Reports

Women’s Activism in the Heart of Balochistan

The story of the women of each land arises from the history of that land. The narrative of a land is woven into the stories of its women, and the struggles and victories of women often provide a broader view of a society and its history. Women’s narratives offer a unique lens through which the cultural, social, and political fabric of a region can be understood. In Balochistan, women narrate as witnesses of resistance, resilience, and everyday struggle, which are included in the historical and contemporary struggles of the region, presenting a clear picture of the challenges faced by the Baloch people.

Today, the story of Baloch women has become a powerful narrative of resistance against authoritarian power, enforced disappearances, and human rights violations in Balochistan. This article, in two separate parts, addresses the feminist interpretation of the struggles of Baloch women in the east and west of Balochistan (Iran and Pakistan) and clarifies their unique struggles, power, and vital role in shaping anti-colonial and liberation movements in the region.

Historical Background

Greater Balochistan has a significant geopolitical position, with strategic geographical features playing a crucial role in connecting and facilitating global trade between the East and West. The history of Balochistan, acting as a potential producer of national power, is intricately linked with the borders imposed by British colonial powers during the era of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar.

Balochistan was divided into three regions by Goldsmith, an agent of the British Empire, which controlled the Indian subcontinent; a part under the Barak-zai domain in Afghanistan, a portion under the Khan of Kalat, and another part remaining in Iran. Despite its role as a communication and transit corridor, Balochistan has been subjected to deliberate marginalization, suppression, and long-term underdevelopment. These challenges have been intensified by the geopolitical complexities left from the colonial borders established by Britain. State and governmental institutions have responded harshly to any efforts seeking basic rights, leading to serious human rights violations. This situation is especially evident among political, civil, and student activists who face adversity while defending their rights in the complex historical and geopolitical context of Greater Balochistan.

Unique Feminist Narratives

In this tumultuous history, Baloch women have always emerged as unsung heroes challenging the status quo, yet they are often portrayed as victims of a regressive society. The prominent role of Baloch women in the “Jina movement” and current protests in East Balochistan, led by women against government injustice and seeking justice for their disappeared loved ones, has drawn admiration and made it impossible for governments and people to deny. This represents activism in its most courageous form.

From the first cries of “Jian movement” at the funeral of Mahsa/Jina Amini, Baloch women have rewritten their role in society. They have transformed from subjects emerging from a traditional, patriarchal religious society in West Balochistan to leaders of a movement that challenges the foundations of an oppressive and discriminatory regime, as victims of enforced disappearances in East Balochistan.

Mahrang Baloch, Human Rights activist from Balochestan/Pakistan.

Voices in Silence

From the moment the horrifying news of the rape of a 15-year-old girl in Chabahar by the police commander was broadcasted, the concept of “Mahwah Baloch” transcended an individual and became a symbol of a paradigm shift in the protests in Balochistan. It heralded the end of traditional collective action and marked the beginning of a new era of protests demanding justice. Baloch women engaged in various forms of resistance and, by rejecting religious representation, pushed for progressive political changes. While confronting patriarchal norms and addressing religious/ethnic differences, and defending their and their people’s rights, Baloch women played a key role in the secular realm, in stark contrast to the conservative religious perspective of Balochistan’s religious authorities.

Although Baloch women gradually increased their political and social agency, entering city councils, municipalities, and governorships, transitioning from marginalized figures to political and social activists, the Jina movement was a turning point in the visibility of Baloch women in the political arena and in opposition to the ruling power. This occurs while Baloch women are suppressed not only by the policies of the Islamic Republic but also by the actions of Baloch religious leaders and other conservative, male-dominated social institutions and groups. The intersection of social, religious, national, and gender challenges reflects the diverse dimensions of Baloch women’s struggles, highlighting the contradiction between official ideology and the public actions of Baloch women.

However, the oppression of women in Balochistan cannot be understood solely through the growth of religious fundamentalism. The political economy governing the Sistan and Baluchistan region and the consequent diminishing role of Baloch women in the economy, the dominance of the informal economy of smuggling (various goods and drugs) and entirely male methods of income generation are other factors that have pushed women back from the economic sphere and led to their suppression. With the growth of capitalist relations and factory productions, women’s gatherings and domestic work lost their economic value. Women used to be members of the production cycle and the family economy.

Women’s gatherings, such as rural women gathering for needlework and grinding wheat to make bread, had an economic and income-generating aspect. However, with the increasing masculinization of the economic cycle, women were gradually eliminated from society and, in the view of a patriarchal society, turned into consumer beings who had to have a convincing reason to be present in society and any interaction outside the home. Also, with the growing fundamentalism and religious circles that provided the necessary justifications for the exclusion of women, the woman’s separation from society and her marginalization intensified. As a result of this process, women gradually lost their intellectual and social independence due to not being part of the family economy, which itself laid the groundwork for their powerlessness and subordination in issues such as forced marriage, child marriage, imposed dress and lifestyle, polygamy, and similar oppression.

Silence in Stereotype-Driven Discourse

The Balochistan opposition, political parties, nationalists, religious leaders, and male Baloch intellectuals have consistently overlooked women’s issues and challenges. By emphasizing controlling concepts like “honor” and “the dignity of Baloch women,” they have masculinized the struggle and aligned themselves with the ruling power, posing a threat to Baloch women’s activities. The “Jian movement” represented a historical moment for addressing the unique issues of Baloch women that did not require the authority of the urban, middle-class woman. This movement critiqued their representation in media and both governmental and anti-government discourses, transforming into a powerful force supporting progressive and secular political changes in Balochistan. The activism of Baloch women challenged patriarchal structures rooted in cultural-religious traditions and continued the fight against local structures of social and traditional oppression. It drew attention to the intertwined oppressions that women face, engaging with marginalized voices in their struggle.

Faezeh Barahuei, a 25-year-old girl, began reposting protest posts on her Instagram page in sync with the nationwide protests following the killing of Jina Amini.

Faiza first participated in street protests on September 22, 2022: “From the early days of the Mahsa Amini incident, my friends and I were actively reposting protest posts on our Instagram pages. But when the news of the rape of ‘Mahwah’ was confirmed, a call for a gathering on Zahedan University Street was circulated, which I also shared. I felt I could no longer just stay at home and decided to participate myself.”

Faiza says that although the rape of “Mahwah” occurred before the killing of Mahsa Amini, due to the taboo of speaking about violence against women, the issue was pursued in silence: “Talking about it was not easy, and some even said it was a rumor, until it was first confirmed by ‘Moulana Naqshbandi.’ Certainly, the confirmation of this news, which deeply upset and angered everyone, along with the presence of nationwide protests, which I was also regularly reposting news about, turned ‘Mahwah’ and ‘Mahsa’ into inspiring figures for me. I felt that I should not remain silent and had to make my protest public. Just as the continuation of protest Fridays by the Baloch later became a beacon of hope and a model for other regions; we all, like a family, have an impact on each other.”

Interview with IranWire

The Alliance of Clerics and the Regime

The active presence of women in Balochistan protests dealt a strong blow to the ruling power and powerful religious and traditional currents in Balochistan. Despite cultural-social-political barriers, it reminded that Baloch women are here to demand their rights. Heroically, they stood against the military dictatorship in collusion with clerics, rebelling against gender and sexual notions that subjugated their bodies to state powers and family-centered social conventions. They also delineated the lines of struggle against national, class, and political oppressions.

Religious and spiritual authorities in Balochistan used the name of “Islam” to curb resistance against their conservative laws and regulations. Religious principles were interpreted in ways that dominated the weakest segment of society. The factors that kept women out of politics all these years were patriarchal norms, tribalism, and the Talibanization of public spaces, which made the environment toxic and dangerous for women. As a result, women’s participation in protests and movements declined. Financial and security restrictions negatively impacted women’s participation, indicating that women’s struggle and activism in Balochistan are highly complex. In a patriarchal society like Balochistan, women must be part of the mainstream politics. The visibility of women in public and political arenas changes the culture of society, as seen in the enthusiastic protests of women in the Jina movement, facing repression alongside their male counterparts.

Meanwhile, the perseverance of protest Fridays demonstrates the power of non-violent mass resistance, understanding the mechanisms and structures of a widespread movement that can provide a coordinated and intense response to state violence. Women have fearlessly been at the forefront of the Jina movement. They have actively coordinated for social objectives that have not been prioritized by groups opposing the Islamic Republic. While protest Fridays can be seen as a symbol of resistance against a failed and unequal system and gender-national apartheid, and a glorious chapter in the history of the Baloch people’s demands and struggles, Baloch women, fearless in leading, have become architects of change. They challenged the existing narrative, fought, and continue to fight for a free and equal society. Their resilience is a beacon of hope in pursuing justice, equality, and freedom in Balochistan.

Social situation of Balochistan: an example

In a sobering statement, Fadahosein Maliki, who represents Sistan and Baluchestan in Iran’s Islamic Council and serves on the National Security Commission, disclosed on January 23 that over 100,000 student have abandoned their educational pursuits in the province. A primary factor contributing to the predicament in this region is the absence of official identification papers amongst the Baloch populace. Even with ongoing assurances, the legal challenges to acknowledge the nationality of these children and their parents persist.

Maliki pointed out that a number of children left out of education are without birth certificates and added: “Education should provide the statistics of children without birth certificates.”

Earlier in November of 2023, another MP of Provinces, announced that the number of students left out of education in this province is 150,000 and said: “Every year, 30% of students in this province drop out due to problems such as cost Millions of school workers are forced to drop out of school. This number of students will be added to the 150,000 survivors of education.”

According to Iranian government statistics, more than 911,000 people between the ages of six and 17 did not have the opportunity to study last year. Besides that, 279 thousand students dropped out of school. If we consider the statistics of previous years, during the past seven academic years, about four million and 89 thousand students dropped out of education.


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