Balochistan’s Struggle Against Religious Intolerance
This note, written by anonymous Baloch activists, highlights the history of oppression against the Baloch people in Iran. The translation and publication of this brief note is significant as it reveals the truth about a suppressed and censored group. Iran’s modern history is built on the internal colonialism and tyranny of its nations. Iran was established as a single unit based on western ideas of nationalism, where people’s background and identity were tied to accepting the concept of Iranianness, with Persian/Farsi as the official language and a fragmented history centered around centered kings.
This brief note critiques the issue of religious fundamentalism in Baluchistan by giving a concise overview of the history of oppression in the region.
In the early days of the Zhina uprising and the Zhin, Zhian, Azadi movement, Baloch women joined forces with their sisters to fight against religious fundamentalism and misogynistic society in Baluchistan/Iran. They demanded gender equality, recognition of female identity, and participation in Baloch nationalism and public life. This movement evolved over time, influenced by the religious views and interpretations of Balochistan’s leaders regarding feminism and nationalism.
In Baluchistan, struggle is often seen as a male-dominated endeavor. Men are portrayed as protectors and women are influenced by patriarchal views, with glorification of supportive and behind-the-scenes roles. This image is clearly evident in Baluchistan’s protest Fridays (because of holding demonstrations after Friday prayers). The religious leader is at the forefront of the Zhina revolution’s women’s struggle, with placards and slogans that consider [the threatening and creating danger for] the religious leader as their red line and not addressing structural discrimination against women. The men circle around their leader like an army, presenting an image of masculinity that reminds us how the nation’s men have always defended the sacred motherland, while the women of the nation are also depicted silently beaming with pride. And they pray for fighting men.
This relationship between male power and female need for protection is strongly influenced by national/Islamic narratives, which indicate a deep relationship between nationalism, religion and masculinity.
Examining the women’s movement in Balochistan requires consideration of the political developments and fluctuations in the region.
Balochistan, known for challenging the status quo in Iran during the Qajar, Pahlavi and Islamic Republic eras and for being a force against its Afghan and Pakistani neighbors, has always faced suppression. In 1947, some British-educated Baloch elites created a Balochistan movement from within tribal structures, driven by conflicting interests and alliances with foreign forces.
In Iran, where Persian nationalism dominated, other nations such as Baluch, Kurd, Arab, Turk, etc. were not only marginalized in the government, but they were also continuously assimilated into the state dominant Persian nationalism. The process of integration with Iran began after Western Baluchistan was transferred in 1928, Reza Shah [Pahlavi], influenced by Nazi Germany, initiated the Pan-Iranism movement and in 1937 started a policy to divide and destroy non-Persian nations by dividing Iran into ten provinces administratively.
The Pahlavi regime used extreme violence and propaganda to create a single-nation Iranian state with one language and central government. Propaganda was spread through media control, promoting racist and nationalist myths that Iranians were of the Aryan race with a 2500-year-old civilization, and denigrated post-Islamic culture rooted in Arabic language and traditions.
The Pahlavi regime’s ideology denied the existence of national, linguistic, and cultural diversity, and considered Balochi, Kurdish, and Turkic languages as mere local dialects of Persian. It also labeled the culture of non-Persian people as that of local tribes or nomads. The education and media systems, controlled by the government, were used to promote Persianization among non-Persians. In order to establish a nation-state in a multi-ethnic society where the dominant nation did not make up more than 50% of the population, the ethnic and linguistic identity of non-Persian people had to be destroyed. Reza Shah carried out genocide, ethnocide, and language killing to further Persianize non-Persians.
During the Pahlavi regime, Kurdistan was divided into three parts, Azerbaijan into two, and the same was done to Baluchistan. To destroy the Balochi identity, the historical names of important cities and areas were changed and replaced with Iranian names, such as Dezdap to Zahedan, Pehre to Iranshahr, Geh to Nikshahr, Shaston to Saravan, and Vash to Khash. The border areas of Balochistan were also transferred to neighboring provinces such as Kerman, Khorasan, and Hormozgan.
The repressions during the Pahlavi regime fueled the flames of nationalism in Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, and Baluchistan, instead of suppressing it.
The 1979 revolution was the most important event with a significant impact on the Baloch community. Although this revolution was an urban phenomenon that focused on Tehran (not exclusively), the Baloch intellectual class was present on the fringes of the struggle. During his exile, Khomeini made statements that made the Baloch intellectuals believe that religious leaders could also provide a path to freedom. They were misled by his false promises of liberation and secularism. However, once in power, Khomeini rejected Iran’s nationalities, called Iranian people as religious brothers and sisters (based on Shia Islam) and imposed strict laws against women, causing Sunni Baloch to feel marginalized in the Shia-dominated government of Iran again.
Balochistan, which has historically been a secular region, was a hub for political activity in the 1960s and 1970s. Baloch leaders and student activists had leftist inclinations and established the National Awami Party (NAP) along with the Pashtuns in Balochistan. In a time that Iran and Pakistan, were fearful of Baloch secular nationalism, the struggle of Baloch nationalists re-emerged. Prominent nationalist organizations included the Balochistan People’s Democratic Organization, the Muslim Unity Party (Hizb Ittihad al-Muslimin), formed by religious individuals, and the Baluchistan National Movement (Baluchistan Raji Zarambash), established in mid-1970s.
But religious extremism in Balochistan is a long-standing phenomenon. Despite General Zia-ul-Haq’s promotion of religious extremism in Pakistan from 1977 to 1988, Balochistan was largely immune to his religious policies. However, the arrival of Pashtun mujahids in Quetta and the spread of their jihadi sentiments had the most significant impact. As a result, religious extremism created in Eastern Balochistan and became prevalent in Western Balochistan as a counter to Iran’s extreme Shiaism. This is due to the presence of Sunni Baloch groups and the Shia government of Iran, which has given Baloch nationalism a more religious character.
The society of Balochistan has undergone significant changes during these new struggles, but the status of women has not been clearly addressed. Whenever the issue of women rights is raised, the issue of religion is also brought up. This is because conservative groups often use political and religious manipulations to discriminate against women, obscuring women’s issues. Religious leaders claim that the term “modern” is a tool of Western imperialism, and advocate for the strict segregation of women in Islamic society. Despite the possible downfall of the Islamic Republic’s government, fundamental Islamic views persist in Balochistan, and their impact and intensity have not diminished despite the ongoing protests.