By Sima Shakhsari
Mahsa (Jina) Amini, a 22-year old Kurdish-Iranian woman, died in the hospital on September 16, 2022, three days after being arrested by the Iranian Guidance Patrol (also known as the “morality police” in English ) for her alleged “improper hijab.” Her murder became the mobilizing cry for the massive protests that have swept across Iran. Outraged by Mahsa Amini’s mysterious death, Iranian women have been in the forefront of the street protests, removing their hijab, and some cutting off their hair publicly while resisting police crackdown. Many people have been arrested and killed since the beginning of the protests that have spread across the country.
The Iranian protests are the percolation of long-time grievances resulting from the unrealized promises of the post-revolutionary Iranian state, whose anti-imperialist Islamic nationalism aspired to shed economic injustices, inequalities, and the political oppression of the Pahlavi regime. However, more than four decades later, those promises are yet to come. The ever-increasing economic and wealth gap between most of the population and the economic elites who only constitute a small fraction of it, the unequal distribution of resources and the impoverishment of the provinces where ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Arabs, and Baluch people live, and the suppression of dissent have been pent up over four decades. In addition, the increasing economic liberalization, privatization, and austerity measures, at odds with the ideals of the early years of the revolution, have deepened economic inequalities and led to increasing discontent and resentment.
The securitization of the Iranian state has been a result of many geopolitical developments, including the coup attempt in the early years of the revolution and the imposed eight-year war with Iraq, not to mention the U.S. propaganda, threats of militarized violence from Israel and the U.S., and assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, and the economic sanctions. Despite the Iranian state’s collaboration with the U.S. forces to suppress Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq (for which General Soleimani was revered), Iran has managed to keep its relative independence and geopolitical resistance to U.S. hegemony and the Israeli state’s bullying in the region.
Domestically, however, post-revolutionary Iran’s anti-imperialist ideals have lost their appeal to some (and not all) segments of the Iranian population who blame the economic atrocities and rampant inflation on Iran’s geopolitical role in the region, especially its support of political groups in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon. As such, the dire economic conditions, mainly resulting from the U.S. sanctions, state’s mismanagement, corruption among some state and non-state ranks, and sanctions profiteering, have pitted Iranian people’s struggle against the struggles of Iran’s Arab and Afghan neighbors. Slogans such as “Neither Gaza nor Lebanon, I sacrifice my life for Iran!” in previous protests testify to this unfortunate trend. Similarly, the Iranian state’s appropriation of George Floyd’s murder by the racist U.S. police has enraged many Iranians who rightly point out to the hypocrisy of the state’s claims to stands for justice for Black people in the U.S.
It is in this context that any in-between position becomes impossible. On one hand, people’s legitimate protests are accused of “foreign propaganda” and dissent is quelled in the name of “national security.” On the other hand, solidarity with the Palestinian struggle or critiques of the U.S. racist and imperialist policies are dismissed by those who consider such positions as collusion with the Islamic “regime.” The shift away to “Woman, Life, Freedom” in the recent protests, however, represents a powerful questioning of this sectarian orientation by moving towards solidarity and a different vision of world-making. Woman, Life, Freedom envisions a world that is not bound by nationalism, empty promises of rights, or neoliberal competition, but one that strives for a life free of repression, injustice, scarcity, and violence.
Contrary to the dominant representations in the U.S. and mainstream international media, Iranian women have actively participated in the political realm in meaningful and critical ways. In fact, since the 1979 revolution, Iranian women have accessed higher education in unprecedented numbers, participated meaningfully in the cultural and political spheres, and have campaigned for change in the constitution and discriminatory laws. There were massive protests, led by women immediately after the implementation of compulsory hijab in the early 1980s. As women’s hijab came to symbolize resistance to westernization and objectification of women by the Iranian state, many Iranian feminist scholars and women activists focused their energies on other discriminatory laws and negotiated their role in the cultural and political realm through the instrumentalization of hijab in the public sphere. Despite the deployment of morality in the name of anti-imperialism by the state from the early years of the revolution, Iranian women at different times have found creative ways to negotiate appearing in public spaces with minimal or no head cover. However, women’s bodies often become potent sites of political claims to liberation, be it from hijab, or from capitalist objectification. Therefore, the struggles over power often manifest themselves through representational politics that make women the symbol of freedom or lack-there-of.
In recent months, women with minimal or no hijab were appearing in the metro and on the streets without attracting attention or being reprimanded by the “morality police.” This was the case until this July, when the conservative Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, signed a decree to enforce hijab laws, and when the state threatened to fire women employees with improper hijab and “un-Islamic” social media profile photos. This angered many people, especially when teachers and government employees were protesting unpaid and low wages, inflation, and the privatization of education. The alleged torture and forced confession of Sepideh Rashno, a young woman artist who was tracked down and arrested for her “improper hijab” added to public outrage. Rashno was arrested after the video of her heated dispute with another woman on Tehran’s Rapid Transit bus was widely circulated on social media. In August, a month after Rashno’s arrest, the Ministry of Justice’s news agency accused her of undertaking “propaganda activities against the state” and “encouraging corruption and prostitution.” The state staged a forced confession on national television where, unlike previous forced confessions of those accused of espionage or propaganda, Rashno’s face was bruised, and she looked ill. This form of public warning showed a shift in the Iranian state’s disciplining strategies to create fear. Indeed, the massive circulation of the video of Rashno’s dispute with the veiled woman on the bus and the irresponsible appropriation of the video by the opposition groups and individuals with regime change agendas contributed to Rashno’s criminalization and charges of propaganda by the Iranian state. As several Iranian activists and scholars have argued, women who wore hijab and those who took it off on the metro were minding their own business and getting along just fine. It was only when opportunistic opposition forces appropriated women’s opposition to hijab that the case incited the “regime-change propaganda” discourse. This was not the first time that Iranian women’s rights activists have been accused of espionage or propaganda because of the appropriation of their cause by the opposition forces. In fact, these forces have been jeopardizing legitimate movements within Iran by hijacking their struggles and making them vulnerable to state’s increased securitization and disciplinary measures. This time, however, the sheer violence of the Iranian state’s intelligence and security forces which ended in Mahsa Amini’s death, and state’s brutal response to the protests have enraged many Iranians who are fed up and demand an end to violence and state repression.
The Iranian state is not an exception in deploying morality as a technique of securitization. Many modern states (along with non-state and para-state entities) couple policing and securitization with biopolitical and ethicopolitical practices that seek to normalize the citizenry. Be it in the name of the “war on terror,” “war on drugs,” “war on prostitution,” “war on westernization and moral decay,” “war on abortion,” “war on poverty,” “health of the nation,” or “national security,” policing is the modus operandi of the “human security states.” The logic of security is also deployed by the international entities that guarantee the U.S. geopolitical interests. The sanctions, for example, are imposed on Iran in the name of security and the good of the “international community.” The U.S. sanctions, as many have argued, are war by another name. These sanctions—along with covert U.S. operations under the guise of “democratization projects” and the pending threat of U.S. military intervention—have furthered the securitization of the Iranian state and have given the Iranian state the convenient excuse to silence any kind of dissent. Any protest—whether it is a response to the rise in gas prices, economic corruption and sanctions profiteering, constriction of social freedoms, catastrophic environmental policies, oppression of ethnic minorities, or labor injustice— is accused of “foreign collusion” and is suppressed brutally.
The massive protests in Iran signal that many Iranians, even some who are aligned with or support the state, are fed up with the corruption and repression which are ironically enforced under the guise of “morality.” After 43 years, the Iranian women who refuse the instrumentalization of their bodies as sites of morality/freedom are in the forefront of the street protests, shouting “Zan Zendegi Azadi.” This slogan which is adopted from the Kurdish slogan “Jin Jian Azadi” (woman, life, freedom) encapsulates politics and life by insisting on “freedom” beyond nationalism. Adhering neither to the separatist agendas, nor to the nationalist policies of the Iranian state to erase ethnic minorities, this vision promises a new future: one in which the liberations of women from different backgrounds, ethnic minorities, the working class, and sexual minorities are bound to, rather than in competition with, one another. Zan Zendegi Azadi doesn’t pit the struggles of people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, the U.S., Syria, Lebanon, and other parts of the world against each other, nor does it dismiss those struggles because the Iranian state appropriates them for its own geopolitical agendas. It rejects Islamophobia and orientalist representations of Muslim women, and refuses to reduce the movement against compulsory hijab to a binary of religion and secularism. Azadi (freedom) in Zan, Zendegi, Azadi does not translate into liberal democracy’s promise of freedom—a freedom that has historically been entangled with private property, racialized and gendered notions of Human, and built upon death, debilitation, enslavement, and dispossession. Woman, Life, Freedom crystallizes a politics where “woman” is not an overdetermined biological identity, a symbol of national honor, or a body without subjectivity on which battles over liberation take place.
If sanctions kill softly in the name of rights and international security, if the Iranian state kills brutally in the name of morality and under the cloak of anti-imperialism, and if U.S. bombs kill shamelessly in the name of liberal democracy, then Woman Life Freedom strives for a life where death does not speak the last word.
*My heartfelt gratitude to the AGITATE! Team, especially Dr. Richa Nagar and Dr. Nithya Rajan for their careful editorial labor.
For more on the Iranian protests see: Woman Life Freedom: A Panel On The Protests In Iran