Mahsa Amini (22) died in the custody of Iran's moral police on September 16, 2022. Three days earlier, she was arrested because the police were not satisfied with the way she wore her hijab. This horrific event triggered anti-government rallies across the country, and consequently bloody clashes with state security forces. The protests were started by girls who took off their hijabs and cut off their hair in public, wanting to draw attention to the horrible treatment of women in Iran; for them, hijab was just a symbol, the proverbial last straw. Resistance against the oppressive government in nearly twenty cities has not subsided for months, and according to the UN data, nearly 20,000 people have been arrested so far. The future of most of them is uncertain, and twenty of them have already been sentenced to death. A report by the Oslo-based Human Rights Watch in Iran claims that at least 342 people, including 43 children, have already been killed in the clashes.
Judging by activist accounts on Twitter, a unique feminist revolution is currently taking place in Iran, which has since been joined by men and in which all ethnic groups are participating. The protesters are calling for a revolution premised on freedom, a normal life where citizens can read what they want, dress how they want, say what they think, have fun, travel and use the Internet without restrictions.
How did Iran get to where it is now? The turning point was the previous revolution, that of 1979, which instead of freedom brought draconian Sharia laws, the dictatorship of fanatical religious leaders, and decades of human rights violations, especially when it comes to women. Today, as Marjane Satrapi, Iranian author and persona non grata in her own homeland, recently explained, "death, torture and imprisonment are part of the everyday life of young people in Iran." However, Marjane also says that "these young people are not like us when we were their age - they are fearless and understand that their rights will not fall from the sky, but instead must be fought for".
Due to the political structure of the country, even before the current situation, news from Iran has always been scarce and at second hand. History is happening in one of the most repressive regimes in the world, and there are almost no independent journalists on the ground, not to mention any non-governmental organizations that would support the oppressed. One thing we can do is try to pass on information about current developments in Iran - what led to them and why it is critical that this wave of protests succeeds. That is why we reached out to Nila (full name known to the editors of The Travel Club), a young Iranian woman, activist and educator who has been living in Berlin since 2020, and who actively follows the events in Iran. We asked her some general questions about living in Iran, but also about the importance of the protests, which she believes represent the beginning of a revolution, hopefully, a successful one.
The Travel Club: To begin with, tell us something about yourself. Who are you?
Nila: I’m in my mid-thirties; I have just finished a master’s degree and starting to build a new life in Europe. I left Iran two years ago, in the midst of the pandemic. I have lived in Germany for the most part of these two years, in three to four different cities around the country. I had lived in the UK for my first master’s degree, I studied International Development about six years ago, then went back to Iran, worked for a couple of years, and decided that wanted to live abroad, like many others who were trying to leave. Professionally, I have worked in education and development projects in NGOs.
TTC: You are active on social networks regarding the protests in Iran that have been ongoing for almost three months now. Why are these protests significant?
Firstly, Iranians have expressed their wish for the current events in the country to be called a revolution rather than a protest, and I will respect that wish, plus also believe that it is at least the start of a revolution, no matter what the results might be.
It is significant in so many ways. At the time of writing this, we are reaching the end of the third month since Mahsa Amini was killed by the hijab police, and the protests are still ongoing in so many cities around the country. Uprisings have long been part of the scene in Iran, especially more frequently in the past couple of years. Things have been piling up, especially in the last three years. We have lost count of all the tragedies we have witnessed in such a short time, so many lives lost. But none has been this widespread and this long-lasting.
And it doesn’t mean that things have been easier for people to protest. The regime’s crackdown and violence on protesters have also been extremely high, and shamelessly cruel. There’s no taboo anymore for them to shoot people straight in the streets. Over the past weeks, more than 280 people have been killed, at least 45 of them children, and more than 1500 arrested, and these are only the identified ones. The actual list is much bigger.
The protests started over the mandatory hijab rule of course, but it is crucial to understand that it is not about hijab only. Mandatory hijab has been at the heart of IR regime rule, inseparable, just as their war with women’s rights has been for almost half a decade. Therefore, putting women’s rights at the centre of the demands, means that the totality of the regime is the target now. In the context of Iran, it encompasses everything else, every other current issue. because people are regarding the IR as the main cause of them all; the broken economy, extreme poverty, environment, drought, pollution, lack of any kind of social and political freedom, etc.
The main slogan of the revolution, Woman, Life, Freedom, is extremely progressive. It has been adopted from the Kurdish people’s resistance. Zhina/Mahsa was a Kurdish girl, and once the masses of mourners at her funeral started chanting the slogan, it got spread over the whole country so quickly. I don’t think there has ever been any uprising or revolution against a state that is so feminist and so focused on gaining basic human rights for people, THROUGH demanding women’s rights.
It is also significant because of the unity it has been able to create. Iran is not a homogenous population at all. There are several ethnicities, several religious identities, and different political preferences. Previous protests have commonly focused on one social class or one ethnic population. But this time, people have found a cause to gather around and fight for, realizing, at last, who is the common enemy and that no progress can be envisioned as long as the IR regime is occupying the country.
TTC: Information from Iran isn’t easy to come by even on a normal day, and right now it seems even more difficult. What is your opinion on the news that reaches us?
It is true that there is no independent news agency reporting from inside the country, but it doesn’t mean that it is impossible to know what is closer to reality. There are independent, non-profit, and people-led groups who are collecting the news from the people inside the country against all odds. And yet there are still big media and news outlets that take the IR’s representatives or supporters as their sources of news or analysis and this is extremely wrong. What type of journalistic principle allows them to take a murderous regime’s propaganda for granted and spread that as a fact to the masses? And they make the excuse of being neutral for their actions. This is not neutrality. This is being complicit in spreading all the lies and propaganda that a brutal dictatorship is trying to replace for the truth.
TTC: Where do you get your information? Is there anything important that is not being reported by the Western media?
Mainly from Twitter, from accounts that I can trust. There are Farsi-speaking news agencies, consisting of Iranian/Afghan journalists in exile and they are the main sources of information for most people inside and outside of the country. But I would say that the main source of what we all know is all the brave people who are recording what is happening to them on the streets. They risk their lives filming the protests, filming the brutality of the police and the security forces, and documenting the murders and tortures. There have been at least two instances where people have filmed their own deaths. There is this video where a young woman named Ghazaleh Chalabi is filming in the street, surrounded by the protestors, in front of the anti-riot guards. She is shouting “don’t be scared, we’re all together” and there is the sound of a shot fired, and the camera falls onto the ground. People around her start crying in shock. She is dead.
I don’t follow all the Western media of course, and I might not have a comprehensive view, but I think the main thing missing from some of these reports on Iran’s revolution, is the fact that it is happening against the Islamic Regime. It is against Islamic oppression of this regime that has been going on for 43 years. It seems some of the media shy away from stating this fact clearly as if this will make them look racist towards Muslims. I don’t understand how it is so difficult to discern between an oppressive theocratic regime and just normal people adhering to any religion. And exactly this type of reporting, this disguising of truth, has shaped many Westerners’ views into thinking that because Iran is a majority-Muslim country, the regime should be allowed to do what they want to because it is their religion in the end. This is the legitimisation of violence and turning a blind eye to human rights violations.
TTC: Are you able to keep in touch with your friends and family in Iran?
It has become more difficult, but yes, it is possible still to connect through the internet, and if not, there are always expensive long-distance calls anyway. But internet-wise, almost everything one might need on the internet is filtered in the country and people often try so many different VPNs and proxies to get connected.
TTC: How does an average Iranian see the world, the U.S., and the West? Do they generally believe in the clash-of-civilizations narrative?
I don’t believe there is an average person from any nationality. Same as nobody can say who an average German is, I can’t imagine there is an average Iranian. People with an Iranian passport can be Kurd, Azeri, Turkman, Baluch, Gilak, Fars, Arab, or Lor, or not identify with any ethnicity at all. They can be Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Bahai, or just not having any religious beliefs. Same with socio-economic status, education, or political views. The similarity, however, I would say, is the wish to live a normal life; to have jobs that can provide for them and their families; to have clean air and liveable environments; to be able to practice their freedom of speech without risking their lives; to be able to plan for the future and have hope that there is a possibility of building a new system for the country.
To be honest I don’t understand how the clash-of-civilizations narrative can be linked here. Does it mean that Iranians see themselves as an identity in conflict with the West? I would say a big no. We are leading the first-ever feminist revolution in the world, with the most progressive values. The last thing this revolution represents is wanting to be in conflict with other cultures or nations. The only thing the Iranian nation as a whole is at clash with is religious oppression and violence.
TTC: To what extent is religion present in daily life? Namely, is it noticeable when you interact with people, as some kind of “deeper” spirituality in terms of priorities, values and outlooks on life?
Talking of religion as a personal aspect of daily life is quite difficult when living under a religious autocracy. To me, true religious belief can be pretty meaningless when you are forced to observe it, whether you want it or not, whether you believe in anything or not. When at most public schools you don’t have a choice not to participate in the collective prayers every day, how could you say what is belief and what is force?
Other than that, just as anywhere else, religion can serve different purposes for different people. It can give you hope, provide a community to connect to, and calm your fears. The younger generations, however, I don’t suppose have many religious affiliations. Even for the older generations, religious symbols have lost their meaning because of all the violence done in their name. One very recent instance is a prominent figure, a mother, whose name is Gohar Eshghi. She is known to people in Iran for demanding justice for her son who ten years ago, was killed under torture in prison, and his crime was writing a blog against the regime. She has always been wearing a headscarf in these ten years, like many of her generations. But two weeks ago, she recorded a video, holding her son’s picture as always, and took off her headscarf, saying that she doesn’t wish to keep it when people are getting killed in its name.
TTC: How present is religion in the educational system? Does it exist as a school subject, are there mandatory religion classes, say in primary schools?
Yes, religious classes are there from the first grade of primary school, or even the preschools sometimes. Yet, it is not only the inclusion of Islamic classes in every grade that makes the educational system religious but how the schooling is organised. For the past four decades, schools have been the strong frontline of the forcing and indoctrination of Islamic ideology. Schools are strictly gender-segregated. Girls’ schools have had strict hijab regulations (even when there isn’t even a male person present in the schools, it is that absurd). Almost all schools forced students to observe prayers every day, once they hit the ‘obligation’ age. There are forced religious celebrations and daily morning ceremonies where children are obliged to participate. Add to this the fact that teachers have to go through an ideological test to be accepted to work in schools, and although not every teacher who gets in is a fanatic, the system has of course attracted a huge number of oppressive teachers and principals, closely connected to the system. So, you can imagine how mind-blowing it is now to see schoolgirls taking their hijab off and chanting Woman, Life, Freedom.
TTC: We’ve all heard about the underground scene in Iran, house parties, homemade alcohol etc. How much of that is true? Are young people able to find ways to circumvent all the notoriously strict laws, and how does it all work in reality?
I am going to be very honest here. This is the type of question that makes me very uncomfortable and a bit angry. People ask about these underground forbidden actions in Iran with such enthusiasm that I fail to comprehend. For them, it is like an exciting game. They see it as an exotic thing happening somewhere far in a strange land where normal things are forbidden, and yet with some connections, you can do those normal things ‘illegally’. Oh, isn’t it wonderful? No, it’s not. Of course, when forced to live a certain way, when under extreme oppression, people find their way out of it. This has been a consistent way of defying the system for sure. But what the Westerners asking this question fail to understand is that this is not normal, and should not be deemed as something different happening in another country. People have gotten killed for drinking alcohol, poisoned for drinking cheap quality alcohol because there’s no regulation over it; people have been imprisoned for attending parties, dancing, and women for singing. Do not approach this as a foreign exciting thing. There is nothing normal about those underground forbidden acts.
TTC: When you were in Iran, how much contact did you have with the women outside your social bubble? How do they see their situation? Can you make a guess as to the percentage of women outside your circle who are currently protesting or supporting the protesters?
To me, this question is a bit suggestive. It is assuming that there is only one certain social class that is in support of the current revolution. I think the anecdote about Gohar Eshghi above, answers this question as well.
There is another misconception that the women’s fight against the IR’s anti-woman system is a recent one. In March 1979, only two months after the Islamic revolution had taken over the previous monarchy, women fell to the streets to protest what they saw was coming. They saw the Islamic rule taking over their freedoms and pushing them away from the basic human rights gained thus far. A short time after, mandatory hijab made its way into the constitution, along with all other types of anti-woman laws, stripping them of the right to file for divorce, to have custody over their own children, making them only dependent on their fathers/husbands’ permission to work, leave the country, marry, etc. And for all these years, women have tried to push back against these laws in their personal and public lives, within patriarchal family structures, and within the unjust legal system. There is a huge extended history of fighting the IR from the women’s side and this is not the space to go over all of it. The point is that it is not a one-night transformation for these people. This is a revolution asking for basic human rights for everyone. It is centred around women’s rights, because we have come to realise that once the most oppressed of us are free, then everyone shall be free. I don’t know the percentage of women supporting this revolution and rather not make a guess, although, I do believe that the majority of people are in favour of being liberated from the IR. I only know that when there’s a genuine rights-based movement happening, it does not matter what the percentages are. Basic human rights should not be up to any kind of referendum and should be supported no matter what.
TTC: What is the greatest misconception about Iran that you’ve encountered in Europe? Is there anything Europeans generally don’t know about Iran, but you believe they should?
Mistaking the IR regime and ruling with its people. I think it has become more and more clear that these two should not be synonymous.
TTC: It is generally believed that Iran has sharia law, but the situation is more complex than that; Iranian law is a combination of civil and sharia law (as opposed to, for example, Saudi Arabia, which is 100% sharia). How do these two very different legal systems coexist in the Iranian judiciary, and are there ever any clashes between them?
It is not correct at all to say that there are two different legal systems in the Iranian judiciary. The overall legal system is based on Islamic law, no matter what they call it. I don’t know the details of course, as I have not studied law, and this is not the place to talk about it anyway, but why does it matter what the IR calls their legal system when people get executed on charges such as moharebeh, which means fighting against God, and it is given to anyone the regime wishes to kill because the penalty for that charge is a death sentence. Homosexuals are given the death penalty as well. People’s hands and fingers get amputated for robbery charges. There is no official crime as rape, and women can not prosecute their rapists. Extramarital sex is punished severely. Drinking alcohol could be punished with a lashing. There is no civil marriage available and people getting married are by default under Islamic law, where the wife has to obey the husband no matter what. I can go on; the list is not limited to this. The point is that I don’t see any civility in this, even if the regime has presented and named it as such.
TTC: On international flights from Iran, the moment the plane takes off, many Iranian women immediately remove their hijabs. You don’t cover your hair. What did your departure from hijab feel like, and what do you think of the dominant Western interpretation of hijab? In some countries, burka and hijab are banned in certain situations; on the other hand, some advocate the right to choose when it comes to covering the hair and/or face in Europe. Where do you stand on this?
Nila: I did not have a departure from hijab as I never observed it unless I had to in public spaces in Iran. I was born into a religious minority family, Bahai, and thankfully we simply did not have that. So, letting go of the hijab was nothing more than just the face masks getting thrown away once you’re out of public transport nowadays (at least in Germany, where it is still mandatory). But there are many women born into Muslim traditional families who have had to fight for not wearing hijab with their families, and I know from their stories that it is a difficult one.
I think it is important to clearly and logically consider what lies at the centre of hijab, and what has been the idea behind that. It is rooted in the fact that female bodies are something to be hidden from public eyes; that there is a fundamental difference between male and female bodies and one is better to be covered for everyone’s sake. This is oppressive. People can choose to wear it of course, but it doesn’t make that idea any less oppressive. I do agree with the bans in certain places and situations of course. I don’t think it should be allowed to be promoted in schools for example. Do you promote smoking in schools? No, it is harmful. It is the same. It is harmful to teach children that some bodies are different from the rest and should better be covered.