Many minority students have left school altogether due to language difficulties, violence, and the psychological impact of both.
Today, Chapter 2, Article 15 of the Iranian constitution states: “The official and common language and script of the people of Iran is Farsi. Documents, correspondence, official texts, and textbooks must be in this language and script; But the use of local and ethnic languages in the press and mass media and the teaching of their literature in schools is free, along with the Persian language.”
However, this law does not guarantee the protection and improvement of minority languages, and it has never been truly implemented in the educational system and in society. Minorities can face prosecution for teaching or learning their mother tongue, as the arrest of Kurdish teacher Zara Mohammadi illustrates.
The Iranian state has also put fewer resources into education in areas populated by non-Persian communities. The best Iranian universities and educational institutes are mostly located in central Iran or in other Persian-populated provinces and regions, while other regions have lower-quality educational institutions. In some villages in Balochistan and Kurdistan, children have to study in tents or in open spaces. Some children have no access to education at all.
These forms of discrimination have measurable impacts on key socioeconomic indicators. For example, Iran’s average literacy rate is 84.75. The provinces of Kurdistan, West Azerbaijan, and Sistan and Balochistan, however, all have average literacy rates under 80%. These provinces all have significant non-Persian populations.
Majority-Persian provinces record higher literacy rates in comparison—likely in part because people there are born with the right to receive education in their mother tongue and have access to better schools in which they can do so. They do not have to learn a new language in order to attend school and will not face legal consequences for promoting their language. This almost certainly leads to better economic, social, and psychological outcomes in other areas of life.
Cultural and Religious Discrimination
In the 1920s, the Pahlavi monarchy and nationalist intellectuals worked to turn Iran into a homogeneous Persian nation-state. They based the country’s official cultural, linguistic, and historical identity on Persian identity only, further suppressing the demands of minorities. Non-Persian literary, artistic, journalistic, and cultural expression has been limited by both Iranian governments during the past century.
For example, in Kurdish regions, people face difficulties celebrating Newroz (Nuoroz), a shared historical and cultural event that different peoples in Iran and other parts of West Asia, including both Kurds and Persians, celebrate as their new year. Although Newroz is an official holiday in Iran, Newroz celebrations in several places in Kurdistan have been banned and the organizers and attendees have been prosecuted.
Non-Persian and non-Muslim citizens cannot freely choose names for their children and businesses. In some cases, the Iranian Civil Registry Office refuses to register non-Persian or non-Muslim names and people are forced to choose names from a list created by the government.
Some non-Persian-language journalism is allowed in Iran. However, these channels exist to promote the Islamic Republic’s political, cultural, and religious agendas in minority communities. They do not serve the development of minority languages and cultures.
Religious and ethnic discrimination often overlap in Iran. Many groups are persecuted on the grounds of both non-Persian ethnic identity and non-Shia religious identity.
According to Article 12 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Twelver Shia Islam is the official religion of the country, and this principle will remain “unchangeable forever.”
The same article also states that the followers of the four sects of Sunnism are free to practice their religious beliefs, and in areas where they make the majority, local regulations will follow those beliefs. However, like laws that protect minority languages on paper, this law has never truly been implemented.
During the past four decades, Sunni Muslims have faced several forms of persecution, including arbitrary detentions, execution, exile, and the destruction of their mosques. They are systemically excluded from political and governmental positions, limiting their political power.
Some non-Muslim religious minorities, including Yarsani Kurds and Baha’is, are not officially recognized by the Iranian state.
Yarsani activists have been arrested, tortured, and humiliated for practicing their religion. Their places of worship and villages have been destroyed by the state. In some cases, they are denied access to education. Like other non-Shias, they are often denied the opportunity to serve in government.
Baha’is have been persecuted under the Qajar dynasty, the Shah, and the Islamic Republic alike. Anti-Bahaism has been a part of Iranian state policies since the Baha’I religion was established. Like Yarsanis, Baha’is are denied access to education and state employment. The Iranian government destroys their villages and forces them into exile.
Other non-Muslim minorities, such as Jews and Christians, are officially recognized by the state. They have official representatives in the country. However, these symbolic gestures have not benefitted Jewish and Christian communities. Over the past century, many Jewish and Armenian and Assyrian Christian Iranians have fled the country. The Iranian government also persecutes Christian converts by sentencing them to prison time and even death.
Iran’s economy has deteriorated in recent years as a result of both internal and external factors, including conflict and international pressure.
The United States and European countries have imposed sanctions on Iran, citing its destabilizing behavior, human rights abuses, and attempts to build a nuclear weapon. These sanctions have not forced Iran the Iranian state to change its behavior—but they have impacted virtually all Iranian citizens.
Due to existing economic exploitation impacting non-Persian and non-Shia minorities, these communities have been the hardest hit—despite having the least responsibility for the Iranian government’s policies.
Since Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s religious command urging ‘jihad’ against Kurds in 1979, Kurdish regions have been heavily militarized. The Iranian government has built approximately 2,000 military checkpoints and bases in Kurdish provinces, particularly in areas bordering Kurdish regions of Turkey and Iraq.
In addition to mass displacement and significant loss of life, militarization and conflict in these regions also contributed to economic pressure—constituting a kind of ‘internal sanctions’ policy. Similar policies have been implemented in Balochistan, Ahwaz (Khuzestan), and other regions where ethnic and religious minorities live.
As a result, these regions enjoy some of the lowest rates of government investment while suffering from some of the highest rates of unemployment. For example, as of 2016, the unemployment rate in Iran was recorded at 13%. In regions like Kermanshah, Kohgiluyeh, and Boyer-Ahmad, and Khuzestan, which are majority non-Persian, unemployment rates ranged from 14 to 20%.
Misery and poverty reflect the unemployment rates and the Iranian state’s policies toward minorities. The average misery rate in Iran was recorded at 48% between 2019 and 2020. The Kurdish province of Kermanshah had the highest misery rate, at 55%. Other Kurdish provinces in northwestern Iran followed closely behind, as did Ahwaz (Khuzestan).
Economic exploitation has led to dangerous phenomena like kolbari and sokhtbari in Kurdistan and Balochistan. There are over 70,000 kolbars in Kurdish provinces. They have been forced into this difficult and dangerous job as a result of the lack of investment in the region and limitations caused by the Iranian state, international sanctions, and regime economic exploitation. Hundreds of these workers have been targeted by the Iranian military forces, especially border guards, often losing their lives as a result. Many have also been killed in accidents and natural disasters.
Since all Kurdish, Balochi, and other organizations, political parties, and civil society organizations that openly advocate for minority interests are banned in Iran, there are no avenues by which people engaged in these forms of labor can be recognized as legal workers or granted protection from violence by security forces.
Non-Persian regions also suffer the most from other social issues that correlate with poverty—including suicide, drug use, and domestic violence. For example, Ilam has the highest suicide rate in Iran: 17.3 per 100,000 people. Kermanshah and Lorestan come in second and third with rates of 13.6 and 11.1 in 100,00. By contrast, the average suicide rate in Iran is 5.2 in 100,000.
Discrimination in the Opposition Betrays the Protests’ Origins and Goals
The murder of Jina Amini by Iranian ‘morality police’ was a tragedy emblematic of the Islamic Republic’s intersecting and overlapping repressive systems and ideologies.
In addition to discriminating against non-Persian and non-Shia minorities, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a deeply patriarchal state. Gender inequality is enshrined in law, and patriarchal attitudes and practices persist at the family and community level.
These forms of discrimination often intersect. Kurdish women, for example, have made great strides against patriarchy in their communities through their participation in struggles against the Islamic Republic and groups like ISIS. However, regime policies enforce these patriarchal norms in society and create security and economic conditions that are detrimental to women’s rights, challenging their efforts.
The mandatory hijab policy that Jina Amini was murdered for supposedly violating is the most outwardly visible manifestation of this reality. Violently enforced religious dress codes have been one of the political and ideological pillars of the Islamic Republic of Iran since its establishment.
The government has used this policy to target women for four decades. Repression has become more intense over the past 20 years after the establishment of the so-called ‘guidance patrol’ or ‘morality police.’
Women of all ethnicities have resisted this policy from the beginning. In recent years, it has become a central issue for opponents of the regime because of its status as a visible manifestation of how the Islamic Republic controls women’s bodies and lives to hold on to power.
The ongoing protest movement, which many call a revolution, has lasted over one month. Cities across the country have seem mass protests, strikes, and other forms of collective action. Regime forces have responded with violence, killing hundreds and imprisoning thousands.
However, the crackdown has not impacted all areas equally. The highest levels of violent repression have impacted Kurdistan, Balochistan, Ahwaz (Khuzestan), the Southern Caspian sea shores (Gilan and Mazandaran), and other non-Persian regions.
As of October 10, 2022, at least 185 protestors had reportedly been killed in different cities in Iran. Balochi and Kurdish regions and cities have so far suffered the highest casualty rates. In these regions, the Iranian military has used weapons of war against civilians. According to local human rights organizations, 97 of the people who have been killed in the regime’s crackdown were from Balochistan, while over 30 were from Iranian Kurdistan.
The true number of victims in all parts of Iran is unclear, and real numbers are likely higher than those that have been reported. Yet from what data does exist, it can can be safely estimated that Kurdish and Balochi protestors make up approximately 60-70% of the victims.
A study that looked at the number of murdered protestors per million inhabitants in different province confirmed that rates of deadly violence against protestors in these regions have been significantly higher than those in Persian-majority provinces.
Footage shared on social media and published in news outlets shows that the levels of violence in non-Persian inhabited regions are much higher than those in Persian inhabited regions. As discussed before, Kurdistan and Balochistan were already heavily militarized. In recent weeks, the government has deployed even more forces to those regions.
As the protests continue in Iran, Iranian, Kurdish, and Balochi diaspora communities have organized demonstrations in over 150 cities worldwide to show solidarity with their people back home. While safe from regime repression, minority protestors abroad have not been spared the nationalist attitudes that enable it.
Several Kurdish activists have reported that they were threatened by other Iranians for speaking and chanting in Kurdish or simply carrying Kurdish flags. Many Kurds have have criticized the behavior of nationalist Iranians, arguing that it is counterproductive and dangerous at a time when true solidarity between all communities opposed to the regime is needed.
At the same time, diaspora Persian media, celebrities, influencers, and political activists who are influential both inside and outside of Iran are being criticized for ignoring Jina Amini’s Kurdish identity and introducing her as “Mahsa Amini” or as only an “Iranian women,” ignoring the Kurdish roots of the slogan “women, life, freedom,” and neglecting the fact that the recent protests began in Kurdish cities.
Discriminatory attitudes in the opposition, though not comparable in their impact to state oppression, have a direct connection to the systemic discrimination against minorities that exists in Iran. Individuals, organizations, and communities who hope to replace Iran’s Islamic Republic with a democratic system must be careful not to replicate the nationalist attitudes that undergird some of the most anti-democratic policies of the regime they oppose.
Minorities in Iran have been struggling to achieve their basic human rights for over a century. For both moral and strategic reasons, their experiences with state violence and their history of organized struggle against the regime should be at the center of movements for real democratic change—not marginalized within them.
(Photo: JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images)