Iran’s Mass Protests Are Impacting Lives in Pakistan

Recent Features

Features | Society | South Asia

Iran’s Mass Protests Are Impacting Lives in Pakistan

Baloch in Pakistan are watching the crackdown on their sisters across the border with dismay.

Iran’s Mass Protests Are Impacting Lives in Pakistan

Protesters gather in support of Mahsa Amini, an Iranian Kurdish woman, after she was arrested in Tehran by morality police for wearing her headscarf improperly, outside the U.N. headquarters in Irbil, Iraq, September 24, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Hawre Khalid, Metrography

Amid growing protests against the mandatory hijab law and now campaigns against authoritarian governance, Iran continues to close and reopen its borders with neighboring Pakistan after deadly crackdown in its bordering province of Sistan and Baluchestan.

One of the many entry points of the Iran-Pakistan border at Panjgur district’s Parom tehsil in Pakistan remained closed for several days. In the last few months, Iran continuously closed and reopened several major crossing points with Pakistan.

Although the border has not completely been closed, the closures and reopenings at several points since September have disturbed cross-border families and traders. But more than ever before, the security situation in the bordering Iranian province has concerned Iranian Baloch as well as the Baloch in Pakistan’s southwestern province.

Recent Protests in Iran

Nazish (a pseudonym for security reasons) is a lecturer at a college in one of the southern districts of Pakistan’s Balochistan province. The crackdown in Zahedan, the capital of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province, has been concerning for her and many others. “I have relatives and friends in Sistan and Baluchestan. Ever since the protests reached the east-most province, it has been hard,” she said.

According to Nazish, even if the border is open most of the time, it is not safe to travel: “Traveling from or to Iran has not been safe in the last few months and recently being in constant contact with family there [Iran] has also become challenging. The surveillance has increased more than ever before.”

In Iran, Baloch are not only an ethnic minority, but also a sectarian minority. Yet, they have been standing with the country-wide protests that began in mid-September. The recent protest movement gave them – and many other groups – an opportunity to stand against violations of their rights.

For instance, a 15-year-old girl in Sistan and Baluchestan was raped, allegedly by a government security official. This sparked protests on September 30 after Friday prayers in Zahedan, the province’s capital. At least 50 protesters lost their lives in the violence that followed.

Amid the deadly unrest throughout the province, Iran sealed one of its main crossing points with Pakistan in Taftan. The border eventually opened, but the closure affected cross-border trade and families.

Politicizing Women’s Bodies

These protests, and many others throughout Iran since mid-September, began with the slogan “Women, Life, Liberty.” Anger boiled over after the morality police arrested a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, for wearing an “improper hijab.” Amini died in police custody, with critics alleging she was beaten to death. Her death caused widespread rage, resulting in mass protests in major Iranian cities, including Zahedan. The fury essentially denies authoritarian governance and demands political autonomy over women’s bodies.

After the 1979 revolution, the regime of the new supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, ordered all women to wear headscarves, regardless of religion or ethnicity. To this day, this law applies to all women, even those traveling from other countries: female heads of states, ministers, or ambassadors are also obliged to wear the headscarf when entering Iran.

As early as the 1990s, the government introduced legal measures to enforce the mandatory hijab laws. These measures ranged from criminal punishment, imprisonment to fines. The morality police was established in 2005 to enforce what they call a “modest’’ dress code, especially when its comes to women’s dress.

“We are often told that we are fighting for a ‘small problem’ against a piece of cloth. No. We are fighting for our identity,” said Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist and activist. “How can it be a small issue, when within a year, 3.6 million women were arrested and when millions are spent to protect this law? We are fighting for our freedom from this law, because when we don’t have the freedoms, we have to fight for them.”

This is the story of Iranian women over the last four decades. An activist and one of the protesters in London, Fariba Baloch, explained that such protests are not new in Iran, “but the recent protests becoming this large is obviously new.” She pointed to the fact that the protesters involve large numbers of those from ethnic and sectarian minorities, “though they suffer in different ways. The support from all over the world has been enormous.”

Since the protests began, more than 15,000 women and men have been arrested, and hundreds killed, in the authorities’ crackdown. Yet despite the brutality, women and many men have been persistent in fighting against unnecessary politicizing and policing of women’s bodies. Women’s very personal choices are at stake, and they have had enough.

“The state governs and challenges women’s autonomy and agency by confining their bodies and shaping their attire. There is an alliance between the state and the patriarchy in oppressing those who choose not to wear the hijab or follow the approved form of hijab by the government,” explained Mina (a pseudonym), an Iranian studying at the University of Alberta.

“Thus, the struggle against the state on the streets has been accompanied by constant resistance in the private sphere with families,” she said. “In the process, the authority of families to impose the hijab has also been shaken. This resistance challenges power relations beyond the state and undermines the masculine culture and gendered relations in society,”

Today, the majority of women in Iran are educated: 80 percent of the overall adult women and 98 percent between the ages of 15-24. They also account for more than half of the university students. But only two out of every 10 Iranian women are active in the labor force, compared to seven in every 10 men. Women make up only 5 percent of the members of Iran’s parliament.

Although women’s empowerment and development correlate with education, when education is not coupled with agency and autonomy, women continue to be held back without reaching their full potential. Yet, despite all the legal restrictions, they have been working for progress, even through small acts of change.

“At the individual level, in everyday life, there have been attempts by Iranian women to overcome cultural boundaries and state’s policing. In the past few years, increasingly women began showing more and more of their hair and pulling back their headscarves. The clothes have also become shorter and tighter,” Mina explained.

“These are daring acts that happen every day in public. These have ensured that the hijab as well as other forms of discrimination against women remain as visible contentious points in the public sphere and a topic for conversation by men and women.”

Effects of the Protests in Balochistan

Although the protests in Iran have been very domestic-focused, the movement has resonated internationally. The supporting protests all over the world are one example. Closer to home, the closure and reopening of border with Pakistan provides evidence as to how rapidly the protests spread across all of Iran.

Even if Iran might want to close the border entirely amid the ongoing protests, the country cannot afford to do so. The illegal trade in oil from Iran is one of the main sources of income for cross-border families as well as for both countries’ economies.

Sale of Iranian oil is tightly restricted because of the U.S. sanctions. But once smuggled into Pakistan, the option for selling it are much broader. This illegal trade has continued for decades, but the most recent oil boom began after 2013 U.S. sanctions against Iran. Iran recovers a huge portion of cash flows and revenue from the illegal trade across Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Experts believe the smuggling is profitable for the Iranian economy. Even when security forces on either side tightly monitor the border, both countries refrain from imposing a complete crackdown on the illegal fuel smuggling trade. Long before the recent protests, due to security concerns on both sides of the border, both countries had agreed upon fencing the border line last year. But that also could not happen.

Thus, even if Iran is concerned about the security situation in its bordering province with the protests – and afraid that protesters or activists from Sistan and Baluchestan might easily travel into Pakistan – Iran cannot afford to completely close its border.

The struggle for women’s liberty began almost four decades ago in Iran, yet the recent protests have been very different in nature. They not only challenge laws against women’s very basic rights, but they have also opened a debate against Iran’s authoritarian governance, given an opportunity to minorities (including cross-border ethnic communities) to demand their rights, given rise to activism against human rights violations in Iran and around the world, and emphasized the importance of Iran’s border with Pakistan and others amid the violence and protests.