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Women, Life, Freedom: Iranian Protesters Find Their Voice

In the aftermath of the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by the morality police mid-September for not wearing her hijab properly, many Iranians have taken the streets in nationwide protests. Independent Egyptian media Mada Masr spoke to one of the protesters.

Protest at Amirkabir University in Tehran.

Students of Amirkabir University in Tehran protest against the Islamic Republic in September 2022.

Lina Attalah

On September 16, protests erupted across Iran when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in custody after being arrested and beaten by morality police for her supposedly unsuitable attire. The protests, witnesses recount, have touched on all aspects of rights in Iran, civil, political, personal, social and economic.

Mada Masr spoke to a protester who was in the prime of her youth during the 2009 Green Movement protests. Speaking on condition of anonymity due to possible security retaliation, she walked us through what she has seen over the past week in the heart of Tehran, and how she sees the legacy of resistance street politics in Iran across history.

MADA MASR: Describe to us what you are seeing these days on the streets of Tehran.

ANONYMOUS PROTESTER: People like me, we are emotional because we remember 2009. The location of the protests is the same: Keshavarz Boulevard in the middle of Tehran. The last time Tehranis took to these streets was in 2009, one of the last protests of the Green Movement. Since then, the center of Tehran hasn’t seen any mass protests, and most of these streets have changed, with new urban planning meant to make them more controllable.

Remembering 2009 triggers many things, such as street strategies, tactics and the way we could find each other in the middle of the chaos. But this is us now, almost at the back. Up front, there are many younger people, especially girls. They are extremely brave, fearless and smart.

Also, security tactics have changed massively. Police now take people’s smartphones more than they make arrests. Then they easily find the whole network through social media. In terms of slogans, people are saying: zen zendagi azadi — which is the main slogan of the movement. It means: women, life, freedom. The slogan is translated from Kurdish.

Can you tell us more about who is protesting?

AP: I see all [kinds of people] on the streets. There are men, standing shoulder to shoulder with young boys. Mahsa Amini was not from Tehran, and that is why protests are happening in other cities. Kurdistan for sure (Amini was from there), but then in Azerbaijan [Province] and many small towns whose names we did not see in other protests before. In Turkic cities, people shout slogans like “Azerbaijan will embrace Kurdistan,” and “what you did to Kurdistan exhausted our patience.” I heard this in Tabriz universities. Students are in the front line. All universities in Tehran and many in other cities had large protests, with the most progressive slogans in my opinion.

The main slogan of the movement is zen zendagi azadi. It means: women, life, freedom.

In terms of social class, it’s not easy to say. But based on geography, the suburbs are in revolt, and they have a strong memory of the 2019 protests (against price rises). At that time, the city centers did not participate in the protests, and after five days of internet shutdown, we saw what happened in the suburbs. But now, protests are happening both in the suburbs and the centers.

In Italy, Milan's Iranian community gathered to protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini and showed support for the protests in Iran on Sept. 25.

Ervin Shulku/ZUMA

You’ve given us a general picture. Could you zoom in and describe to us a moment, a scene that moved you over the past days?

AP: Many things have moved me. What is moving in what we see on the street is simple: a woman with no hijab, exposed hair and a normal outfit. She is waving her headscarf in the sky, or dancing, or standing on top of street furniture. This scene in all of its simplicity moves us a lot.

For a long time, we postponed this moment to address other problems. Tehran is almost a secular city, a city where you normally don’t see a perfect hijab. That is why wearing a scarf is clearly forced. When we see this force disappear, the moment of joy is indescribable. Imagine: I am 40, and starting at age seven, I had to wear this uniform in school even though my family has been secular for 100 years. And of course, since then, we have taken off our scarves every moment that we could. Now we see a girl standing in the middle of Tehran waving her scarf, and our eyes are full of tears. It is an ultimate image of freedom.

Last night I made dinner for other protesters at my house. I live in the center, so they were close by. They came, almost 10 friends, all 10 to 15 years younger than me. What was moving for me about their memories and accounts was that the stories of past generations were coming to life again. I could find my role, maybe as an aunt who cooks for other revolutionaries. And I could remember how people who witnessed the 1978 [revolution] would look at us in 2009. This intergenerational experience was really moving.

During the dinner, a young man said, “my friend in Berlin wrote today: ‘why do you say “women, life, freedom?” What about LGBTQ and people who are not women?’ And I wrote back: ‘My friend, today I want to be a woman, and my father wants to be a woman too.’” I laughed and was so moved by his answer as well. It was funny and clever.

You mentioned that police are seizing smartphones first. How else are they cracking down on the protests?

AP: They use all of their techniques. In Tehran, they don’t shoot directly at people but use teargas. They use a lot of pepper spray. They also attack random people. There are many of them without uniforms dispersed among protesters, and they create a lot of paranoia. Many different forces attack together. They send text messages telling people, “we saw you on the streets,” and they call people to summon them for interrogation. Whatever you can imagine, they do it.

In 2009, thousands of Iranians protested against alleged fraud in the recent presidential election in Tehran.

Ali Mohammadi/ZUMA

How would you say these events are changing Iran?

AP: Having experienced Iranian politics, I learned to never predict. On the contrary, I try to upend and change predictions. They know very well how to suppress protests. They are strong in this. We must be unpredictable and conquer public spaces. After the street crackdown, subsequent arrests usually begin. First are the students, well-known activists, journalists and anyone who can organize. We have to relearn ways to keep the movement alive. What can motivate people to continue?

it is very important to have political coherence and to be aware of the political legacy that preceded us.

We are in a really bad situation in terms of media. The media outlets that reflect people’s protests are all outside Iran, and they insist on immediately turning the protests into their most radical form. They exaggerate a lot in their reports and usually only broadcast their favorite slogans. I have high hopes in alternative Arab media, because of the new links established by these media outlets with Iranians. This can help to reflect the real political pluralism that exists within this movement.

As an Iranian, you experience the fear of manipulation by the opposition forces outside of Iran, in addition to the fear of repression at every protest.

Are we talking about a new opposition taking form? And if so, what is it rooted in?

AP: In fact, the wish of people like me is to form a new political movement that has its roots in all the progressive political movements of the last 150 years in Iran. For me, it is very important to have political coherence and to be aware of the political legacy that preceded us. All political movements before us made many mistakes. The biggest mistake is to not consider women’s issues as a main political issue. My wish is to build a progressive feminist movement that can connect the history of Iranian struggles horizontally.

This can only come from a feminist point of view. When we say feminist movement, it doesn’t just mean putting women at the center of politics. It means subverting the political view of history and eliminating the masculine view of victory as the only way to fight. In that sense, I have a suitcase full of souvenirs from 2009 and the Green Movement’s experiences that I can pass on to the younger generation as legacy. I also have many suppressed memories of moments in our resistance that I must open, confront and find a way to discuss with my comrades.

But these are all my own wishes. In reality, the most ossified political forces of the opposition have the loudest loudspeakers right now, groups like the monarchists, who are male chauvinist to their bones. They are loud and rich, and they say, “this is the fight against the Islamic Republic, and we are the leaders.” They had the most toxic campaigns against 2009 activists and journalists over the last 10 years, and they succeeded in suppressing many of them, while the public spaces were taken from us. As in any other moment of openness in history, we are afraid of our demonstrations being manipulated. At this moment, we are afraid of a takeover of this struggle by right-wing anti-Islam forces, Islamophobic movements in the West and the wealthy and populist Iranian opposition in America.

But the young generation on the street does not have our fears. They move forward, and tomorrow will be shaped by their courage.

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