Interview with Catherine Z. Sameh
Posted October 21, 2022
Johanna Brenner (JB): As protests in Iran, sparked by the morality police’s murder of Mahsa (Jhina) Amini, a Kurdish Iranian woman arrested for “improper hijab,” enter their fourth week, many of us stand in awe of the courage of the protestors who continue to come out into the streets, despite a violent police crackdown that has included killing, maiming, arrest and torture. How do you understand this in some ways unprecedented moment?
Catherine Z. Sameh (CS): This is an incredible moment in that the outpouring of activism in the streets and on social media is led primarily by young women with widespread support from many sectors, many people in Iran. As we watch this movement unfold, we are holding our collective breath, hopeful that some deep change will happen. It is important to understand that besides young women’s leadership, what is completely new is the widespread and central demand for the end to the Islamic Republic. This demand is not a look back to the Shah, not support for the monarchy or any other kind of authoritarian government. It is a protest against the particular patriarchal authoritarianism of the Islamic Republic and of the state, and a protest against the kind of state violence that is used to keep citizens in line.
JB: People are challenging Islamic state authoritarianism. Often, the way that Western analysts understand what’s going on is that this is a struggle for secularism, and against Islam. And I think it’s important to talk about the ways in which Western eyes have distorted what women want, what women are doing, and what the people supporting this new women’s movement want.
CS: Yes, this is one of the dilemmas that have confronted us as feminists and anti-imperialists. As you said, the Western Islamaphobic gaze has used the issue of patriarchal control of women to punish and isolate Iran since the revolution. And more generally, of course, the US and other Western powers have singled out Iran to identify the exceptional violence of the Islamic Republic, meanwhile, killing Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq, in many places in the world.
The Western gaze misunderstands the revolution and the post-revolutionary government and society. After the revolution, there was a decades-long struggle, breaking out in different moments, to force the state to fulfill some of the promises made during the revolution. In this sense, the current protests are a break with that history, because they no longer reference revolutionary promises but instead are focused on the reality of the authoritarian state. Right-wing and also liberal media interpret this demand for an end to the Islamic Republic as a desire for Iran to no longer be Muslim. But protestors are not against Islam. Many of them are Muslims or secular Muslims or even, more religious Muslims, hand in hand, side by side.
As I discuss in my book, for a long time the citizens of Iran have articulated a different vision of Islam, one that challenges the ways that Islam was harnessed and captured by this patriarchal authoritarian government. Of course, the Iranian state, like any state, has incorporated different actors, some reformers, some hardliners that have carried out a real debate about what Islam means. And Iranians are well aware of Islamaphobia in the West and the history of imperialist interventions in Iran such as the overthrow of the Mossadegh government in 1953, followed by the installation of the Shah. This reality has haunted feminism inside and outside of Iran. How do we critique state repression without playing into the discourse that Islamic governance is more problematic than western secular governance?
But these tensions are not present today as they have been in the past. Activists are not worried about playing into Islamophobia. They are in a liberation struggle, and they are critiquing the Islamic Republic, the patriarchal Islamic state. They are not asking for the West to intervene or come save them. And they’re not worried about being co-opted by the West; they are there for liberation, against state violence and against repression of any kind. This is a movement for self-determination with women’s self-determination as central to that possibility.
JB: It’s perhaps not accidental, that this movement is led by a new generation of Iranians who are very little connected to the revolutionary history of the Republic, and in some ways, take it for granted. They have experienced crushing economic mismanagement, inflation, the inability of the regime to provide, as you say, any of the things that were promised as part of the revolution. And especially over the past five years huge protests have occurred in Iranian society over the intense economic hardships people have endured. And although this current movement begins as a protest against the morality police, and the enforcement of compulsory hijab, the movement very quickly expands to incorporate many of these other grievances within a women centered politics. One reflection of this is the emergence of the widespread slogan, “woman, life, freedom.”
CS: Yes, the end to compulsory hijab and the right to a dignified life have come together under the sign of “woman, life, freedom.” I think this critique has always been there in Iranian women’s organizing which has recognized that the state securitizes itself though women’s bodies, through restrictions on what women may do with our bodies, our sexuality. The demand for an end to compulsory hijab is a challenge to the vision of security that the Iranian state has offered. And the slogan does have this deeper resonance with the deprivations that Iranians have experienced, particularly in the last five years.
It is important to point out that for decades, the post-revolutionary governments in Iran did many things to improve people’s life chances. At the time of the revolution, women were having an average of seven children, and during the post-revolutionary years, that average goes down to two because of increased access to education, increased access to health care, increased literacy, and a general improvement in wellbeing for many women who had been shut out of the Shah’s regime.
Many, not all, but many people’s lives greatly improved after the revolution. And while lots of women supported the revolution, they also objected to the discriminatory legal structures against women that Khomeini imposed and sought to change them through targeted campaigns. They had some victories and lots of failures, but nonetheless exerted sustained pressure on the state. But over the past several years, the gains of the postrevolutionary period have given way to a declining middle-class, to widespread immiseration because of corruption and mismanagement of the economy, mismanagement of the COVID pandemic, the intense ecological crises where rivers have dried up, high inflation, and food shortages. Sanctions have exacerbated these tremendous economic difficulties. Sanctions really are a form of economic warfare against Iranians, and also a tool that the government uses to promote “national security” by squashing activism and dissent. All of these factors have combined to gather everyone together in both suffering and immiseration and in anger, anger at the government.
This past summer there were demonstrations by pensioners who said, “our tables are empty, we can’t afford food.” We also saw women yelling at the basiji, the military police, who were hassling them at the protests, saying to them, “Don’t you buy chicken? Don’t you buy oil and rice?”
One of the chants that appeared shortly after “woman life, freedom” was “bread, work, freedom, AND an end to compulsory hijab.” So, these different issues are indivisible within a feminist vision of liberation that says, instead of violence against our bodies that is happening in all these different ways, we want care, we want a government and society that provides basic freedoms and basic necessities.
JB: You imply that this current movement, led by young women, represents a break from a long history of Iranian feminism, yet perhaps also builds on it. Can you talk a bit about that history?
CS: The feminist movement in Iran dates back to at least the early 20th century; but I will focus on women’s movements since the Iranian revolution which have operated mainly within the structures of the post-revolutionary political and legal system. The Islamic Revolution promised a new vision of society where women were to be respected, part of society, and free of the sexual exploitation facing women in the West. But the way this played out was through a very patriarchal version of respect, based on extreme gender differentiation. It was codified and enforced especially within family law concerning marriage, children, divorce, citizenship, and inheritance. So family law became a site of struggle; feminists contested the interpretation of Islamic law and developed a politics of legal reform. Iranian feminists worked in solidarity with their sisters in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, developing these politics and strategies. In my book, I look at one instance of this pragmatic reform politics, the One Million Signatures Campaign, that began in 2006 and was both a campaign to reform family law and also a consciousness-raising effort to say these discriminatory laws not only fail to reflect the promises made by the revolution but also are not consistent with Islamic principles, Islamic legal principles. Particularly in periods when reformists were in power, feminists had room to push for legal changes. There were gains and losses, a lot of losses. But overall, these efforts were successful at placing women’s rights in the national conversation; presidential candidates and those in the state had to address this idea of women’s rights because of the sustained pressure of campaigns like the One Million Signatures Campaign.
And so to come back to today, many of the mothers and aunts and grandmothers of these young women are part of that history of feminist struggle. So that is the continuity. But this generation is breaking completely out of the limits within which Iranian feminism has had to function. They are not referencing the promises of the revolution, because these are no longer meaningful in practice, in their experience or in the experience of the vast majority of Iranians.
And they are connected to the larger world through social media in ways that older generations haven’t been. The world that they inhabit is different, more precarious but also more full of visions and practices of being together in more democratic, horizontal relationships with each other. Issues of gender and sexuality, and the autonomy of their bodies, are really central. These young women, and all women in Iran, are fed up with being targets of state violence where their bodies are conscripted into regimes of patriarchal authoritarianism.
At the rallies in the US and within the Iranian diaspora links have been made between Trans and Queer Iranian bodies, their oppression, and the oppression of women.
JB: This connects to another interesting aspect of this generation’s shared culture and young women’s resistance that has to do with the visibility of women, and restrictions on what women are allowed to do in public spaces—for example, the prohibition against women dancing or singing solo in public. So young women would go into the streets and dance or set up to sing in public, take videos and post them on social media.
CS: I’m not a media scholar, so I am not sure how to fully assess the impact of the circulation of these images. But, young people in Iran have been pushing back against restrictions for quite some time, for instance showing affection in public or loosening their hijabs. In different periods, more relaxed periods, women have been able to resist, at least a little bit, the restrictions on their bodies and behaviors. In the last several years, we’ve seen viral videos of people dancing and singing—centering joy and free expression as acts of resistance, which is significant in a period when the state has been intensely focused on surveilling and controlling women’s public behavior. President Raisi, who was elected in 2021 after all opposition candidates had been disqualified, is a right-wing hardliner who has intensified the scrutiny and policing of women’s dress and hijab. This is where we also have to talk about the geopolitical context, because in the Trump years there was the further squeezing of Iran economically and isolating Iran politically. And in response, as there is more social unrest, there are more crackdowns, more repression. The morality police have always been there, but they have more or less of a presence at different times. The expansion and exercise of state, patriarchal, authoritarian power is in part a response to external and internal threats. The state tried to “secure the borders” against attack by intensifying this gendered regime of power focused on women’s bodies. Not so dissimilar from the way that the right in the US connects the overturning of Roe v Wade, state control of women’s reproductive lives, to defending “tradition.” And we see this too in Hindu nationalism in India, where Muslim girls are told they cannot wear hijab in school. What connects all of these instances is a patriarchal vision of security, and a right wing politics that is deeply attached to controlling women’s bodies. And this reaction probably also responds to young people taking more risks, and putting their bodies in the streets in new kinds of ways and wanting freedom, wanting dignity.
JB: These protests have integrated so many different needs and issues, demands and feelings among the population. Do you think that is one reason this protest has been going on for so many weeks, despite the intense repression that people are experiencing—hundreds of people have been killed. What explains the protestors’ incredible courage?
CS: They are incredibly courageous in part because they know they have popular support, that all over the country people may not be in the street, but they are on the protestors’ side. And no one is fooled any more by the government’s attempts to paint protestors as agents of foreign powers—after all, for the last five years, many different sectors of the society have come out to protest their suffering—teachers, oil workers, pensioners, and so forth. One way of understanding rebellions like this is to say, “well they have nothing to lose.” But I don’t know that that is satisfactory, because I feel like people always have things to lose and no one wants to lose their life. But in this moment, I think that in taking these risks, young people are saying, instead of being a placeholder for the securitisation of the society, I’m putting my body out there for the expression of joy and humanity and liberation. It is like when Black Lives Matter happened during COVID, and people were willing to go out there and put their bodies in danger, because of the body’s need for freedom. This uprising is incredibly beautiful, incredibly inspiring because in the face of different levels of violence against the protestors, their bodies are moving towards freedom.
Catherine Z. Sameh is Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Axis of Hope: Iranian Women’s Rights Activism across Borders (University of Washington Press, 2019).