What the Iran Protests Mean for Us—Kamin Mohammadi

15 October, 2022

 

The head­scarf that is being waved, ban­shee-like, by Iran­ian women is, for the peo­ple of Iran, no longer any­thing to do with Islam but a sym­bol of the oppres­sion and the abus­es that the regime has vis­it­ed on its own peo­ple in the name of religion.

 

Kamin Mohammadi

 

Since Sep­tem­ber 16th, I have been worse than a teenag­er with a bad social media addic­tion. The death of Mah­sa Jhi­na Ami­ni, a 22-year-old Iran­ian Kurd, appar­ent­ly at the hands of Iran’s Gashte Ershad or “Moral­i­ty Police,” and the sub­se­quent protests in Iran have me scrolling through Insta­gram like it’s a full­time job. Track­ing the protests and what is hap­pen­ing on the ground can only real­ly be done online, since phone lines into the coun­try are not safe and con­tact via mes­sag­ing ser­vices is also dif­fi­cult due to the Iran­ian author­i­ties’ cut­ting off or slow­ing down the inter­net. Cyber­space is now, as it has been for the past decade, the main place where the Iran­ian peo­ple can express them­selves. It’s not always a safe space giv­en the Islam­ic regime’s “cyber army,” but it’s bet­ter than the streets which are patrolled by the Gashte Ershad.

After four weeks of watch­ing the most extra­or­di­nary scenes being played out on the streets of Iran — ones that even us close observers could not have antic­i­pat­ed — I have had to lim­it my intake of videos com­ing out of the coun­try. Show­ing bru­tal­i­ty, the likes of which I stu­dious­ly avoid on tele­vi­sion dra­mas, the videos reveal an unpar­al­leled use of force and vio­lence against the pro­tes­tors that makes me sick to my soul. 

But as I am scrolling and try­ing not to click on videos that will break my heart again, I come across a clip of an elder­ly Iran­ian lady who is a well-known per­son­al­i­ty in Iran. She is ful­ly cov­ered in black with unim­peach­able hijab and she is cry­ing about the loss of young life at the hands of the regime’s secu­ri­ty forces dur­ing the protests. And she says some­thing I have yet to hear any­one else say­ing out loud — by next spring this regime will be over.

I gasp. And a vision ris­es up before me, one I have not dared envis­age for decades now, an image that has been close­ly put away and almost for­got­ten some­where deep in my being. It is a sim­ple pic­ture, of me stand­ing under the plane trees of Vali Asr Boule­vard with my hair glim­mer­ing in the Iran­ian sun, lean­ing in to kiss my man with­out a shiv­er of fear, shame and dread run­ning through me. A sim­ple enough image but an impos­si­ble dream.

But could it be that next sum­mer, instead of pack­ing my bags for one of the resorts of Europe, I could be head­ing home? With­out the need to pack some sort of hijab? To a free Iran, one in which every step I take is not dogged by fear and a hun­dred fid­gets as I adjust my hijab and look over my shoul­der to see who is watching?

What has hap­pened in the past month in Iran is mak­ing many of us in the huge Iran­ian dias­po­ra exca­vate long-buried hopes and dreams around Iran. Because no mat­ter how long we have been away, and how effec­tive­ly we have remade our­selves in the image of our new coun­tries, nev­er­the­less every Iran­ian car­ries inside them a sort of Pla­ton­ic ide­al of an Iran which is our earth­ly paradise.

I am an Iran­ian iden­ti­fied by the hyphen that attach­es me to Britain, the coun­try that took us in when we fled the Iran­ian rev­o­lu­tion of 1979. That rev­o­lu­tion, now wrong­ly called Islam­ic, was in its nature a social­ist rev­o­lu­tion that demand­ed equal rights and dis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth. Women were at the fore­front and one of the ral­ly­ing cries was there are no human rights with­out women’s rights. Yet Aya­tol­lah Khome­i­ni, under whose charis­mat­ic pop­ulist Islam­ic lead­er­ship the dif­fer­ent labor unions and social­ist and com­mu­nist par­ties coa­lesced, felt it nec­es­sary on tak­ing pow­er to make the first job of his gov­ern­ment — “God’s own gov­ern­ment” as he called it — to repeal the Fam­i­ly Pro­tec­tion Law of 1975, the most pro­gres­sive in the region. Giv­en all the urgent prob­lems that rev­o­lu­tion­ary Iran faced in 1979, it is telling that this was the focus of Khomeini’s first leg­is­la­ture — to take mar­riage age for girls from 18 down to 9 and take away so many of the rights of women. It was not until 1983 that manda­to­ry hijab was final­ly made law for all women in Iran — and arguably it was only due to the dev­as­tat­ing war with Iraq that start­ed in 1980 that the regime was able to impose this. When I first went back to Iran after 18 years away, it was this hijab and how I was wear­ing it that became the focus of all my fear, ner­vous­ness and worry.

In the forty-three years that I have lived in Britain, my rela­tion­ship with my home­land has been dic­tat­ed by the vagaries of the regime: did we have a hard­line pres­i­dent or reformist? Would I be harassed on the streets or arrest­ed at the air­port or left alone? This is a con­ver­sa­tion that every Iran­ian liv­ing in dias­po­ra who wish­es to vis­it Iran has with them­selves. My pass­port has been the issue that has haunt­ed my life: on arriv­ing in the UK from Iran in 1979, I will nev­er for­get the ter­ror I felt as we stood at pass­port con­trol at Heathrow and wait­ed for the immi­gra­tion offi­cer to decide whether we could stay and how long for, or whether we would be sent back to Iran to impris­on­ment or death. In the decades it took for us to receive our British pass­ports, I became used to not being able to join my school friends on trips abroad and any hopes of going home to Iran were aban­doned. At least until we got our British pass­ports, and I could final­ly stop cring­ing every time I found myself in front of pass­port con­trol when we trav­elled. With the issu­ing of my British pass­port, I could also claim back my Iran­ian one and so, near­ly 20 years after leav­ing Iran, I start­ed to trav­el back to my home­land every year as an Iran­ian rather than a British citizen.

Woman stops police in Iran, illus­tra­tion in homage to Tianan­men Square (cour­tesy Niraee).

In spite of my ner­vous­ness, I start­ed to write about Iran and my trips back soon became an impor­tant annu­al pil­grim­age. Trav­el­ling on my Iran­ian pass­port, my British tucked in my back pock­et in case of prob­lems, I would roam Iran with dif­fer­ent mem­bers of my large extend­ed fam­i­ly, writ­ing arti­cles that sought to human­ize the peo­ple of Iran and expose the long and sophis­ti­cat­ed his­to­ry and cul­ture of our land to the west. I stopped both­er­ing with tak­ing my British pass­port when one year some­one high up at the British embassy told me that if the Iran­ian author­i­ties took me, I would be count­ed as an Iran­ian cit­i­zen and so the UK could do noth­ing to help me.

The sub­se­quent six-year impris­on­ment of British-Iran­ian Nazanin Zaghari Rat­cliffe in Iran has borne this out, the years of her life lost to this ran­dom incar­cer­a­tion cer­tain­ly not helped and prob­a­bly added to by the inept actions of the UK gov­ern­ment in that time, espe­cial­ly Boris Johnson’s wrong­ful dec­la­ra­tion, as For­eign Sec­re­tary, that she had been in Iran train­ing journalists.

The Cypress Tree by Kamin Moham­ma­di is pub­lished by Blooms­bury.

Since my book The Cypress Tree was pub­lished in 2011, I have not been back to Iran. Not because I may be arrest­ed for what I wrote. But because the laws in Iran are such that almost any trans­gres­sion could land you in jail, for charges that are as broad and vague as “offend­ing the laws of God’s earth.” Liv­ing in Iran for lengthy peri­ods to research my book, I real­ized that life there is lived in a kind of fog of delib­er­ate for­get­ful­ness. You live as you wish, of course as dis­creet­ly as pos­si­ble, and you try not to think about the fact that should they so wish, the regime could at any point decide to haul you in for any num­ber of small trans­gres­sions that dai­ly life expos­es you to, be it the style of your hijab or just the fact that you were in a gath­er­ing of both sex­es with­out your hair cov­ered. I became used to going to par­ties where women arrived look­ing like black crows with their volu­mi­nous chadors (Per­sian for hijab) and shed them to dis­play the finest of design­er fash­ions and exquis­ite­ly made-up faces. I also start­ed to feel a small thrill at the idea that each par­ty could be bro­ken up by the Moral­i­ty Police and might neces­si­tate a dra­mat­ic escape over rooftops or a vis­it to the local police sta­tion. It felt like liv­ing with the con­scious­ness that there is a net spread under your feet, so loose and fine that you almost for­get about it, but that can be pulled closed at the whim of any local offi­cial and trap you with­in a cross-stitch of Kafkaesque laws that might nev­er let you free.

It wasn’t so much the pub­li­ca­tion of my book that stopped me return­ing to Iran. It was more the inter­nal shifts and rival­ries in a regime that start­ed arrest­ing dual nation­als — hyphen­at­ed Ira­ni­ans like myself — as a way of extort­ing long-owed mon­ey from the west that gave me pause. I felt exposed by that hyphen and unpro­tect­ed by the gov­ern­ment of my adopt­ed coun­try; again, Nazanin’s long incar­cer­a­tion has proved the truth of this.

I now read back my diaries from the days when I lived in Tehran research­ing my book, when I had an apart­ment and busy social life and often stepped into gov­ern­ment build­ings wear­ing what could be con­sid­ered inap­pro­pri­ate hijab — not so much the amount of hair show­ing but more my open-toes high heeled san­dals which exposed bare toes and shock­ing pink nail var­nish. In those days, while every official’s gaze trav­elled silent­ly to my toes, noth­ing was said or done about it. It was a peri­od in which “bad hijab” was tol­er­at­ed, a con­ces­sion to the peo­ple who had brought reformist pres­i­dent Khata­mi in on a wave of hope. Even after the elec­tion of hard­lin­er Ahmadine­jad, these small social free­doms remained unchanged. My worst fear then was being tak­en in and hav­ing to explain things to my fam­i­ly, incon­ve­nienc­ing them in some way, or hav­ing to face the mor­ti­fy­ing prospect that my release would be con­di­tion­al on one of my aun­ties putting down the deeds of her house, in return for my promise of “good behav­ior.” I did not fear for my life, for beat­ings to the head so severe that I would end up in a coma, as Mah­sa Jhi­na Ami­ni did on Sep­tem­ber 13th, after she was arrest­ed. I did not think then that the Moral­i­ty Police might rape and tor­ture me before throw­ing my body from a build­ing to cov­er up their sins. The fear that stalked me then seems mild to the lev­els of unthink­able vio­lence that women in Iran have increas­ing­ly faced since the elec­tion of the hard­line pres­i­dent Ebrahim Raisi 18 months ago.

Soon after Ahmadinejad’s first term start­ed though, the harass­ment of hyphen­at­ed Ira­ni­ans start­ed, and my flat in Lon­don became a stop­ping point for friends flee­ing Iran. I got stuck into writ­ing my book and decid­ed not to vis­it Iran till things clar­i­fied. A few years after its pub­li­ca­tion, when Nazanin was tak­en and impris­oned on patent­ly made-up charges, I put away the hope I had been har­bor­ing of being able to return, or even one day even to live there.

I watched with hope the rise of the Green Wave move­ment which broke over Iran in 2009, after the dis­put­ed pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in which Ahmadine­jad was rein­stalled as pres­i­dent in what seemed clear bal­lot box fraud. The biggest protests seen since the rev­o­lu­tion were bru­tal­ly crushed not just instant­ly but, in a cam­paign of ter­ror that took sev­en months, its lead­ers were round­ed up and jailed, par­tic­i­pants arrest­ed and beat­en and intim­i­dat­ed into submission.

Sub­se­quent protests led by women — with men stand­ing along­side them — have been sim­i­lar­ly quashed and led to noth­ing but more heartache. The last burst of angry protests in 2019 led to an inter­net black­out dur­ing which the regime report­ed­ly killed 1,500 peo­ple. What­ev­er hope I had had of help­ing reform Iran from the inside, of once again call­ing it home, seemed then to defin­i­tive­ly die along­side so many of our wast­ed young people.

But this move­ment, which rose out of my pater­nal home­land of Kur­dis­tan, which uses the Kur­dish free­dom chant Woman Life Free­dom as its cen­tral ral­ly­ing cry, is dif­fer­ent. With­out an appar­ent lead­er­ship or cen­tral organ­i­sa­tion, these protests are con­fla­gra­tions of absolute fury which appear to be burst­ing out spon­ta­neous­ly all over Iran: BBC Mon­i­tor­ing has record­ed protests in 350 loca­tions in Iran. They are led by young women but cut across all gen­ders, age and socio-eco­nom­ic groups. They are cen­ter­ing not just women but eth­nic minori­ties such as Kurds and Baluchis, where protests have been par­tic­u­lar­ly bru­tal­ly sup­pressed. As I write, the city of Sanan­daj (the cap­i­tal of Iran­ian Kur­dis­tan) is under the sort of shelling that recalls the post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary days of Khome­i­ni, who attacked the region sav­age­ly to silent its oppo­si­tion to his theo­crat­ic rule.

Protest art and illus­tra­tion of slain teenag­er Nika Shakara­mi by Meysam Azarzad (cour­tesy Meysam Azarzad).

It is the face­less­ness of these protests, their sim­ple demands for human rights, equal­i­ty and democ­ra­cy that are remark­able. Their longevi­ty and spread­ing through uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents to high school stu­dents. We have seen things in these four weeks that were beyond our wildest imag­in­ings. School­girls with their hair loose tak­ing down the pic­ture of Aya­tol­lahs Khome­i­ni and Khamenei, chas­ing regime rep­re­sen­ta­tives from their school yards, women qui­et­ly going about their dai­ly busi­ness in Iran with­out a loose coat or head cov­er­ing in pow­er­ful acts of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence. We have seen the retak­ing of pub­lic spaces by women who are using their phys­i­cal bod­ies — and their hair — to take back the streets, the squares, the school yard, the uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus. These women are over­whelm­ing­ly young, but in their cry of fury, I hear the voice of all the women of Iran who have been silenced not just in the past 43 years, but for cen­turies and for all the gen­er­a­tions who have suf­fered indig­ni­ty, humil­i­a­tion and era­sure at the hands of “God’s own government.”

While the bru­tal treat­ment of Mah­sa Jhi­na Ami­ni over “bad hijab” — and now many oth­er young women killed in these weeks, includ­ing 16-year-old pro­tes­tors Nika Shakara­mi and Sari­na Esmailzadeh — was the spark that lit this blaze of rage. The real heat of this move­ment comes from decades of repres­sion, a free-falling econ­o­my, the mass cor­rup­tion, mis­han­dled Covid response and hypocrisy of the rul­ing elite which refus­es to allow Iran­ian women basic free­doms, even as their own chil­dren stalk the streets of LA clad in tiny dress­es and post pic­tures of the par­ties they hold in man­sions bought with the pil­fered rich­es of our country.

Liv­ing in the dias­po­ra with dual iden­ti­ties has been a bal­anc­ing act, and I have spent a large part of my adult and work­ing life try­ing to intro­duce my coun­tries to each oth­er. Since George W Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech, it has been a par­tic­u­lar­ly tricky tightrope to walk: not dar­ing to speak out too pas­sion­ate­ly about the appalling atroc­i­ties of the regime against our peo­ple for fear of reper­cus­sions for our fam­i­ly in Iran, for los­ing our own abil­i­ty to trav­el there safe­ly, and also for feed­ing the tox­ic nar­ra­tive of Iran in the West and enabling an Allied inva­sion such as those on Iraq and Afghanistan.

And yet, for the first time since we fled in 1979, I feel ful­ly aligned with my peo­ple back in Iran. The diver­si­ty of the pro­tes­tors, the accep­tance of everyone’s griev­ances as being equal­ly wor­thy, the idea that for once, all Ira­ni­ans are equal in their desire for the same goal — free­dom to live a peace­ful life with no abuse — makes me and those in the dias­po­ra also feel included.

Even in my extreme priv­i­lege in the West, I too have suf­fered at the hands of this regime. I have lost my coun­try and dai­ly con­tact and rela­tion­ship with the peo­ple I love. I have had to some­how square myself with the loss of my home­land, moth­er tongue and direct con­nec­tion with my cul­ture, I have had to grow accus­tomed to being “British but…,” to not feel­ing entire­ly at home any­where nor entire­ly part of any eth­nic group. And I too have been dogged by fear since the age of nine since my father’s name appeared on a grave and we had to flee for our lives. Even my jour­nal­ism and the book I have writ­ten about Iran has been col­ored by fear, and even in my priv­i­leged exis­tence of free speech I have self-cen­sored in order to have access to my home­land, to the peo­ple I love there.

But now, for the first time in many years I am allow­ing myself once more to dream that one day I can enter Iran with­out fear grip­ping my heart and accom­pa­ny­ing every step that I take there. And this heady and del­i­cate lit­tle hope has been giv­en to me by the young women of our coun­try, our heroes. Over a decade ago I wrote in The Cypress Tree: “It may not be tomor­row or next year, but I know that the women of Iran will one day take what is right­ful­ly theirs, pow­ered by noth­ing oth­er than their huge hearts, fierce intel­lects and sharp tongues.” These lioness­es of Iran have at least giv­en us back our abil­i­ty to dream again, and it is this imag­in­ing of a new real­i­ty — of see­ing it on the streets of Iran as women walk around with­out hijab — that is per­haps the biggest threat to the con­tin­u­a­tion of the sta­tus quo. Woman Life and Free­dom, inshallah.

 

Kamin Mohammadi is a British-Iranian author, journalist, broadcaster, teacher and cultural curator. Born in Iran, she moved to the UK during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Her journalism has been nominated for a UK Amnesty Human Rights in Journalism award, and for a National Magazine Award by the prestigious American Society of Magazine Editors. Kamin has authored two books, Bella Figura: How to Live, Love and Eat the Italian Way (currently in development for TV), and The Cypress Tree: A Love Letter to Iran, both published by Bloomsbury. She lives in Tuscany.

Green MovementIran protestsMahsa Aminimorality policeNika Shakaramiwomen life freedom

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