PHOTOS: In this nomadic tribe in Iran, the women persevere despite hardships

No one knows exactly where the Bakhtiari came from before settling in the Zagros Mountains. But over the last several thousand years, their roots have grown deep into this land – in what is now western and southwestern Iran – alongside the native oak trees that serve as a vital source of their food. In the face of modern powers, they hold their own.

Urbanization started gaining a foothold in this region a century ago, and over the years the majority of Bakhtiari have assimilated. Many rose to join Iran’s elite, becoming academics, actors, ambassadors and athletes. There’s even a National Football League player with Bakhtiari roots: David Bakhtiari of the Green Bay Packers.

And yet some Bakhtiari tribes continue to raise animals, grow barley and migrate between pastures with the seasons, just as they have for generations, explains Alam Saleh of the Australian National University’s Center for Arabic and Islamic Studies. “Their habits, their dress and their lifestyle are still maintained,” he says. “If they don’t live like that, they don’t exist anymore. For those who carry on – the numbers are decreasing – they insist on preserving their identity.”

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Rostam, a Bakhtiari who goes by one name and says he’s 40, notes, “I’m used to this lifestyle, I can’t live any other way. Traveling in these mountains, grazing the herd and hearing the goats bells is a pleasure for me, it’s the only thing I’ve done since childhood and that’s what I’m going to teach [ways] also for my children.”

Women play a paramount role in this community, fulfilling customs and holding families together. “Because of their harsh way of life, the structures force women to interfere in all aspects of life. Women participate in fighting and physical labor, while also functioning as mothers and wives,” says Saleh. “She must be strong.” This was true throughout the group’s history, with revered figures such as Sardar Bibi Maryam Bakhtiari, a revolutionary military commander who helped tribal forces conquer Tehran in 1909.

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But the name Bakhtiari, meaning ‘lucky charm’, does not reflect the current situation of these women, who also struggle with child marriage, domestic violence and poverty.

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And her life doesn’t get any easier. Most of the remaining nomadic tribes have limited access to medical and educational facilities. Dry winds and dust, combined with a lack of water for their livestock, force them to travel longer distances during their annual migration from the plains to higher, cooler pastures. Wildfires fueled by heat and drought are burning up their rangelands.

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This collection of photographs, taken in 2020 and 2021, depicts the world of the three Bakhtiari tribes and the women who raise the children and carry on the farming traditions – though 21st-century realities may mean that their days as nomads are numbered .

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

Enayat Asadi is a photojournalist in Iran. In 2020 he started a project he calls “Hard Land”, Bakhtiari nomads in southern Iran. He lived with the nomads for a month in 2020 and three months in spring and summer 2021 with the aim of “capturing their strength and rich culture in the face of hardships they must endure”. His new project is called “Survivors of Death Row” and chronicles convicted murderers who have been sentenced to death.

Vicky Hallett is a freelance writer who regularly contributes to NPR.

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