Caroline Risacher

Caroline Risacher (Association for the Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners in Iran- ADAPP): Prior to her fellowship, Caroline worked as an International Coordinator at the University of Strasbourg; volunteered in La Paz, Bolivia, for the Bolivian Express magazine; worked for One More Option, a NGO based in France and Ecuador that helps disadvantaged children; and interned at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Caroline graduated from the University of Strasbourg in France with a Masters in International Relations and European Affairs and a Masters in Human Rights Law with a specialization in Minority Rights.

“Where are you from?”

17 Jul

The question of identity is one that resonates particularly well for me, coming from a multicultural family, so I’m always interested in knowing what people identify with. Inevitably, when you meet someone, and your looks are slightly « exotic » or you have an accent, they will ask the eternal question: « where are you from? ». And honestly, I can’t deny that I love knowing where people come from. It’s part plain curiosity but also the hope of meeting someone that is like you. When asking members of the Azerbaijani minority in Iran who they are or if they would call themselves Iranian, the answer has been, so far, no. They are Azerbaijani. I’m curious to meet members of the other minorities in Iran and hear their answers but I doubt they will differ. We are all free to choose who we want to be and how we want to be called, as individuals and as a group. It is a fundamental right, as is the right to live according to your traditional beliefs and speaking your mother tongue if you wish so. To remind everybody of Iran’s diversity and for the prisoners of conscience belonging to these groups, I want to dedicate this post to all the minorities of Iran.

Azerbaijanis are the largest minority in the country; they have the numbers with them. The other groups don’t have this advantage and the biggest problem they face is the lack of representation and attention they receive. If nobody is there to advocate effectively for their rights inside and outside the country, it makes things much easier for the Iranian government to carry out executions in secret and repress them. The goal is to make these groups disappear slowly and push their cultures into oblivion by assimilating the surviving members into the Persian community.

Kurds represent 10% of the population, they have the slight advantage of speaking an “Aryan” language similar to Persian but they have the misfortune of being Sunni Muslims, which is no good in a country full of Shi’a Muslims. They also advocate for cultural and language rights and are being discriminated by the government. Mohammad Sadiq Kabudvand, a human rights activist and founder of the Human Rights Organization of Kurdistan (HROK) is serving a 10 years sentence for peacefully expressing his views since 2007. He is now on a hunger strike in protest at the Iranian authorities denial of his repeated requests to visit his gravely-ill son. This is just an example of the injustice of a system, but it’s a reality.

The smaller a minority, the worse its situation, which is especially true for the Arab minority (2% of the population), also called Ahwazi Arabs. Ahwazi Arabs live in Southwest Iran in a region that was once known as Arabistan but is now Khuzestan (changing the name of cities and regions is part of a strategy to destroy the minorities’ cultures and identity). Despite the fact that their traditional lands represent 90% of Iranian oil revenues, two thirds of Ahwazi Arabs live in poverty. To prevent any threat, the Iranian government subjects them to a mixture of Persianisation, forced migration, violent political repression and economic exclusion. Ahwazi Arabs are demanding collective rights, including the redistribution of oil revenues, an end to forced displacement, equal labor rights, environmental protection and cultural freedom.  Their situation is among the worst in Iran. On June 17, 2012, the Iranian authorities executed four prisoners—three of them brothers— who were arrested following civil unrest and protests in April 2011 in Ahwaz (capital of Khuzestan) based on the charges of “Acting against national security” and “Moharebeh”.

Now, five more political and civil activists have been sentenced to death and are waiting to be executed. The idea is simple: it’s about power and oppression, making sure that the oil resources are under total Iranian control by suppressing all forms of dissent. Which is why these men will be hanged if nothing can be done.


You can sign a petition for the Ahwazi Arabs here:

Another minority that I haven’t mentioned much so far is the Baluchis. They also represent 2% of the population. Most speak Baluchi as a first language and are Sunni Muslims. Like the other minorities, the Baluchis suffer daily human rights abuses from the government.

Finally, Turkmen and other Turkic tribes represent 2% of the population.

It is difficult to find accurate numbers of the different ethnic groups in Iran. Indeed, the government doesn’t use ethnicity or language as a parameter when conducting a national census in Iran so there are no official numbers, they don’t want to acknowledge that half of the population is not Persian and speaks another language. Blindly ignoring its own diversity has been the secret of its longevity. I couldn’t give an exhaustive list of the ethnic minorities so please feel free to mention them in the comments as this is just an overview of the situation.

Even if their situation is not as bad, the religious minorities are also part of Iran’s diversity. The subject is not as sensitive as ethnicity and the religious minorities have been given more range to function. 98% of the population is Muslim with 89% of Shi’a and 9% of Sunnis. The other religions include Zoroastrians, Jewish, Christians, and Baha’i. There are Christian schools and some small liberty of practice is given but only because they represent such a negligible number.  However, they do suffer discrimination, especially Sunnis and Baha’is.

With ADAPP, I’ve been lately campaigning for these other minorities, because it’s not just Azerbaijanis who suffer discrimination and racism, it’s a common fight for all ethnicities and religious minorities which deserve the same attention.

Posted By Caroline Risacher

Posted Jul 17th, 2012


  • Andrew

    July 20, 2012


    Thanks for continuing to highlight for us exactly what the situation is in Iran, and turning our attention to pressing issues that are literally never shown on the news. For instance, I had never heard of the Baluchis or Ahwazi Muslims, despite spending a long time learning about Iran in a comparative politics class. What exactly is ADAPP doing to help these other groups?

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