As someone who grew up in Tehran, the vast desolation of Iran’s rugged countryside always attracted me. In 2009, I travelled to Negoor with my analog camera, the Nikon F100, and started my first documentary photography project at age 20. Since then, I have travelled to this remote corner of Iran for over a decade.
Sistan and Balochistan Province is the only province in Iran that shares its border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thus, this area is of great geo-political importance, not just in modern times but also historically. Balochistan lay at the periphery of great empires, fought over and conquered, but neglected as a backwater. It formed the eastern frontier of the Achaemenid Persian Empire under Darius the Great. In the epic poem Shahnameh, the national epic of Greater Iran, the Balochi people are praised as brave warriors of Iran. In the fourth century BC, Alexander the Great of Macedon conquered Persia on his way to India. On the return journey, he force-marched his exhausted troops through Balochistan, losing thousands in the inhospitable desert.Reaching the area, I flew from Tehran to Konarak Airport and continued to Dashtiari by road. My brother’s friend’s family was very welcoming, and I was treated like one of their own. Though Balochi predominantly settled the province, most people know Persian. Even with locals who did not speak Persian, communication was not difficult since the Balochi language, like the Persian language, belongs to the Iranian language family and shares mutual words. Being from the capital, I was always the centre of attention. However, this made working much trickier since they considered me more a guest who needed to be treated, especially than a photographer who needed freedom to work. Gradually, I made friends who took me to places I wanted to visit. Being a woman allowed me access to women-only spaces but did not necessarily ensure taking pictures freely. I had to take permission to shoot pictures of women, especially when they were smoking chillum, one of the few activities they can do, like men. I was told smoking chillum was feminine and smoking opium masculine! Meanwhile, as a woman, I was limited in visiting male-dominated places and events. Though such limitations for women were always there—for example, women are not allowed to visit mosques or graves—they have become stricter due to the spread of Wahhabism among the Balochis. In Balochi culture, the status of women is decided by a strict interpretation of the Sharia. Baloch men have polygamy rights, unlike the rest of the majority of Shias in Iran, who practice monogamy. Moreover, the government of Iran impose compulsory hijab on all Iranian women, regardless of their religion or ethnicity. The hijab among the locals has gone beyond its norm; sometimes, women wear niqabs and cover their faces. As an educated, urban woman who could make her decisions independently, I was treated differently from the women of the households I visited. When I questioned this difference, they stated that local females are not educated enough to decide independently. A man should always accompany them in their decision-making. However, my other question of why not give them enough freedom to gain social skills got me the answer: “It is not possible; Islam does not allow that.” Needless to say, Sunni Balochis are not fans of the moral values of the rest of the non-Muslim/Shia Muslims of Iran, and they regard the freedom of other Iranian women—in comparison to Balochi women— the result of the lack of manliness of their male relatives. However, over the last ten years, I have observed small changes. For example, families are now willing to sponsor their daughter’s education and put less stress on early marriage. The introduction of the Internet and mobile phones has raised awareness about other parts of the country. Some Balochs have also travelled to other provinces, seeking higher education or medical treatment. Tourism, though underdeveloped, has opened the region to the presence of national and international tourists. However, these changes are slow and mostly restricted to families with social media access. There is still a considerable gap between men's and women’s status; violence against women goes unchallenged, and honour killings are not uncommon. Unfortunately, the impact of Wahhabi ideology on the Balochi people has endangered the open practice of old Iranian customs. For example, older generations had mostly Iranian names, but names given to the new generation are almost entirely Arabic. Nowroz and other Iranian festivals, which were earlier celebrated, are now rejected as non-Islamic culture, influenced by Wahhabi ideologies. Meanwhile, new movements are resisting the Wahhabization of Balochi culture. Something which amazed me during my first tour was video clips made by Balochi people of their Aryan roots, shared via mobile phones. This attempt at acknowledging their Iranian origin while simultaneously following a strict version of Islam struck me deeply. A very small number of Balochi people are reverting to Zoroastrianism, the pre-Islamic religion of Greater Iran. Some others are content with the revival of old Iranian festivals, forgotten for decades.The Location of Sistan and Balochistan on the Gulf of Oman (Makran coast) has resulted in ethnic mixing with non-Balochi people in the last 500 years. During the Safavid period, the Makran coast came under attack from the Portuguese, who made their way to the Persian Gulf from bases in India. Portugal, which had established a vast maritime empire in the Indian Ocean, brought over Africans and Indians as part of the slave trade. These slaves, later on, were released and absorbed into the local population, mostly among Balochis living along the Makran coast. They call this group nokar (servants), emphasising their non-Balochi origin. The family I photographed belong to this group. Though they have Iranian passports like any other Iranian citizen, they have a lower social standing in the region.Balochi people, forming only a small portion of Iran’s population (only two per cent of Iran’s population) did not actively participate in Iran's political movements due to their unfavourable location on a volatile border with Pakistan. However, due to increased communication through social media, understanding among the Balochis and other Iranians has increased in recent times. But being from the Sunni sect of Islam, Balochis remain vulnerable to Wahhabi influence, which is hardline, regressive and intolerant. This has hampered building confidence with the Shia-dominated central government, and Balochistan remains neglected and underdeveloped. Lacking industry, the source of income of the people in the region is from agriculture, animal husbandry, handicrafts and business, at times, governmental jobs. Fishing in the Gulf of Oman is the mainstay for the people residing along the Makran coast, stretching from Pakistan to Karachi. However, drought and flood periodically destroy agriculture, bringing great hardship to the locals. The region is deprived of necessary facilities like hospitals, schools and drinking water. Communication between the Balochis and other Iranians is limited to tourism or business in Chabahar port. Many from the province have left the country to migrate to neighbouring Oman or some other developed countries of the Persian Gulf in search of better economic opportunities.