Nationwide protests under the banner “women, life, freedom” continue sporadically in Iran, the most recent marking 40 days since the execution of two protestors. Among the most important achievements of the movement so far has been the degree to which it has brought various ethnic groups closer, further legitimizing demands for greater rights for the millions of Iranians living at the periphery of the state.
The protests were triggered in September 2022 by the death in police custody of Mahsa Jina Amini, a 22-year-old girl from Iran’s western Kurdish region. Ensuing demonstrations have been particularly large in the Kurdish region as well as in Sistan-Baluchistan, on the eastern border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in the ethnic Arab-populated region of Khuzestan.
It is unclear whether Amini’s ethnic background influenced the violent treatment she experienced at the hands of the so-called morality police. However, at a lecture this writer gave at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimaniyah in October 2022, students firmly believed that her ethnicity, revealed by her accent, caused the security forces to act with even more impunity and brutality.
Reinforcing this interpretation, videos later released by the police in a failed effort to prove that Amini was not subjected to violence showed that her hijab was no looser than those worn by many other Iranian women and girls.
Iran’s Sunni Population
Iran’s estimated 15 million Sunni Muslims, who live predominantly in Kurdistan and Baluchistan, have long been victims of official discrimination and repression. Both areas have spawned armed opposition groups, some existing before the 1979 revolution, when Kurds and Baluchis also faced discrimination from the Shah’s government. In Kurdistan, leftist and secular parties have led the opposition to the central government, and Kurdish women have had a significant presence in both peaceful and armed movements. In more conservative Baluchistan, however, the women’s movement has not been as prominent.
Religious discrimination and extreme poverty are particularly widespread in Baluchistan, which suffers from low rainfall and persistent drought. Baluchistan is also one of Iran’s largest provinces, and includes a 680-mile-long border with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Among the main routes for smuggling, Sistan-Baluchistan has been fertile ground for a variety of traffickers and violent groups. The livelihoods of thousands of families depend on smuggling cheap Iranian fuel to Pakistan and Afghanistan and smuggling out assorted narcotics. The region has witnessed repeated hostage-takings and executions. Tehran’s hardliners have been reluctant to allow Sunni religious leaders to mediate between rebels and the government and subject Baluchi and Sunni prisoners to harsher treatment than Shi’ite detainees.
In part as a result of the protests following Amini’s death, Sunni religious leaders, such as Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, better known as Molana Abdulhamid—the Friday prayer leader of the Baluchi capital of Zahedan—are becoming more popular throughout Iran. Abdulhamid has preached tolerance and sought to mediate between security forces and Baluchi militants, including to secure the release of hostages.
Nevertheless, Abdulhamid has been subjected to government restrictions, including being prevented from leaving Iran to attend religious conferences. Hardliners consider him an enemy of the state and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is said to personally dislike him. A secret bulletin of Fars—the news agency affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps—published by the hacking group Black Rivard suggested that Khamenei, in the aftermath of recent protests in Zahedan, ordered that Abdulhamid “should not be arrested … but should be disgraced.” The Sunni cleric reacted by saying, “God gives honor and dignity, not anyone else.”
The most violent demonstrations so far in Iran in the past six months came on “Black Friday” or “bloody Friday:” September 30, 2022. Amnesty International estimates that 66 to 96 people were killed within a few hours as security forces opened fire on worshippers in Zahedan who were protesting both Amini’s killing and the rape of a 15-year-old Baluchi girl by the Chabahar police chief. Abdulhamid blamed Khamenei for the massacre.
Hardliner attacks on Abdulhamid are intensifying. The newspaper Iran (the official state newspaper) wrote recently that the Sunni cleric was “leading the chaos” in Zahedan and that his words were “supported and paid attention to by the Saudi, Zionist, and American media.” The cleric called the newspaper’s comments “unfounded” and stated, “People continue to be in shock and ask what crime they committed to [warrant] being massacred in a matter of hours.”
At the same time, the Baluchi leader has tried to engage with Tehran, calling on authorities to improve the situation of Iran’s Sunnis. He has also reached out to reformists, endorsing a recent statement by Green Movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has been under house arrest along with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, since 2011 for protesting what is widely viewed as the fraudulent re-election of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. In his statement, Mousavi called for a referendum on Iran’s political system and the drafting of a new democratic constitution. In response, Abdulhamid tweeted, “Mr. Moussavi, in his recent statement, showed that he understood the realities of society. It is time for other politicians and scholars to consider saving the country and see the facts.”
Abdulhamid was not always so liberal. In the past, he espoused a position close to Shiite hardliners about the hijab and the role of women. He has written that “from the point of view of Islamic sharia, it is not permissible for women to travel without ‘mahram’ [an accompanying male relative], even if a large number of women travel together.” More recently, however, he called for the formation of a fact-finding committee to investigate Amini’s death and condemned the harsh physical treatment of women.
After nearly two decades of direct and indirect support for reformists, Abdulhamid supported the election of President Ebrahim Raisi in 2021, arguing that the reformists had failed to provide the support the people of Baluchistan needed.
His position on the Taliban’s return to power in 2021 was also controversial and much criticized, especially by Afghans. He congratulated the Taliban on their “great victory” over the United States, which he called “the result of martyrdom, perseverance, in the right way against the invading occupiers and the incompetent, puppet government, steeped in corruption.” He later defended this position, stating that all violence in Afghanistan should not be attributed to the Taliban. “The Taliban’s view differs from the past,” he said. “Because I am a Sunni cleric myself, I know their mullahs and their clerics, and you do not know,” insisting that the Taliban’s religion should not be considered the same as that of Takfiri extremists.
The degree of suffering imposed by Tehran on Baluchistan is hard to convey. The semi-official Mehr news agency interviewed Shahindokht Molaverdi, a vice president in then President Hassan Rouhani’s administration in 2016. She stated that in a remote and economically deprived village in Baluchistan, “there are no men; the government has hung all men for drug offenses and other crimes.” Molaverdi revealed this shocking fact in criticizing the prior administration’s decision to cut off financial support for the families of those executed. Rouhani reversed this policy. “We believe that the lack of support for these families will make them susceptible to repeating similar crimes,” Molaverdi added.
Tehran’s Shiite-centric measures to combat radical Sunni Islam have not included fighting poverty or reducing religious and ethnic discrimination. Both before and after the revolution, iron-fist policies in peripheral regions have been justified as a way to preserve Iran’s territorial integrity. In the eyes of most Iranians, Baluchistan was seen as a turbulent, remote, and dangerous place. But the movement for “women, life, freedom” has changed this.
Today, Abdulhamid is considered a moderate leader respected by people across the country. Shi’ite Iranians have gotten to know more about the far corners of their country and their fellow citizens. And the massacre of Baluchis by government forces has re-introduced the province to the rest of Iran and strengthened demands for the regime to be held accountable for its crimes.
Fatemeh Aman is a nonresident fellow in the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. Twitter @FatemehAman.