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The Protests in Iran Are About More than Hijabs

From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I’m Dan Richards. 

On September 13, 2022, a young Iranian woman named Mahsa Amini was detained by the country’s ‘morality police’ for improperly wearing her hijab. 

Three days later, she was dead. Authorities claimed it was the result of a heart attack, but images of her in the hospital – bruised and bloodied – suggested otherwise. 

Those images, along with the government’s cover-up surrounding the details of her death, have sparked a protest movement in Iran unlike any the country has seen. 

On this bonus episode of Trending Globally, Dan Richards spoke  with anthropologist and Director of the Center for Middle East Studies  Nadje Al-Ali about these protests, and about the unique role gender has come to play in them. 

These protests are, and always have been, about much more than hijabs, as Nadje explains. They’re part of a much longer story of political resistance in the Middle East. Many of us, especially in the West, would do well to understand that story.

Questions? Comments? Ideas for topics or guests? Email us at: trendingglobally@brown.edu.

Transcript

DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. On September 13th, a young Iranian woman named Mahsa Amini was detained by the country's morality police for improperly wearing her hijab. Three days later, she was dead.

Authorities claimed it was the result of a heart attack, but images of her in the hospital bruised and bloodied suggest otherwise. The images along with the government's cover up surrounding the details of her death have sparked a protest movement in Iran unlike any the country has seen.

Phrases like death to the Islamic Republic and death to the dictator are being chanted around the country, on city streets, and university campuses, and even in schools for young girls. But as anthropologist and Watson Professor of International Relations, Nadje Al-Ali describes, it's not just the range of participants that make these protests unique. It's the way that women's rights and gender equality have been put at the front and center of the movement.

NADJE AL-ALI: Not only the mandatory veiling, but more broadly than that, the issue of women's rights, the control of women's bodies, it's not a side issue anymore.

DAN RICHARDS: On this bonus episode of Trending Globally, I talked with Nadje about the protests, and the unique role gender is playing in them. What we're seeing is and always has been about more than just what women wear. It's also part of a much longer history of political resistance in Iran that many of us, especially in the west, would do well to better understand. I started by asking her to describe the underlying issues that make this moment in Iran so ripe for protest. Here's Nadje.

NADJE AL-ALI: Well, there are lots of different reasons as you might imagine. So one reason that I am actually surprised people don't talk about it, is that Iran has been under economic sanctions for quite a while now, and is suffering from a severe economic crisis. But maybe more importantly, over the last year or two, we've had lots of women who had actually been arrested by the so-called morality police because the current president, Ebrahim Raisi, is taking a hardline approach.

And so there has been a series of small protests and people just within Iran trying to figure out what is happening, how far can we go? And also, of course, Iran has experienced a series of protests. Very few people know that in Twenty Nineteen, people were protesting on the street. Hundreds of people were actually killed. At the time, they were protesting against corruption, also against the economic condition, oppression. But because the regime is heavily invested in the internet infrastructure, it is able to shut down the internet. So very few images at the time got out of Iran Twenty Nineteen.

But really, I think also if you go even further back in history I mean ever since Islamic Revolution of Nineteen Seventy-Nine, women have been protesting against not only the mandatory veiling, but also other aspects of control and authoritarianism.

DAN RICHARDS: So, how do you view then what's happening right now in terms of how much is it a sort of like part of this lineage of protests, but also what seems different about it or does anything seem different about it to you?

NADJE AL-ALI: Yeah, that's a really good question. So I think what is different is that the issue of women's rights, the control of women's bodies, not only the mandatory veiling, but more broadly than that, has become the center of protest. It's not a side issue anymore. So in the past, like when we think about the green protest during the election or even the Twenty Nineteen protests, yes, women were out on the street, and they might have protested against the veil, but it wasn't so central.

Now, you actually have men in solidarity with women, but also what has become obvious in Iran and not just actually in Iran across the region, is that the struggle for gender-based equality for women's rights, that has actually become central to the struggle against authoritarianism. And I mean, we've seen that in Iraq, we have seen that in Lebanon, we are seeing this in Turkey, as well. In Iran, there is a similar trend evident.

DAN RICHARDS: Why do you think that is?

NADJE AL-ALI: Well, I think because unlike I think many political scientists to, I think historically have been gender blind and thought that gender issues are a side issue. When you look at political regimes globally, you can tell a lot about the kind of the nature of the regime when you look at their specific gender politics. We see the same happening in the US. I mean, discussions around reproductive rights, abortion, discussions around LGBTQI rights, women's sexuality and so on, are very much linked to wider political orientations.

And this is because communities define themselves very much through the idea of women's bodies. A woman is perceived to be the biological reproducer of a community, and then she becomes a symbolic producer of a community as well. Can I go back to your question of what is different?

DAN RICHARDS: Yeah.

NADJE AL-ALI: The other thing that I feel people haven't really addressed a lot is the fact that Mahsa Amini was Kurdish. She wasn't-- so many of the women that have been arrested, historically, were often middle class, upper middle class, urban women, Iranian, often from Tehran, who were really pushing it with respect to dress code, wear a dress in a kind of very fashionable way. But Mahsa Amini came from a small town in the west of Iran, a predominantly Kurdish region. She and her family were visiting relatives in Tehran. She was a very-- I mean, people refer to she was just an ordinary girl who wasn't even trying to make a statement.

And so this has I think galvanized even more people that-- people coming together in solidarity and protesting the death of not an urban middle class person, but a woman from a community that's actually marginalized in Iran. I think that's significant, as well.

DAN RICHARDS: Yeah, so it's both not predominantly led by men, and or middle class, professional men from the center of the country.

NADJE AL-ALI: Yes, although the different protests, and I think in Twenty Nineteen, we also saw a broader class base, but when it comes to the issue of women's rights, it has often been the sort of urban middle class women who were at the forefront, but this is clearly much more broad-based. And women are leading the protest, but they are joined by men as well. And it's across Iran. Different regions, different cities, big urban areas, smaller cities as well.

DAN RICHARDS: Going back to some of the underlying causes of this current protest or uprising, do you think that global movements in the last few years, especially geared towards women and LGBTQ rights have had an effect on people and on women in Iran to bring issues of gender to the front and center?

NADJE AL-ALI: It's interesting that you ask this question because I saw it I think it was today or yesterday in the Guardian, a letter to the editor by a woman based in the US who said, well, what is often missing in the discussion is that women in Iran are very much influenced by the US feminist movement, and they are aware of that. And I have such a strong reaction against that because Iranian women long before women in the US or elsewhere in the west have been mobilizing around gender-based issues.

And so, yes, it is true that there is something global, transnational happening in terms of gender-based issues becoming more central to why their claims to challenge political regimes, but I don't think that we can say that Iranian women needed any kind of inspiration from the outside. Certainly, not from Western context.

DAN RICHARDS: Yeah, and I don't mean to say that that's where it came from or it was acquired. I think it's just trying to figure out what caused this movement to take this shape now as opposed to ten, twenty, like as you said, there's a centering of gender issues that there may be hadn't been before.

NADJE AL-ALI: Well, I mean, I think that the Iranian women's movement, which has existed for a long time always centered women's issues. But what is different is that a wider public is more susceptible to actually centering that as well. And I think that has something to do with an increased awareness globally how, especially authoritarian, militaristic, right wing, political regimes are instrumentalizing women, gender, and also, of course, trying to reinforce heteronormativity. I mean, it's all linked. And I think there is an increasing awareness globally.

DAN RICHARDS: And the leaders in Iran have thus far shown no signs of sort of capitulating to these protests. And in fact, the cracking down seems just incredibly severe at least based on what we're seeing from the internet. I wonder, how you think that strategy will play out?

NADJE AL-ALI: If I can go back, I mean, I think very few people realize that I think one major reason why the protests started is not only because a young woman died, clearly, as a consequence of being beaten up by the police, but the subsequent attempt at cover up once the images of Mahsa Amini start to circulate. Instead of coming out and saying, OK, we're going to investigate it, something happened, we don't know, we'll look at it. Immediately, they denied that there was any violence exerted by the hand of the police.

And not only that, they actually published a heavily edited video of Mahsa Amini, how she was detained in the first instance, how she then had an interrogation, and then the next thing you see her lying on the floor. And I think that really sparked the anger. Now, we have-- I know that president Ebrahim Raisi now has come out and said we're sorry what has happened. I know we'll go into investigate, but I think that's a bit too late.

Meanwhile, you have Iran's supreme leader ayatollah Ali Khamenei who is saying, well, this is all Western infiltration. This is kind of one of the common lines. Now, you ask me how is this all going to play out, I think it can go into all kinds of different directions. I mean, historically, we've seen that the brutal crackdown by the Iranian regime, and of course, other regimes globally in these situations could lead to a situation where the protests would hold. Because so many people get detained, injured, and even die as we've already seen.

But then on the other hand, it could also be that the regime is unable to actually crack down totally on the protest. That the protests could be lasting and widespread, and that the regime will be unable to actually contain them, and would then have to make concessions. And then, again, we have different scenarios because I don't think that at this point, protesters would be satisfied just with an easing of the implementing of the mandatory veiling.

Now, the demands that we hear from protesters are broader than that. So I have to say, I'm not good at fortune telling but from everything that I know both in terms of the history of Iran, but also other protest movements in the region, I feel it could go into any of these directions.

DAN RICHARDS: As you're describing it, I can't help but think of protest movements that have shook so many countries around the world including the US over the last few years. Particularly, the precipitating event of this sort of footage of violence to a marginalized person that's sort of irrefutable. How do you think about it in terms of other protest, movements around the world?

NADJE AL-ALI: Well, I think there are parallels, I mean, you had in Tunisia, you had the images of food seller who was attacked by police that sort of sparked the protest in Egypt. She also had images of a young men who was killed by the police that sparked off protests. I mean, it's never just the reason but it's a spark, and always there are underlying issues, economic issues, issues around political repression. And, yes, increasingly, also the awareness and the pushback in terms of gender-based inequalities and rights.

But then I'm thinking about sort of the idea of revolutions, and I know that revolutions do not happen from one day to the next, but they happen over a long period of time. And although I think regimes might manage to suppress and crack down violently on protest for a certain period of time, I just don't think that sort of the underlying dissent and resistance can be totally squashed.

The other thing I think that becomes so apparent for me now is everywhere in the world we see that societies are polarized, and we see on the one hand various forms of right wing movements, while you also have progressive political ideas and movements that are really centering the idea of gender-based rights and LGBTQ rights, and are working also against racism and the discrimination of any marginalized groups. We see this everywhere.

And we know that in Iran there will be people who are supportive of the regime as we know there are people in the US who were supportive of Trump, or are supportive of racism. So we see these polarizations everywhere in the world.

DAN RICHARDS: Is there a leader or some sort of larger organization behind these protests?

NADJE AL-ALI: As far as I know and everything that I've heard from Iranian women activists, and also what I've read, currently, there is no leader. And I think that's one of the things that the current regime, the Iranian regime, is really fearing. Right now, it's organic. People from different walks of life protesting against the killing, but then having different set of demands and having different experiences as well based on the different class, backgrounds, ethnicity, with the women and men, where they live in a big city or a small city.

But the moment this becomes more formalized or structured, the moment you have a leadership emerging, I think that will feel even more threatening to the regime. Now, when I look at other protest movements like in Egypt, for example, also Sudan to some extent, I mean, that's one of the problems. That it's difficult for such a leadership to emerge, because partly it's contrary to what is happening.

I mean, people are reacting to these more hierarchical authoritarian political structures, and it's more of a sort of really, I mean, democratic in the true sense of people just coming together galvanizing around common causes. And maybe if you start to dig a bit deeper, maybe also having actually different views on certain issues. But they come together on some basics. So right now, no, I'm not sure whether it might emerge in the future.

DAN RICHARDS: Despite the efforts by authorities in Iran to cut off access and communication with the rest of the world, so many really incredible images and pieces of footage and moments have been captured of these protests. And I wonder if there are just any that stand out to you that you think people should check out if they haven't seen.

NADJE AL-ALI: Yeah. So first thing that comes to mind are seeing images of women taking off the hijab and cutting their hair. And the cutting of hair is symbolic of mourning. And so that's what's happening and women throwing their veils into bonfires. I mean, these are very powerful images.

But the other thing I've just been made aware of, there is a singer, songwriter, Iranian by the name of Shervin Hajipour, and he wrote a song based on social media excerpts of people stating why they're joining the protests. So I joined the protest because I want freedom for women, or because kissing on the street is not allowed. And he wrote this beautiful song, which is called Baraye, which means for or because of, and that song has become an anthem of the revolution.

[MUSIC - SHERVIN HAJIPOUR, "BARAYE"]

NADJE AL-ALI: And it's being played during the protests, it's being played in the diaspora. I've seen images of school girls there standing in front of the blackboard where the lyrics of the songs are written, and they're singing it. And you know you see their hair, they're taking off the hijab. It has been circulating.

[MUSIC - SHERVIN HAJIPOUR, "BARAYE"]

DAN RICHARDS: Well, Nadje Al-Ali, thank you so much for talking with us.

NADJE AL-ALI: Thank you for inviting me.

[MUSIC - SHERVIN HAJIPOUR, "BARAYE"]

DAN RICHARDS: This episode was produced by me, Dan Richards. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. We'll put a link to this song in the show notes. If you like Trending Globally, leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. It really helps others find us. And if you haven't subscribed to the show already, please do that too.

If you have any questions, comments, or ideas for guests or topics, shoot us an email at trendingglobally@brown.edu. Again, that's all one word trendingglobally@brown.edu. We'll be back next week with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks.

[MUSIC - SHERVIN HAJIPOUR, "BARAYE"]

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Sarah Baldwin '87

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Dan Richards

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