Last month, Iran’s Morality Police arrested Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman who was visiting Tehran and apparently revealed some of her hair. She was taken to a re-education center and died in custody a few days later. Her family members suspect that she was beaten by the police. Her death sparked the most widespread protests the country has seen since the Green Movement of 2009 – many of which saw women take off the head coverings mandated by Iran’s conservative government. Authorities responded with a crackdown, and there were no confirmed reports of protesters being killed by the government. The Iranian regime, currently led by an ailing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has also attempted to limit Internet access.
To discuss the situation, I recently spoke to Iranian scholar Fatemeh Shams, who has been in exile since 2009, on the phone. Shams teaches Persian literature at Penn and is the author of “A Revolution in Rhyme: Poetic Co-option under the Islamic Republic.” During our conversation, edited for length and clarity, we discussed what sets the current protests apart from others in Iran’s past, the place and importance of Iran’s Kurdish minority in the insurgency, and the pros and cons leaderless movements.
To what extent is this protest movement something new and to what extent is it a continuation of protest movements that have existed in Iran in the past?
I think you can get a very good feel for any revolutionary episode or movement from their slogans. And the central slogan of this revolution, I think, is quite different from previous ones – from that of 1979 and then, if you go back in history, to the turn of the 20th century, which was the constitutional revolution. The central slogan of this revolution is “Women, Life, Freedom”. You can compare this to one of the main slogans of the 1979 revolutionary movement, which was “Bread, Work, Freedom”. It was the central slogan of the Workers’ Communist Party, inspired by the revolutionary movement in Russia.
But here is the focus, the core of this revolutionary movement, women’s bodily autonomy and the reclaiming of women’s bodily autonomy. This slogan comes from the Kurdish freedom movement and is the result of decades of grassroots activities and efforts by Kurdish women in one of Iran’s most economically disadvantaged regions, the Kurdish provinces. The Kurdish women of Kurdistan and Turkey used this slogan for the first time. And Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdish emancipatory movement, gave a very famous speech in 1998 in which he said that women are basically the first prisoners in history and that any emancipatory movement is doomed until they are freed from failure .
Following Mahsa Amini’s brutal assassination at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s Hijab Patrol, this particular slogan has gone viral. It was first sung by those attending her funeral in the city of Saqez in Kurdistan. And then in Sanandaj, another important Kurdish city in western Iran. And now you really hear it all over Iran. You hear it in areas like Kelishad va Sudarjan. In the cities like Mashhad in Khorasan Province, in Isfahan. Southwest in Khuzestan. So right now, even internationally, with all the international protests over the past two weeks, you hear that slogan.
So it has gone beyond the Kurdish cause. It originates there and also includes the efforts of the Kurdish emancipation movement. But at this point it really alludes to how women have been at the heart of leading this revolutionary movement in Iran. In the past, women’s rights were always important. But in the 19th century, for example in the constitutional revolution, it was always an after-effect of the revolution. It was one of many other revolutionary demands. This time it is in the first place.
How would you compare this protest movement to the Green movement of about thirteen years ago? This was also a movement against the current regime. Does this feel like a sequel or something special?
I think this movement is the continuation and accumulation of all the socio-political, gender, ethnic and religious grievances and suffering of the past forty-four years. But it definitely also draws on a much longer history that really takes us back a hundred and fifty years, to the mid-19th century. To answer your question, I think it’s definitely the sequel to the Green Uprising of 2009. And I think one of the ways you can compare the two movements is with the iconic images of two women, Neda Agha-Soltan, who was also a young, beautiful, defiant woman who was brutally killed while her eyes rolled towards the camera in June 2009. And her video went viral and essentially became the face of the riot. Compare it to what we see today: the disturbing image of a beautiful 22-year-old Kurdish woman in the hospital that goes viral and suddenly sparks these nationwide protests.
But the difference, I think, is that in 2009 there was still hope for reform. People there still chanted in the streets for free and fair elections. The main slogan was “Give me back my vote”. There was still a belief that the system could be reformed, in the sense that in a fair and free election the protesters could possibly have a candidate who represented their hopes and demands to some extent. Today’s revolution is completely leaderless in the sense that none of the previous figures, political figures like Mohammad Khatami, the former President of Iran, are being summoned. People on the street don’t wait for someone to come and take the lead. she are the leaders of the revolution. And at this point, I think it’s really important to realize that what’s happening right now was in response to the brutal murder of this innocent woman. But at this point it’s gone way beyond that.
One reason this movement is leaderless, I suppose, is that the people who would be the political leaders have been stripped of all power. They don’t run in elections that people thought had a chance of being fair and they were under house arrest or whatever. But if leadership stems in part from a place of powerlessness, what does it mean for the movement that it hasn’t united behind a leader or political party? Do you think it’s a strength of a weakness?
I think it’s a point of strength. It has made it very difficult for the security forces and the government to actually suppress this movement. For example after what happened at the Ashura protest [where violence broke out between Green Movement protesters and pro-governments forces] In 2009, the government placed the leaders of the movement under house arrest to this day: Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, Mohammad Khatami, Zahra Rahnavard.
And once they were placed under house arrest, the uprising was all but crushed. A feeling of extreme helplessness and hopelessness accompanied this event. At this point, I think one of the reasons it has become extremely difficult and challenging for the government to come up with an answer or an effective way to end the current protest is that they are not really behind a specific number can be here.
They tried. They have had mass arrests of journalists and of people they believed might be leaders in the past few days. They did, but the protests didn’t stop. They couldn’t close it. In fact, it has become more widespread. Nasrin Sotoudeh is a human rights lawyer who has represented many of these women who have been sentenced to prison terms or subpoenas for disobeying the mandatory hijab over the past decade. She said recently that this movement is leaderless and led only by the women who are performing this one revolutionary act. And this revolutionary act carries no weapon. You are not armed. This is completely peaceful. And all they do is harmlessly take something off their heads and walk the streets of Iran. The figure of this revolution is the body of these women, these unveiled women who walk the streets without harming anyone. Without even yelling “death to the dictator” or saying anything nasty against anyone. Their bodies have become the revolutionary figure of this movement. And that’s unprecedented.