How Iran’s Hijab Protest Movement Became So Powerful

Last month, Iran’s morality police arrested Mahsa Amini, a twenty-two-year-old Kurdish Iranian who was visiting Tehran and apparently revealed some of her hair. She was sent to a reëducation camp, and, several days later, died while in custody. Her family members suspect she was killed in a beating at the hands of the police. Her death set off the most widespread protests—many of which have included women removing the head coverings mandated by Iran’s conservative government—that the country has seen since the Green Movement of 2009. The authorities responded by cracking down harshly, and there have been unconfirmed reports of protesters being killed by the government. The Iranian regime, currently led by an ailing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has tried clamping down on Internet access as well.

To talk about the situation, I recently spoke by phone with the Iranian scholar Fatemeh Shams, who has been living in exile since 2009. Shams teaches Persian literature at Penn, and is the author of the book “A Revolution in Rhyme: Poetic Co-option Under the Islamic Republic.” During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed what distinguishes the current protests from others in Iran’s past, the place and importance of Iran’s Kurdish minority in the uprising, and the benefits and drawbacks of leaderless movements.

To what degree is this protest movement something new, and to what degree is it an extension of protest movements that have happened in Iran in the past?

I think you can get a very good sense of any revolutionary episode or movement from its slogans. And the central slogan of this revolution, in my view, is quite different from previous ones—from the one in 1979, and then if you go back in history, to the turn of the twentieth century, which was the constitutional revolution. The central slogan of this revolution is “Women, Life, Freedom.” You can compare this with one of the main slogans of the 1979 revolutionary movement, which was “Bread, Work, Freedom.” It was the central slogan of the Communist Labor Party, which had been inspired by the revolutionary movement in Russia.

But here, the focus, the core of this revolutionary movement, is the bodily autonomy of women, and reclaiming the bodily autonomy of women. This slogan comes from the Kurdish freedom movement, and is a result of decades of grassroots activities and efforts of Kurdish women in one of the most economically deprived regions of Iran, the Kurdish provinces. The Kurdish women of Kurdistan and Turkey used this slogan for the first time. And Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the emancipatory Kurdish movement, in 1998 gave a very famous speech in which he said that women are basically the first captives in history and until they’re not liberated, any emancipatory movement, in fact, will be doomed to fail.

In the aftermath of Mahsa Amini’s brutal killing at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s hijab patrol, this particular slogan goes viral. It first was chanted by those who attended her funeral in the city of Saqez, in Kurdistan. And then after that, in Sanandaj, another key, major Kurdish city in the west of Iran. And now you hear it really all over Iran. You hear it in areas like Kelishad va Sudarjan. In the cities such as Mashhad in the Khorasan province, in Isfahan. In the southwest in Khuzestan. So right now, even internationally, in all of the international protests in the past two weeks, you hear this slogan.

So it has gone beyond the Kurdish cause. It originates there and it also includes the aspirations of the Kurdish emancipatory movement. But at this point, it really alludes to how women have taken center stage in leading this revolutionary movement in Iran. In the past, women’s rights were always important. But in the nineteen-hundreds, for example, in the constitutional revolution, it was always an aftereffect of the revolution. It was one of many other revolutionary demands. This time it’s first and foremost.

How would you compare this protest movement to the Green Movement from about thirteen years ago? That was also a movement against the current regime. Does this feel like a continuation or something distinct?

I think this movement is the continuation and accumulation of all the sociopolitical, gender, ethnic, religious grievances and sufferings of the past forty-four years. But also, it definitely relies on a much longer history that takes us back really to a hundred and fifty years ago, to the mid-nineteenth century. To answer your question, I think it’s definitely the continuation of the 2009 Green Uprising. And I think one of the ways in which you can compare the two movements is 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 became basically the face of the uprising. Compare it to what we see today: the disturbing image of a beautiful twenty-two-year-old Kurdish woman, in the hospital, going viral and suddenly sparking these nationwide protests.

But the difference, I think, is that back in 2009, there was still hope for reform. People there were still chanting in the streets for a free and fair election. The main slogan was “Give me back my vote.” There was still a belief that the system could be reformed, in the sense that, if there were a fair election and a free election, the protesters could possibly have a candidate that represented their hopes and their demands, to some extent. Today’s revolution is completely leaderless in the sense that none of the previous figures, political figures such as Mohammad Khatami, who was the ex-President of Iran, none of these are being called upon. People in the streets are not waiting for anyone to come and take the lead. They are the leaders of the revolution. And at this point, I think it’s really important to keep in mind that what’s happening right now was a response to the brutal killing of this innocent woman. But at this point it has gone much beyond that.

Part of the reason that this movement is leaderless, I assume, is that the people who would be the political leaders have been stripped of any power. They are not running in elections that people thought had a chance of being fair and they’ve been under house arrest or whatever else. But if the leaderlessness comes in part from a place of powerlessness, what does it mean for the movement that it has not coalesced behind a leader or a 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 for 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 put the leaders of the movement under house arrest up to this day: Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, Mohammad Khatami, Zahra Rahnavard.

And as soon as they were put under house arrest, the uprising was pretty much shut down. A sense of extreme helplessness and hopelessness came with that event. At this point, I think one of the reasons that it has become extremely difficult and challenging for the government to come up with a response or an effective way to shut down the current protest is that they can’t really go after a particular figure.

They tried. They had mass arrests in the past few days of journalists, and of people who they thought could potentially be leaders. They did that, but the protests haven’t been shut down. They couldn’t shut it down. In fact, it has become more widespread. Nasrin Sotoudeh is a human-rights lawyer who has represented many of these women who, over the past ten years, have been sentenced to jail or summoned to court on the basis of not observing the compulsory hijab. She recently said this movement is leaderless and is only led by those women who are doing this one revolutionary act. And that revolutionary act is not carrying a weapon. They’re not armed. This is completely peaceful. And the only thing that they’re doing is they’re harmlessly taking something off of their head and they’re walking in the streets of Iran. The figure of this revolution is the body of these women, these unveiled women who are walking in the streets without harming anyone. Without even chanting “death to the dictator” or saying anything harmful against anyone. Their bodies have become the revolutionary figure of this movement. And this is unprecedented.

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