What the Kurds of Iran Teach us About Revolutionary Struggles and Freedom

By Rojin Mukriyan 

It has been broadly argued that one of the prominent and distinctive features of the recent revolutionary movement in Iran is the solidarity and unity of all Iranian peoples despite ethnic, religious, linguistic, and even gender differences under the all-encompassing umbrella of Jin Jiyan Azadî (Woman, Life, Freedom). However, the recent developments of this revolutionary movement makes one doubt the accuracy of this claim. This paper attempts to unfold the latest developments of the revolutionary movement of Jin Jiyan Azadî from the 15th to 24th of November 2022 in Iran to find an explanation for the possible inaccuracy of the above given claim. The key point that will be made is that national and historical differences may explain the differences in the speed and willingness of some ethno-religious groups to engage in revolutionary action more so than others.

To commemorate the roughly 1,500 people who were killed by the Iranian security forces during the civil protests in Iran in November 2019, a nationwide strike was declared for the 15th to 17th November 2022. The videos published on news channels, Instagram, and Telegram apps demonstrate the fact that many people in Iran responded to this call with a unified voice. The shop keepers, workers, students, and many different sectors of society went on nationwide strike for three days.

However, the revolutionary movements in Rojhilat (the majority Kurdish northwest region of Iran and center of the current movement), went further than just a public strike. This new phase of the revolutionary movement started mostly from Bukan, a Kurdish town in Rojhilat. Many streets in Bukan were turned into a fortress against the brutality of the Iranian regime. The Iranian security forces responded by firing directly at people and into their houses in a bid to further terrorize the people. The people responded to the bullets with rocks and slogans. The regime then deployed an even greater number of forces in Bukan to suppress the resistance. The internet and power in general were either greatly limited or shut down entirely not only in Bukan, but in all of Rojhilat. The other Rojhilati cities intended to decrease the pressure on Bukan by also fortifying themselves in the streets. For example, in Mahabad, the people, especially women, were in the front line in what could best be described as pitched battle with the Iranian forces. The government bolstered contingents of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) with heavy military vehicles and sent them to Mahabad in order to declare martial law.

Following Mahabad, people in Javanud went onto the streets in solidarity with Bukan and to likewise decrease the pressure on Mahabad on 20th November. The IRGC responded with even more brutality. Dozens were killed and injured in Javanud. As is obvious by now, the Islamic Republic has systematically targeted the national minorities such as the Kurds and Baluch people in Iran. They deployed heavy weapons against defenseless civilians in Rojhilat, raiding people’s houses, abducting young men, teenagers, and women. Based on reports from the Kurdistan Human Rights network, at least 40 people lost their lives in the four days between 15th to 18th of November in Rojhilat. Kurds were not the only targets either. The Baluchi people in Iran faced the same systematic crackdown during this revolutionary movement in Iran.

The regime did not limit its military suppression to its internal borders. It lunched another missile attack on the bases of Rojhilati political parties in Başur (the Kurdish region of Iraq). Turkey also joined Iran in suppressing the Kurds. For example, on the 22nd of November, while Iran was bombing the bases of the Rojhilati parties in Başur, Turkey was targeting the civil infrastructure of Rojava, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), at the same time.

A swarm of attacks covered the whole of Kurdistan. While the Kurds faced near genocidal measures in Rojhilat, in major Persian cities actions were limited to only chanting from windows, honking horns, giving free hugs, or distributing sweets and chocolates. These actions can be described as examples, at best, of passive resistance. Following this, the Rojhilati Kurdish political parties called for a general strike for the 24th of November. The Kurdish people in Rojhilat responded with a unified voice. Most in Rojhilat went on strike. However, despite the expectations, the non-Kurdish cities responded to this announcement without conviction or consistency.

Why did the majority nations in Iran not join the Kurdish people in the events between the 15th to 24th of November? An immediate response could be that Persians did not show enough solidarity with the Kurds because of their existing anti-Kurdish sentiments. Following the classic colonial nation-state model, the Iranian state, like all other imperial and colonial states, has used the policy of ‘divide and rule’ to maintain its power. It has tried to divide society by creating a system based on overlapping hierarchies of domination and racial supremacy. To achieve this domination, the Iranian regime constructed anti-ethnic sentiments regarding national minorities in Iran. For instance, the Iranian state has propagated anti-Kurdish sentiment by labelling Kurds as “separatists and terrorist,” which has worked to systematically deepen the divisions among different ethnicities. However, for a deeper understanding of the differences between the Kurds and Persians in terms of their nationalities, identity politics could provide a deeper answer to this question.

It is important to emphasize that the Kurdish people are indeed neither Turks, Persians, nor Arabs. They are a distinct people. In other words, the Kurdish people constitute a different nation based on both the subjective and objective definitions of nationhood. Benedict Anderson provides a definition of nationhood from a subjective perspective. He describes a nation as an imagined political community. That is to say that the people in a nation might never know or see each other, but still they are bound together through a shared imagined picture of the entity they form together. Considering the fact that Kurds—who have been divided between the four artificial borders of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria for well over a century—still share the same mind-set in terms of their identity. Now, based on objective definition of nationhood, a group of people could form a nation if they share some distinctive attributes, such as history, language, religion, culture, and territory. Thus, one can strongly argue that the Kurds are a different nation on both subjective and objective fronts as they speak a different language, share a distinct history, and occupy (most of) their own territory.

Therefore, the Kurdish people, regarded as a distinct nation, faced discrimination and oppression not just as ordinary citizens, but as a distinct people and as an ethnic minority in Iran. They have consistently faced ‘existential domination,’ a form of domination that targets a nation as an absolute enemy, as opposed to the real or conventional enmity that at least admits one’s enemy exists.

Absolute enmity is a form of enmity in which one does not recognize the political or legal status, the mere existence, of one’s enemy. One’s enemy is not recognized as a distinct people to be defeated, but as a mistake to be eradicated. Therefore, one deploys the strongest intentional force to eliminate the very possibility of that group of people to ever unify themselves enough to form a distinct political entity, that is, to exist in a politically real way. So, it could be argued that the deeper the domination goes, the stronger the enmity expressed towards an enemy, the greater the resistance will be that responds to such a threat. Many nationalist Persians have long acted as if the Kurds simply ought not exist. Accordingly, the Kurds have been resisting against such a threat for decades now. They have had to, by virtue of their oppression and statelessness, rely on such measures to avoid extinction as a people.

The identity politics of the Kurdish people are also distinct from the Persians. ‘Identity politics’ as a concept could be traced back to writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and Franz Fanon. It is closely connected to the idea that some social groups are oppressed more among others. That is, that one’s identity based on their race, gender and ethnicity make them more vulnerable to cultural imperialism, violence, exploitation, marginalization or powerlessness than others. Now, talking about the Iran, the Iranian state was created based on Persian nationalism. Therefore, one can say that the Kurds, Baluch, and even Azari are more oppressed than the Persians as they are national minorities in Iran. Also, borrowing the language of intersectionality from Kimberlé Crenshaw, not all identities are the same. Sometimes, the identities intersect. For example, a Kurdish women face a degree of domination more intense than not only non-Kurdish men, but non-Kurdish women as well.

The present state of the Kurds is an exceptional one. They have been oppressed and dominated by four different nation-states for at least roughly 100 years. Therefore, they have been in perpetual revolt against the dominating states. For example, since the foundation of the Iranian state in 1923, the Kurdish people have persistently resisted and revolted against the discriminatory policies of the state. One can refer to the Simko Şikak revolt (1923-5) and the Republic of Kurdistan (1946) founded against the Pahlavi dynasty. The Rojhilati people also resisted the Islamic Republic of Iran since its establishment in 1979, since a fatwa was issued against them by the new Islamic Republic following the revolution resulting in thousands being massacred. This resistance was always essential for the Kurds. For example, 10,000 Kurdish people were killed by the Iranian security forces during the 1980-83 resistance. Reflecting on this, one could argue that the Kurdish people have had to rely on and utilize revolts and revolutionary movements when compared to other nations in Iran.

The aim in referring to some of these distinct qualities is to point out that the Kurds have more experience in terms of political cultural and resistance than other nations like the Persians, and this will be even more the case for subsets of minorities within the Kurds. This is because they have been struggling for longer and with greater intensity than their neighbors. Therefore, they have had to utilize revolutionary struggle by virtue of the unceasingly multifaceted layers of the on-going political, economic, systemic and military forms of oppression and violence imposed on them.

Another explanation could be that many Persians have different understanding of freedom. The Kurds—as a result of their intersecting layers of oppression across race, religion, statelessness, and colonization—have a multifaceted interest in their liberation. Many Persians, on the other hand, lack this coherence and drive, which affects their solidarity and even investment in the revolution. For example, it appears many Persians would be satisfied if the government offered them a kind of freedom involving non-interference. But the Kurdish people seek a deeper notion of freedom, one based on non-domination, which is much more democratic and egalitarian than anything based only on non-interference. If many Persians could be subdued with a mere possible suspension of the ‘morality police,’ then it is likely their revolutionary intent is in fact rather limited.

All these facts demonstrate that the Kurds have more experience in terms of political and cultural resistance and more interest in overcoming their domination which explains why the continue to maintain the momentum of the current revolution almost single handedly. One should also not forget that if we accept that the current revolutionary movement in Iran is a Jin Jiyan Azadî revolution, then we should also accept the fact that this revolution starts with changing mind-sets along all the intersectional axes mentioned above. This change will entail overcoming prejudices not only regarding different nationalities. This is a precondition to create an atmosphere that would permit the co-existence of all different peoples and nationalities. In other words, removing the prejudices that deepen the divisions among the different nationalities is as essential as sharing the basics of the differing histories and goals of distinct peoples. If the Iranian people wish to establish a more democratic and egalitarian society then they should look to the Kurds for leadership and follow their example in the demands being made towards the regime.


  • Rojin Mukriyan

    Rojin Mukriyan is a PhD candidate in the department of Government and Politics at University College Cork, Ireland. Her main research areas includes political theory and Middle Eastern politics, especially Kurdish politics. She has published articles in the Journal of International Political Theory, Philosophy and Social Criticism, and Theoria. Her research has thus far focused on the areas of Kurdish liberty, Kurdish statehood, and Kurdish political friendship. She is also currently a researcher at Mojust.org

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