By Gordyaen Benyamin Jermayi
Kurdish women #Kolbers# are some of the most invisible segment within wider Kurdish society. Their labor, suffering, injuries and deaths are rendered invisible in the greater scheme of nationalist struggle. Due to the extreme nature of their work, ‘Kolbers’ are typically portrayed as a group of men who cross the Kurdistan borders (Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria) while carrying loads. However, an increasing number of women are also driven into this hazardous and extreme trade for various reasons, including to provide for their families. Yet, despite increasing interest in the role and position of Kolbers in the socio-economic and political status of the Kurds in Rojhilat (Eastern Kurdistan), there is relatively little to no attention on the gendered aspect of this type of work. The study of the historical, social, cultural, economic and political conditions that force women into Kolberi is a narrative involving invisibility and deep subjugation of Kurdish women in Kurdish society as well as in Iran as a whole.
There are an estimated 70,000–150,000 Kolbers in East Kurdistan who are still not fully recognized as an official labor force, which makes them “invisible” and excludes them from all laws and mechanisms that protect labor rights. In 2022, at least 290 Kolbers and traders were killed or injured, with 46 killed and 244 injured. According to local human rights organizations and activists, in the last ten years, nearly 1,800 Kolbers in Eastern Kurdistan have been killed, injured, or amputated, with approximately 550 deaths and 1,250 injuries. It is unclear how many of these were women or minors.
The Kurds are a deeply subjugated community in Iran especially in the economic sphere. The invisible nature of Kolberi and the systemic discrimination that the Iranian regime imposes on the Kurds within its borders renders these poverty stricken laborers as non-existent beings whose lives, deaths, injuries and suffering remains invisible because they were not deemed as essential or even alive in the first place. According to Judith Butler:
“specific lives cannot be apprehended as injured or lost if they are not first apprehended as living. If certain lives do not qualify as lives or are, from the start, not conceivable as lives within certain epistemological frames, then these lives are never lived or lost in the full sense.”
When considering the double invisibility of Kurdish women laborers then the above quote takes on an additional layer of tragic meaning and implications.
Consequently, due to the complicated conditions in East Kurdistan, there are no precise information about the number of female Kolbers which further adds to their invisibility and marginalization. There are no numbers as to how many have been injured or killed, nor how many have been permanently disabled or suffer from chronic conditions as a result of Kolberi. The Iranian authorities claim their number is between 100 and 200. According to local human rights organizations these official numbers are far from the truth and the real numbers are estimated to be several thousand at least.
Similar to the male Kolbers, the female Kolbers include all ages and different education levels, from primary to higher education. They frequently try to maintain anonymity while covering their faces and dressing in men’s clothing. They typically transport up to 30 kilograms of cargo for 4-5 hours in the treacherous pathways through the mountains of Kurdistan and across borders, but their monthly income is only about 100 to 200 US dollars (or even less). Limited research indicates some women Kolbers earn up to 200,000 tomans ($8) a night, of “which she has to pay 60,000 tomans ($2.5) for road fare.“
Many of these female Kolbers are the main bread winners. However, others risk their lives by going to the mountains to work and support their families along with their husbands, sons, and brothers. Due to the nature of their work, the cold climate, the difficulties of traversing the over 2000-meter-high mountains of Kurdistan, the mental stress brought on by poverty, and the fear of being shot, detained, or killed by border guards, these women often experience depression and PTSD and suffer from a number of chronic diseases for which they receive no medical support from the government healthcare system or insurance. These conditions often force them to retire in a relatively shorter period of time in contrast to the men.
Usually, two major problems exist in analyzing the conditions of Kolbers: the first and most important one is the exclusion of women from the process of understanding this phenomenon, which has resulted in a significant lack of information regarding them, and the other is treating Kolbers and ‘Kolberi’ as a taboo subjects and reducing them to a purely economic class of citizens with no political or social identity who have been forced to choose this job in order to survive. Additionally, ‘Kolberi’ is mostly thought of as a phenomenon unique to East Kurdistan (Iran). While it exists in other parts of Kurdistan and in various forms in many other regions and countries, including Balochistan, Morocco, Nepal, and Peru, individuals from various social classes, ages, and genders are compelled into it under similar circumstances. The study of women Kolbers is the study of the ‘feminization of poverty’, and the notion that an increasing portion of the world’s poor is women, especially in states whose governments have adopted a direct and ongoing policy of war towards their minorities.
The death of politics in Kurdistan and how Kolberi results
The Kurds have had a complicated relationship with the modern nation-states in Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq since their establishment in the 20th century. The mono-national, religious, and linguistic Iranian state, which is driven by Iranian nationalism, has continuously adopted a colonial attitude toward other national, linguistic, and religious minorities, especially the Kurds. Through geopolitical pressure, marginalization, securitization, militarization, and violence, the regime has consistently attempted to change, enslave, and suppress the national, cultural, linguistic, and religious identities of other people. Due to Kurdistan’s over 100-year-long resistance to Iranian, Turkish, and Arabic colonization and assimilation, this region has always been a security and strategic region for these states.
As with other parts of Kurdistan, East Kurdistan has endured numerous wars, genocides, acts of violence, stifling laws, and other hardships from the time of the Pahlavis until the present. The recent death of Jina Amini at the hands of the morality police and the subsequent uprisings across Iran demonstrated the precarious condition the Kurds and other minorities hold within the sovereign boundaries of Iran. Historically, the declaration of war and attack on East Kurdistan in the 1980s, militarizing Kurdish cities by establishing military and settlement projects, land confiscation, water transfer, cultural dominance, demographic changes, and preventing the Kurds from participating in the state and politics or achieving key positions such as the presidency and security positions, have been only a small portion of the Iranian state’s historical colonial policies in Kurdistan.
In the past and more recently, the death of politics in Kurdistan has been applied with violence, most notably by making Kurdistan’s environment uninhabitable by employing a variety of military, cultural, political, economic, environmental, and legal tools. For instance, in the 1980s, Kurdistan entered a new era of political siege and economic destruction when “the conquest of Kurdistan,” as the Iranian state itself typically refers to it, began.
Following the Iraq-Iran war and more recently in Kurdistan, a deliberate policy of de-development was also charted. In other words, Kurdistan was militarized, economic activities were restricted, natural resources were exploited and destroyed, and educational opportunities were limited, forcing a large portion of the Kurdish population into low-wage and unstable jobs like “Kolberi.” Even Kolberi, which the Iranian government considers a crime, is not readily accessible to the populace.
Official Kolberi, where a Kolber applies for the government to provide a certificate is impossible because the routes and passages are dotted with landmines, and the Iranian border guards are free to use any force they choose against Kolbers. Although Kolbers who are injured or killed by border guards must be compensated under Iranian law, the survivors are left with no choice but to prowl the Iranian legal system. In fact, the death of politics has turned the lives of the people into a political bargaining chip for the state.
According to Joseph-Achille Mbembe, a Cameroonian historian, political theorist, and public intellectual, the death of politics extends beyond governments’ use of force to maintain power. Modern governments, which have essentially taken on the responsibility of sustaining life and frequently go by the title of democracy, have more sophisticated tools and precise technologies to make life unbearable for the populace in comparison to their early days of rule. This is an alternative to resorting to open violence. The concept of political death explains how the political and private boundaries of life and death are determined by the rules of political governance and economic management, and populations are classified based on their benefits and abilities under the titles “beneficial” or “harmful” for the reproduction of governance and its goals.
Since it can be applied to some democratic elements, like elections, the death of politics is not particularly obvious. On the one hand, the Iranian government would assert in Kurdistan that it opened border markets for the growth of trade and business in border cities and had granted them permission to perform Kolbari in order to improve people’s standard of living. At the same time, however, Kurdistan has been purposefully left out of social and economic development initiatives.
Kolberi, in its authorised form, requires official forms and permissions from the government, which allow them to transfer a variety of approved goods only to certain locations for specific periods of time. These permits, however, have not lessened the difficulty of the work, or the violence frequently used against them by the Iranian government. Another issue is the lack of opportunities and the large number of applicants. As a result, the Kolbers occasionally have to wait weeks or months to perform a single load transfer. It has also resulted in the development of a black market for permission documents. However, since the temporary border markets were closed in 2016 and the locals of border towns and villages relied on this work for their subsistence, they are no longer able to work as official Kolbers. The ‘official’ form of kolberi is fraught with barriers, limitations and delays which are all seen as tactics used by the regime to prevent desperate labourers in engaging in this type of work.
The Kolbers’ legal status is still unclear. The Iranian government’s “policy of death,” which governs Kurdistan, is thus not only an aggravating factor but also one of the primary causes of phenomena like Kolberi. However, the colonial relationship and death politics cannot fully explain the Kolbers’ problem; in fact, it is important to take into account the exploitative relationships at the local level as well.
Kolberi also has a special function for the Iranian and local bourgeoisie in Kurdistan. The commercial bourgeoisie in Kurdistan, which gains from the smuggling trade, is one of the reasons Kolberi is still practiced as long as Kurdistan is being exploited. East Kurdistan’s cities have become service areas due to the absence of production and industrial sectors, the destruction of the environment, and the increase in smuggling in a region where border markets and commercial activities are on the rise.
Kolberi, the consequences of unequal distribution
The global unemployment rate for women in 2022 was 8.9% on average, while it was 18.9% in Iran, according to the Global Economy. Women face a number of social and legal restrictions that limit not only their lives but also their ability to support themselves, which has led to unequal economic outcomes. Further, according to UNWomen, “that gender, poverty, and (economic) inequality are intrinsically linked”, which strongly suggests that in order for justice and equality to exist within a society, gender issues must be addressed. Further, research demonstrates that girl children consistently face more poverty than boy children, which not only carries over to the teenage years but essentially peaks at the ages of 25-34. Additionally, according to the OECD the gendered reasons poverty is more pronounced in women than in men are essential:
“Women and men are usually poor for different reasons. Women often have to live with greater social constraints than men do. Legal restrictions on the ownership of land or access to loans, for example, mean that women have fewer possibilities than men of improving their lives economically by their own efforts. What is more, the obligations dictated by their reproductive responsibilities, such as household duties and caring for children, leave them less time for other pursuits.”
When considering the above quote in light of the economic and political situation of Kurds and other minorities in Iran, the reality is deeply depressing. In general, only 14% of Iranian women are employed, they make up over 50% of the country’s university graduates. Iran is ranked a shocking 143 out of 146 in terms of gender equality, which includes equality in economic participation, according to the 2022 Global Gender Gap Report. Furthermore, these variations can be observed at every level of the economic pyramid. Women are vastly underrepresented in senior political and economic roles. Because of the significant participation gap in the Iranian economy, Iranian authorities have been able to extensively violate women’s economic and social rights. For instance, the Iranian government has passed and put into effect a vast array of discriminatory laws and rules that restrict women’s access to the labor force, particularly anti-women hiring practices in both the private and public sectors.
Discrimination against women in the labor market of Iran and East Kurdistan is shaped by the political, social, and cultural ideologies that dominate both regions. These ideologies have forced women to adopt ideal roles such as mothers and wives, which deprives them of public life. This is not even mentioning the double burden of women whose invisible and unpaid labor at home including childcare is often conveniently ignored or dismissed entirely in such discussions.
Generally, the unemployment rates are very high in Iran, and compared to the rest of Iran, the rates are much higher in Kurdistan. The levels of poverty, desolation, and illiteracy are also higher in Kurdistan compared to other Persian-inhabited regions. These are all directly related to the discriminatory nature of the Iranian state in the past decades. Moreover, since 2014 it was reported that the government banned Kurdish-language publications and heavily penalized Kurdish journalist or academics who criticized the government. Likewise, schools were banned from teaching Kurdish and Kurdish names were “not allowed to be registered at official registries.”
The Kurds in Iran are also subjected to systematic discrimination on the basis of their race, religion, gender, economic status, and linguistic identity. For instance, according to Minority Rights Group International:
“The Kurdish region has abundant water resources. Dams have been built by the government to facilitate water irrigation and for hydroelectric power generation, but Kurds are generally excluded from the benefits of this investment. They experience poor housing and living conditions because of forced resettlement, and the expropriation of rural land for large-scale agricultural plantations and petrochemical plants which pollute the surrounding environment.”
This systematic approach is one of the key reasons that phenomena such as Kolberi’ exist. Women and other minorities, in particular, face systematic gender discrimination as well due to the Iranian state’s misogynistic nature.
Women, especially non-Persian and non-Shia Muslim women, deal with more difficulties and have to face all types of discrimination at the same time. Subsequently, the ‘Kolberi’ phenomenon, and especially the female Kolbers, are the very obvious results of these systematic and deep-rooted discriminations and negligence that the Persian-Iranian states have been historically imposing on these people. Therefore, due to a lack of equal opportunities, a lack of investment, and a lack of access to resources, many of these women are forced into low-income jobs such as Kolberi only to survive and to afford basic human needs.
Kolberi can also be defined as a type of precarious life. It is challenging to look at it solely from the perspective of employment, though, because it affects every aspect of Kolbers’ lives as members of a group that has been marginalized on all fronts—politically, economically, culturally, and socially.When the Kolbers’ work and their experiences with female Kolbers are placed in a context that is limited to the material possibilities of life, violence, and political exclusion, and when referring to the context of the death of politics, it becomes clear that the assumptions of the law not allowing violence in work and life are unreal. In fact, the law is a component of the mechanism that produces violence and death. Working in unstable, insecure jobs and denied many of the benefits of paid work is one method of resorting to violence. The consequences of hazardous work are not only limited to the workplace or the type of work but also affect all aspects of life, especially physical and mental health, family and surrounding people, and, generally, all aspects of their social life. As a result, despite being one of the most extreme forms of precarious work, Kolberi is inextricably linked to Kolbers’ social lives.
By observing the lives of female Kolbers, it is seen how their gender identity, nationality, religion, and social class have forced them into the ranks of lower-class citizens, whose lives are considered inconsequential by the system and their deaths, in the words of Judith Butler as ‘ungrieveble’. The lives that are limited by the decree of “official law”, their access to opportunities, have been limited, and in fact, due to these forms of oppression and discrimination, they have been exposed to destruction, violence, and misery and have been totally abandoned by the governments and sometimes society itself. Butler argues that the lives of citizens in states of war are categorized into those whose deaths are worth grieving and those whose lives and deaths are simply negligible and worthless:
“One way of posing the question of who “we” are in these times of war is by asking whose lives are considered valuable, whose lives are mourned, and whose lives are considered ungrievable. We might think of war as dividing populations into those who are grievable and those who are not. An ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived; that is, it has never counted as a life at all. We can see the division of the globe into grievable and ungrievable lives from the perspective of those who wage war in order to defend the lives of certain communities and to defend them against the lives of others—even if it means taking those latter lives.”
How can the deaths and injuries, the suffering and oppressions of Kurdish women Kolbers be worthy of grieving when their lives are subject to such high levels of invisibility and non-existence? Today in Rojhilat, many Kolber women are maimed and injured for life, suffer debilitating and chronic conditions and are, as a result, forced completely out of the labor market. They continue to live in a state of extreme poverty, especially in the cases where they have been the main breadwinner of the family. In many of these cases, their young children are consequently forced out of school and also resort to manual labor including Kolberi and the cycle of poverty, suffering, injury and early death continues.
There seems to be no solution by the states for Kolberi or international mechanisms to at least protect their basic rights as a labor force. In fact, the states, especially Iran, use Kolberi, or basically keeping Kurds in poverty and lacking access to resources and education, as one of their main means of oppressing the Kurds and other minorities.
In the words of Koffi Annan, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, “There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women”, and so what better way to oppress and further subjugate an entire nation by ensuring that the women hold less than second class status roles within their societies?
Gordyaen Benyamin Jermayi
Gordyaen Benyamin Jermayi is a Kurdish human rights activist born in Urmia, Eastern Kurdistan, with a degree in civil engineering. He is a member of a humanitarian organization that documents Iranian state abuse in Eastern Kurdistan. Since 2020, he has presented and submitted documents to international bodies, including the UNHRC and the United Nations' Middle East-Africa Minority Forums. He is also the founder of the Kurdistani People platform on Instagram, which works to raise awareness of Kurdish issues and connect Kurds throughout the diaspora.