In Iran, Feminists Rise Up to Imagine “What Comes After the Islamic Republic”

Protesters in Iran continue to demand justice for Mahsa, the 22-year old Kurdish woman who was killed by the so-called morality cops. They also envision a future without the Islamic Republic. According to Iran Human Rights, at least 154 people were killed in protests that began in Norway. “We saw women, really, what it seemed like for the first time, putting their bodies in direct confrontation with the police,” says Nilo Tabrizy, writer and video journalist at The New York Times. “Today’s movement is not calling for reform. Today’s movement is calling for a new vision of politics … with women at the helm of it,” says Narges Bajoghli, professor of anthropology and Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.

AMY GOODMAN: “Woman! Life! Freedom!” That’s the rallying cry in Iran and cities around the world as protests continue demanding justice for Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman who died after she was detained by Iran’s so-called morality police for allegedly wearing her headscarf improperly. Amini died on September 16th. The next day, protests broke out. Iran Human Rights, a Norway-based organization, claims that at least 154 people have been murdered since protests began in Iran just three weeks ago. A new report, Human Rights Watch has accused Iran’s security forces of using shotguns, assault rifles and handguns against peaceful protesters. The Iranian government has blocked certain messaging apps and blocked internet access in Iran for some parts of the protests.

Some video of the protests continues to be released. This video, obtained from Reuters, shows a group female students heckling a member an Iranian paramilitary force known as the Basiji. The female students are heard chanting, “Basiji, get lost!”

PROTESTERS: [translated] Basiji, get lost! Basiji, get lost! Basiji, get lost! Basiji, get lost! Basiji, get lost!

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with two guests. Narges Bajoghli, an anthropologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University of Middle East Studies, is our first guest. She’s the author of Iran Reframed: The Anxieties of Power and the Islamic Republic. Her latest pieceFor Vanity Fair is headlined “’Woman, Life, Freedom’: Iran’s Protests Are a Rebellion for Bodily Autonomy.”

Nilo Tabrizy is also with us. Nilo Tabrizy is an Iranian-born journalist who works at The New York Times. Her most recent piece is titled “What Video Footage Reveals About the Protests in Iran.”

Let’s go to those pictures first. Nilo, could you start by talking about this project? The New York TimesAnd what is the video?

NILO TABRIZY:Amy, thank you so very much.

We looked at videos that were mainly coming out during the first week, week, and a half of protests. That’s when the internet connection was not as disrupted as what we’re seeing right now. We saw many things, but I can boil it down to three main visual trends.

We saw that protesters were aiming at symbols of the state. Protesters tore down posters of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the founder of Islam’s Islamic Republic, as a result. Protesters attacked government buildings and police stations.

Another important thing that we saw, and which has been a major topic of discussion about these protests, is seeing women in the lead. So that’s everything from the defining images of seeing women burning their hijabs in public to women cutting their hair as a form of protest. We heard many feminist slogans. Like you just said, ”Zan, Zendegi, Azadi,” that’s very much been at the forefront of these protests.

We also saw Dr. Bajoghli’s women confront the police for the first-time. So, they’re, you know, actually going to physically fight them, going up to them, being very bold. This really stood out to me, and we saw it in many places across the country.

We didn’t realize that protests were so widespread. So we’ve seen solidarity among social class, different regions, different ethnic backgrounds. And something that really stood out to us for that is we saw protests in religious and traditionally conservative cities that are regime strongholds, like Qom and Mashhad, where we can hear protesters saying, “Death to the Islamic Republic.” And as well, we saw — we could hear the chant, ”Zan, Zendegi, Azadi,” which originates from Kurdish. It was chanted in Kurdish in Tehran by people who were not from Kurdistan. This, to us, showed the solidarity in the country.

NERMEEN SHAIKH:Nilo Tabrizy: Could you also speak about the state symbols that were attacked during these protests, and the significance of these state symbols? And in addition to this main chant, ”Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” — “Woman, Life, Freedom” — there have also been others. Which ones have really caught on?

NILO TABRIZY: Sure, absolutely. So, in terms of state symbols, we’ve seen, like I said, tearing down the poster of Khomeini. We’ve seen protesters tear down pictures of Ali Khamenei, the current supreme leader. We’ve seen them tear down posters of Soleimani. And seeing this is just very — you know, it’s a very bold thing to see. There’s so much repression in the state that seeing people tear down these symbols really gives us a visual understanding of what these protests are towards. They seem to be calling for a complete restructuring and dissatisfaction in the current order.

And as well, in terms of the other chants that have caught on, yeah, I mean, the main ones that we kept seeing are ”Zan, Zendegi, Azadi.” We are seeing, you know, “Death to the Islamic Republic,” “Death to Khomeini,” really calling for a downfall of the system. Those were the main ones that were coming through.

This is something Dr. Bajoghli might have some thoughts on. However, we found that these chants were very women-centered. In 2009, Neda, who was killed in Green Movement protests in 2009, became a symbol for state repression. At that time, there were chants that chanted her name. This time around, we’re not necessarily hearing “Mahsa,” “Zhina,” her name so much. We’re really hearing ”Zan, Zendegi, Azadi.” And we’re also hearing chants that particularly had male references translated into women-centric references. So, the chant, for example, that we might have heard in previous protests is “I will defend,” you know, “I will seek revenge for my brother”; we’re hearing that “I will seek revenge,” or “I will defend my sister.” So, we’re really hearing that translated into a women-centric chant to reflect the movement.

NERMEEN SHAIKH:Professor Narges Bjoghli, your pieceFor Vanity Fair is headlined “’Woman, Life, Freedom’: Iran’s Protests Are a Rebellion for Bodily Autonomy.” In the piece, you make a very interesting point, which is that Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish girl around whom these protests began, around her death, that her real name, Zhina, a Kurdish name, could not actually officially be registered under Iranian law. Can you explain why this is? And what significance does it have for the protests that started around the death a young Kurdish woman?

NARGES BAJOGHLI:Both pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary, Iran’s Kurds were repressed. Many Iranian ethnic minorities, particularly those living in border areas, have been subject to severe repression. Very few resources are available in these areas for development, job opportunities, and all that. Many Kurds in Iran, along with other ethnic minorities, are not allowed teach their languages in schools. And Zhina’s name could not be registered under Iranian law, because under Iranian law only certain Persian and Islamic names can be registered formally. So they had to register Mahsa, her Persian name, instead of Zhina, her Kurdish name.

It’s significant that this uprising has started over the death of a Kurdish girl who was visiting Tehran. She didn’t live in Tehran; she lived in Saqqez, a town in Iranian Kurdistan. These issues of identity and ethnicity have been used by Iran to prevent solidarity from taking place throughout the country. What we see is that a nation rose in defense of the murder of a Kurdish girl. The central slogan, which Nilo mentioned, of this entire uprising comes from Kurdish. It originates from a militant feminist Kurdish background. This then gets translated into the Kurdish women fighting for Syria against. ISISIt traveled around Iran in 2014 and 2015. It is a national anthem because mourners can be heard chanting it during her funeral. It is captured on video and circulated on social media. Then it spreads to Persian across the country.

AMY GOODMAN:Professor, pieceIn Vanity Fair, you write, “It is only fitting that it’s Iran’s feminist revolution and the country’s young generations that are on the front lines of battles for bodily autonomy and sovereignty. For forty years, Iranian women have been the victims of a political system that has emphasized their subjugation by daily policing. They’re now showing the world — despite the severe repression and potential death they face — how to fight back, like feminists.” Take it from there.

NARGES BAJOGHLI: Yes. This is a fight for women’s rights and the rights of queer people. So, what’s really important, as Nilo was providing the context, is that the Islamic Republic has implemented laws that are severely restrictive for women since the very beginnings of the 1979 revolution and the start of the state. And what’s significant here about what happened to Amini is that she was caught at the hands of the so-called morality police, which are a police force that are a daily occurrence all across Iran. All women have had at least one interaction with the morality cops, and even families with religious members have had some contact with them. This is something women deal with every day. Amini was initially in a coma, and then she died from the injuries. What we are now seeing is that Iran’s women have been resisting these restrictions every day for the past 40 years. We now see this as a break in collective action. So, it’s not surprising to me that sort of this generation’s and, in our global moment, our generation’s first big feminist uprising, that is militant in style, is taking place in Iran on this level, because Iranian women have over four decades of experience of daily acts of resistance against patriarchical laws and against partriarchical norms.

And so, as conservative movements are rising across the world, as we see more and more laws that are coming down against women — and, you know, I think it’s worth noting that conservative movements, when they rise, and religious movements, when they rise, first and foremost, they go after the rights of women. And so, right now I think even though traditional media has been very slow to cover this uprising, it’s been internet users all over the world that have made hashtag #MahsaAmini trend. And that’s the reason we’re all having this conversation today. So it’s striking a chord with people all over the world who are, in one way or another, experiencing, either once again or a continuation of, increased patriarchical control over women’s bodies. And so, the protests in Iran are capturing our attention because we’re seeing, in real life, how women are putting their lives on the line and are refusing to comply any longer. We must comply with patriarchy and power, you know. And so, we’re seeing now young women and women across Iran who are just saying, “I will no longer comply with this.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH:Professor Bajoghli. I’d like to ask about the potential outcomes of these protests. I was listening to an interview from the BBCMarjane Satrapi (an Iranian graphic novelist) said that the Islamic Republic, regardless of what happens, is now a corpse. But you write in your piece that — in your Vanity Fair piece that the “street rebellions may or may not ‘succeed’ in toppling the regime or changing the laws — but that is almost beside the point.” Can you explain what you mean by that, and what the effects of these protests might be, even if the regime doesn’t fall?

NARGES BAJOGHLI: Right. So, we don’t — you know, I don’t have a crystal ball. I can’t predict what’s going to happen. The most important thing about these protests at the moment is that women are taking back control from the state. They are saying, “We will not allow you to define how we come out onto the street. We will define this for ourselves.” And so, what is significant here is that, you know, when you rise up against powers and things that have been around for millennia, like patriarchy, which is, you know, one of — unfortunately, one of the universal values that we see around us, this is something that it takes a — we have to be able to envision that we can live in a society without that. That requires a representation of resisting this kind of power. What we now have in Iran, which is very significant for Iranians is that we have on a daily basis various forms of civil disobedience that are about standing up to patriarchal power. And we’re seeing more and more slogans also that say, “It might not be always be the morality police, but the morality police could also be called your father.” So it’s going to the core of patriarchy in the state and patriarchy in the home. And it’s really — and that’s what makes this feminist to its core. It’s saying that in order for us to have any kind of freedom, political or otherwise, women need to be free.

And so, the long-term consequences of this are significant, because what we see also in Iran is that young girls in schools — elementary school students, middle school students, high school students — are, as you guys showed on your piece, are throwing out those who have enforced these laws in their schools for over four decades. And so, this is just the start of women and girls seeing their power, seeing it reverberate, and then seeing it — and seeing so many people around the world showing solidarity to it. And that is significant for Iran, but it’s also significant for all of us as we’re sitting here contemplating how we’re going to be fighting back against all of these laws that are trying to restrict our bodies now. We are now witnessing a militant and confrontational form feminism rising from Iran.

AMY GOODMAN:Abir Al-Sahlani (a Swedish member of Parliament) cut her hair during a speech at the European Union Assembly in solidarity with the Iranian protests Tuesday night in Strasbourg, France.

ABIR AL-SAHLANI:The bloodstains on the hands of the Iranian regime of mullahs is evident. Neither history nor Allah or God Almighty will forgive you for the crimes against humanity that you’re committing against your own citizens. We, the EU citizens, demand that all violence against Iran’s women and men be stopped immediately. Our fury will outweigh the oppressors if Iran is not free. We will stand with you until the Iranian women are free. ”Jin, Jiyan, Azadi.” Woman! Life! Freedom!

AMY GOODMAN:All around the world, there have been videos of solidarity with the Iranian protests. Apart from the protests drawing thousands to thousands of people, including in Los Angeles which has a large Iranian American community and the Swedish MP that was just played, prominent French actresses from Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert also posted videos online cutting their hair. Nilo, if you can talk, since you’re examining these video, one, about the video getting out of Iran, but, two, the video of these actions of solidarity? How easy is it for Iranian women to see this solidarity when apps are being closed down??

NILO TABRIZY: Absolutely. Yes, the internet crackdown has begun. It’s difficult to reach my family. But Iranians are very intelligent. They are able and willing to move around the state repression. It’s something that they have been doing for years. There are many windows and ways they can see the outside world. I am still monitoring and watching how videos are being sent out to me and others who are watching. Videos are very much our primary window into what’s going on in Iran, given the repression of domestic journalists and international journalists that are — that once were accredited to be based there. So this is really the primary way that we’re seeing it.

And seeing these videos of women in Iran cutting their hair, it’s very moving. It’s something we focused on in our piece. And when we spoke with one of our experts, Reza Akbari, about it, he said it’s very much the symbol that is unique to these protests. It’s women saying, you know, back to the morality police, back to the state, “If this is what’s bothering you,” in a sarcastic, bitter way, “let me cut it off.” It’s very powerful, what they’re doing.

And something that really caught my eye when we were watching the videos coming out, specifically with cutting hair as a form of protest, is there was a video of a protester’s funeral. So, often in the past when protesters have been killed by the state, they’re very much dissuaded from being public at all about it. It’s a quiet burial and things like that. We saw a live stream from one of these funerals, which was posted on social media. You can see the open grieving, and see people grieving for their young loved ones who were killed in these protests. One of her family members begins to cut her hair over the casket, and so making — you know, not only making this funeral a public statement, which in itself is very new, shocking and bold in these protests, but adding that visual of cutting her hair on top of it is just — yeah, it’s incredibly moving to see these images.

NERMEEN SHAIKH:Your response Professor Bajoghli What do think accounts for this level of global solidarity, not only in demonstrations but also in the many women who are cutting their hair and posting it online. And if you could compare this also — in 2009, you were in Iran during the protests called the Green Movement. What makes this one different from the other?

NARGES BAJOGHLI: Sure. So, to answer your first question, I think the reason this is reverberating so broadly across the world is, again, we’re feeling lots of frustrations all around the world with not just the rise of conservative power but also just the concentration and the monopoly of power around the world, whether it’s by our, you know, different states that we all live in, corporations that we’re — you know, like all the applications that we all use and the ways in which that they are owned by very, very few companies. And so we’re in this moment in which especially those in the millennial generation and what we call Generation Z are trying — they are showing outbursts of rebellion and just sort of being like “It’s enough” towards different forms of power that we have around us, such as the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter movement, hashtag #MeToo movement, hashtag #NiUnaMas in Latin America, and so on and so forth. And this is a moment that is also another one of those where it crystallizes all of these frustrations, and that’s one of the reasons I think it is catching on and showing so much — there’s so much solidarity around the world.

This movement, unlike the 2009 movement in Iran, was still within the boundaries of politics of Iran’s Islamic Republic. It was a movement for electoral integrity, and reform of the system. Today’s movement, it’s not calling for reform. Today’s movement is calling for a new vision of politics. It’s calling for a vision of politics that is about life and not destruction, and that is about the future and women at the helm of it. This is something very different. The protesters today in Iran, they are — in many ways, they’ve moved beyond the state. This isn’t about the state. This is about creating a new political vision of what will follow the Islamic Republic. This is why this is such an important moment. It’s not that tomorrow the regime is going to come toppling down, but it’s that for the first time we have a national movement of sorts that has moved beyond the parameters of the state, is no longer looking to reform the state, and that is calling forth a completely new vision for politics in Iran.

AMY GOODMAN:Narges Bajoghli: We want to thank for being here, anthropologist, professor at Johns Hopkins University Baltimore Middle East Studies, and author of Iran Reframed: The Anxieties of Power and the Islamic Republic. We’ll link to your pieceIn Vanity Fair headlined “’Woman, Life, Freedom’: Iran’s Protests Are a Rebellion for Bodily Autonomy.” And Nilo Tabrizy, I want to thank you in Vancouver, journalist and writer, currently a video journalist at The New York TimesWhere is your most recent? piece is titled “What Video Footage Reveals About the Protests in Iran.”

We’re going to end this segment with the renowned political activist, scholar and author Angela Davis, who expressed her solidarity with protesters in Iran in a video posted on social media. This is an excerpt.

ANGELA DAVIS: I want to offer my heartfelt solidarity to all those in Iran who have decided that Mahsa Amini’s death at the hands of the Islamic Republic shall not be in vain. As one of the many scholar activists in the United States who has identified for a very long time as an ally of progressive and radical movements in Iran, I offer my condolences to Mahsa Amini’s family and friends, and I say thank you to all those whose militant refusals directed at the regime, along with its morality police, have created the occasion for Mahsa Amini’s name to reverberate around the world. People are standing up to resist the Islamic Republic’s repression in her name. … They are harbingers of hope, of hope not only for the people of Iran, but for all of us who want an end to racial capitalism, misogyny, economic repression, and who strive for more habitable futures for all beings on this planet. Mahsa Amini, long live!

AMY GOODMAN:Angela Davis is a political dissident and activist. She sends her message to show solidarity with the Iranian women.

Coming up, we’ll also hear from India. And as India’s prime minister offers to help efforts to end the war in Ukraine, we’ll speak to the prominent Indian activist Kavita Krishnan. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Because Of,” “Baraye,” by the Iranian singer Shervin Hajipour, which has become the unofficial anthem of the Iran protests. The song’s lyrics are taken entirely from messages Iranians have posted online about why they’re protesting. Shervin Hajipour uploaded the song on September 28th. It received 40 million views before it was taken down. He was taken into custody the next day and released on bail earlier this week. He’s awaiting trial.