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“Women, Life, Freedom”: Iranian Women Continue Protests Amid Crackdown & Poisonings at Girls’ Schools

Written by on 09/03/2023

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we go from Afghanistan to Iran, where parents and teachers have been holding protests in Tehran and other cities following a spate of apparent poisonings at girls’ schools since November, intensifying recently. According to the group Human Rights Activists in Iran, there have been at least 290 suspected school poisonings in recent months. The group estimates at least 7,000 students have been affected. A number have gone to hospital. They just collapse.

Meanwhile, the head of Iran’s judiciary said earlier this week that Iranian women could be punished for violating the Islamic dress code. His remarks came just months after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody, sparking nationwide protests.

We go now to Manijeh Moradian. She is an assistant professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Barnard College at Columbia University. Her new book is titled This Flame Within: Iranian Revolutionaries in the United States. She is part of Feminists for Jina network.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Professor Moradian. If you can start off by talking about the significance of International Women’s Day in Iran, and what’s happening with women today, especially this spate of the horror of these, what look like, poisonings?

MANIJEH MORADIAN: Yes, absolutely. And thank you so much for having me here today on International Women’s Day, which is a very significant day in the history of Iran.

And maybe I’ll start there, because, in 1979, just after the popular revolution that overthrew the shah, it was an uprising of tens of thousands of women that began on March 8th, 1979, in Tehran that posed the first challenge to the authoritarian turn, you could say, of the revolution. It was those women who poured into the streets on International Women’s Day 43 years ago who rightly understood that the enforcement of mandatory Islamic dress code, mandatory hijab was part and parcel of the erosion of all of the democratic promises of the revolution. And unfortunately, at that time, their demands, their desires to continue the revolution to actually achieve gender equality were sidelined and undermined and ignored. And that’s why it’s so historically significant and really unprecedented that this current uprising, which, as you said, began in September, has actually — has had as its starting point demands for gender and sexual freedom, liberation and equality.

The poisonings that you refer to, these horrific chemical attacks on girls’ schools that have swept the nation, have to be understood as a punishment against women and girls who have been leading this nationwide revolt for several months now. And in response, people have been protesting. In fact, the national teachers’ union called for nationwide strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations. And by my latest count, there have been such demonstrations in at least 17 cities. This is a nation in revolt. You know, in the face of the imprisonment of dissidents, in the face of the executions of dissidents and mass torture of dissidents in prison, and now these latest poisonings, people are not accepting this. They understand, after many years of experience, that the system, unfortunately, cannot be reformed in Iran, and people have drawn revolutionary conclusions.

And it’s very significant that right now in Iranian Kurdistan, in Saqqez, the hometown of Mahsa Jina Amini, the teachers are on strike right now, defending the right of women and girls to education but also condemning the broader state repression and the economic crisis that’s really impoverishing ordinary people in Iran. Of course, Saqqez is where this uprising began in September, with the slogan “Women, Life, Freedom,” a slogan that is all about life and joy, echoing some of the themes earlier in your show that are connected, deeply connected, to feminist movements and to International Women’s Day. So, the Islamic Republic seems to have nothing to offer but prison and torture and death, whereas this uprising is all about life, is all about celebration of connecting with other human beings, overcoming alienation, overcoming the fear and shame and humiliation that the Islamic dictatorship has imposed on people, and actually trying to reorient the entire society in a new direction.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Moradian, could you talk about the origins of this protest? You’re a member of the Feminists for Jina network. The fact that these protests were largely, if not in many areas exclusively, led by women? And, of course, men joined, but women were really at the forefront of these protests.

MANIJEH MORADIAN: Absolutely. In many ways, we have to understand what’s happening now, as I said, as a continuation of that women’s uprising that was all too fleeting in March of 1979. In other words, women have paid a very heavy price for the fact that the Islamic Republic has built its sovereignty, has built its ideas of nationhood and authentic Shiite culture on the bodies and on the backs of women. And so, for decades now, women have experienced legal discrimination, second-class citizenship, and just the daily humiliation of having to move through public space under the threat of police harassment, detainment, torture, and even worse. So, when Mahsa Jina Amini was killed in police custody, supposedly picked up for wearing improper hijab, it was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back, in a sense. And it was — it just crossed a line for people.

You know, Iranian women, in many ways, never stopped struggling for their rights. There have been many women’s rights campaigns, many efforts throughout the last 43 years to change the discriminatory laws, to fight through parliament, through the courts, through many, many avenues. And so, people have gotten to this point through struggle and through learning some very painful lessons, that this regime is not willing to change. So, when the movement erupted in Iranian Kurdistan, in Saqqez, it was incredibly significant, because it also meant that the kind of feminist politics that have been leading this struggle have been what we call intersectional. And some Iranians use that word, but even if they don’t, the point is that the marginalization of Kurdish peoples, the ethnic and religious discrimination, and the incredible class inequality of Iranian society have also been at the heart of this movement. In other words, people understand that we can’t separate out the oppression of women and gender and sexual minorities from all the other oppressions in the society, including that of ethnic and religious minorities.

So, this is really a moment in which a nationwide uprising was triggered in response to state patriarchal violence, you know, against women, and a kind of refusal to go along with that anymore. So the oppression of women has become a catalyst for all of the other grievances in the society and really led millions of people to conclude that they need a new government, but not just a new government, they want to transform society at every level, in personal relations, family relations, everyday life. And I think it’s that revolution, the revolution of everyday life, that no amount of state repression may be able to stop.

AMY GOODMAN: Manijeh Moradian, we want to thank you so much for being with us, assistant professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Barnard College, author of This Flame Within: Iranian Revolutionaries in the United States.

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