Issue #145 A Struggle for Everyone

A Struggle for Everyone

Shouka Alizadeh and Goli Baharan

Afghan women protest in Kabul on August 13, 2022, two years after the Taliban takeover.

Issue #145
May 2024

The Jina uprising marked a significant turning point, leading to extensive transformations in Iran’s social and political landscape. Unprecedented alliances were formed as marginalized and subaltern groups united to voice their oppressions and participate in the movement, with oppressed Iranians—including women, young people, individuals with disabilities, the elderly, and members of the LGBTQ+ community—taking to the streets with an inclusive interpretation of the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom.” Immigrants from Afghanistan, among the most marginalized groups in Iran, also joined the uprising. Their names are not only on the lists of the arrestees, but among the casualties of the uprising as well.

The situation for Afghanistani1 refugees in Iran is precarious. They are never conceived of as citizens and they face numerous legal restrictions, including limited job opportunities and property rights as well as a lack of access to government benefits, insurance, and education (they are barred from majoring in many academic fields). Additionally, they are restricted from entering and living in certain cities. The Iranian government’s unstable policies and anti-immigrant sentiments have led to media campaigns against the presence of immigrants in the country, inciting incidents of violence against refugees both by the government and Iranian civilians. Such horrific acts of violence include but are not limited to burning immigrants’ houses and expelling them from certain towns.

Nevertheless, violence does not constitute the entirety of immigrants’ lives. The relationship between Iranians and Afghanistani immigrants is not always the same. By and large, widespread, public solidarity with immigrants increases during political upheavals, as our intertwined destinies manifest themselves more than ever during turbulent times. Ten Afghanistanis were among the 140 victims of the downing of Tehran-Kyiv flight PS-752 in 2020. The names of two Afghanistanis, Setareh Tajik and Mohammadreza Sarvari, echoed in the media as two martyrs of the Jina uprising. Just like us, they opposed the regime and lost their lives doing so. But has this movement truly brought the “others” closer to Iranian society?

In the months following the suppression of the uprising, a new anti-immigrant wave swept Iranian media: there were exaggerated statistics of the number of immigrants, who were falsely portrayed as agents of disruption and representatives of the Taliban. News stories with headlines like “An Afghan Citizen Killed Ten People in Iran by Stabbing Them to Death” were published as “proof.” Some Afghanistanis confronted Iranians by asking them if they were the same people who supported the Jina uprising.

“Life will not go back to how it was before Jina’s movement” was a motto that echoed across social media during the uprising. Did Afghanistani immigrants also feel such changes in their lives? Did Jina’s revolution change their perspectives on life in Iran?

To answer these questions, we interviewed ten Afghanistani men and women living in Tehran. We tried to learn about their lives before and after the Jina uprising as well as the impact of the subsequent anti-immigrant sentiment.

An Outsider Within a Group

Several factors impact the lives of Afghanistani people residing in Iran, including ethnicity, religion, gender identity, and the number of years they have lived in the country. In terms of Afghanistani ethnic groups, Hazarehs are some of the oldest immigrants in Iran. Their religion and status as long-term residents, unlike their physical features, bring them closer to integration with Iranians. Tajiks and Pashtuns are mostly Sunnis (unlike the majority of Iranians), but in terms of physical features, they are indistinguishable from Iranians, thus they are targeted much less in public spaces. The Ozbaks, who are considered newcomers, constitute the smallest portion of immigrants.

Raha Hazara is a twenty-six-year-old from Afghanistan. She was born in Iran and deprived of access to higher education. She believes that Afghanistanis in Iran face discrimination, inequality, and humiliation wherever they go: in bakery queues, schools and universities, taxis, the metro, the streets, and so on. She also feels that being ethnically Hazara has caused her to face more abuse in Iran: “One of the reasons I faced more discrimination is my Hazara facial features, because Iranians only know Afghanistanis with the Hazara features.”

Gender discrimination deepens as Afghan girls are barred from higher education by the Taliban.

Most Afghanistanis, even those with a long history of residing in Iran, or who were born in Iran, have faced humiliation in public spaces. “Afghani” is a well-known derogatory term to refer to immigrants from Afghanistan.

Tayyebeh is a twenty-five-year-old born in Harat. She has lived in Iran for twenty-two years. She has a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Azad University. She recalls that while growing up, “when we used to go to parks, we would hear parents asking their children: ‘Are you an Afghani [that you are doing that]?!’ as a means to warn them. In general, Iranian kids did not let us join their games, and if they did, they humiliated us by continuously calling us ‘Afghani.’”

Zahra, a twenty-four-year-old with roots in Harat, was born in Iran. She is a college student in educational sciences at a public university in Iran. She has never seen Afghanistan and says that Iran is her home, but throughout her life, she has been othered and has never been perceived as Iranian. She has had experiences similar to Tayyebeh: “People used the word ‘Afghani’ as a slur. It made me feel very ashamed.”

Tayyebeh’s experience demonstrates that educational institutions, namely “schools,” play a big role in the process of othering Afghanistani kids. Children’s education has always been a difficult story intertwined with the implementation of new policies by the government. In 2015 all immigrants were granted the right to study, based on a ruling by the Supreme Leader. Zahra, as one of the students who could attend school after the leader’s ruling, faced severe discrimination there:

For instance, we were not allowed to join extracurricular activities such as school trips or taking the “National Organization for Development of Exceptional Talents” tests. Affected by this climate, most of my classmates would not befriend us. They acted as if we were filthy objects. They would not approach us, would not talk to us, would not eat the snacks we ate. The teachers treated us badly too. If we did not do our homework or scored low on tests, they would yell at us: “You came from Afghanistan and you do not even want to study? Why are you here then?”

Universities, too, are sites of discrimination and educational exclusion for Afghanistanis. They are not allowed to enter all university programs. Fatemeh aspired to study flight engineering, but during Konkoor (the national university entrance exam) she realized that as an Afghanistani, she was not allowed to.

According to the “list of the four jobs allowed for foreign nationals,” immigrants who retain the right to work in Iran are only allowed to work in four occupational categories. These include brick-making, construction, agricultural, and other jobs such as chemical waste recycling and gravedigging. Working in these hard and precarious jobs makes life difficult for immigrants, and it creates a narrow image of them as manual laborers. Meanwhile, a large number of second- and third-generation immigrants have studied in Iran and have attended university. They cannot enter the professions they studied for. Zahra’s sister, who is a midwife, is one of them. “One of my sisters studied midwifery in Iran,” she explains, “but because she could not have a practice here, she returned to Afghanistan at the height of the Taliban regime and was able to open a practice there, even though it was difficult.”

The Other Speaks

Afghanistani immigrants have developed different strategies to confront the violence inflicted on them by Iranian civilians and the government. These strategies depend on the risks to their survival and the level of support from the Iranians. Their acts of resistance and daily struggle are directed toward the xenophobia of Iranian civilians and the systemic oppression of the regime. When they talk about themselves, they emphasize their Afghanistani identity and insist upon their equality from a human rights perspective.

Raha told us about her daily resistance in the Tehran metro:

As soon as I entered the metro one day some passengers started talking with each other about me: “Why doesn’t the government deport these Afghanis? …” I used to react when I was younger, but now I do not dare. If there was one Iranian who would support me in that space, I would also protest.

The bravery of second- and third-wave immigrants, or those who have attended school and university in the country, in confronting this antagonism against Afghanistanis is remarkable. Their educational background and extended residence in Iran grant them greater ability than their parents to challenge discrimination. While another interviewee, Mohammad, strives for a rational perspective on immigration issues in Iran, he acknowledges that “I have not experienced racism recently since I don’t leave the house that often due to the recent anti-immigrant wave, and if someone disrespects me, I try to ignore it.” The fear of anti-immigrant sentiment and the potential for humiliation and danger have significantly impacted him. Despite his efforts to defend his rights in Iran over the years, he admits that he has been frightened. Mohammad recalls a case in which a student insulted him, leading to a disciplinary committee investigation that ruled in his favor and ultimately ended with the student apologizing.

Tayyebeh recounted an incident with a taxi driver who assumed she was illiterate solely based on her nationality:

A taxi driver once gave me his business card. Later in our conversation, he asked where I was from. Upon learning that I was Afghanistani, he was shocked and remarked, “Oh, so you are illiterate!” He even asked for the card back. I informed him that I am currently taking advanced English classes and am pursuing a bachelor’s degree in architecture. “And you tell me I cannot read?” The driver apologized and said that most Afghanistanis he had encountered were illiterate.

The oppression that Afghanistani immigrant women face is twofold: from the government and from their families. Unmarried women experience peculiar restrictions—for instance, a ban on obtaining a driver’s license. Zahra sheds light on the difficult process of obtaining a driver’s license and proudly relates her determination:

They told me I had to change my passport to a student one. Then they said, “No, we do not issue driver’s licenses to foreign nationals under any circumstances, unless you are married, in which case you have to apply through your husband.” I informed them that I did not want to get married. I just wanted a driver’s license. Eventually, after many attempts, and after signing a written pledge that I would only use the license for personal reasons and not for work, I managed to get it after six months.

Life During the Jina Uprising

Jina’s movement changed marginalized lives not only within the geographic borders of Iran but throughout the world. Burning headscarves as a symbol of resistance against the Iranian regime’s patriarchy caught the attention of many women around the globe. Afghanistani women showed the most solidarity with this uprising. In solidarity with Iranian women, Afghanistani women, starting in the first days of the Jina uprising, organized several demonstrations across different Taliban-controlled cities in Afghanistan. Afghanistanis living in Iran joined the uprising to protest the othering imposed on them by both the regime and civilians. The experience of death, prison, and a relentless police presence in the streets brought them closer to Iranians.

Women march in Kabul on March 26, 2023, to protest the closure of girls’ schools.

In our interviews with Afghanistani immigrants, we discussed life during and after the Jina uprising. In our interviews, we discovered that only women participated in street protests. They considered their presence as a means to simultaneously fight for changing the structure of the government, and defend their rights. Zahra shared her observations:

During the uprising, Afghanistani women were much more involved than men. At the height of the protests, some of our relatives found it challenging and intriguing, but they did not allow their daughters to participate in the protests because they were afraid. But the protests by Iranian girls were interesting to them, and they said that these women were brave.

Hope for change is what motived Fatemeh to join the uprising:

I attended the protests, as I was hopeful that social change would lead to us being accepted as citizens—especially as women—so that we could enjoy our fundamental human rights. I knew I was putting myself in danger, but I do not regret it at all, since I was fighting on the streets for my rights and for changing the regime.

Tayyebeh “found herself” in Jina’s uprising. She pledged not to stop fighting, wherever she was in the world. She believes that achieving freedom comes with a price and sees it as her responsibility. She has tried to promote this idea to her family:

The Jina uprising generated critical questions in our life: What price are you willing to pay for freedom? What are our responsibilities to achieve this freedom? What are you willing to lose to achieve this freedom? In those days our ten-year-old sister was inspired, which gave her more courage to express her aspirations. We tried to liberate her mind from the ideology imposed by her school. We had a lot of conversations. Once we were on a walk when she told me she had heard of a girl called Armita who was also killed because of the hijab. It was surprising for me to see my ten-year-old sister so concerned about such issues. She asked me, “Why do they [the regime] do this? Why do we need to wear the hijab at school?” The uprising made her unafraid of her differences and has given her more courage; she tries to be more in touch with places or communities where she receives more support.

Due to the fear of losing their limited rights in Iran, Afghanistani families were concerned about their offspring attending the protests. They used various tricks to prevent them from going. For Zahra, resistance is a universal matter that she is willing to sacrifice for. Because of this, she has had conflict with her family:

How often do I have the chance to raise my voice for my rights? My family told me they would not support me if anything happened to me. They were afraid I would get deported. The news about torture and rape in prisons stressed them out severely. They said: “What would people say?” I responded: “Yes, we must be aware of all these matters, but I must not set aside my defiance. If we stay silent and passive, the Iranian government will not grant us our rights, simply because we stayed silent. Nothing will change.” For me, it wasn’t even a question of “this is Iran, so it doesn’t concern me.” This resistance is a global matter. It’s for everyone. If I were in Afghanistan, I would rise against the Taliban.

For Afghanistani women, just like Iranian women, the regime’s patriarchy corresponds to domination within the family. Zahra, who is still struggling with nightmares about being arrested, told us about her experience:

When I protested in those days, first I had the feeling that I could achieve freedom in my family—in the smallest unit that deprived me of freedom—and then I could achieve freedom in society, the biggest unit. I thought that when we achieve women’s freedom in Iran, Afghanistani women will be free too. Even when the Taliban came to power, people protested in the streets. At the beginning of the protests, I was almost arrested once in the street, and for a long time I had nightmares that they were arresting me. But I continued protesting.

One of the achievements of the Jina uprising, she says, was when her mother surrendered to her own wishes and took off her hijab outside the house.

Compared to Iranians, interrogation is an entirely different experience for Afghanistanis. Not only do they face humiliation and abuse due to their nationality, but they are also threatened with deportation. Zahra has faced severe consequences for the Jina uprising: multiple interrogation at her university, nearly having her passport destroyed, and having a gun pointed at her during protests:

I had a close encounter with a Special Units guard who pointed his gun at me and threatened me. Our university was very active during the Jina uprising. We organized demonstrations attended by many, many people. Eventually, the university security forces opened a security case against me and interrogated me multiple times. Three men and one woman interrogated me and made me feel like I was in court. They humiliated and threatened me because I am Afghanistani. At first, they told me to write down the names of everyone who attended the protests. I told them I did not know anyone. Afterward, the interrogator started humiliating me: “It is none of your business that there are problems in our country! Are you even from here?!” This was followed by slurs and abusive name-calling from all four of them. They threatened to tear up my passport, send me back to my country, to imprison, suspend, and deport me. I must stress that I refused to wear a headscarf during the interrogations. They usually lasted for two hours. I refused to talk during the interrogations. They yelled at and insulted me. Sometimes, after realizing that their aggressive behavior was not yielding a confession or response, they would pretend to act kindly. But I did not give them any information.

Some months after the suppression of the Jina uprising, the anti-immigrant media wave began to emerge. News outlets circulated stories about the alleged murder of an Iranian by an Afghanistani, and an increase in the number of Taliban immigrants in Iran since the victory of the Taliban. Subsequently, public life became more troublesome for Afghanistani immigrants. The government promised to resolve the issues supposedly caused by the immigrants and send them back to their country. Why did the solidarity of the Jina uprising give way, within a few months, to a war against immigrants? Is post-uprising despair the reason why the same people who chanted “Down with the Taliban, whether in Kabul or Tehran” during the movement now chanted “Afghanis get out of here”?

Fatemeh believes that this anti-immigrant wave is the result of Iranian people’s frustration at the failure of the Jina uprising. Nonetheless, she will still go to protests:

This anti-immigrant wave is a response to the anger caused by the despair and frustration of the suppressed uprising. They chose the wrong path. Despite the [anti-immigrant and xenophobic] movement orchestrated against us, if more protests erupt again, I will join. The government’s goal is our pain and weakness. If we play their game, we will certainly lose, and the path we took together will be for nothing. So, we must not give up.

Comparing the periods before and after the Jina uprising, Zahra says she has lost many friends to the anti-immigrant wave:

I used to have very close friends who shared the same beliefs and values as me during the Jina uprising. After the suppression of the uprising and the start of the anti-immigrant wave, they suddenly severed contact with me. Some of them even posted racist stories on Instagram and did not even hide them from me—content like: “Afghanistanis, get out of here! No to immigrants!”

Final Words

Afghanistanis in Iran face lives of instability and uncertainty. Immigrants in this country encounter numerous legal and social challenges. Politically, they will never be granted full citizenship, and socially, they are often perceived by Iranians as outsiders and “others.” Despite facing discrimination, Afghanistanis in Iran share the same political faith as Iranians. They have participated in social movements in Iran and have been interrogated, imprisoned, and killed for their involvement.

During the Jina uprising, many Afghanistanis joined the movement and echoed its demands, which impacted their personal and social lives. The uprising gave them hope for change, not only in Iran but in Afghanistan. However, the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that followed the suppression of the Jina uprising left them feeling hopeless. Despite this setback, Tayyebeh’s words serve as a reminder that the struggle for a better life is ongoing: “If there is a struggle that is rooted in our human dimension, I am always there, even if those people had previously mistreated me as an immigrant. This is a higher dimension, and the Jina uprising was a human struggle because it saw ‘women’ as human beings. For any other uprising that has this characteristic, I will fight again.”


Trans. note: “Afghanistani” is an inclusive term for all people of Afghanistan, while the term “Afghani” is an ethnonym that is used as a derogatory term for Afghanistanis in Iran.

Feminism, Migration & Immigration
Protests & Demonstrations, Middle East, Iran
Return to Issue #145

Translated from the Farsi by Saina Salarian. Translation edited by Soori Parsa.

Shouka Alizadeh and Goli Baharan are social activists.


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