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The Makki Mosque and Woman, Life, Freedom Movement

We rewrote this text hesitantly and reflected on it several times. In a situation where the Baloch people receive much sympathy from other parts of Iran, despite the distorted image which has been built by the center, we were afraid that this article would raise the stigma that is aimed toward the Baloch people which negatively affects their personal and social lives. We have heard such stigma and accusations many times on social media while encountering our friends from other regions of Iran. Unfortunately, neglect of the history of liberation and the colonial changes of the last century, along with visual productions in the media, have created a simplified and violent appearance. Previously, we have written that activism in Sistan and Baluchistan resembles acrobatics. Writing this text and the fear of turning it into something against itself reminded us of this expression once again!

​The Makki Mosque and Woman, Life, Freedom Movement

You ask: “Where are the women?”

During the past two months, the Sistan and Baluchistan Province [of Iran] has gone through many incidents that have received little attention in written and virtual media. Zahedan and Khash have been drawn to blood one after the other on Fridays of justice[1] [dadkhahi]. During these fifty days [since the murder of Mahsa Amini in the custody of the so-called morality police, at the time the article was written], we witnessed that Molavi Abdulhamid has turned from a supporter of the Taliban to a reformist and critic of the regime, whose sermons are making the news not only in Sistan and Baluchistan, but all over Iran.

In the essay “Why Chabahari girl is our code name?” we mentioned that we are writing on shaky ground. Incidents happen one after the other and there is no time to stop and look back. Emotions disrupt the opportunity to linger and remember.

The influential forces that we discussed previously in the essay on Chabahari girl, and their relationships with each other and with the governing body of the Islamic Republic, have now found a different configuration. As we mentioned in that text, how the opposing forces are confronting each other and orienting against the people is not predictable. Despite all this, we did not doubt that these forces will enter the field, to control the accumulated anger of the people and channel the protests. After the recent bloodshed, these powerful and dominant forces in the region want to control the protesters, deny their long-term beneficial collaboration with the regime, present themselves as advisers to both the people and the regime, and possibly express themselves as the leaders of the protesters in the aftermath of the revolution. We have also witnessed that all the analyses and reports of the “alternative” media and the oppositional TV broadcasting outside Iran revolve only around the Makki institution.[2] Everyone is silent about this institution’s background and its conflicting nature with the Women, Life, Freedom movement. Yet we believe that addressing the background of the Makki Mosque and its historical roots may help to understand the apparent univocality of the latest protests.

Today, the most important issue that all the reactionary forces of Sistan and Baluchistan are focusing on after the recent bloody massacre is not justice [dadkhahi], but the risk of their loss of leadership over the lives of the Baluch people. Remaining in poverty and being deprived of development is a structural and historical fact in this province. The looting of the ecosystem, resources, and lives of the Baluch people has been carried out by the central government through non-Baluch affiliated forces and their representatives such as Sardars (tribal heads) before the revolution, and Molavis (Sunni religious leaders) after the revolution. The changes in the power balance after the revolution and the escape of influential clan leaders paved the way for the graduates of the Dēobandi school (which had spread rapidly in Baluchistan). Furthermore, the suppression of nationalists and leftists at the beginning of the revolution facilitated the Dēobandi’s influence. Most Dēobandi members are educated in religious schools in India and Pakistan. The war in Afghanistan and the financing of extremist schools in Pakistan in the 1970s, and the rise of jihadists in Afghanistan at the same time, were among other reasons for the growth of this extremist tendency in this region. Within the Sunni-Dēobandi current, Baluchi identity was further stimulated and protected following the establishment and consolidation of the Shia-Persian government after the revolution, thus attracting profound interest among the identity-seekers [هویت‌طلبان] in the region.

In response, although the Shiite government violated the demands of Molavi Abdul Aziz Mullahzadeh regarding religious freedom, education in the Baluchi language, and the assigning of Baluchi officials to some high-level positions from the beginning of the revolution, it nevertheless recognized the role of this institution in maintaining unity and influence in Sistan and Baluchistan. In the face of all those years of disenfranchisement and looting by the government, the clerics of this school either remained silent or limited themselves to only giving advice, in order to protect themselves. The government also used the clerics when necessary to control the people of the region, as well as rewarded them to diminish the influence of the armed extremist-fundamentalists.

Molavi Abdulhamid Ismail Zahi has always condemned armed extremist movements, opposed the extremism of the Taliban’s use of violence, and has tried to prevent religious wars in Sistan and Baluchistan by using his influence to mediate and end many hostage situations. The Makki Mosque institution, however, cannot be considered as the foundation of popular protests, because of its fundamental contradictions vis-à-vis the demands of the people in general and women in particular, and thus should not escape criticism. In the years after the revolution, Molavi Abdulhamid’s relationship with Tehran had ups and downs, the details of which are beyond the scope of this essay. But in general, the demands of the religious establishment on the government during these years always concerned religious affairs. Despite the growing poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, informal settlements, and widespread dispossession in this province, they have never seriously pursued and demanded social and economic justice. Even their closeness or distance in relation to reformist or fundamentalist bodies of the government has always been based on demands for religious freedom. For instance, the latest incident of the murder of fuel smugglers [by the border police] in Shamsar Saravan in 2020 was easily forgotten, despite the coverage and disclosure of the details of this crime in social media, to the point that Molavi supported the candidacy of the head of the judiciary in the presidential election.

Without the above introduction in which we tried to show the power mechanism within the Makki institution, understanding the recent events in Sistan and Baluchistan would not be possible. After the Bloody Friday in Zahedan, if Molavi Abduhamid would have remained silent, as the only “safe and official” authority for justice, this would have endangered his social position and capital. Just as happened to Imam Juma of Sunni in Chabahar, who lost all credibility and reputation in a single stroke after calling the protesters “rioters” [اغتشاش‌گر]. On the other hand, despite the presence of younger, more outspoken, and more nationalist clerics than Abdulhamid, he could not maintain a neutral position in relation to the event, although he joined the ranks of the protesters only after the Zahedan massacre. Also, the release of threatening videos of government clerics and IRGC officials about Abdulhamid united the reactionary forces behind him even more. At the same time, rumors such as “Molavi has given his life and his life is in danger” generated a renewal of covenants of the clan of Sarhad (and later Makran) to him. Considering the weakness of the quasi-caste system, these clans are more concentrated and unified and have always been among Abdulhamid’s closest allies. These clans are collaborating with the Makki Mosque in obtaining administrative positions, exerting influence, gaining power and wealth, and every year they make great financial contributions to it. In fact, in Sistan and Baluchistan, Baluch officials will not last long, regardless of their merits, if they are not allies of the Makki Mosque. Therefore, they are always pledging, negotiating with, and financing it. But Molavi Abdulhamid’s recent speeches surprised many. He talked about civil rights and freedom, girls’ education, and even hijab. His words even aroused the sympathy of some of the supporters of the protests and the Shia community such that it was stated that a Baluch Sunni cleric speaks from the heart of the people in Persian Shia Iran. He mentioned a referendum with foreign supervision as a solution, but he didn’t mention the referendum for what? To change the hijab or governmental system? Or reform of religious affairs? Although Molavi is not an official of the ruling system, the Makki institution has never been a powerless, irresponsible, and passive spectator in the construction of the current socio-political situation.

Now that the protests in Sistan and Baluchistan are linked to the nationwide protests, Abdulhamid’s seemingly “progressive” slogans have been sufficient to attract the support and attention of the center-oriented oppositional groups, but also the Woman, Life, Freedom movement protesters. Although he did not mention a word about women’s conditions in the region in his previous sermons, the opposition media abroad recognized his speech as radical. His lack of attention to the women’s conditions in his sermons was nevertheless criticized by women on social media and in social networks. Talking about women and criticizing the past could have been a big challenge for Molavi Abdulhamid, and he refused to do it. Such refusal takes place in a situation where women had protested against the rigid and anti-feminist laws of religion, customs, and sharia for years. Women in this province have not been passive subjects to be affirmed by Molavi. During these years, women did not give up their agency to the Makki institution, and they are the expression of Women, Life, and Freedom. Faezeh Brahooi[3] is one of those and the first one who sought justice, having the least possibility of protesting and with the lowest prospect of being recognized by the [Makki] institution or receiving support for her freedom, to the day she received her verdict.

So, despite Abdulhamid’s unusual speech in which he mentioned women’s issues, his words cannot purify his relationship with the issue of women. During these years, the Makki institution has not only failed to improve the situation of Baluch women, but has also attempted very hard to silence them. Abdulhamid has indeed never officially opposed the education of girls, but many of his followers in small towns and villages warn families against girls’ education in high school and university in the Friday sermons. These followers have always opposed birth control as an interference in God’s work, they have remained silent about the rights of undocumented people, and they have not spoken about the right of Baluch mothers to have birth certificates. Abdulhamid is talking about having a female minister while he has not spoken for years about the educational situation of girls, men’s polygamy, forced marriage of children, and femicide in Baluchistan. He brings up the issue of burning hijab and mentions that women set fire to hijab as a symbol of protest against the oppression they endure. But he does not mention anything about the obligation to wear the black veil [chador] as Baluchi women’s dress code, which was part of the process of Islamization of Baluchistan and gradually replaced the customary and traditional clothing of Baluch women. If anyone has studied in their schools, must have heard that “If it was allowed for a person to prostrate to another person, we would force a woman to prostrate to her husband!” We want to highlight that focusing on Molavi Abdulhamid’s verbal confirmation or condemnation of the government will not give a full image of what is going on in the region, since in that case the political economy of Makki’s institution will remain overlooked.

While Baluch citizens have not been able to achieve basic livelihoods and dignified life, the upper layers of the society close to the Makki institution have been able to achieve great wealth. Makki’s possessions, which are managed by Molavi Abdulhamid’s family network, include houses, retail stores, boarding houses, shopping malls, business holdings, and even concessions in the province’s mine reserves. In fact, since the time that the reformists entered the province with slogans such as “Iran for all Iranians” and began the redistribution of wealth and privatization in the country, Makki’s institution took advantage. In a situation where dispossession and marginalization are some of the biggest problems on the southern coasts, the Makki institution not only did not object to these issues, but also became an accomplice of large-scale constructions and other projects in Chabahar port. The port with the highest rate of informal settlements and marginalization!

While the institution does not emphasize the education of Baluch girls on the one hand, and the government has deferred its responsibilities to charities in many of the inaccessible areas on the other hand, Makki’s religious schools are running in the most remote cities and villages and promoting the institution. While playing political games to gain maximum benefits from the government, the suppression and oppression of women are one of the main pillars of their education system. Molavi’s relatives have special judiciary authority (so-called shari’a) dealing with criminal matters, as well as divorce and femicide, by which they implement customary and shari’a anti-woman laws with their rulings.

Apart from exerting influence on the daily lives of men and women, the sanctified influence of this institution on politics is such that parliamentarians in the Baluchistan region (and not Sistan) cannot announce their candidacy without Makki’s favorable opinion. Also, in the appointment of all executives in the Baluchistan region, the opinion of Makki mafia matters. Makki’s most important demands until today have been on having a Sunni Mosque in Tehran, publishing religious books, and appointing a governor approved by Molavi. For many years, civil society activities in this region have been disrupted and undermined by not only state security agencies but also by Makki’s allies. Baluch activists have either been under the pressure of their own clans, through the heads of clans allied with the Makki institution, or the forces close to Makki have directly threatened them. Such threats can have deadly consequences for activists and their relatives due to the availability of weapons in this region. These threats have even more oppressive aspects for women and direct more pressure and violence toward them.

It must be remembered that the rape of the teenage girl from Chabahar by a police officer, which became the spark of the protests in Zahedan, has been sidelined amid other demands and protests. We still do not know the fate of the suspect(s). The judicial system is obviously not interested in expressing its opinion, but in the pulpit where women’s rights are discussed, it seems that Chabahari girl has been deliberately forgotten.

We believe that Makki’s institution has a fundamental conflict with the Women, Life, Freedom movement. Unfortunately, however, all internal reactionary forces, local virtual tribunes, and the apparent ‘revolutionary’ oppositional media are standing in line with this tendency of not reflecting the voices of the women and freedom seekers. While any protest of the status quo cannot be interpreted in relation to Women, Life, Freedom, it seems that the centrist opposition movement in Sistan and Baluchistan is not interested in hearing other independent voices; voices that have fought for years to survive. Willingly or reluctantly, these media streams are eradicating the civil struggles of Baluch women and men for freedom and equality. We will write more about these issues in the future.

November 18, 2022

[1] Zahedan massacre.

[2] The Grand Makki Mosque of Zahedan (Persian: مسجد جامع مکی زاهدان) is the largest Sunni Mosque in Iran and is located in the center of Zahedan, the capital of the Sistan and Baluchistan Province.

[3] Faezeh Barahooi, a 25-year-old woman, was arrested in Zahhedan for exposing and protesting the rape of a 15-year-old Baloch girl by a police colonel. She was sentenced to three years and six months in prison.

​The Makki mosque and woman life freedom moment
You ask “Where are the women?”

Authors: @thevoicesofbaluchwomen, Dasgoharan

Translated into English by Tanide