Understanding the protests in Iran: an interview with members of the Iranian diaspora
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
In this interview with Iranian students Elnaz Sharifi and Arya Barkesseh, Grimshaw President Jessica Pretorius discusses the complex dynamics behind Iran´s ongoing protests and their implications for the country's future. This article was edited by Malou van Draanen Glismann (Managing Editor).
For the past seven weeks, many of us have watched, in horror, the nationwide protests and violent police crackdowns that have been raging across Iran. Following the death of 22-year-old Jîna (her Kurdish name) or Mahsa (her Iranian name) Amini in mid-September in the custody of Iran’s ‘morality police’, protesters have taken to the streets to fight for women's rights and an end to the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei's oppressive regime. Authorities have responded brutally to the protests: over 5,500 people have been arrested, according to HRANA, (Iran’s Human Rights Activists news agency) and over 200 people have been killed, including at least 18 children and teenagers.
Although there is frequent news coverage of the situation in Iran at the moment, I wanted to better understand the nuances of the situation and gauge what these protests really mean for the future of the country. Elnaz Sharifi is British-Iranian and Arya Barkesseh is American-Iranian, and I am grateful to both of them for sitting down with me and helping me to understand how these protests, increasingly referred to as a revolution, are perceived within the Iranian diaspora. Although both Elnaz and Arya’s parents left Iran around the time of the 1979 revolution (when the country changed into an Islamic republic), they both have family in Iran and have been keeping a close eye on the political situation of their homeland.
I started by asking them probably the most difficult questions: about their emotional reaction to the protests. “There’s definitely a dark side to these protests, but I also have a tentative hope,” Elnaz told me. Arya added that he’s felt “compassion, sadness, but also a sense of feeling at one with the protesters in Iran”. Considering that Iranian officials are repeatedly shutting down Iran’s internet connection and access to social media, Arya and many other Iranians have felt a sense of duty to extend the mission that the women of Iran are fighting for: “in a way, there’s less time to feel sad or upset because I’ve been spending time sharing the word”.
Perhaps one of the most frequently discussed aspects of the protests in Iran is the fact that they are women-led protests. “Women are treated as second-class citizens in Iran”, Elnaz told me. So, a women's rights movement in Iran is “really just a movement for equality and better rights as a whole”.
Although movements against the regime and the way women are treated in Iran have been a frequent occurrence - such as the White Wednesdays movement that started in 2017 - tensions have definitely been increasing throughout the year. In July, Iran’s national “Hijab and Chastity day” saw many women posting videos and pictures on social media of their heads uncovered, to which authorities responded with increased arrests and detentions. In August, Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, signed a new decree that cracked down on women’s rights and the mandatory dress code, and the regime also announced their plans to use facial recognition to identify women on public transport who did not comply with the country’s stricter new laws. Jîna (or Mahsa)’s death pushed the women of Iran to a breaking point, but we cannot forget the years of oppression that have come before this.
Crucially, however, it is not only the women of Iran that are protesting. “Everyone under the regime is affected,” Arya told me, “Especially in Tehran and other big cities, the regime is in your face all the time, so everyone has something to rally for”.
It is also true, however, that the protests have been led by a notably young crowd. The ‘Gen Z’ of Iran is very used to seeing protests and social movements, Arya explained, because their mothers and grandmothers led the revolution in 1979. But they’re also more united than previous generations. Elnaz explained that “young Iranians - both in Iran and members of the diaspora - have many opinions but don’t necessarily care as much about old alliances. The older generation is very divided between monarchists and socialists”.
Another dynamic that I was curious about is the role of media in these protests. Social media is becoming increasingly central in many social movements, but the protests in Iran have been accompanied by online footage of women burning their hijabs, cutting their hair and going on public transport with their heads uncovered.
Arya felt that media and social media had always been an important tool in Iran. “Geographically speaking, cities in Iran are physically isolated from one another. So, yes, media is important in this movement but I feel like it always has been in Iran''. Equally, internet shutdowns have been frequently used to try and control social unrest, and, as aforementioned, the last seven weeks have been no different. Arya explained that his Iranian cousins who are studying abroad have barely been able to contact their parents, apart from in short bursts of internet connection.
Beyond Iran and members of the Iranian diaspora, Elnaz and Arya both felt that non-Iranians have not been as vocal about these protests as they would have hoped. “Whenever the bursts of internet connection come back, people in Iran have been begging the rest of the world to carry on their voices” said Elnaz. “In the UK it definitely feels like certain people are scared to speak out or at least feel it’s not their place to. At protests I’ve been to it's only been Iranians there, but it would be nice to have some varied support. It’s such an easy movement to get behind''. Arya added that it's just important to keep circulating photos and reaffirming what the people of Iran are fighting for; “it’s not necessarily virtue signalling, it's just important to get the message out there.”
I was curious to discuss the hijab[with both Arya and Elnaz. Jîna/ Mahsa[was, of course, initially arrested for wearing her hijab too loosely, and much of the internet footage and social media trends concerning Iran’s protests have been focused on the hijab. It has definitely gained a symbolic power, both for protesters but also for Khamenei’s regime. “Many consequences of the regime - like the current economic situation - are felt daily” Arya told me “but the hijab is probably one of the most apparent daily symbols. It’s literally in your face every day.”
“I can’t speak for Muslim hijabi women, I know people have differing emotional attachment to it” Arya added. “The only real issue is that choice gets eliminated. If the Iranian state actually wanted to create this utopic Muslim society, it was their own mistake to force certain behaviours on their citizens, and not allow people their own spiritual space.”
Elnaz and I discussed the danger that some people, especially non-Muslims, may conflate the oppression we see in Iran with Islam more generally. “The regime gives Islam a bad name when it’s actually a beautiful religion. This movement is not about demonising Islam or wearing a hijab: it’s about giving women the agency to choose whether they want to wear one or not.” Elnaz added that this conflation of religion and political systems is why some non-Iranians, especially abroad, may feel like it is not their place to speak out because they’re scared to seem Islamophobic. Although some people definitely see wearing hijab as oppressive “it’s only oppressive when it's forced!”
Another vital element in Iran’s protests is the fact that Jîna, or Mahsa was Kurdish. Recently there’s been more and more articles referring to her by her Kurdish name, as I have done here, but at the beginning of the international coverage of the protests she was almost exclusively known as Mahsa, which is her Iranian, state-imposed name. The protests, in fact, started in the western province of Kurdistan, Masha’s homeland, and the popular slogan of “women life freedom”, was originally in Kurdish. “I think I understand why people are simplifying the narrative” Elnaz told me “Iranian women as a whole have been silenced for so long that they’ll take any opportunity for them to speak out. However, there’s definitely still a need to consider all the elements involved. Kurdish people are treated terribly in Iran.”
On the topic of international[coverage and international response, I also asked Elnaz and Arya about international policies. The EU, US, UK and Canada have imposed sanctions on top officials in Iran, but many are skeptical whether these will have any effect. It’s difficult to say, however, what the right response should be. “I know some Iranians are in favour of a US crackdown, hoping that some short-term suffering will force the regime to change” Arya told me. “Regardless of what the international response is, it should allow Iran to maintain its sovereignty, because Western Imperialism was definitely a deciding factor in the country’s 1979 revolution”. Elnaz suggested that, although international actors may not be able to influence domestic proceedings, Iran’s position in international bodies could be reconsidered. “I feel like the movement is very much in the hands of the Iranian people” she said “but there are definitely options for international organizations. There should be a proper investigation into human rights abuses, like the Human Rights Watch has been trying to do, but I’m also confused why Iran still has a seat on bodies like the UN Women's commission”. In fact, since our conversation, Kamala Harris issued a statement that the US would work with its allies to remove Iran from the commission.
Finally, I asked Elnaz and Arya what they thought was going to happen in the future, and both had a fairly positive outlook. “The more violence the government shows, the angrier and more determined Iranians are becoming.” Elnaz told me. “The regime has taken so much from Iranians, but one thing they cannot take away is hope, which is fuelling their fight for freedom.” Arya highlighted that certain dynamics were different this time, oil workers were striking too. He added that he was “definitely more hopeful than before, because these protests woke up a nation and made it fearless. After seven weeks there’s still so much momentum, and I like to think that people have changed and can see what they can accomplish.”
It is uncertain what the future will hold for Iran. After seven weeks, the protests have not died down, but the government response is also becoming more violent. It is definitely true, however, that these protests have already made an impact on Iranian’s will to fight for their agency, and that will be hard to erase.