Nafis Fathollahzadeh is a queer feminist artist and researcher from Iranian Azerbaijan based in Berlin. Ülker Sözen is a sociologist from Turkey, living in Berlin. In this interview for IRGAC, they talk about the recent intersectional feminist revolution in Iran, the wave of protests that started with the murder of Jina Mahsa Amini by the morality police in September 2022, and trace important parallels between Iran and Turkey in terms of the dynamics of state violence and the power of women’s and LGBTQIA+ struggle to inspire an emancipatory social mobilization.
The recent wave of protests started with the murder of Jina Mahsa Amini by the morality police in September 2022. Could you give an overview of the current situation in Iran?
Nafis: Since September 2022, Jina’s revolution is leading a flourishing intersectional feminist movement in Iran that could bring a diversity of suppressed voices, bodies, and social movements together, transforming traumas and fears to a collective force of revolt that demands gender equality, social justice, and regime change all over the country.
The funeral of Jina (Mahsa) Amini in the Kurdish town of Saqqez made a turning point in history when the women took off their headscarves and chanted slogans against the compulsory hijab. Within a few days there were thousands of reenactments of this event that spread all over the country and beyond.
By now and after five months, “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” [Women, Life, Freedom] moves our collective body and our desire for life and freedom not only for gender minorities but also suppressed ethnicities, religions, and languages in Iran. The everyday struggle against the compulsory hijab is growing amidst the escalation of police violence, detentions, long prison sentences, and executions. The regime pushes its agenda by passing new bills against women’s rights like the recent parliamentary bill that proposes a requirement for women to obtain official consent from their guardian to leave the country.
Within a few months that have been accompanied with the escalation of police violence, the rising voices of women and LGBTQIA+ activists and a growing number of activist groups from Balochistan, Azerbaijan, and Kurdistan has been remarkable.
You speak of an intersectional feminist movement that brings together a diversity of suppressed voices. Can you explain this a bit further?
Nafis: Its significance lies in the fact that the rights of women and their access to resources vary in different parts of the country. Iran is a multiethnic or multinational country that is dominated and ruled by a homogenous nation state agenda. This has resulted in a long term repression of subaltern nations, their identities, languages, and their right to access resources. That is why the visibility of these women whose identity was denied in multiple ways is of a high importance.
The scale of violence in different cities is something I would like to highlight. The violence is everywhere, shooting people in the head, rape and torture, but it comes in different scales for different towns. It happens parallel to the state propaganda that Kurds, Turks, Arabs, and Balochs — living in border towns — are separatists and getting support from abroad. The state is actively propagating this rhetoric and attacking unarmed citizens with heavy weapons in Balochistan and Kurdistan. On 30 September the regime opened fire on people praying and killed at least 90 people in a day, many of them children. The same in Kurdish towns, many cities in Kurdistan went on strike from the first days and continued the street battles with police. The response of the regime has been very harsh.
In this regard, I’m wondering what distinguishes the contemporary wave of protests from the ones we’ve witnessed in the last years. Which actors, forces and struggles are coming together at this moment?
Nafis: Jina (Mahsa) Amini’s murder happened in the atmosphere of escalation of use of arms and violence in targeting unarmed citizens. In November 2019 a nationwide peaceful protest, that initially started because of a 50–200 percent increase in fuel prices, turned into a bloodshed, the internet was shut down, 1500 killed. Harsher economic pressure, strikes, detentions and imprisonment of labour rights activists, workers and teachers, lawyers and journalists, LGBTQIA+ rights activists, and women’s rights activists continued.
Jina’s murder brought all these pulses together but it is not a coincidence that only her name — Jina, meaning life and life-giving — could mobilize a meta movement.
Kurdistan’s long history of resistance has been shaped over years beyond the borders of the nation states. Oppression of Kurds in Iran right after the 1979 revolution was followed by the mass execution of Kurds in the 1980s and the economic sanctions up to today. The suppression under the Iranian regime has unified their forces, enrichened their tools of resistance, literature, poetry, and music, and deepened ties.
Therefore Jina’s funeral as an event is not coincidental. The message on her gravestone “Dear Jina, you won’t die, your name will be an icon”, the speech of Leyla Enayatzadeh, a Kurdish women’s rights activist, reading a poem of Şêrko Bêkes, and the performance of women waving their scarves and shouting slogans against compulsory hijab is like the rehearsal of an event that was practised many times.
That is why it is very important to underline that the first meta movement in contemporary Iran is a feminist movement, to acknowledge that what we chant today in Iran in Turkish, Arabic, or Farsi is a translation of “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” rooted in the Kurdish women’s movement and their long-term resistance and practices in countering patriarchy, nationalism, imperialism, and capitalism; in coining Jineology; in building up alternative structures in times of war and crisis. This is how intersectional feminism would expand in West Asia, “a river finding its own way” (Nagihan Akarsel).
Likewise, the resistance against the compulsory use of the hijab dates back many years. Can you tell us more about this historical background of the current uprising?
Nafis: The fight against compulsory hijab started right after the 1979 revolution on International Women’s Day of 8 March 1979. Thousands of women took to the streets to protest the compulsory hijab announced by Ayatollah Khomeini. Within two months, the Family Protection Law of 1967 that modified the right to child custody and divorce for women was abolished, and wearing hijab in public space became a reality that many did not want to accept.
In the coming decades and amidst the establishment of religious fundamentalism, eight years of Iran-Iraq war, followed by the mass detention and murder of political activists left no space for the progressive movements to exist in the following decades. In 2005 the morality police was established to arrest people who “violate the Islamic dress code”.
The struggle for women’s rights continued over the decades, eventually leading to the launch of the One Million Signatures Campaign in 2006. The campaign addressed gender discrimination in Iran’s legal system, promoted the idea of social equality, and collected signatures on a petition to reform discriminatory laws against women. Many grassroot organizations joined the movement in several cities to raise awareness about women’s rights by publishing pamphlets and talking to their fellow women face-to-face in private and public spaces. It was successful in challenging the government to change laws like a woman’s right to inherit their husband’s property and the right to equal blood money.
In the following years and amidst the growing oppression against women and LGBTQIA+ the struggle against compulsory hijab took different forms in the public and in social media platforms. In 2017 Iranian human rights activist Vida Movahed protested compulsory hijab by unveiling and standing on top of an utility box on Tehran’s Revolution Street. Her powerful act of protest inspired so many women, young and old, to follow her way, to resist, and reproduce the figure she created: “Women of Revolution Street”. A figure that has no fear of police and no hope in reforms but a fierce anger that intimidates the foundations of the regime.
In the last years, resisting compulsory hijab has become an everyday struggle for women, non-binary people, trans men, and trans women who walk down the street without hijab, sing in the trains, or dance on the streets. As our anger kept growing and our bodies stood stronger together their violence kept escalating, harsher sentences issued for the protesters of hijab, and morality police were provided more rights to use force and firearms. It is also important to mention that compulsory hijab is only one of the examples of state control over our bodies.
The protests in Iran have had an impressive global impact, and led to demonstrations and acts of solidarity in many countries. What role does the Iranian diaspora and exile communities play for this?
Nafis: There has been a rising number of activist groups in exile with different political agendas. Iranian feminists and LGBTQIA+ activists all around the world got connected locally and globally, older networks got activated and new ones were established, e.g. Feminists for Jina, Roja Paris, Jina Collective, Red Roots Collective, Afghan Activist Collective, to name a few.
Those groups with a transnational and intersectional agenda were actively making ties with the feminist movements and grassroot groups in the region.
During these weeks people from Afghanistan, Iran, Kurdistan, and Turkey found each other in different parts of the world, in Berlin and elsewhere in several demonstrations, exchanging, organizing, and connecting to each other. It has been an overwhelming time, a time full of hope, desire, and of course fear but that fear fades away when we chant together “from Kurdistan to Kabul, women, life, freedom” and our solidarity grows as we walk together.
But within the wide spectrum of the Iranian diaspora there are also opportunist feminists lobbying with the right-wing political parties of the European and American states to push their own views. That is how different unions and ties have been shaped. While the people in Iran are fighting on the streets with progressive messages demanding equality and justice, parts of the Iranian diaspora attempt to claim the leadership of the revolution or being the representative of the movement. Reza Pahlavi [the son of the former Shah], opportunist “feminist activists” like Masih Alinejad, and their alliances of celebrities and monarchists have been propagating on “unity against the common enemy”. At the beginning of February they announced their coalition of opposition in a press conference at the Georgetown University in Washington.
In your view, what elements may help to explain the “globalization” of the movement, in terms of the many acts of solidarity and the massive reception that we’re witnessing? And how is this “feminist revolution” being “read” or understood in different parts of the world?
Ülker: The protests in Iran gave hope to people, especially feminist and queer activists, in many parts of the world. People are naturally moved by the strength and courage of the resisting people of Iran and their mobilization in the face of brutal violence and executions. One reason for the wide scope of the support is social media. News and images of the protests and the violence of the Iranian state circulate in popular social media platforms, reinforcing feelings of outrage and support at a broad scale. The other reason for the global resonance is that we are in a peculiar time when the struggles of women and other gender minorities have risen to the fore in challenging and transforming the power structures. Of course, there are immense differences considering the level and nature of political pressures across the world and a variation of the specific demands of the feminist and queer movements. However, I think the core agenda is reclaiming our bodies, freedoms, and life in general against the regimes of oppression, which is what the “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” slogan in Iran and in the region expresses. The power of feminist and queer politics lies in that the connectedness of bodies, the notion of freedom, and life in general is imperative for them and integral to their struggles. This means encountering the power structures like neoliberalism, colonialism, and militarism, along with patriarchy.
The current wave of protests in Iran started with women burning headscarves, but as Nafis explained, there is a long history of gender equality struggle and a multiplicity of political agency behind it, which encompasses the struggle of Kurdish people and other persecuted groups, and the mobilization against the recent economic crisis and impoverishment. Now, people in Iran are protesting against many forms of the regime’s control over life and its violence, along with those over the bodies of women and gender minorities. I think this uprising reflects what I perceived as the core of feminist and queer politics that binds bodies, freedom, and life.
On the other side of the coin, there is the worldwide growth of “anti-gender ideology”, the offensive against the established rights of women and LGBTQIA+ and their further demands for an egalitarian restructuring of society. This discourse is on the rise, both in the Global North and Global South countries, which is alarming for queer and feminist activists and other progressive political actors. In this context, the struggle of Iranian people under a very oppressive regime, ignited by the women’s revolt against the religious dress code to reclaim their bodies, has met with solidarity acts in many parts of the world. Some feminists raised concerns about not letting Islamophobia co-opt the protests in the Global North, which is an issue to be kept in mind. Yet also, we need not to refrain from seeing the situation as it is, that organized religion is oppressing women and gender minorities.
There have been strong protests and mobilization campaigns in Germany too. The United States and the European Union have introduced more sanctions on Iran as a response, including specific restrictions against the perpetrators of human rights violations. Sanctions should be carefully thought through and implemented, otherwise they cause further difficulties and isolation for the people of Iran as they have done before. Solidarity movements in the Global North should also aim for pushing the governments, international mechanisms, and public authorities to introduce effective ways of empowering the democratic struggles in Iran and the region. In that regard, pushing for a feminist foreign policy might be a necessary agenda item that prioritizes people and the protection of life instead of “national” security and economic interests.
What can you tell us about the impact of the protests in the region surrounding Iran and especially in Turkey, and the issue of regional solidarity?
Ülker: We both think that regional solidarity is very important. A short time after Jina’s murder, there was an attack on an education centre for young women from the Hazara community in Kabul, Afghanistan. 35 young women and girls were killed because they were going to school instead of staying at home. The women’s protests against the attack were met with violence by the Taliban. The situation in Turkey is also marred with state repression against gender equality struggles and the activism against femicides. Moreover, we see that states in the region support each other against emancipatory politics and the feminist and queer movements. For instance, the Turkish state sends some political asylum seekers back to Iran, especially LGBTQIA+ and women activists, which is contrary to international law. The states further cooperate to suppress the Kurdish and Kurdish women’s struggles. In this environment, our anger is our common weapon, it connects us strongly with or without knowing each other. And as Nafis says, it is deepening our ties in building up queerhood and sisterhood to counter nationhoods. Under this situation, we find each other, from Iran, Syria, Kurdistan, Turkey, and Afghanistan, maybe also because of a sense of cultural intimacy that we are accustomed to and we long for, which is infused with mourning and resistance. And this becomes our common language.
In Turkey, after the coup attempt in 2016, the level of authoritarianism and pressures against the opposition in Turkey escalated drastically. Despite this, feminist and queer activists have not left the streets and other venues to raise political demands. The demonstrations against femicides and the 8 March and Pride rallies continue with broad attendance in many parts of Turkey, even if they are banned by public authorities and there are heavy police interventions. Demonstrators are not being killed as in Iran, but police brutality, detentions, and subsequent court cases are not rare. Besides, public campaigns against femicides and for defending the Istanbul Convention have generated an impressive social impact in recent years, thanks to social media as most of the mainstream media is controlled by the AKP government. Building on this social momentum and heightened awareness, the protests in Iran have found remarkable support in Turkey and among the communities from Turkey in places like Berlin.
Here, we also want to bring up the situation in Turkey with respect to the issue of regional solidarity. The slogan “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” has been very important for us in Turkey for years, which displays the congruence between Kurdish and Turkish feminists. I think the feminist struggle in Turkey, of Kurdish and Turkish women, has made crucial advances in tackling and in some ways overcoming the ethnic and cultural polarizations in society, namely the Turkish-Kurdish and secular-religious divides. There have been many debates about ethnic and regional inequalities, the effects of nationalism, and being open to recognize and take responsibility for the systemic violence against Kurdish people. Eventually, I think, so much progress and mutual transformation were achieved. In this landscape, the Kurdish women’s movement established itself as a profound actor for the struggles of women of all ethnicities and beliefs in Turkey.
Thinking about the role of social media campaigns in solidarity efforts with the protests in Iran such as the online circulation of the “hair flag” image and women cutting their hair, in what ways do you think we understand “solidarity”? Is this just identitarian social media politics, or are there actually new ties, networks, common struggle?
Ülker: Digital flow of information and social media communication definitely increase awareness and make possible worldwide solidarity campaigns. However, we should also reflect on the shortcomings and the transient character of such online efforts. First, public agendas on media, and especially the online media, are extremely short-lived. Social media campaigns enable swiftly reaching out to an abundance of social circles across borders, however one can keep their attention only for a limited period of time. So, I think, online campaigns should be strategically devised by considering the vitality of building or contributing to “offline” networks of solidarity. Social change under long-lasting oppressive regimes as in Iran usually takes a lot of time, it does not come in the span of a few months or years. When the protests erupt and the events are fresh, there usually happen a lot of support campaigns but they usually fade as soon as media attention decreases. So, it is vital to keep the cause and the protests on the public agenda and to invest energy in more durable forms of interaction and solidarity.
During the time of the hair-cutting campaign on social media, a friend of mine in Turkey, in response to the news that Juliette Binoche cut her hair, tweeted something like “c’mon, you are one of the most beautiful women on earth, you can do more than cutting a tiny part of your hair”. What I am trying to say, as a second point about online solidarity campaigns, is that they might remain at the symbolic level as public gestures, that only serve the person who participates in the social media campaign. We live in a time when online public visibility can be the most valuable currency, so this is expected, however the organizers of such campaigns and the politically-conscious prosumers of social media can ask for more and dare to do more. That is, social media solidarity should aim for touching and impacting the domain of “real” politics to induce tangible effects. This point also holds for the physical protests in the streets in the so-called developed world. We always need to keep the question of addressing the immediate and long-lasting needs of the people on the ground and building solidarity ties that have some permanence.
Overall, global solidarity campaigns, online or physical, should prioritize developing ties with the women and other oppressed groups in Iran and empowering them on the ground. This entails inquiring about their needs, trying to establish ties with their activism, and sharing resources, networks, and skills to assist their struggle. This might be through helping to provide safe internet access under government restrictions so that people in Iran can communicate, or supporting the people at risk who need to leave the country, or just trying to not forget and keep your eyes and ears open if there is a need.
What do you think comes next regarding the uprising?
Nafis: After experiencing the different waves of uprisings in the region from 2009 onwards and the social and political changes of the last decades, in the atmosphere of the post-revolutionary and post-war societies, it seems the current intersectional feminist movement that is symbolized in the slogan of “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” is connecting the movements and struggles in the region in countering the authoritarian regimes. It has brought life and hope after decades of suppression where all aspects of life have been taken away from the people. We are in the middle of a struggle that did not start today and it won’t end by the fall of the authoritarian regimes. These processes of the transformations from below have brought change in the region in Iran and elsewhere and that is our everyday struggle until all of us are free.