Stateless Kurds have endured centuries of persecution across the Middle East. Now, Iran’s strict application of sharia law is driving Kurdish women to fight for their freedom.
After touching down in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan’s bustling capital, monocle gets a message via Whatsapp with instructions to take a taxi to a shopping mall and wait there for a car. After 30 minutes, a battered white van pulls up. Two women and a man, all wearing crisp green fatigues and beige trainers, step out to greet us. As we make our way out of the Northern Iraqi city of 1.4 million, the driver moves quickly, checking his mirrors every few seconds. Our guides explain that this part of Kurd-controlled Iraq is crawling with Iranian intelligence officers. We make it out and the terrain soon turns from dusty city streets to lush green fields. About 30 minutes later, we arrive at a scattering of low huts nestled on the side of a mountain. This is a camp of an armed Iranian-Kurdish militia group known as the Kurdistan Freedom Party (pak).
Not unusually for Kurdish militants (known as peshmerga), this is an all-female camp. Much to the chagrin of their fundamentalist enemies in Iran, the group espouses gender equality. The camp’s chief commander, Rubar, is Iranian and joined the pak at the height of its struggle against Islamic State, crossing the mountains in 2016. Today she is in command of 150 female fighters. “I saw what Islamic State was doing to Kurdish women here,” she says gravely. “I already knew a bit about pak from social media and I felt like I needed to be part of the fight.” Soon after arriving, Rubar was battling Islamic State on the outskirts of Mosul, 85km west of Erbil. She explains that the Islamic State fighters were particularly afraid of being killed by women, believing that it would prevent them from going to heaven. Fast-forward and the so-called Islamic State is no longer a controlling force in the region.
Now it’s Iran that’s in the peshmerga’s crosshairs. In September 2022 a 22-year-old Iranian-Kurdish woman, Jhina Mahsa Amini, was beaten to death in Tehran by the state-backed Morality Police, a group responsible for enforcing the country’s strict take on sharia law. Amini had been detained for not wearing a headscarf properly and her death sparked the most significant anti-government protests in the Islamic Republic’s 43-year history. Tehran’s security forces cracked down hard, arresting thousands and killing hundreds of protesters. Demonstrations were particularly large in Iran’s Kurdish-majority regions and the slogan “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” (Kurdish for “Woman, Life, Freedom”) was chanted in solidarity on the streets of Los Angeles, London and Berlin.
While it seemed for a moment that a popular uprising might spark regime change in Iran, Rubar says that Western nations have done “nothing” for the cause. “Countries like the US are afraid,” she says. “But we’re not.” To reinforce her point, Rubar rises and beckons towards the camp’s cemetery, which contains the graves of 29 pak fighters, including some killed in a recent Iranian drone attack.
As she reads the names of the fallen, several peshmerga can be seen practising hand-to-hand combat in a field next to the graveyard. Two of them, Jilano and Media, were studying at university in Iran when last year’s protests started. Media, a 19-year-old from Tehran, attended Masa Amini’s funeral. “After the burial we went to a park to hold a protest but we were beaten by security forces,” she says. “After a few days of protests, I was taken to prison. The police held me there for an entire month. During that time, I was slapped and had my feet beaten,” she adds before detailing further harrowing details of psychological and sexual suffering inflicted to try to elicit a confession. Media was asked to sign a statement promising that she would not participate in any further demonstrations. She did so, then made immediate plans to flee and continue the fight from across the border in Iraq.
Jilano, a 24-year-old law student, began writing anti-government slogans on poster boards after Amini’s death. She then made the treacherous border crossing for a few hundred dollars with the help of smugglers. It’s a physically demanding journey, involving an eight-hour mountain trek in the dead of night. Most of the 150 fighters at this camp share similar stories. Here, Media and Jilano have tasted the freedom they craved. “In Iran, the Kurdish flag, symbols and names are forbidden,” says Media. “Here we can embrace that and they have given me a gun. I can use that – and let my hair flow freely.”
Erbil’s bustling streets offer at least a surface-level glimpse at what Iranian-Kurdish autonomy might look like. The capital of Iraqi Kurdistan has seen the emergence in recent years of gleaming new neighborhoods with names including Dream City and American Village, and luxury hotels complete with vast air-conditioned restaurants. Iraqi Kurds have been able to leverage oil wealth in an attempt to replicate Dubai-like opulence, even if success in doing so remains unlikely, partly because poverty and corruption are significant problems. However, autonomy for Iranian Kurdistan would almost certainly look different, as oil is a resource their region doesn’t possess.
Since 2005 the region has been autonomous from Baghdad, making it an effective state within a state. This has helped to insulate it from the sectarian fighting that has engulfed the rest of Iraq. The country’s Kurds are proud of that success and, understandably, they want to conserve it. As such, politicians here walk a tightrope and are wary of giving overt support to their Iranian-Kurdish brethren. Many fear incurring Tehran’s wrath and sacrificing their own hard-won stability in Iraq for an uncertain – some say impossible – Kurdish cause in Iran. This said, staying away from the fray entirely might be harder than it seems. As the number of fighters based in their territory grows, the chance of a confrontation between the massing Iranian peshmerga and Tehran is growing. If such a clash escalates from isolated skirmishes to all-out war, many Iraqi Kurds might feel compelled to fight alongside their brethren.
A dusty two-and-a-half-hour drive east of Erbil brings you to Iraqi Kurdistan’s second city, Sulaymaniyah, and within 100km of the border with Iran. Ironically, given its proximity to the Islamic Republic, Sulaymaniyah is probably the region’s most liberal city. The journey there takes in Lake Dokan, a stunning turquoise-blue freshwater affair and tourist hotspot for Iraqis from all over the country. Sulaymaniyah is also the base of Komala, a political party and armed group that is probably the best-organised Kurdish opposition to the Iranian regime. Founded in 1969 as a communist organisation, it supported the 1979 Iranian Revolution that toppled the monarchy but then found itself fighting Islamists who had gained power under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Today, Komala sees itself as a modern, social-democratic party that fights for workers’ rights and Kurdish liberation: specifically, a Kurdish-governed area within Iran, like the one that exists here in Iraq. Unlike the pak, it advocates not for Kurdish independence but for Kurds to have autonomy within a secular Iran in which power is decentralised. Still, it has been labelled a terrorist organisation and targeted with missile strikes by Tehran. One attack hit the group’s main Iraqi base a few months ago, so monocle’s rendezvous takes place at a safe house.
Armed men keep monocle in the car for several minutes. Once we are allowed to leave the vehicle, we meet Kawsar Fattahi and Abdullah Azarbar, members of Komala’s Central Committee. Azarbar, a former peshmerga, is near the top of the Iranian government’s most-wanted list. He insists that the party kept an active role in the recent protests by helping to co-ordinate peaceful marches online and that military participation would have been a step too far. “It’s very important that we try to give the civil movement a chance to affect change,” he says. “If we were to send in armed forces, it would give the Iranian state the excuse to perpetuate an even bigger bloodbath.” While the protests in Iran have died down, Azarbar says that Komala members inside the country continue to quietly foment revolution by distributing leaflets, sticking posters on walls and spray-painting political slogans. “The time will come,” says Azarbar. “We will have to use force.”
Fellow Komala member Fattahi teaches a weekly class on political ideology to new recruits in a small, bare, hut-like building with a whiteboard. This week’s subject is secularism. Recruits rest their Kalashnikovs against the wall and take out notebooks. The room’s single light bulb appears to be broken but Fattahi’s enthusiasm is undimmed. In front of the class, her demeanour transforms from soft-spoken politician to firebrand orator. During a break, we head outside. Fattahi, calm again, apologises for the intensity of her lecture. “People come here from a society where the government has told them how to think,” she says. “Many have never had the privilege of challenging these ideas. This is the first time they are being exposed to any other concepts.”
As the anti-government protests spread in late 2022, Fattahi truly believed that the time had come for Komala and the Kurdish causes. Drills and exercises increased but Tehran’s missile and drone attacks stymied any progress. So have the Iranian Kurds missed their moment? Fattahi says not. “Our movement hasn’t been crushed, even by severe repression and executions; people are not frightened,” she says, with total conviction. “All revolutions take time; they don’t happen overnight.” This much at least, it seems safe to agree on.
The Kurds are a stateless people numbering as many as 45 million and spread across Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. In each of these countries, they have faced centuries of persecution. Mostly concentrated in Iraq, the peshmerga (Kurdish for “those who face death”) is the name given to a collection of military groups that fight under the Kurdish Colourful Flag, a red, white and green tricolour with a yellow, 21-ray sun in the centre. Though diffuse, these groups have been involved in most of the Middle East’s myriad 21st-century conflicts, including the struggle against Islamic State, when peshmerga ground forces, assisted by US air attacks, helped to push back and eventually neutralise the group in Syria and Iraq.
There are currently about 10 million Kurds in Iran, approximately 10 per cent of the country’s population. In 1979 they played a prominent role in the revolution that overthrew the Western-backed Iranian monarchy. That revolution was claimed by a regime of radical Shia clerics led by Ayatollah Khomeini, who would establish an Islamic Republic and go on to wage a “holy war” against the Kurds. By the 1990s many Iranian-Kurdish groups had fled to Iraq. Today the Iraqi Kurds enjoy a level of political autonomy that their Iranian, Turkish and Syrian compatriots can only dream of but still do. Peshmerga see Iraq as a safe haven – but “safe” remains a relative term in this part of the world.