An Iranian-Born, U.S.-Based Artist Reflects on Mahsa Amini –

Editor’s Note: This essay is published under a pseudonym to protect the author, who is an artist born and raised in Iran and now living in the United States.  

Jina (Mahsa) Amini was a 22-year-old Kurdish woman visiting Tehran with her family when she was arrested by Iran’s Morality Police (Gashte Ershad) for wearing “improper” hijab on September 13. 

Every word in the above sentence probably needs unpacking: what is “Morality Police,” what is “improper hijab,” and did they have an arrest warrant? There are no short answers to these seemingly simple questions. But the arbitrary way the Morality Police functions in Iran has, by design, turned them into a source of harassment for women for nearly 20 years. Even though the Morality Police is a fairly recent offshoot of the Iranian police or Niruye Entezami (The Disciplinary Force), the everyday systemic harassment of women in Iran has a long history. 

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The Nasir-ol-molk Mosque in Shiraz, Iran,

Those of us who grew up in Iran have childhood memories of being abandoned or waiting, terrified, as our mothers, aunts, sisters, and even grandmothers were taken into a tent, a van, small room, detention center, or police station (comitée) to “correct” their appearance. This could mean removing their eye makeup or nail polish, putting on thicker or longer socks, or covering their hair. These were everyday occurrences at book fairs, the amusement park, the airport, hiking trails, the entrance of a women’s gymnasium, university, school, or one’s workplace. 

As children who witnessed our mothers being harassed and humiliated in front of us, we grew up to be the young women who would eventually be harassed by the Morality Police on the street, at school—and in all public spaces. It is now our children who are the main target of these harassments—the 18- to 22-year-old Iranian women you may recall from their heroic acts in videos circulating online with the hashtag #MahsaAmini over the past week.

Amini was taken in the police van by force and transferred to the dreadful Vozara detention center in Tehran to undergo a “re-education” program to be “corrected,” fined, and then released. This is a detention center where the darkest memories of countless young Iranians are made, where young people are flogged, interrogated, burnt by cigarettes, violated, and humiliated. Their crimes? Being at a party where men and women are dancing, drinking alcohol, or any other insignificant actions the regime deems “immoral.” Amini was taken from the detention center in an ambulance to Kasra Hospital where she lay in a coma for three days until she died on September 17 in the custody of Iranian police. 

The state has so far denied having anything to do with her death. They claimed she died of a stroke due to underlying conditions she had—among a slew of other lies the police, everywhere, are good at telling. A leaked C.T. scan of Amini later revealed clear marks of head injury and a fractured skull. This was in addition to the visible signs of bleeding from her ear and the bruises under her eyes when lying on a hospital bed. 

In cases of violent death at the hands of the state in Iran, it is common that they hold the dead body hostage. Sometimes police attempt to “negotiate” with the victim’s family that if they keep quiet, don’t release a statement, or do an interview with foreign or opposition media, they would receive the corpse and can bury it themselves. Other times they kidnap the corpse, and threaten the family to “agree” with an overnight burial. In some cases they have buried the body of the victim overnight and poured concrete over it, lest the truth be revealed through an exhumation. Lest the dead speak. Amini’s family resisted such intimidations and buried their child in Saqqez, Kurdistan, where her family and community are.

In response to Amini’s death, Iranians took to the streets, first in Saqqez and other parts of Kurdistan, from there the protests grew both online and offline. Iranian celebrities and actresses released videos cutting their hair in videos on social media as an act of solidarity. Iranian hijabi women (who practice wearing a headscarf by virtue of their faith) appeared on interviews with opposition TV channels (outside Iran) without hijab in solidarity with the protestors and the mourning families in Kurdistan, and Iranians all over the world. A celebrated Iranian football player put out calls to support his fellow Iranians, asking the government for transparency and accountability. And people have stormed the streets in every corner of the country crying for justice, freedom, and an end to patriarchy: The chants of Jin – Jiyan – Azadi (“zan, zendegi, azadi,” “woman, life, liberty”) have traveled from Kurdistan to Baluchistan and all corners of this country of 80 million people and onto its 6 million people in diaspora. The protests have been continuing for over a week at the time of writing.

The Iranian government has shut down internet access in the country. They have shot and killed hundreds of protesters, stormed their homes, and arrested and kidnapped an unknowable number of people. The crackdowns have been significantly more brutal in the northwest Kurdish region, within Iran’s borders, with reports of the IRGC using heavy artillery and ballistic missiles against the Iraqi Kurdistan region. There is so much blood on the streets of our homeland which we dearly love, although many of us live far away from it because of the same conditions people have taken on the streets to protest. 

This is a feminist movement. All the talk about intersectional feminism, Third World Women, and Global South solidarity is here, in this movement and on the ground. This is a movement about breathing: from having the right to clean air to being a woman under a gender apartheid. Women are burning the symbols of their oppression that’s been choking them for more than 40 years, mandated by a patriarchal regime by any other name. We are united in our anger and uncompromising in our demands. There is so much that each of us carry from the wounds of this policing our entire childhood and adult life. It’s chilling to see that we are the parents of the generation leading the protests on the ground and to see our mothers and grandmothers standing alongside them. 

What is unique about these protests is the incredible acts of bravery by young women the age of Jina (Mahsa) Amini who are on the front lines. They have ignited a fire that has reminded all of us of our burning wounds, wherever we are. They are leading this movement and showing us what it means to demand liberation, to demand the right to breathe without compromise. They are burning their hijab as a symbolic protest against the patriarchal religious rule that has been the law of the land since 1979. In this context, burning the hijab is like burning any symbol of tyrannical control, any symbol of fascism. It is as monumental as taking down the statues of our oppressors made of concrete, bronze, or marble elsewhere around the world.

My generation, who was born during an eight-year war with neighboring Iraq, grew up under different circumstances. We were too preoccupied with staying alive and having enough food to eat in a time when the country was united against a foreign invader backed by the US. But the generation of Jina (Mahsa) Amini is fighting the war at home, and they have turned the tools of the oppressor into fuel for their fire. As an oil rich country drowning in poverty, joblessness, and inflation, it is not a coincidence that the protesters’ main tools of resistance and fighting is fire: from police stations and municipalities to banners, monuments, public sculptures, and billboards are set aflame. As they have set police vans and stations on fire, the protesters have thrown their hijabs into the fires through the windows. They are burning the master’s house and throwing the master’s tools in the fire. This smoke is necessary in order to breathe. 

As videos of horror emerge from Iran—the police directly shooting at protesters, through the windows of people’s homes, chasing and dragging protesters’ bodies, kidnapping, wounds, blood, and gunshots—Instagram keeps censoring the content to allegedly protect its viewers. This is symbolic of the many ways in which the people in the West are sheltered from seeing the material living and dying conditions of other people, which their governments, with their actions and inactions, have played a significant role in. This so-called protection always comes at a price. For the soft power of a culture with haughty claims of justice and care to remain uninterrupted, there is always a price paid by those living and abandoned under conditions of injustice which get abstracted in the arts and culture.

It is possible to stand against the empire and stand with the people of Iran: it is one and the same resistance. It is possible to fight Islamophobia in the West and stand with Iranian women burning their hijab even though it is not the same fight. This is not the time for opportunistic hijacking of a grassroots feminist movement led by young women to justify imperialist agendas. We know and have lived the devastating consequences that US sanctions have had on the lives of ordinary Iranians. We know how these sanctions have only empowered and emboldened the state and the IRGC , the main oppressing force of this very revolution and previous uprisings since 1979.

The only way we can approach and understand this revolution is through a paradigm shift. We cannot and should not flatten this movement within the Western liberal frames of reference. Words like privilege, oppression, and justice, thrown around our world of art, need unpacking. What makes one marginalized in one part of the world, or one political context, gives the same person a considerable amount of privilege in another place, another context. The dynamics of power and privilege in Iran cannot be considered only through a Western, even intersectional lens, unless that intersectionality takes into account not only gender, ethnicity, race, sexuality, religion, class, and ability, but the context of specific vectors of power and privilege. 

Under an Islamic so-called “republic,” where wearing a hijab is the law of the land, being a hijabi by faith—and a practicing Muslim by choice—gives one relative privilege. In this context, if you belong to a Shia Muslim family with close ties to the government, you are already extremely privileged. On the other hand, religious minorities like Baha’is or ethnic minorities, in particular Kurds, are marginalized and subject to historical and systemic discrimination. Having an Iranian and a US passport and visiting Iran as a child every year during the summer break is an immense privilege compared to those who live there with only an Iranian passport, which only ten or so countries welcome without a visa. I’m not even going to start on being queer, but earlier in September a court in Urumia sentenced two female LGBTQ activists to death for “spreading corruption on earth.”

It is a complex history with so much to unpack. But we need to start talking about it, and the lack of public understanding of this movement in the West, the confused faces of my peers, and the basic questions that are only now being asked testify to how little these histories have been engaged with. We need to write and talk and listen from a genuine place of inquiry and investment, outside of the orientalist and orientalizing narratives, and outside of the savior narratives of the West. This requires space, time, patience, and a real investment in learning and expanding our horizons. It will not be resolved quickly.

The violent killing of Jina (Mahsa) Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who was a guest in my hometown of Tehran, reminded all of us of how vulnerable women are in Iran. We find ourselves asking how do we—and did—we survive? The wounds we carry are like nodes in a system of pain, grief, and anger that get awakened when another one of us is brutalized the way Amini was. This revolution is a feminist one, and wherever it goes from here, we are already victorious. The images, the strategies, and tactics might change but we are united and uncompromising in our demand to be free. 

As we sing in our iconic Iranian feminist Song of Equality: 

I will grow a sprout

from the wound on my body

for being who I am

a woman

Another world

we will build of equality

solidarity and sisterhood

a happier, better world

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