When a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, died in regime custody 10 days ago, Kurdish corners of Iran were the first to erupt; their anger at leaders they say have long oppressed them had an incendiary effect in their towns and cities.
The death of the 22-year-old, who refused to wear a hijab on a visit to Tehran, quickly became a potent symbol of defiance for a minority group that had long harboured nationalistic ambitions, which rarely stayed hidden, and often eschewed the values of the country’s hardline leaders.
But something happened along the way to what could have been a Kurdish nationalist uprising; Iranians from across the country fast shared in the outrage of the death of Amini and the collective indignity it represented to a greater population. Soon protesters on the streets of most of the country’s provinces were testing the limits of state forces. “It is not an Iranian revolution, or even a Kurdish revolution,” said Rozhin, 25, from the Kurdish city of Kermanshah. “It is a women’s revolution.”
Demonstrations against the theocratic state’s stance towards women show little sign of slowing down in many parts of Iran. Women, who bear the brunt of state constraints, have been particularly vocal, tearing down pictures of Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the assassinated general Qassem Suleimani. Both acts were unthinkable even months ago, but so too was the spectacle of large numbers of women – Kurdish, Persian and minorities – taking to the streets without hijabs.
“It’s now not about Kurdish movement, neither about Persians,” said Karim, 27, from the town of Bokan. “It’s about 85 million humans who are fighting back for their rights, socially, economically and in every aspect of life. One week ago a Kurdish girl was a stranger in the capital of Iran and now her face is known everywhere around the globe. This is not about national movement – this is beyond that; it’s about women, and it’s about our basic human rights.
“At this moment, every individual is thinking about fundamental aims and problems to be solved. But I do not guarantee that after one year the Kurds have another way of thinking about Persians.”
Kurds in Iran account for roughly 10% of the country’s population, and make up roughly a quarter of the greater Kurdish presence in the Middle East, scattered between west and eastern Iran, northern Iraq, northern Syria and southeastern Turkey. A century after the breakdown of post-first world war Ottoman boundaries, there is no Kurdish state, and numerous groups vie among populations to claim leadership roles among what remains a fractured population whose search for a homeland has remained elusive.
Five years ago this week, Iraq’s Kurds held a referendum on statehood, which was passed overwhelmingly. However, within days, Iraq’s army, led by powerful militias and directed by Suleimani, pushed north to seize the oil city of Kirkuk and retake much of the land seized by Kurds after the ousting of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Ever since, there have been few moments to galvanise Kurds in either Iraq, or Iran –until Amini’s death in the custody of Iran’s morality police. The feared enforcers have become central targets of the demonstration and held up as examples of where Kurds diverge from the central government.
“There is no doubting the Kurdish revolutionary fervour that Mahsa Amini’s death has sparked among Iran’s long-oppressed Kurdish population,” said Ranj Aladdin, senior fellow at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs. “But her brutal death has come to symbolise something much bigger than the Kurdish cause in Iran that strikes at the very heart of the political and ideological system that underpins the Islamic Republic.
“While her name will be exploited by other opponents of the regime, for the first time since 1979 the Kurdish cause in Iran has become intertwined with that of other oppressed communities. What that means for Kurdish human rights in the immediate future remains to be seen, but – if and when the regime survives this uprising – it is the Kurds who will most likely be in the cross-hairs of its violent response.”
Rozhin says the aftermath of the demonstrations is not being considered, for now. “Women are struggling so much with so many problems. It’s obvious that people do not only have an issue with the hijab, but the system of government. They have changed the definition of Islam. They are killing many people. They are denying every single right of women. They don’t allow us to choose. It’s not only about the hijab issue – it’s about our right to make choices.”
Another woman, a resident of Tehran who refused to be named, said the protests had electrified women across the country. “It’s happening in ways that have never been known before. Even if we don’t win, we’ve already won in many ways. The state cannot ignore us now. Our stance has made them weaker.”