This article was published by Lina Attallah on October 25, 2022 on the Egypt-based online journal Mada
Iranian protesters have continued to take to the streets of their country more than five weeks since 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was killed by the country’s morality police after they arrested her for “unsuitable” attire. Protests have spread across the country, with girls in schools, youth in universities and labor groups in workplaces galvanized by the movement. Amnesty International reported that military bodies instructed province commanders to “severely confront” the protesters. Rights groups estimate that over 200 people have been killed, including at least 23 children, while thousands have been arrested.
On October 15, a deadly fire broke out in Tehran’s Evin Prison, known to hold human rights activists, journalists, students, lawyers and other opposition figures, raising questions about the circumstances behind the incident. Eight prisoners died, according to official statements, but human rights groups estimate the casualties to be higher.
In this conversation with Mada Masr, Fatemeh Sadeghi, a political scientist focused on political thought and gender studies and living between Tehran and London, where she is a research associate at the UCL Institute for Global Prosperity, charts the protests’ evolution over the past month and the state’s response to it. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Mada Masr: It has been more than a month since nationwide protests erupted over Mahsa Amini’s killing by state morality police. What has evolved in the politics of these protests over these weeks?
Fatemeh Sadeghi: Soon after her death, Mahsa became a symbol of full-scale humiliation in today’s Iran. First, she was a woman; being a woman in Iran means being subject to humiliation and discrimination. Second, she was arrested because of her hijab, which is one of the most visible manifestations of the oppression of women. Third, she was brutally tortured and murdered by the police while in custody; her death confirms the Iranian police’s brutality. Fourth, she was a citizen of one of the most deprived and repressed Iranian provinces, namely Kurdistan. And finally, after her death, the repression apparatus turned to fabricating scenarios and spreading lies to justify her death.
The protests have focused on two main issues: mandatory hijab and police brutality. The first is the demand for freedom, the second is the demand for dignity. Both of these have been absent from political life in Iran, yet they have a clear and prominent presence in almost all slogans of this movement, especially the slogan “Woman, life, freedom.”
MM: What genealogies of feminist organizing and feminist movements in Iran lie in the background of the protests we are seeing? Is there a historical context in which we can situate what we are seeing today?
FS: The emergence of this movement should be considered, to a large extent, a result of ignoring the historical demands of women, including the choice to wear the hijab and the right to their own bodies. The women’s movement in Iran is more than a hundred years old — older than many other movements. It was first ignited alongside the 1905 constitutional revolution in Iran with the purpose of making society aware of women’s inferior legal status and following up on relevant files such as education, hijab removal, the right to vote and equal rights in marriage and divorce, among other files. But the movement has faced two big obstacles since its conception: governing bodies and the traditionalist strata. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, these two were combined. As a result, from the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, a line was drawn for women. This came even though women’s massive participation in the revolution contributed to its victory. However, immediately after the Islamists came to power, they imposed the hijab. Then came the cancellation of the Pahlavi era family law under the pretext that it was anti-Islamic.
Women in Iran have resisted and fought against these restrictions in different ways since the revolution in 1979. In one of the most significant protests in recent years, we witnessed the eruption of the so-called “the Girls of Enghelab [Revolution] Street.” In the last days of 2017, just when a new wave of protests was coming, Vida Mohaved, an ordinary woman, climbed up from a platform on Enghelab Street in Tehran and waved her headscarf in the air. This action was followed by other women in opposition to the compulsory hijab. Thus, the Girls of Enghelab Street” were born. While this movement was suppressed, it led to a noticeable change in the atmosphere of the cities and a dramatic increase in the number of women who dared to come out without a hijab.
The younger generation somehow carries all these experiences with them. But they think and act differently. They are tired of this situation and they know that all the means available to them, including civil disobedience, the ballot box, negotiations, etc., have failed. They also see that life conditions are getting worse, with unemployment, inflation and other economic problems. Instead of dealing with these problems, the government polices the space more and brings the hijab patrol to the streets to arrest women.
MM: Is the current movement introducing something new to protest politics? To contentious politics? To feminism? To political practice by and large? Is something being re-arranged by these protests?
FS: Yes. The recent protests are a link in a chain of protests that together have the potential for radical change. This protest chain started with the Green Movement in 2009, which had a more peaceful form, but with each wave of repression, it took a more confrontational form. It is interesting that in all these protests, women have been in the lead. Some slogans have been repeated in these protest waves. For example, “Death to the dictator” and “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. We are all in this together,” have been used since 2009.
But this protest wave also has unique features, including the fact that a lot of small towns have also joined it. The Green Movement only included the largest cities. But in the protests of 2017 and 2019, other cities joined. In this new wave, more cities started to participate. In recent protests, protest gatherings have also been held in many smaller cities. Furthermore, this movement has taken a more radical form and is seeking a fundamental change in the current system. So, we can say Iran entered a revolutionary situation. I don’t mean that there will be a revolution in the sense of regime change, at least not in the short term, but because of this movement, the situation has completely changed and nothing will be similar to what it was before.
The recent movement is strong because it is rooted in ordinary life and takes its strength and energy from ordinariness. Thousands of ordinary women and men took to the streets of Tehran and many other cities because they were frustrated by humiliation and oppression. It is, in fact, this ordinariness that creates the extraordinary.
This ordinariness is exemplified in various slogans, tweets, songs, artistic works and images. The enemy that the authorities talk about is life itself. This is because the Islamic Republic declared war on life by disregarding daily life and imposing unprecedented hardships such as corruption, precarity, environmental crisis and severe discrimination and inequality. Herein lies the power and popularity of the slogan “woman, life, freedom”. It also explains the popularity of the song “Baraye,” [meaning “for” or “because of”] by Shervin Hajipour. Unfortunately, the singer was arrested for singing this song. This song, its rapid rise in popularity and the arrest of the singer demonstrate the power of ordinary people in disrupting existing rules.
MM: What other intersections are you seeing with past protest movements since 2009, 2017 and 2019? Are there also ruptures?
FS: I see both intersections and ruptures. If I want to compare, in the 1979 revolution, there were fists in the air and the idea of the sacredness of blood and violence. However, in this movement, life is sacred and demanded. Instead of fists, we are seeing clapping, whistling and happiness expressed openly. This movement wants to reclaim life, making inevitable its confrontation with the forces that are in conflict with life. If the desire and device of repression is to impose a passive, incomplete and eternal mourning, then in this movement, mourning for one’s lost loved ones has become a form of protest action.
In this movement, there is no distance between the street protests and the reason for their formation. In other words, just being on the street means the realization of a forbidden dream. This aspect can be seen in a variety of symbolic expressions, including the removal of headscarves, singing, chanting slogans and hymns, as well as in music, artwork, graffiti and wall writing, among others.
Also, in this movement and unlike other protest movements, the street does not play the role of a mere mediator. Street protest is an integral part of this movement. The street is like a vein that injects blood into the body of society. Street protest is like blood in the vessels of society. Furthermore, street presence leads to a breaking of the government’s dominance over public space. The government’s excessive violence in dealing with protesters also stems from fear of losing the streets.
MM: How is the leadership responding? Are you seeing a weakening of some sort? Are you expecting short-term repercussions? Could there be change over a longer period of time?
FS: The government’s response has been repression. As always, it is attributing the protests to the West and Israel, even though that is not the case. The internet in Iran has been cut off for almost a month now, disrupting information exchange. Mass arrests also continue. According to some estimates, 6,000 people have been arrested so far and many have been killed on the streets. Among other things, it should be mentioned that 300 children have been [reported] arrested during these protests. Many are being tortured in detention centers and some have already lost their lives — apart from the threats to families, civil and political activists, artists and athletes. A few days ago, there was an attack on the notorious Evin Prison, where a large number of people who were recently arrested, political and civil activists and journalists are imprisoned. It is not yet clear what the government’s intention was. But it seems that the purpose was to murder prisoners in a pre-planned scenario.
The main problem is in the government’s approach to society. It has tied its identity to domination and force. The discourse of Iranian officials is full of contempt. They have a commanding tone and words full of contempt for others. Even when they want to talk normally, their tongues only turn to sarcasm, hatred and misdirection. This command and control discourse has a strong root in jurisprudence. Generally, jurists’ job is to command and they don’t have the patience to oppose and criticize. They do not understand the simple fact that with this ruling discourse, they cannot control the new generation, which the jurists and authorities neither know nor understand. Therefore, when people say don’t kill, they become more stubborn and kill more. I don’t see any change in the government’s reaction.
MM: What are your concerns over global/Western instrumentalization of this movement, especially since it is being heralded by the youth around women’s issues?
FS: Western governments have had a contradictory and hypocritical position so far. On the one hand, they are facing a strong wave of protests inside and outside of Iran to which they must be responsive. But on the other hand, they do not want regime change in Iran for many reasons, including the power balance maintained by the Islamic Republic’s presence in the region. Let’s not forget that the presence of Iran and its regional interventions is a good excuse to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and other regional competitors of Iran. Interestingly, despite the sanctions on Iran, we see that they continue to sell tools of repression to the regime. Among other things, with the help of organizations operating in the West, it has become possible to cut off the internet in Iran. The export of technology for repression has continued despite gestures toward human rights and opposition to the Iranian government, which has helped the regime survive. The Iranian government makes society poorer every day, under the pretext of sanctions and regularly reduces welfare services. But in fact, during this time, the repression apparatus has maintained and updated itself with the help of both Eastern and Western allies, from Russia and China, to the US, Canada and European countries. The sanctions that the West imposed on Iran have only weakened society and strengthened the government.
For this reason, a large percentage of the protesters inside do not have an optimistic view of the Western governments. Many protesters inside Iran oppose both the war [foreign intervention] and sanctions, because both of these are means for the destruction of Iranian society.
MM: How is the current movement affected by mounting anti-Iranian sentiments in neighboring countries?
FS: Very much. While Iranians are known for the government’s involvement in the region, many Iranians do not approve these actions. The most notorious one was the regime’s standing beside the regime of Bashar al-Assad in the violent suppression of the Syrian revolution and people. We have seen monuments of Qasem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s military operations in the region, set on fire by people. For them, he was not a hero, contrary to what the regime tries to propagate, but the killer of children and women in Iraq and Syria.
In my opinion, this protest movement also will have some effects on the neighboring countries. For this reason, they are watching the events closely and carefully. Although the surrounding governments are against the Iranian government, concern about their own future causes them to sympathize with them, though they don’t declare it. Therefore, it is likely that they are already thinking about equipping themselves in preparation for future protest movements.
MM: You told me once that patience is at the heart of being political. Can you tell me if this is a moment where patience has reaped some fruits?
FS: Yes. I think that Iranian society has gained maturity in recent decades and that this movement cannot be easily suppressed. People read books and think about themselves and the general situation. In these decades, self-reflection, arguments, debates and dialogues took place not only in people’s minds, but also within families, coffee shops, among friends, reading groups, in universities and schools and so forth. I think this movement is rooted in a quiet social revolution that has already taken place in Iran. We can say that this revolution was a feminist one. But it is by no means exclusive to women’s issues. One of the other achievements of this social revolution was that the government that came to power in the name of religion has lost its moral credibility and is politically illegitimate at this point. Many Iranians now think that this government not only endangered life but is also destroying Iranian civilization, history and identity.