On the Protests in Iran

By Sima Shakhsari

23 September 2022

I got an interview request by a journalist from Switzerland and these are the questions:

“My main question is why autocrats, including the Iranian regime, fear women and queer movements/activism and perceive them as a threat to their survival. Why is there a need to control women’s bodies? What do queer people and «free» or empowered women represent to the regime? Which social order do they question with their activism or demands? Why is this a threat to the autocratic regime? ”

If this journalist is interested in my answers, and not what they probably want to hear, I would respond along these lines:

We may want to answer these questions with more questions. Let’s turn our gaze inward and ask why “democratic” states such as Switzerland, fear Muslim women and ban burqa? Why do “democratic” states, including Switzerland, fear Blacks, Muslims, and immigrants? Was Mike Ben Peter, a Nigerian immigrant who refused police search not beaten and killed under chokehold by the Swiss police? And he was not an exception:

Khaled Abuzarifa suffocated during deportation on March 3, 1999. He was shackled and his mouth was taped shut.

Samson Chukwu suffocated on May 1, 2001, with his hands tied behind his back while he was being deported to Granges prison in Valais, Switzerland. Cemal G. died on July 3, 2001, as a result of a violent police operation in Bern-Bethlehem, Switzerland. Hamid Bakiri hung himself in a prison cell at a Chur, Switzerland police station on September 20, 2001, the day before they planned to deport him. Claudio M. died on April 29, 2004, during a police arrest in Brüttisellen in the canton of Zurich, Switzerland.

Yaya Bakayoko died on June 3, 2004, after falling from a window during a police operation in Basel, Switzerland. Anthony took his own life on September 1, 2004, in Bellinzona, Switzerland while in pre-trial custody. Ousman Sow died of thirst during the night of January 2 to 3, 2007 while on a hunger strike in the prison Altstätten in St. Gallen, Switzerland. Alhusein Douto Kora died of breathing difficulties on March 5, 2007, during deportation from Switzerland to the Gambia. Mariame Souaré died on August 25, 2007, in a fall from the fifth floor while fleeing from the police in Geneva, Switzerland. Abdi Daud died on March 23, 2008, in Zurich University Hospital, after several months of imprisonment at Zurich, Switzerland Kloten’s airport prison. Andy Bestman drowned in the Rhine in Basel, Switzerland on May 30, 2008, while fleeing from the police. Joseph Ndukaku Chiakwa died on March 17, 2010, in Zurich, Switzerland Kloten’s airport during his deportation. He was fully shackled and had a spit shield and helmet over his head. Medina Yassin Suleyman took her own life on March 18, 2012, due to the threat of deportation at the Linth Hospital in the canton of St. Gallen, Switzerland. Ilhan O. died on January 4, 2013, in a Zurich, Switzerland police prison. Subramaniam H. died on October 6, 2017, during a police operation at the asylum center in Brissago in the canton of Ticino, Switzerland. Lamin Fatty died in police custody in Mont-sur-Lausanne, Switzerland on the night of October 23–24, 2017.

Salah Tebbouche died on 30 December 2019.

I live in the U.S., so let me turn our gaze to the abortion laws in the U.S. and ask why does a woman not have control over her own body in the “land of democracy”? Why has the U.S. state historically used forced sterilization to control the bodies of Black women, Latinas, Indigenous women, prisoners, and disabled people? Why do “democratic” states such as the U.S. empire, fear women, Indigenous peoples, Blacks, immigrants, and working class trans and queer people, and perceive them as a threat to their survival? Let’s turn our gaze to the Standing Rock and the military and police suppression of Indigenous protesters to the Dakota Access Pipeline (that not only has violated Indigenous sovereignty, but has spilled at least 500 times since its construction). Let’s turn our gaze to the brutal murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and thousands of other Black people killed by the police for the crime of being Black (I will spare you the number of Black people, Indigenous people, and Latinos lynched and killed in the recent history of this democracy). Let’s turn our gaze to the brutal military suppression of protests in Ferguson after the brutal murder of Michael Brown by the U.S. police. And I can go on and on.

To make hijab the signifier that divides autocratic/democratic, free/unfree, empowered/victimized, modern/traditional is informed by a civilizational logic that has colonial underpinnings. We can talk about the Iranian state’s security apparatus and its use of morality as a way to control women’s bodies, but when we make it an exceptional case and reproduce the autocratic/democratic binary to frame the discussion, then we need to have another conversation first!

The Iranian people who are protesting the state violence after the heartbreaking death of Mahsa Amini while she was at the “Guidance Patrol” custody have more in common with women who are forced to remove their hijab, or those who are denied access to public spaces, whether it is in Switzerland or France. And yes, all modern nation-states have investments in patriarchal control, albeit in different shapes and with different histories. Whether it is the U.S., Switzerland, Israel, or Iran, all modern states have biopolitical and necropolitical measures that aim to cultivate an ideal normalized population, and to diminish or debilitate those who threaten the norms of gendered, ethnic, classed, and raced citizenship. Iran is not an exception. But we do see a rampant hijacking of the protests in Iran by those who have geopolitical interests (war, sanctions, regime change from outside). Using women’s liberation as an excuse to dominate is an old colonial strategy. These appropriations only hurt the protesters because the state will react more brutally in the name of national security, when the protesters are seen as foreign agents (and that has been the accusation, exactly because of the appropriation of the protests by the likes of Massih Alinejad and neocons). Those who appropriate protests for their own “regime change” agendas practically help the police and security apparatus of the Iranian state to suppress these protests.

P.S. In case it’s not clear, I wholeheartedly support the Iranian people’s autonomous protests and am disgusted by the morality police. AND I am against securitization, policing, and militarization, all of which are done under the rhetoric of national security.


25 September 2022

Gowd. The sunken wrestling ring in the center of “zoorkhaneh.” House of power; house of zoor. Zoor is power. Zoor is oppression. Zoor is tyranny. The wrestlers in the middle of the gowd are watched from above by cheering onlookers who sit around the gowd: lab-e gowd nesheens.

Let’s be frank about it. If you live outside of Iran, you are lab-e gowd-nesheen. All of us, diaspora Iranians are lab-e gowd-nesheens. Lab-e Gowd-nesheens may be emotionally invested in the victory or defeat of those wrestling in the gowd. But at the end of the day, it is not the lab-e gowd nesheens’ sweaty bodies that hit the floor. It is not their blood that is shed in the gowd. We, lab-e gowd nesheens are watching the gowd at the bottom of a Zoorkhaneh that is built on uneven grounds. Neither those wrestling in the gowd, nor those sitting around it possess equal power. In the middle of the gowd, some have guns, while others fight with fists, rocks, and scarves. Around the gowd, some lab-e gowd-nesheens worry, some cry silently, and some scream with anger. Others, who are vultures of different kinds broadcast their loud voices in megaphones attached to money and mega guns in the top of Zoorkhaneh. Zoorgooyee (exploitation) is the rule of zoorkhaneh. Be it in the gowd, be it around it. Be it in the name of morality and under the Qur’an, or be it in the name of freedom and under the sacred law of “democratization.” Zoor kills. Be it with a blow to the head at the “guidance patrol,” or with deadly sanctions or war in the freedom patrol. Be it in the name of liberating women from the vices of the “west,” or in the name of liberating women from the threat of Islam.

Zoorkhaneh and lab-e gowd-nesheenee are metaphors embedded in hypermasculinity. Metaphors have material effects. They kill. The young Iranian women who are on the streets, with or without hijab are defying the rules of zoorkhaneh. Their slogan, zan, zendegi, azadi is about a different kind of world-making outside of the logic of zoorkhaneh. Theirs is about a future that is neither interested in regime change nor in defending the “regime.” They are teaching us a new language. The language of life. In a poem, Afif Ziyadeh, the Palestinian poet tells a clueless reporter, “we teach life , sir. We Palestinians wake up every morning to teach the world life, sir!” Now the young Iranians are teaching us life, even as the zoor of life-depleting sanctions, sanctions profiteering, and the security state is denying them life. Young Iranians on the streets are teaching us life, even as they are stuck between state tyranny and those loud vultures among us lab-e gowd-nesheens. Deafening voices from the Voice of America, the Saudi International, MEK tyrants, and the bankrupt Royalists cheer from above with no concern for the lives of those they readily sacrifice. Some blatantly call for war.

We, lab-e gowd-nesheens may be sad, tired, or angry. But we are sitting around the gowd in our comfortable homes, watching the gowd from our screens. The least we can do is to keep the vultures sitting around the gowd from devouring the flesh of those who have put their lives on the line. The least we can do is to work to lift the sanctions so that the state does not justify its tyranny in the name of national security.

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