The plight of male kulbars is regularly covered in the media. But women, often dressed as men, also bear the same burdens. (Supplied)

December 11, 2020

Down the winding mountain paths and breathtaking slopes of Uramanat and Horaman, sites of stunning natural beauty which attract thousands of tourists to western Iran every year, a long line of people passes practically unnoticed. Through winter and spring, they trudge on. Their flesh, blood and bitter memory is carved onto the rocks of the mountainside.

Poverty, unemployment, incapacitated spouses, the hungry stomachs of their children… all these and more are the reasons the kulbars, or border couriers, keep on making this perilous journey across Iran’s western border. Kept in deprivation by the blundering policies of the Islamic Republic, they have no choice but to use their bodies to generate a meagre income.

Men are the most commonly-photographed kulbars, and their plight as workers and victims receives the lion’s share of media coverage. But women, dressed as men, also bear this burden on their shoulders. This report is the story of the female kulbars of Jalaneh mountain, Horaman.

“Until the cargo reaches the other side of the border and the customer receives it, no money will be paid to the kulbar.

“The danger is not only being shot at. The mountain path is so hazardous that it is difficult to cross even in normal weather, let alone while carrying a load of 50kg or 100kg on your shoulders. It can fall or break – it’s in those moments you say to yourself, ‘I wish it was me that fell’. At least then you’d have the money to pay for hospital care. If the load does not arrive safely, you don’t receive any money.

“One woman tied a handkerchief around her waist, but stumbled on the mountain and got stuck. The vertebrae in her spine were displaced. Her husband had previously lost a leg to gunfire from border guards.”

The daily life of the kulbars involves traveling to the mountainous Iran-Iraq border to convey goods from Iraq to Iranian merchants in regions such as Kurdistan and Kermanshah. The dangers are myriad: in the five-year period from 2015 to 2019, a total of 368 kulbars were killed and 595 injured. Those who are not shot at and killed or mutilated by border guards, and who do not get lost, or fall into the valley, or freeze in the cold of winter, still usually cannot continue for more than two years. The bodies of even the strongest kulbars are still human bodies, and and their knees and spines are generally so badly damaged after 24 months that they must retire.

For for transporting and safely delivering each kilogram of cargo, kulbars can expect to receive a fee of between 7,000 and 20,000 tomans (US$0.28 to $0.08), depending on the difficulty of the route and the value of the cargo. But the lives of women kulbars, their income and hardships are different from those of the men.

About 12,000 men walk the Jalaneh route every day, but there are no statistics on the number of women they share the road with. One woman kulbar in the Horaman region tells IranWire the phenomenon is more common than people might think. Using the pseudonym Gelareh, she told our correspondent: “Many women are engaged in this work – even if the governor of Marivan County lies and says we don’t.

“Kulbar do not have a good reputation in these parts, but what can we do? What should a woman do when her husband and children have taken up this job, and are now disabled, or have lost their lives? How should she make a living? So, she turns to couriering, and says nothing to anyone.

“In this small community, it is unacceptable to tell a child that his or her mother is a kulbar Kulbar women in this area usually wear Kurdish men’s clothing and head towards Jalaneh without telling anybody. Their faces are not much different from those of men because of the intense, hard work. Even if they’re sworn at, they won’t respond, so no-one will know they are women.”

Gelareh recalls the story of a local woman who turned to border-couriering after her husband was shot. The man lost his leg and ended up having to stay at home. Now she was the one who had to carry the burden to feed her children. “When one family member becomes a kulbar,” Gelareh explains, “the others continue, like a family business. Their income also increases because the family becomes known and lots of work comes their way.

“I myself know 20 kulbar women in the Marivan and Sarvabad counties who tried to find other work, but were either not paid or were paid so little that they gave up. They worked, for example, for tailoring companies or as laborers, but were paid half of what they should have been. Around here, if you want to do anything other than be a kulbar, you either have to have professional connections or the money and resourcing to start your own business. Most don’t have this at the moment, so everyone is turning to this. But because women are physically not as strong, they carry less and naturally are paid less money.”

Kulbar women, in fact, are placed at additional risk of harm. Where most men can carry 50kg, women’s shoulders can usually only sustain around half of this, meaning they risk their lives if they attempt to carry a full load. Most female kulbars are the sole breadwinners for their families, either widowed or taking care of a disabled spouse. Many of them are educated and have other skills, such as handicrafts and cooking, but do not have the capital behind them  to start a business.

“Kulbars are mistakenly called smugglers,” says Mehryad, an activist based in Marivan County, “when in reality they are just couriers. The idea has been promoted by those in power. Sometimes they even deny the existence of kulbars while simultaneously appointing a group of kulbars to take their goods across the border. So why should they create the conditions for other job creation in the area?”

Mehryad has personally witnessed the arrest of a kulbar woman by police. “There are special cases. I remember when the soldier found out that the kulbar was a woman, he said to her, ‘You are the honorable one, not me!’. But this type of approach is rare. That’s is why they secretly leave the borders open, to themselves and to their trusted forces, while at the same time shirking their responsibilities. Anyone who protests can easily be detained and subjected to the worst custodial sentence.”

Most kulbars undertake the difficult mountain crossing once a week, using drugs such as tramadol and heavy painkillers to get through it. Those who are harmed along the way also struggle to get the medical support they need, with treatment costs so high that some simply live with the pain for years.

Hundreds of men and women carry loads across the Iran-Iraq border every day, at extraordinary altitudes and in rain, wind and snow. The loads they bear are their untold stories. Officials of the Islamic Republic say kulbar is not a job title and these people cannot be insured, or apparently protected from the border guards’ guns. They have absolutely nothing to say about the notion of women kulbars: women on whose smaller shoulders, the burden is even heavier.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.