The Protests in Iran and Azerbaijani Turk Civil Rights Activists
What role have Azerbaijani-Turks played in Iran's recent protests? For some of the country's minoritized ethnicities, the issues behind the demonstrations are just a selection of many more.
Hadis Najafi, 22 years old, was killed during a demonstration at Karaj, a city west of Tehran. Image: Hadis Najafi
Since September 16, hundreds of thousands across Iran have been protesting—in more than 80 cities across 31 provinces of Iran. According to Iran Human Rights, at least 154 people, including children, were killed in the first two weeks, with thousands more injured and detained. Videos shared on social media from protests show security forces on motorcycles attacking and chasing demonstrators and beating them with batons, shooting firearms and tear gas. In some cases, protestors confronted security forces, pushing them back using bricks and barricades, setting police cars on fire and throwing stones.
The protests began after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, died on September 16, after three days of coma in Tehran’s Kasra Hospital. She fell into a coma within hours of her arrest on September 13 by Iran’s “morality” police (gasht-e ershad) for not correctly following the country’s compulsory hijab law. It demands that women cover their hair, arms, and legs in public by wearing scarves, a chador or a knee-length dress called a manto. The authorities claimed that Mahsa died from a heart attack, but eyewitnesses reported seeing her being violently arrested, beaten, and pushed into a police van to be transferred to the Vozara detention centre in Tehran, where she was supposed to receive “guidance and training on hijab rules.”
In various videos published on social networks, it can be seen that police were already trying to prevent people from gathering outside Kasra Hospital on the day of her death. Angry at the authorities, protestors chanted slogans such as “death to the dictator” and “Khamenei is a murderer, his rule is illegitimate,” targeting the country’s 83-year-old supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
Mahsa Amini, from Saqqez in Iran’s Kurdistan province, had been visiting her relatives in Tehran with her younger brother. Her brother was also beaten for protesting his sister’s arrest.
On September 17, thousands attended Mahsa’s funeral in her hometown of Saqqez. They expressed their outrage through more chanted slogans against Khamenei and his regime, along with Kurdish language slogans such as “Woman, Life, Freedom” and “Why Murder for a Scarf?! How Long Will We Tolerate This?!” Some brave women then removed their headscarves in protest, and police reacted by firing water cannons, gunshots, and tear gas to disperse the crowd.
Protests in front of the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 4, 2022. Image: tolga ildun/Shutterstock
Far from calming matters, protests soon spread to other cities of Kurdistan province in Iran, including Sanandaj and Divandarreh and from there to other regions of the country. These widespread demonstrations, many led by young women, are unusual in the degree to which they challenge Iran’s discriminatory gender laws calling not just for an end to the compulsory hijab but also standing up against violence and discrimination against women in all its forms.
Some protestors have been calling for a wholesale change in the country’s theocratic political system, which they see as authoritarian, illegitimate, and guilty of violating a wide range of citizens’ political and social freedoms and rights. Chants have included “We Don’t Want the Islamic Republic,” “The Mullahs Must Go,” and “Death to the Oppressor, Be It the Shah or the [Supreme] Leader.” Crowds have torn down portraits of Ali Khamenei and Qasem Soleimani - a general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), who was killed in Iraq by a US drone strike.
The Iranian government, thus facing intense political and ideological challenges from protesters, decided to restrict its citizens' access to widely used social media networks Instagram and WhatsApp (Telegram, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have already been filtered for years though people often use VPNs to bypass the government restrictions). In some provinces, the authorities shut down the internet, leaving millions of Iranians without connectivity. Media is heavily censored in Iran, and radio and television stations are government-owned. Blocking the internet is an effective tool in challenging those who wish to organize demonstrations and spread news of their protests with their fellow citizens and the outside world.
Protests by Azerbaijani Turks
Most of those who have died in the protests are reported to have been from ethnically minoritized provinces, including at least 11 from Western Azerbaijan. Like many other regions of Iran, sizeable protests were held in big and small cities of Iranian Azerbaijan. Slogans in Azerbaijani Turkish included "Freedom, Justice, National Government,” “Men and Women Hand in Hand, Crush the Head of Oppression,” “Azerbaijan is Awake and Supportive of Women," and “Azerbaijan is Awake and Supportive of Kurdistan." Here too, police used violence to disperse demonstrators, and according to human rights and media reports, dozens of activists and citizens were detained, some for participating, others pre-emptively.
Protesters in front of Tabriz University, Iran. October 1st, 2022. Image: Social Media
However, the most high-profile ethnic Azerbaijani Turk casualty was 23-year-old Tik-Tok star Hadis Najafi who was reportedly shot through the heart, abdomen and neck in a demonstration at Karaj, a city west of Tehran.
Her death spurred a particular barrage of media reactions worldwide. Rıza Heyet, editor-in-chief of the Azerbaijani Turkish-Persian quarterly journal Varlıq tweeted about her: "Turkish girl Hadis Najafi was brutally murdered… in the middle of the street with six bullets. We will not be silent about this oppression and murder.”
He later wrote in support of the protests while stressing the importance of keeping the priorities and demands of Azerbaijani Turks in mind: “A historic opportunity has arisen today. Oppressed and discriminated nations and communities are united, trying to defeat this dragon and build a free life... we should support those in the squares with loud, progressive slogans and fulfill our historical duty.”
In another tweet, Heyet called on Persian/Iranian centralist opposition groups to distance themselves from individual nationalist ideologies and recognize the marginalization and concerns of various ethnic communities in Iran, stating: “Recent events have created a golden opportunity… to measure the attitude of Persian opposition and other ethnic groups regarding national oppression and ethnic equality.”
Several political organizations belonging to the Turk, Arab, Turkmen and Baloch communities of Iran released a joint statement indicating their support for the protests on behalf of “the oppressed nationalities of Iran, who are the primary victims of this regime.”
Other Diaspora and Activist Reactions
Azerbaijani Turk civil rights activists, particularly those in vocal diaspora groups, were keen to point out the important added dimension of ethnicity in the protests.
US-based Darya Hodaei, author, activist and former guest of our podcast, tweeted, “Today, Iranian women are tired of all the inequalities, and the women of non-Persian ethnicities not only suffer from gender inequality but also experience double oppression of identity inequality.”
Ruzbeh Saadati, whose activist wife Safieh Qarabaghi was herself arrested in Zanjan, alerted followers to: “Check out the list of arrestees in the last report of Euronews Farsi and DW News Farsi. None of “our” Azerbaijani activists are mentioned there. This is the boycott and denial we have been crying out for years. Be ashamed…”
Safiyeh Garabaghi and other Azerbaijani-Turk Women protest in Zanjan in 2013. The signs read: Freedom for Political Prisoners!
Schools in Turkish! Free Said Metinpour! Lift gender-based university quotas! Journalists, Back to the newspaper! Students Expelled Back to university! Image: SouthAzerbaijan/Fb
Farzin Farzad, a US-based equity consultant, similarly criticized what he perceived as the lack of reference to ethnicity in reports of protester casualties in Iran. “More Azerbaijanis killed, and mainstream accounts refuse to report on their ethnicities,” he tweeted, adding his disgust that “the nationalist Iranian diaspora is purposefully gatekeeping news and updates from ethnic minority regions that don't feed the Aryanist mythos that Iran is a unified nation with common interests.”
Background: Iran's Compulsory Hijab & Morality Police
The compulsory hijab law was imposed shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution, accompanied by other discriminatory laws framed as being required by Islamic mores.
Over the last two decades, women in Iran, especially young girls and students, have increasingly challenged the imposed gender dress code by wearing loose, colourful, and relaxed clothes. To fight against these popular challenges, the Iranian government formed the Guidance Patrol (gasht-e ershad), also known as the “morality” police, in 2005.
Such ‘Guidance Patrols’ regularly monitor streets and public spaces, giving warnings and detaining those women who are believed to have violated the hijab law. At the police station, detainees’ are “educated” for hours about hijab and forced to sign statements promising to comply with hijab rules.
Along with the recent increase in poverty and prices in Iran, the Iranian authorities have increased the pressure on women by emphasizing the issue of the hijab. In the last few months, intensifying the Guidance Patrol’s control of women in the streets has resulted in ongoing reactions and protests. Before these recent escalations, thousands of Iranian women have been taking off their headscarves in the streets and squares of cities all over Iran, taking videos of themselves and sharing them in virtual spaces. Amini’s death should thus be seen within this context of daily harassment and women’s resistance to it.
The Birth of a New Widespread Social Movement in Iran?
For many, the current demonstrations and their consequences appear to be the most significant political and ideological challenge to the Islamic Republic and its policies in recent years. They have been the largest since nationwide demonstrations in November 2019 over fuel price increases, when Amnesty International reported the killing of between 300 and 1,500 people in a government crackdown.
This time it is notable that young women of various backgrounds and regions have been on the streets to push back against decades of silencing. It is not hard to see these protests' revolutionary potential with the “gender rights” discourse emerging as a powerful narrative. If linked and aligned with the struggles of other minoritized communities (linguistic, ethnic, religious, class, sexuality), it could pose a serious existential threat to the Iranian form of theocratic government.
 Notably in Tabriz, Zanjan, Urmia, Qazvin, Hamadan, Marand, Naqadeh (Sulduz), Meshgin (Khiyav), Miandoab (Goshachay), Malikkendi and Abhar