Roots as Deep as Mountains: Iran’s Kurds Remain Defiant

The Kurdish struggle remains of the most compelling storylines in the geopolitical labyrinth that is the Middle East. This includes Kurdish confrontations with ISIS in Syria, the potential for increased sovereignty in Iraq, and nearly forty years of conflict in Turkey. The Kurds of Iran are also active, if not largely ignored by the international community.

The history of Kurds in Iran is one of deep rooted resistance and everlasting dreams of a new tomorrow. Though the movement has undergone many shifts and changes, it remains alive today.

A Tradition of Resistance

In May of 2015, Mahabad the capital of Iran’s Kurdish region, burned as riots and protests spread following the mysterious death of a young woman in the city. Activists claimed that a young Kurdish woman fell to her death from the window of a hotel, while escaping an attempted rape by an Iranian security official. The protests were not only a reminder of the latent rage which exists in the Kurdish population, but serve as a symbolic reminder of the flame that has burned within the city of Mahabad.

In 1946 Mahabad became the capital of the short-lived independent Kurdish republic. The dream of independence did not last long, and the Republic was soon destroyed by the Shah of Iran in 1947, the Kurdish leader Qazi Muhammad was hanged for his defiance.

Today Kurdish activists remain targets of the state. Over the years dozens have been executed for their ties to Kurdish resistance groups. Beginning in April of this year, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) clashed with Kurdish militants. Many of those killed were members of the PDKI (Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan) the organization founded by Qazi Muhammad in Mahabad in 1945.

The clashes left dozens of IRGC security members and militants dead, and rekindled the prospect of armed struggle in Iranian Kurdistan. Mohammed Saleh, a PDKI representative in Erbil, Iraq believes that violent confrontation is not a choice but a reality for Iranian Kurds. “Iran’s system is a brutal religious dictatorship. We have no choice but to fight back. There is no political arena in Iran’s theocratic dictatorship. This is the only way we can fight back. This is our right.”

But the regime in Iran is not the only issue the PDKI and those engaged in armed struggle need to consider. The geopolitics of the region continue to present new challenges, including from fellow Kurdish parties. In May of this year, a deadly clash occurred between members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the PDKI. The confrontation resulted in a number of casualties, but more importantly threatened to expose serious divisions in Kurdish unity.
The PKK went on record stating that armed struggle in Iran was not be in the interest of Kurds, and that it would be better to “focus on civil and cultural movements”.

Mohammed Saleh lamented the stance as undermining the resistance of Iranian Kurds, and largely a reflection of the PKK’s own shifting alliances in an unstable region.
“The Kurdish movement has distinct characteristics, whether in Iran, Iraq, Turkey or Syria. We don’t interfere with PKK’s struggle in Turkey, and PKK shouldn’t interfere with our struggle in Iran. This is the voice of our people. We are fighting for a cause.”

Mohammed Saleh points out that the regional conflicts in Syria and Iraq present an opportunity but also an obstacle for recognition of the Kurds as an equal partner in the future of the region.

“All the players involved are benefiting in some way, except for the Kurds. And the Kurds are not just fighting for their own stability. But they hope to bring peace to the entire region, and it can be possible because we are inclusive.”

Repressed at Home, Ignored by the West

Despite the short term alliances between the Kurds and the West, widespread recognition for the rights of Kurds remains uneven, if not completely absent from mainstream discourse. This includes both inside Iran and abroad.

Ava Homa, an Iranian Kurdish writer and journalist points out the hypocrisy of the issue, and notes that the progress made by Kurds, particularly in the Rojava region of northern Syria is both representative of the potential for positive change in the region, and a case study in the hypocrisy of the West. “Their decisions are profit based, not justice based,” Homa says. 

Another significant challenge exists among Iranians themselves when discussing Kurdish matters. An issue Homa believes is rooted in nationalistic ideas about Iran. “A lot of so called Iranian activists and and intellectuals do not recognize the national aspirations of Kurds. For them asking for independence is a crime and not a political choice. There is this preference between land and territorial integrity over humanity.”
Yet human rights for Kurds in Iran remains a serious issue. As Homa notes, “In 2015, ninety-three people were charged as Moharebeh [enmity against God], sixty-three of them were Kurds.”

Transcending Borders

The struggle for change is also on the mind of Iranian Kurds in the diaspora. Samira Ghaderi, an Iranian Kurd and former Lobbyist for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Washington DC, believes that the responsibility to promote change is not limited to those in Kurdistan. “I feel responsible for the Kurdish people. Given our unfortunate situation, I think it is the responsibility of every Kurd and every friend of a Kurd to spread awareness about our century long struggle. “

Ghaderi is one of many young Kurds in the United States who have found a sense of empowerment through taking a stand on Kurdish issues, and promoting the cause. “As an American-Kurd. I know I have been granted an opportunity that most can only dream of. And I take this very seriously.”

It is not a surprise that many of the Kurdish activists, whether in Syria, Iran or abroad are women. As Ghaderi notes, “Throughout history, Kurdish women have been at the forefront of the struggle.”

Homa points out that Kurdish women have not only had to overcome racism and repression from the state but also patriarchy and chauvinism in Kurdish culture, yet they remain largely exotified by the West.

“Even though the West likes to fetishize the Kurdish women’s struggle, focusing on girls with guns, what is happening in Rojava is really far beyond any of that. This is the first time in Kurdish society, and really any society in the Middle East where women have so much power and control. Where they are respected as individuals.”

Feminism and the empowerment of ethnic minorities is a central component of what is taking place in Rojava, and throughout Kurdistan. One of the few positive developments in the face of a horrific regional conflict that has spawned misogynistic and fundamentalist movements.

The question remains whether this type of movement can also take root in Mahabad, and serve to inspire ideas not only about gender equality, but a greater movement for dignity, justice, and perhaps independence for Iran’s Kurds.

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Hamid Yazdan Panah is a human rights activist and attorney focused on immigration and asylum in the San Francisco Bay area.

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