In late 2010, Mohamed Bouaziz, a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire in protest for what he perceived as unnecessary harassment by government agents. He died without knowing that his death became a catalyst for the Tunisian revolution and the subsequently, the Arab Spring.
In this case, the person’s name is Farinaz Khosrawani and she was 25 years old Kurdish maid working at a hotel in Mahabad in the North of Iran. Two weeks ago, she tried to escape from being raped and she flung herself out of the hotel room window. After perilously hanging on the ledge, she plunged 4 stories to her death. Her tragic demise took on a harsher reality when the identity of her would-be rapist turned out to be an Iranian security agent who then tried to threaten/bribe the hotel to “co-operate, or else”.
Within hours, Kurdish protesters hit the streets, burned down the hotel and riots have been raging since then sometimes gaining momentum, sometimes losing it under the crackdowns by the Iranian police in which hundreds were hurt and imprisoned.
But Khosrawani’s death, just as in Bouaziz’s case, was not the reason for the riots but instead acted as a catalyst: Were there not strong feelings by Kurds in Iran at being systematically discriminated by the regime and its agents, her death would have, at most, sparked a small outburst among her family and friends.
What remains to be seen is just how large of a bonfire, did Khosrawani’s spark ignite and that depends on two things:
- How much do the Kurds feel discriminated against in Iran?
- How does the regime respond to the riots?
Discrimination Against Kurds in Iran
Discrimination against Kurds in Iran is rampant and is usually focused on anyone who might be tagged as activists or part of the Kurdish resistance. These people are usually spied upon, sometimes for years, before they are arrested, tortured. If they are found guilty, they might be sentenced to death or simply live on in prison and torture. Sometimes, they are given a choice to either cooperate with the Intelligence services (ie: spy on the Kurdish community or praise the regime’s treatment to the Kurds) or suffer more imprisonment and torture.
Some, like Shahoo Hosseini, an ex-citizen of Mahabad manage to run away and now live in exile. Iranian prisons are filled with Kurdish political prisoners who are treated in the same manner as convicted criminals and drug felons. Last year, 27 Kurdish prisoners went on a hunger strike to try to separate them from the criminals to no avail.
Kurdish civil rights activists are also targeted and pressured by government officials, especially those who are trying to fight the death penalty for Kurdish political prisoners or for prisoners who are found guilty of “moharebeh” (contaminating the earth) such as the six Kurds who were executed in early March.
The Regime’s Response
As the protesters hit the streets, IRGC guards were called in to beef up the local security forces and the clashes led to hundreds of injuries and at least 25 imprisonments.
Some attribute the latest rise in crackdowns against Kurds to the upcoming nuclear agreement. Rezan Javid, an electrical engineer in Mahabad points to a sinister CATCH 22 situation: “There is an established pattern of the regime seizing on any thaw with the West as an opportunity to crack down even harder on its opponents.” The point being that while the world powers are focused on signing a deal with Iran, they feel less legitimacy to pressure Iran on issues of human rights. Perhaps that explains why the executions rate under Rouhani is at its highest in decades.
In any case, the riots in Mahabad are bound to be crushed and the hopes for a Kurdish spring will have to wait until Iran is back under pressure from the world and until the Kurds unite against Tehran’s oppressive regime. In the meantime, Khosrawani’s death seems destined to become an isolated news item in the past instead of becoming a catalyst for the future.