Kurdish rebellions against the Iranian state birthed modern Kurdish nationalism — but their latest uprising saw little transnational support from Kurds in other countries.
Iranian Kurdistan, also known as East Kurdistan or Rojhilat, has a long history of resistance to various Persian and Iranian kingdoms and states.
In the modern era, this began in the 1880s with Sheikh Ubeydullah Nehri’s uprising. It continued through Simko Shikak in the 1920s, Qadam Kheyr in the 1930s, Qazi Muhammad’s Republic of Kurdistan in 1946, and the participation of the Kurdish people in the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the resistance to the Islamic Republic in the early 1980s.
Most recently, Kurds sparked a nation-wide women-led revolutionary movement after the murder of Jina Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman, in the Iranian capital, Tehran.
This area of Kurdistan has played a significant role in Kurdish resistance movements from Turkey, Iraq and Syria, as well as serving as a refuge for Kurdish refugees fleeing Turkish and Iraqi aggression over the course of the last century.
Thousands of Kurds who fled Iraq’s Baath regime during the Anfal genocide sought refuge in East Kurdistan. At the same time, eastern Kurdish forces allied with southern Kurdish forces to fight the Iraqi state. More recently, the people of East Kurdistan showed their full support for the 2017 Kurdistan Independence Referendum. During the Rojava Revolution, the Kurds from East Kurdistan showed their solidarity by joining the war against ISIL. Viyan Peyman, a YPJ commander in Kobane, was among the best known of the Iranian Kurds who joined the YPG and YPJ forces.
Yet despite all the support that east Kurdistan has given to other regions of Kurdistan, other regions of Kurdistan did not show the expected solidarity and support to the uprising in Iran and East Kurdistan.
In Rojava (northeast Syria) and the Iraqi Kurdistan region, just a few rallies were held during the first weeks of the uprising. These were smaller and less impactful than many Kurds in East Kurdistan expected.
Several factors likely contributed to this diminished response. This analysis will look at four: restricted access to information in Iran, global perceptions of Iran and East Kurdistan, Kurdish media coverage that reflects partisan interests, and linguistic oppression.
Access to Information in Iran
According to Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, Iran is one of the least free countries in terms of press freedom and access to information, coming in at number 178 among 180 countries. The European Union’s Human Freedom Index ranks it 160 out of 165 nations, making it one of the least free and isolated countries.
No free and independent media platforms can exist in Iran. Major media organizations are owned, controlled, and regulated by the government, including those in Kurdistan. Independent journalists, and media activists in Kurdistan face prosecution for publishing information or contacting international outlets and organizations.Almost all social media platforms are banned and blocked. During the recent uprising, Internet access has been restricted even further.
Since the 1980s, the Iranian regime has materially isolated Kurdish provinces. It enforces internal sanctions that contribute to economic de-development. As a result of decades of Kurdish resistance to rule from Tehran, it maintains a significant military presence there.
These factors make it nearly impossible for international media, journalists, and human rights organizations to access high-quality information about East Kurdistan. As a result, East Kurdistan has not received as much attention as other parts of Kurdistan have. Even for many Kurds, the realities of this region are somewhat vague.
International Perceptions of Iran and Kurdistan
The Iranian state is not the only contributor to the global lack of information about East Kurdistan. In the West, the Islamic Republic is typically discussed in the context of the security threats it poses to other countries, like its nuclear program and its use of destabilizing proxy groups. Systematic human rights abuses, particularly those targeting ethnic minorities, receive less attention.
The existing human rights discourse on Iran centers Persian perspectives and concerns. It is promoted by mainstream opposition media outlets, like Iran International, BBC Persian, VOA Persian, Independent Persian, and Manoto TV.
These outlets are often funded by countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. They have promoted political stances that alienate minorities: for example, Kurds have criticized them for promoting the Pahlavi family and monarchist viewpoints.
Iranian activists and journalists working with major Western human rights organizations and news outlets often fall into a similar pattern. They tend to ignore minority rights and offer political perspectives that exclude these communities. When these individuals do report on minorities in Iran, they frequently fail to identify them by their ethnicity, language, or religion, which creates the perception that Iran is not a multicultural, multilingual country.
This has contributed to a severe lack of knowledge on the situation of Kurds and other minorities in Iran—amplifying the impacts of state repression of information.
Kurdish Media Partisanship
The relationship between Kurdish media and the interests of Kurdish political parties is a second contributing factor.
Major Kurdish parties in other regions of Kurdistan, including the KDP, the PUK, and the PKK, have historic and strategic ties with the Iranian government. As a result of these relationships, media outlets close to these parties fail to report extensively on the realities of the situation in East Kurdistan.
These Kurdish channels comply with state censorship in order to operate in Iran. For example, the PUK-linked Kurdsat has an office in Tehran, and the KDP-linked Rudaw has several non-official reporters inside Iran and East Kurdistan. Their reporters are not allowed to publish on political, social, economic, or human rights-related issues, or on topics that are generally opposed to the Iranian government’s policies and interests.
When these channels cover East Kurdistan, they typically report on cultural and religious events or other topics allowed by the Iranian government. For example, both Rudaw and the PKK-linked Sterk TV have created documentaries about the Kurdish people’s daily life in East Kurdistan and Khorasan in northeastern Iran that focus on these non-controversial topics.
This kind of coverage minimizes political, social, economic, and human rights problems in East Kurdistan. As a result, Kurdish audiences in other parts of Kurdistan and the diaspora are less informed about conditions there, likely contributing to reduced levels of solidarity activism.
Kurds have experienced linguistic oppression since the establishment of the modern states of Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. As a result, it is difficult for Kurds from different regions and speakers of different Kurdish dialects to communicate with each other. In addition, Kurds lack a common second language: they may speak Persian, Turkish, Arabic, or any number of European languages.
In East Kurdistan, most activists, media outlets, and human rights organizations speak and write in Sorani Kurdish and Persian. Few Kurds from other regions of Kurdistan are familiar with these languages. Not all activists, organizations, or media outlets are able to publish news and content in other languages.
This has made it difficult for Kurds from other regions, Kurds in the diaspora, and international observers to follow the situation in East Kurdistan. Widespread use of social media and the Internet, particularly by young people, has led to some improvements in this situation.
Over the past two decades, the situation in east Kurdistan has become worse than ever. In addition to the economic hardships Iran imposes on the Kurds, they also experience extreme forms of repression, prejudice, persecution, and injustice.
The uprising that started in the name of Jina (Mahsa) Amini attracted an unbelievable amount of attention towards East Kurdistan, where the revolution started. The Kurdish identity of this revolution and its main slogan, “Jin, Jiyan, Azadî,” or women, life, and freedom, were removed, changed, and introduced as Iranian values as a result of the aforementioned factors as well as the influence of Iranian media and activists in the West.
In addition to this erasure by non-Kurds, Kurds from other parts of Kurdistan did not show the same level of solidarity that they have shown for other Kurdish achievements—or that Kurds from East Kurdistan have shown for their struggles.
As a result, despite being one of the key and historical centers of resistance against Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, East Kurdistan has been neglected and forgotten.