What's Behind The Protests in Iran?
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Thanks for starting your week with us. One week ago, historic anti-government demonstrations began in the streets of Iran's capital city, Tehran. The protests began after the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman who was detained for supposedly violating the country's strict dress code for women.
People have chanted death to the dictator, and in a brave show of defiance and in the face of deadly violence by authorities, women in Iran are removing their head coverings, burning hijabs, and cutting their hair.
Demonstrations have spread to dozens of cities across the country, and the government has responded with deadly crackdowns, dozens have been killed. The government has also slowed access to the internet and blocked a number of communication apps.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For more on this, we're joined now by Farnaz Fassihi, UN Bureau Chief for The New York Times. Farnaz, welcome to The Takeaway.
Farnaz Fassihi: Hello, thank you for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What do we know about Mahsa's death at this point?
Farnaz Fassihi: We know that Mahsa traveled to Tehran, the capital, with her family from a small Kurdish city in Northwest Iran. She was riding the subway, she and her brother got out of the subway. She was dressed, from the pictures we've seen, very modestly. She wasn't violating the hijab rule.
She was wearing a long black robe over her pants and she was wearing a long, black scarf, and a morality police van was parked right outside of the subway station, and when she walked out with her brother, they approached her and told her that her hijab was not proper. Maybe because her hair was showing, we don't know.
They've alleged that she was violating the proper hijab law, and took her away. Her brother begged for them not to take her and said, "We are guests in your city, we don't really know anywhere around, please don't take my sister." They took her anyway.
What transpired between the arrest and the detention center it's a matter of dispute. The family has said she was beaten, that she suffered a head blow, and several women who were in the van with her have also said that. The government disputes that, but they transported her to a detention center.
Her brother goes to that address and is outside and then he hears scuffles from inside and shouting, and then an ambulance. Then someone comes out and says they just killed a woman in there. She's taken to the hospital by an ambulance. By the time she was there, she was in a coma, and three days later, she died.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What is the government saying about her death? Clearly, you're telling us about the disputed reports. What are officials saying is the cause of death for her?
Farnaz Fassihi: The officials said at first that she had a heart attack, and then when her father in an interview said that no, she was completely healthy and she didn't have any underlying health issues, they came back and said, "Oh, she had an underlying health from when she was a child," and they disputed that any violence happened to her.
There's a pattern of people dying in the hands of authorities in detention centers. There was a Iranian Canadian photographer, Zahra Kazemi, who was arrested and suffered a head blow in detention and died. There was a labor worker who was a blogger, [unintelligible 00:04:23], they arrested him for blogging against-- He was writing about poverty and the economy, and he suffered a head blow in detention and died.
Kavous Seyed-Emami, a professor of sociology and environmentalist, also a Canadian, died in detention and they said it was suicide, but the family disputes that. There's a pattern of people being arrested by Iranian authorities, they die, and then they try to cover it up.
Then the behavior of the authorities is also very questionable. Mahsa's parents have said that from the very beginning intelligence agents swarm the hospital. Even when she was in a coma, they were threatening them and warning them not to talk to the media. They didn't want to give the parents the body and told them that they must bury her in the middle of the night without holding a funeral. They refused.
They have not been given the report from the coroner's office. There's a lot of things that leads to one thinking and assuming that she suffered an injury. She was a healthy 22-year-old, why would she suddenly drop into a coma shortly after an arrest?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, Mahsa's death is clearly the spark here-- Excuse me. Mahsa's death is clearly the spark here, but talk to me about what other issues had been building prior to this moment that have really led to these mass protests we're seeing.
Farnaz Fassihi: Mahsa's death was definitely a spark and it came on top of a summer of violence against women. Women have been systematically targeted, usually in the Islamic Republic for their hijab, but particularly this summer with these morality police vans. Leading up to her death, there have been several incidents and videos shared on social media of the morality police dragging women into the vans, of beating them, of arresting a young woman, and then putting her in front of the television for confession and her face was all bruised.
This came on top-- It capped a summer where women felt they were targeted, where they felt like there was systematic state violence against them. Then, of course, it capped into years and years of pent-up anger and frustration over an economy that has been mismanaged, that is under sanctions, of social restrictions, and of just this lack of hopelessness and lack for any meaningful change.
If you talk to any young Iranian, the first thing they tell you is that they have no hope. That they don't see any light in the future. I think people came out and we saw that, like all the other protests we've seen in the past two years, particularly, that the ask, an issue sparks a protest. This time it's hijab, last time it was drought or rising gas prices, but it immediately morphs into calls for an end to the Islamic Republic because people are just fed up.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yet we hear the government saying that they plan to take decisive action in response, and we know that dozens have been killed. What do we know about those who have been killed and the circumstances of their deaths?
Farnaz Fassihi: Getting information out of Iran, Melissa, is very difficult because there is widespread internet disruption right now. Mobile operators that provide internet service to mobile telephones have been shut down. People have to be home and use a VPN in order to be able to communicate. The very popular application, WhatsApp, which is how most Iranians communicate, has also been blocked. Reaching people in Iran is hard, and I think that's why we're getting information with delay.
Right now the number of death is 50, but all the rights organization, human rights organization that we talk to say because of the difficulty of verifying and reaching families, particularly in smaller towns where some of these protests are concentrated, we don't really have an accurate read on the casualties and it will likely be much, much higher.
There've been over 450 people injured, hundreds and hundreds arrested, and the videos that people share and interviews that we do with witnesses suggests, or we can see that the security forces are on the streets. They're openly shooting at people. We've seen many, many videos of guns being pointed into unarmed crowds and opening fire. A Kurdish human rights group says 17 Kurds were killed, including four of them were under the age of 18. Amnesty International says among the dead are three children.
We've seen videos of security guards shooting at the window if they see homes-- at window of people's homes if they see somebody behind the window. In one incident, a little boy was behind the window and they point the gun at the window and his father grabs him and the bullet hits the window and smashes. It could have hit his head.
Really disturbing, or videos of security guards and plain clothes militia violently dragging women. In one video, they take this woman by her hair and she's trying to resist arrest and they drop her to the ground and bang her head on the side, on the curb, on a street. In another one, they're trying to put somebody in the trunk of a car to take him into detention. Just really extreme and naked violence which is really disturbing.
Melisa Harris-Perry: With only about a minute left. On Thursday, the US Government issued sanctions against the morality police and other leaders of government agencies. Does this make any difference?
Farnaz Fassihi: I think symbolically it makes a difference. It makes a difference for Iranians to know that their voice is being heard, that people around the world are paying attention to what they're doing. They're at the front line of the women's rights movement and any solidarity with them, and any condemnation of the governance violence I think is appreciated, and we appreciate you giving time to the story as well.
Melisa Harris-Perry: Farnaz Fassihi is a reporter for The New York Times. Again, as always, thank you for joining us here on The Takeaway.
Farnaz Fassihi: Thank you.
Melisa Harris-Perry: Okay, everyone, quick time out. We're back with more in just a moment.
Welcome back. We've been talking about the widespread protests in Iran, which began last week in response to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained for allegedly violating the country's strict dress code for women.
I'm joined now by Mona Eltahawy who is a journalist and writer of the newsletter Feminist Giant. Mona's also the author of Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls and Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution. Mona, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Mona Eltahawy: Thank you for having me, Melissa.
Melisa Harris-Perry: Mona, Iran is not an Arab nation, but do you see parallels between this moment and the uprisings of the Arab spring?
Mona Eltahawy: I absolutely do, Melissa. It is a thrill to see a revolution, a feminist revolution begun by women and for women in Iran, which as you said is not an Arab country, but I see this feminist revolution as the continuation of the revolutions and uprisings that began in Tunisia in 2010 in my part of the world, in the Arabic-speaking part of the Middle East and North Africa.
Absolutely, I feel-- I'm saying that an Arab man began those uprisings in 2010 in Tunisia by setting himself on fire and basically sparking our imaginations across the region. Now women in Iran have given the feminism that was missing from those uprisings and revolutions 10, 11 years ago, have injected feminism into their revolution now and taken that baton and continued this often stumbling and incomplete revolutions of a decade ago. It's thrilling to watch.
Melisa Harris-Perry: Now, even as you talk about the thrill of watching this, what happened in the Arab spring a decade ago has now in so many ways, we've thought about it or talked about it, reported on it as having failed. That it began, there were these attempts to establish more democratic regimes, and that we have seen finally those final regimes that were put into place at that time come down. How should we understand that way that we've talked about the cycle of that decade with what's happening now?
Mona Eltahawy: Well, I think-- I'm thinking of something that Audrey Lord said about revolutions, about how they're not a one-time event. About how they're, essentially, cycles, because I don't think there's a revolution in the world throughout history that from the get-go succeeded in all its goals. I think what revolutions do is they chip away at power structures, and then the second time around we chip away more power structures, and so on and so forth.
I'm thinking of Iran, specifically. In 2009, there was the green uprising, the green movement that was to protest elections there that many women and young people felt were stolen from them. That was 2009, and then there was another set of protests again in 2019, and each of those cycles, the Iranian regime basically remained intact, but the people changed. I think this is what I want us to think about when we talk about the Arab uprisings or revolutions.
Because even though Egypt, for example, my country of birth, remains under a military dictatorship that is supported by the United States and other Western powers, we, the people in Egypt have changed.
I look at women, especially, and queer people in Egypt who over the past, I would say, two or three years, especially these past two or three years have really taken that mantle of the social and sexual revolution and said, "Okay, so the power structures at the top haven't changed, but we've changed, and the revolution is now in the street and in the home." I always say the revolution at home is the hardest of all revolutions because all dictators go home. This is what I'm thinking about when I'm watching the feminist revolution in Iran.
Melisa Harris-Perry: Now, you keep using this language, the feminist revolution, what makes it feminist?
Mona Eltahawy: Oh, so many things. Just to finish with the Arab uprisings as well, I see that they were missing that because I feel that what the men there were doing were basically saying, "You know what, the state oppresses everyone, so let's take care of the state and then we'll get to you women," as if we're some kind of niche group and we have to wait our turn.
The feminist revolution says, yes, the state oppresses everyone but the state, the streets, and the home together oppress women and queer people. This is what we're seeing in Iran right now. The women understand that the Iranian regime oppresses everyone, but the women, even though many of them on the street today were not alive during the 19-- hadn't been born yet during the 1979 revolution in their country, tThey know that women sacrificed their lives alongside men during that 1979 revolution, but that the clerics came along and co-opted that revolution.
One of the first things they did, and this is why the revolution has to be feminist. One of the first things they did was they imposed a nationwide covering of women, which was outrageous. That's where women come in now and say, "You know what? If the revolution doesn't connect the dictator and the state and then the dictator on the street corner and the dictator at home, this is not a feminist revolution." This is what they're doing in Iran right now.
The revolution says state, street, and home oppress us all, the feminist revolution says there must be sexual liberation, gender liberation, and queer liberation. You'll see that this younger generation of Iranians on the street now supports all of those things. For me, the most exciting thing about the feminist revolution is that when people say, "Oh, God, the people are not ready for you," my response to that is the feminist revolution disobeys this "we're not ready" because if people are ready, then we are too late.
Melisa Harris-Perry: Why is burning hijab or cutting hair an act of defiance? What makes it revolutionary?
Mona Eltahawy: Because in Iran, the clerics stole, co-opted that 1979 revolution, and made their symbol of the revolution compulsory hijab, the enforced covering of women's hair and bodies. Here come Iranian women now, and they are burning the tool of their oppression. They are burning the tool of their patriarchy. Now, my mother wears a hijab, my sister wears a hijab, I'm of Muslim descent, I once used to wear a hijab for nine years, but I say it took me eight years to take off my hijab. That's why I want to complicate this idea of choice, but it's not about me and it's not about my hijab and it's not about the hijab anywhere else right now, it's about the hijab in Iran.
For those women who are leading the feminist revolution, a tool of their oppression and a tool of the patriarchy they're fighting is the hijab, and so they're burning it. By burning it, they are sparking our imagination, igniting it, setting it on fire, and cutting their hair. This thing about hair and the revolution.
I wrote an essay recently where I asked, "What does hair have to do with the revolution?" I researched this and during the Irish revolution in the early decades of the 20th century, like 1918-1919, both sides of the revolution used to forcibly cut women's hair as punishment and humiliation as a form of controlling women's bodies. I was like, "Ah, hair does have something to do with the revolution here."
Here, the 1979 revolution in Iran, forced the hijab on women. Here now women are saying, "Oh, it's my hair that you're trying to control, watch me," and they take the hijab off and they burn it and they publicly shave their hair off or publicly cut it and say, "Here, now I control what's on my head. Now I control my hair." As I say in my book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, we are more than what's on our heads and we are more than what in between our legs because this is a symbol of how the patriarchy in Iran controls women, and so women's feminist revolution says, "No, I control this," and they set it on fire.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mona, you say, "We are more than what's on our heads and we are more than what's between our legs." I want to talk about that second piece of it. You've just articulated for us what hair has to do with the revolution. I felt a cold chill reading reports that authorities in Iran said that when this young woman was detained, she was given instruction in how to tie hijab. Something about that language gave me such a sense of how vulnerable this 22-year-old would have been in this space with authorities. Can you talk to me about what we know happens to women in the context of repressive states at the hands of state authorities?
Mona Eltahawy: Well, those state authorities that were giving instructions "to Mahsa Amini" often referred to as the morality police. The morality police are basically kind like a militia that go around and enforce the strict dress codes in Iran, but not just in Iran, in Saudi Arabia as well, and obviously, Afghanistan, the Taliban. I want to connect Iran and Saudi Arabia, especially though, because when I first heard that Mahsa Amini had died after being in the custody of the so-called morality police, I also got a chill, Melissa, because as I said, I used to wear hijab, and I spent my teen years in Saudi Arabia, where the morality police in that country during that time used to actively patrol the streets.
They would patrol the streets and shopping malls to make sure women were "covered properly", that shops were closing for the quarter prayer, but what used to freak me out the most was this covered property because they almost arrested my dad and my brother because I was once uncovered or not covered properly during a shopping outing to a mall in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia came to mind, not just because of my own personal experience, but because after Mahsa Amini died, I couldn't help but think about the death of 15 schoolgirls in Saudi Arabia in 2002 in a school fire, again, because of this piece of cloth, and the morality police and not being covered properly. Because Mahsa Amini died in the custody of the morality police in Iran, and God only knows what they did to her when she was in their custody but witnesses say that her dead body showed terrible bruising.
In Saudi Arabia, in 2002, 15 school girls died in a school fire because as they tried to exit the burning building, the morality police in their country wouldn't let them out and they wouldn't let firefighters in to save the girls because the girls weren't wearing headscarves and the cloaks that they have to wear in public in Saudi Arabia. The same, same, same in Iran in Saudi Arabia.
I'm sitting there, and I remember when I first heard about those girls in 2002, I burst into tears, because at the time my sister was in school in Saudi Arabia, and I had spent my teen years in school in Saudi Arabia and it could have been either one of us. I keep hearing Iranian women saying, "Mahsa Amini, this could have been me," because the morality police patrol the streets, take women in police cars into custody, and who knows what happen to them in custody? Who knows if they emerge or not? Mahsa Amini sadly did not emerge. This is a form of fascist control of women's bodies.
I want to connect that fascist control of women's bodies and why I say what's in between our legs and what's on our heads to any kind of conservative fascist control around the world. I hope we talk about the US and the overturning of Roe v. Wade because I consider that fascist control directly connected to what's happening in Iran.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, Mona, you've just brought us here. You've brought us home to the United States and said you wanted to talk about the post-Roe v. Wade, now Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health world that we live in in this country, what in the world does that have to do with what's happening in Iran?
Mona Eltahawy: What I see happening, Melissa, is there's so many Americans, specifically white American women, who are cheering on, as we all should, women in Iran who are leading this feminist revolution, and these same white American women are completely oblivious to the tools of their oppression and the tools that their patriarchy are using against them, and what is happening here in the United States, and how they are not standing up to the patriarchy, and failing in their feminism in the United States, because if the clerics and the morality police in Iran are using hijab to control women's bodies, and this is why women are setting the hijab on fire, I believe those women in Iran are setting us an incredible challenge.
They have seized the narrative of their revolution, and they are demanding now, they're asking of us, "What are you doing? What tools of your oppression are you setting on fire and point to your morality police and how they are making things compulsory, and controlling your body?" The obvious answer for me now as an American, because I spoke to you earlier as an Egyptian, but the obvious answer to me now as an American and as a feminist in the United States, is what just happened with Roe v. Wade, is all these trigger laws across the United States, is all of these patriarchs in the United States who are telling us that we do not control our own bodies.
This is a form of morality policing. This is a form of making something compulsory that we must set on fire. The challenge now in watching Iran is if these women and men in Iran, who live in an almost perfect police state are courageous enough to rise up and burn the tools of their oppression, are we courageous enough to accept their challenge and rise up here in the United States, and do more than just hashtag vote, hashtag vote blue, and more than just "I'm going to vote in the midterms?" Because we are now in a situation in the United States that needs a feminist revolution and voting is not enough. Rise up is what I hear the Iranian women demanding of us in the United States.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yet I keep thinking in this moment of the extraordinary vulnerability of these Iranian women that even as we cheer them on, that part of the reason that things are not set a fire, either literally or symbolically, so frequently is the vulnerability, the fear, the very real fear of repressive states. Do you have a sense of what may likely happen on the other side of these revolts?
Mona Eltahawy: The fear is absolutely real. One of the young Iranians, I mentioned young Iranians who weren't born during the 1979 revolution, who didn't exist but have grown up watching other uprisings but they were too young to be a part of, they are now literally sacrificing their lives. Mahsa Amini we know died in morality police custody, but there was a 23-year-old Iranian woman called Hadis who recently died as she was preparing to go to the frontlines, she was actually on the frontlines of this feminist revolution. There is video of her tying her hair back. Her name is Hadis Najafi.
There's video that you can find on social media. She's tying a ponytail. She's not wearing a hijab, she's got a face mask on, and she's preparing to go to the frontline, and she was shot dead. Revolutions are a no laughing matter. Revolutions are real, they are dangerous, they are risky, and people die in revolutions. You might remember, Melissa, that during the year of the Egyptian revolution, I had my arms broken and I was sexually assaulted by the Egyptian riot police. I'm alive. I'm not dead, but so many other people died.
Yes, revolutions are scary and dangerous but freedom requires that of us. It's trite to say freedom is not free but this is why I'm saying this is the challenge of the Iranians, the gauntlet that they're throwing down to us. What is happening on the other side? I don't know what will happen on the other side but as I said earlier, revolutions don't finish in one go. I don't know if these incredibly courageous people will overthrow the regime but what I do know is you can never, we can never unsee what they're doing.
Cesar Chavez, the Tucano activist once said social change is like teaching people to read and write, you can never unteach them to read and write. I adapt that now and say, "We can never unsee a revolution. We can never unsee the courage of the people who risked their lives and sacrificed their lives in the revolution and set our guts on fire." Whether they will overthrow the regime or not, I don't know, but they are overthrowing something in them, and they are overthrowing something in us that we will need for the next time around because I don't think any revolution completes itself in one go, but it makes it easier for the next go.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mona Eltahawy is a journalist and writer of the newsletter Feminist Giant. She's also the author of Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls and Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution. Mona, as always, thank you.
Mona Eltahawy: Thank you, Melissa.
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