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How the Kurdish people's situation factors into protests over woman's death in Iran

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Iran, nationwide protests challenging the country's leadership have entered their 11th day, and the protests are getting more dangerous. The Associated Press reports that Iranian state TV is saying at least 41 protesters and police officers have been killed, and more than 1,400 people have been arrested. During previous demonstrations, though, official counts given by Iranian government sources have proven to be low, so it's likely more people than that have been killed or detained. The protests were sparked after a young Kurdish woman visiting Tehran was jailed for improperly wearing her headscarf. The woman, Mahsa Amini, who's also known by her Kurdish name, Jina Amini, died while she was in police custody.

Here to talk about how the situation facing Kurdish people factors into these protests is Meghan Bodette. She's the director of research at the Kurdish Peace Institute based in Washington, D.C. Welcome.

MEGHAN BODETTE: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So I understand that you have just spoken with an activist in Iran. Can you tell us what you heard from them?

BODETTE: Yes. So we spoke with an activist on the ground in Iran's Kurdish region who, to put it simply, is talking about how difficult the situation has been there for the Kurdish people and how difficult it will be with the protests. What we've seen so far and what he told me and what's corroborated by human rights organizations in the country is that dozens of protesters have been killed, hundreds have been injured, and even more have been arrested for their participation or the suspicion of their participation. Recent data from human rights organizations operating in Kurdish regions puts the number of arrests in those provinces in Iran's northwest alone at over 1,000.

CHANG: Yeah.

BODETTE: For all of these figures, real numbers are likely higher. What I was also told was that the need for international attention is quite simply greater than ever. When the Kurdish people have been oppressed in the past, it's been with very little international attention to their situation in Iran, particularly when compared to the struggle in other parts of the Middle East and of other Kurdish populations...

CHANG: Yeah, I want to talk about that because we mentioned Amini was Kurdish, which is a minority group in the Middle East. Can you explain who the Iranian Kurds are and how they have fared in Iran generally?

BODETTE: Yes. So they're about 10% of the country's population, about 8 to 10 million people living primarily in Iran's northwest. And they have been oppressed by the Iranian nation-state, both under the monarchy and under the Islamic Republic today. Their language, which is distinct, is restricted. Their culture is restricted. They make up almost half of political prisoners in the country despite being a small portion of the population. Their dissidents aren't safe even when they've fled. Iran has assassinated Kurdish leaders as far away as Europe. And Kurdish provinces are among the poorest in the country due to economic exploitation by the state, which drives many who live there into deadly jobs like unregulated cross-border trade. So in addition to the violence and dictatorship that all citizens of Iran face, their situation is even worse.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, what seems notable about these protests in particular is that we're seeing a lot of women demonstrating in the streets. Can you tell us how significant that is, that women are widely protesting in the open like this?

BODETTE: So that's incredibly meaningful because, you know, again, women are far from the only oppressed group under the current Iranian state, but they're the first and the largest one. And the dress codes that these women are protesting are just the tip of the iceberg. Iranian law grants men, government an incredible degree of power and control over really the most intimate and personal aspect of women's lives, from marriage and divorce and inheritance to travel, work and legal cases.

And notably, this is not the first time that Iranian women have courageously resisted these discriminatory practices. But it is the first time that these feminist demands, these demands for the basic equality of women, have sparked such a sustained, nationwide protest against dictatorship as a whole. Because all women in Iran face this severe oppression, their demands unify people across these religious and ethnic lines. And because gender inequality is so foundational to the state and its repressive institutions, a demand for women's freedom is naturally, I would say, a demand for the democracy and freedom from all the kinds of human rights abuses that women and men alike suffer from there.

CHANG: May I ask you - my colleague Steve Inskeep spoke with Iran's foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian. They spoke through an interpreter earlier. This is what the foreign minister in Iran said that he is telling his Western counterparts about the protests.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HOSSEIN AMIRABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) I'm assuring them that there is not a big deal going on in Iran. There's not going to be a regime change in Iran. I don't play to the emotions of the Iranian people.

CHANG: What do you think of that, when you hear him say that these protests going on right now are not a big deal?

BODETTE: Well, when I hear that, I hear a cover-up for the repression that is going on, for the killings of protesters, for the injury of protesters, for the arrests of people suspected of having any sympathy or participation in this movement. They don't want the international community to see this as a big deal. They don't want media to cover it.

As evidenced by the blocking of the internet, they don't want information to get out. That was one of the very important points that I've been hearing from people on the ground and local human rights organizations, is the importance of amplifying this information because they don't want it to be heard. So that to me is a display of fear at this women-led movement for democracy and freedom from all forms of oppression and a sign that we can't look away. We have to follow up and keep our eyes on the situation there.

CHANG: Meghan Bodette is the director of research at the Kurdish Peace Institute. Thank you so much for joining us today.

BODETTE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Kathryn Fox