June 17, 2024

Faculty Insights Podcast: Zan, Zendagi, Azadi – Women, Life, Freedom

JPI’s Puja Thapa sat down with Dr. Yass Alizadeh, Clinical Assistant Professor of Persian Language and Literature at NYU, to discuss the women’s rights protests in Iran.

Image: NYU student at a vigil to Honor Mahsa Amini at Washington Square Park, October 12, 2022. Photo by Puja Thapa.

JPI’s Puja Thapa sat down with Dr. Yass Alizadeh, Clinical Assistant Professor of Persian Language and Literature at NYU, to discuss the women’s rights protests in Iran.

Note: This episode was recorded in November 2022. Since then, there have been many developments in Iran, including further protests and executions. This is an ongoing story.

Listen below:

JPI Faculty Insights Episode 4: Zan, Zendagi, Azadi–Women, Life, Freedom.

Meet Professor Yass Alizadeh:

Yass teaches Persian Language and Literature at NYU. She has a PhD in Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies from The University of Connecticut, a Masters of Arts from the University of Toronto, a Masters of Arts from Tehran University, and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Ferdowsi University of Mashhad.  Her research focuses on the ingenious layering of ethical themes in the ambiguously coded language of folktales in Modern Iran, the intricate link between politics and fiction, and the critical role of metaphors in the reframing of Iran’s classical oral tales. Yass has been a Practitioner in Residence at The University of New Haven where she has taught English and launched Persian as a core course. She has taught English Literature at Middlesex Community College and Persian at The University of Connecticut. 


Puja Thapa: Zan, Zendagi, Azadi–Farsi for Women, Life, Freedom. People all over the world are chanting and marching in the streets in solidarity with the ongoing Iranian protests- sparked by the death of 22-year old Zhina Amini widely known as Mahsa Amini, on Sep 16, while in custody of Iran’s morality police.

Ros Atkin for BBC News: Something extraordinary is happening in Iran. At the grave of a young woman who died last month after being in custody thousands gathered on Wednesday. They’re part of something bigger. Through Wednesday night, protests grew across the country. And this is a movement driven by Iranian women.

PT: Hello, and welcome to JPI Faculty Insights. I am Puja, a first-year graduate student in the International Relations program here at NYU. This episode, we will be gaining deeper insight on the ongoing anti-government protests in Iran, how it started, the role of women and activists in starting the movement, and how the world is reacting to all of it. 

To help us understand the ongoing situation better, I have NYU Professor Yass Alizadeh joining me today. Thank you for being here, professor. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself?

Dr. Yass Alizadeh: Hello, my name is Yass Alizadeh. I’m a clinical assistant professor of Persian language and literature at NYU at MEIS (Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies) and I’m also the Persian program coordinator at the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies MEIS.

PT: Let’s get started by addressing the question, what is happening in Iran at the moment? What are the Iranian women fighting against? And how did it all get started? Can you please explain the ongoing nationwide anti government protests and the role of Iranian women in starting the movement? 

YA: Absolutely! This is so exciting because we could actually call it the first ever feminist movement in the Middle East if not, you know, I’m thinking maybe the world. It’s a very, very interesting, very modern movement, very progressive and it all started when Mahsa Amini, a very young 22 year old Kurdish girl, who was visiting Tehran with her family was arrested by this so-called morality police. And then she died a few hours later in the hands of the morality police. We consider it a murder. And you know what the police have been trying to keep the information about the way she died a secret. They haven’t shared it with us. But the doctors, what they have shared is that they completely reject what the police have shared with the people. Mahsa was actually called Gina because she’s Kurdish and Gina is a Kurdish name. But as with the Islamic Republic of Iran, her parents were not allowed to give her Kurdish name and put it in her birth certificate. So they gave her Mahsa as a you know, general beautiful Persian name as well. 

Mahsa’s death sparked national anger, and people started to go on the streets and start this kind of national movement that soon turned into a revolution. We call it a “woman-run revolution.” Women are in the forefront of this revolution, they started to burn their hijabs, they started to actually act so bravely that you would see on social media that boys and men would say we are really at awe of the power of and the bravery and fearlessness of these very young Iranian girls. Because the girls who went on the street in the beginning were high school students, college students, and we really didn’t expect this much bravery from this generation. So yes, it’s a feminist movement. It is run by women and they are in the forefront of this revolution.

PT: So you mentioned the term morality police at the beginning. For the people who are listening to us, how would you explain the concept of morality police and how does it factor into Iran’s greater domestic police force?

YA: So I’m actually…. I feel awful that it is called morality police because morality is not a negative term. Whereas in Iran, we are all afraid of the morality police. It all started in 1979 with the victory of the Islamic Revolution. One of the first police forces that they built was this unofficial militia group called Komiteh, which is “committee” if you think about it, it was Komiteh Mun Kerat. Mun Kerat is an Islamic term, meaning anything that is against Islamic laws and Islamic culture, Islamic written and unwritten ideas. So it had this vast and wide array of things that they considered illegal, including women’s hair, drinking, playing chess, having a dog, holding a boy’s hand on the street, what can I say, sitting with the…. women and men sitting in the same row in college, oh god, of course, selling eating pork, of course, having parties that men or women mingled, walking with your cousin, even hand in hand or arm in arm or just walking with your male cousin, who is you know, according to the rules of Sharia law, not mahram. So it was vast and very strange, new codes that were written and heavily enforced. So from the very beginning, Iranian people realize that this government is going to do whatever it can to enforce laws, not just normal laws that, you know, people might be familiar with, but laws that they had to, the Iranian people have to have to get used to. And so there was a lot of flogging, a lot of imprisonment, stoning in the beginning of the revolution, forced executions based on that, a lot of arrests, a lot of jail time, a lot of sadness, because of these penal codes that they started to write. And it was enforced by Komiteh Enqelābe Eslāmi or Komiteh Mun Kerat. 

….And yes, and gradually, they changed the names because new police forces were beginning to rise in Iran, including the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and these forces were kind of working together and because everything was now written in the name of the security of the Islamic Republic, dancing, women’s singing, these are all against the security of the Islamic Republic. So everything and anything that you would think is personal, or, you know, cultural or part of your upbringing, could be a threat to the security of the Islamic Republic, and could put one’s life in danger.

PT: You also brought up an interesting point about Mahsa’s ethnicity, which is Kurdish. The Kurds have been marginalized for years. Would you mind letting us know more about the marginalization of the Kurdish community in Iran?

Nicole Frölich for DW: Iran has targeted bases belonging to Iranian Kurdish opposition groups based in neighboring Iraq. The strikes follow two-months of nationwide anti regime protests in Iran, which are backed by the Kurdish opposition. Those protests were sparked by the death of the Kurdish Iranian woman Gina Mahsa Amini, after being detained and allegedly beaten by Iran’s morality police.

YA: So of course, you probably know that the Iranian government is a kind of….Iran is a majority Shia country. And the Iranian government stresses that and is very forceful about it, that the positions are held by, of course, the people who support the regime, but specifically with Shiite people who support the regime. In general, Shi’ism is the language of this regime. So if you think about, let’s say, Taliban or ISIS as this Sunni militia, Sunni fundamentalist, you would think of the Islamic Republic as the Shia fundamentalist. Kurds in Kurdistan are majority Sunni. And so Kurdistan, in addition to being one of the provinces, that is neighboring Iraq, is also a Sunni majority province. And so this fundamentalist regime this ideological regime has zero tolerance for you know, ethnicities for people of different religions, for people of various different cultures. And Kurds are part of that community that has continuously been oppressed by the Iranian regime.

PT: It sounds like from what you’re mentioning, things started changing drastically after the revolution of 1979. Even on social media, the content that’s been gathering a lot of attention is “Iran before and after 1979.”

John Palmer for NBC News: The end of Iran’s monarchy came early today when Khomeini, his followers took control of the palace of the Shah, the imperial guards there gave up without a struggle.

PT: So based on your own personal and academic experiences, how would you describe Iran before and after Khomeini consolidated his authority in 1979? And how have women been specifically affected by it?

YA: Sure, I was.. in fifth grade when the revolution happened. And so in the middle of fifth grade, the schools had to be closed because of the revolution. And when I started sixth grade, which was middle school, it was post revolution. And so a simple example of that is that in sixth grade, when I started the law of hijab, which later became a penal code in Iran, was not yet established. So I started sixth grade, just looking, you know, the way I wanted to look with having my navy blue uniform for middle school, and having pigtails. And you know, my parents taking a picture of me, my sister and my brother starting school together, and I’m the oldest. In the middle of sixth grade, though, they said that hijab is now law, and you can come to school only if you wear the hijab. And so we did, we wore the hijab and or the hijab had to be dark colored. So it could be Navy, black, or very dark brown. And so I started wearing the hijab in sixth grade. Gradually, this small headcovering, or small scarf that we wore started to be bigger and more strict. So sixth grade is really the last time I started school not wearing a hijab for the non hijab was enforced, and we had to follow it. And it wasn’t because I’m a Muslim, any woman, traveling to Iran and living in Iran, no matter what religion that woman has, has to cover based on the Islamic laws of the Islamic Republic. 

Before the revolution, you know, people who wanted to wear hijab would wear hijab and those who didn’t want to wear hijab didn’t. My grandma wore a hijab, but my mom didn’t. And my mom was in the workforce, she was a radiology technologist. And she just, you know, worked without a hijab. Life before the revolution was very, very different from life after the revolution, because her job was really this tip of the iceberg. There were a lot of things that went downwards with regards to the rights of women in Iran; the marriage age was lowered from 17, at Shah’s (former ruler of Iran) time, to nine in the beginning of the Islamic Republic. And then later, when people started to kind of say this doesn’t even make sense, it was brought up to 13. But if you look at the numbers, you will see that huge numbers compared to other countries in the world, you know, everything is relative, underage marriages in Iran. And so women, you know, getting divorce became absolutely problematic with women, they didn’t have the right to…have the custody of their children. After divorce, custody would be given to the husbands….. to the husband, the husband’s father, the husband’s uncle, the husband’s brother, but not the wife, who had been divorced. Only for babies and little children who needed to be nursed or taken care of until the age of seven, they were allowed to stay with the mother. So you know, things change drastically and they change for the worse. It was a horrible time. And as you see, after 43 years, this new generation said enough is enough and they flooded the streets and said no and you see them burning their hijabs. This is symbolic. They’re not only saying no to mandatory hijab, but they’re saying no to everything else that this hijab symbolizes for them.

PT: Like you said, people are flooding the streets both nationally and internationally. Many people, including yourself, call it a revolution. The protests that started as a cry for women’s rights now are aimed towards ending the regime’s authority. And some are even claiming it to be the greatest challenge to the regime’s authority so far. So why is it so important to end Ali Khomeini’s dictatorship at this moment?

YA: I think it’s, first of all, a beautiful thing to see so much support from the global community. And I think for our students at NYU, they need to know that their voice matters….I’ve been thinking about it….how did we Iranians on the street get so much support from the outside. And I think it goes back to two things: one is the Black Lives Matter movement. So BLM kind of gave voice to a generation that realize how important it is to stand for social justice, equity and equality. And they did. And so when they saw what was happening in Iran, and really, let’s face it, almost no one knew what was happening in Iran, or they didn’t care or they didn’t know, I would prefer to say they didn’t know rather than they didn’t care. So Black Lives Matter, raised this generation of Americans that care, and because of the hashtags that they would put for Iranians, so Iranian Americans on this side of the waters, and Iranians in Iran, they started to kind of voice this revolution to give a voice to this revolution. And if it were not for the outside support, the regime would have crushed it like it did in 2019. And we know that in 2019, they killed 1500 protesters, and just stopped this protest. They didn’t let it become a revolution. But now it’s the worldwide community and the support that they have shown and the hashtags and the constant panels and vigils and protests in New York City, as you see. And in Berlin, there were 100,000 Iranians and their friends, American, Germans, from all over the world, they gathered in Berlin about two weeks ago, and I did protest for Iran. So that makes a difference. So the support of the world community makes a difference. And if free, Iran is not only important for Iranians who have been oppressed for for over four decades, but also for the world, this this power that is going to be hopefully given back to the Iranian women and young Iranians with so much potential, they’re educated, they want democracy they want to, they want human rights, they want the basics that we have in the United States. I think it’s important, both for Iran and for the world. A safe and secure Iran is good for their neighborhood, and it’s good for the world community.

PT: Would you say that you have hopes that Ali Khamenei’s dictatorship will come to an end finally?

YA: I do. And I am very hopeful. You know, despite all the killings that they have done, they have…. I think 14,000 people across Iran are in prison right now. They have arrested just thousands of people. They have killed hundreds of people. A lot of them very, very young. But people are not scared. They’ve been trying to threaten these young men and women on the streets saying that you have to stay home, this is the end but they’re not listening. Yesterday was the 40th day from the regime murdering of Hadis Najafi. She was this beautiful young girl who just you know, an ordinary just like any young girl, likes to sing and dance and make videos like the ones you see on Tik Tok and places like that. And she went on the street for Mahsa Amini and they killed her yesterday. Because in Iran we have this custom of commemorating our dead, the people that we lost on the 40th, so we go to the graveyard, we sit at the grave and we pray for them. Thousands of people across Iran flooded the streets and you know the road between Tehran and Karaj because she was buried in Karaj. She was from Karaj, which is a city next to Tehran, Tehran is the capital. The roads were just unbelievable to see how these people went to pay their respects. And of course, the regime started to shoot, started to arrest, but the people would then give up. So because the people of Iran have decided that enough is enough, I think the word is listening. And although I know that the people around the world started listening and caring, now we see that politicians are acting, and politicians are acting only because people have demanded that they act. So we saw that at the United Nations, the American Ambassador to the UN started to talk about this. They had this emergency session and they talked about Iranian women and the rights of women in Iran, and they’re trying to kick the Islamic Republic out of the commission for the status of women is beautiful to see. It was very strange from the beginning to see that they were part of that commission. But I think we take it, even though it took America 43 years to come to this understanding that they should support the Iranian people. But it’s better now than never. So yes, I’m very hopeful. And I think this is going to end beautifully with the Iranian people winning over this unlawful regime. 

PT: As we know, it’s been more than 50 days that Mahsa lost her life, and the protests have started since then. At least 277 people, including 40 children have been killed in the protests. Like you mentioned, 14,000 people have been arrested. You’ve talked briefly about the international response against the human rights violation and abuses happening in Iran, including the UN Security Council meeting. The Biden administration has put sanctions and the US is trying to remove Iran from CSW.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US Ambassador to the UN, speaking to the media at the UN Security Council: The United States also believes there must be accountability for the horrific repression and violence the Iranian government is carrying out. That’s why as vice president Harris announced today, we will work with other member states to remove the Islamic Republic of Iran from the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

PT: You’ve also expressed your gratitude towards the global support. However, what are some other extra support that the world and international organizations can provide to the Iranian people?

YA: Well, I think, for one, we want to make sure that this is an Iranian revolution, we don’t, we don’t want it to be later called Oh…a revolution that was supported by, you know, the American government. And this would undermine the effort that the Iranians are putting into toppling their own regime. What they’re asking is, please do not negotiate with the killers of our children. And that is what the American government has been doing. So JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action/ US Iran Nuclear Deal) on paper means supporting the Iranian people. But in reality, it was never about Iranian people. And it still is not, it was just giving more agency to the Iranian regime. We know that they’re going to spend this money on Hezbollah, on Hamas, on Hash Al-Shaabi, on terrorism outside of the country, because this is their mantra, this is how they have stayed in power for 43 years with their, you know, foreign arms. And so for one, the Biden administration needs to stop, announce that it will stop the negotiations. And number two, this UN should make up this session, an urgent session that is going to talk about if this regime is legal or not. Iranian people are saying this is an illegal regime. We want the UN to acknowledge that and they have been very quiet about it. Yes, they talk about, “Iran cannot be part of this session, or part of that committee.” But we want more than that. This has been an illegal regime from the very first execution that they did, from the very first child that they murdered. This was an illegal regime when Raisi, the president of the Islamic Republic, was the head of the judiciary, who killed 6000 political prisoners in the 1980s. And these 6000 political prisoners were, you know, some of them were under age, some of them had only one month….were imprisoned for one month, and were supposed to be released because they either sold a newspaper or they wrote something in their school that was against Islamic Republic’s law. They were all executed. So this has been an illegal regime for years. This is nothing new. I believe politicians knew. They just, you know, as a matter of, you know, have Iran being an oil producing country that has given us so much trouble. 

So, first things first and human rights come first. We expect the governments to stand for human rights and the best thing that the Biden administration can do for now is to officially stop negotiating with the murderers of our children. 

PT: And when we talk about international response, we cannot deny that media coverage plays an important role in making these stories heard all around the world.

Wall Street Journal: As of September 20, a woman in the eastern city of C’mon removed her headscarf and cut her hair in a video that was widely shared online. It triggered a wave of support from around the world with celebrities and women imitating her gesture and posting videos to social media.

PT: However, Western media’s portrayal of women in Islam has not been the most objective in the past, there have been stereotypes and assumptions of women in the Middle East to be veiled, oppressed or vulnerable. How are the women in Iran breaking the stereotypes right now? And as an Iranian woman yourself, are you satisfied by how the western world is narrating the Iran situation right now?

YA: Well, this is a difficult thing to answer. And I’d have to tell you that the Western world seemed to be very confused until a month ago that…. “oh, we thought Iranian people liked the regime with a touch of reform,” like, you know, this is a touch of reform, a touch of change. They called hijab a cultural norm. So they disregarded the fact that this was actually a law and a penal code. And people who don’t want to wear hijab, have to wear hijab. And if they don’t, they’re going to be flogged, imprisoned, tortured, find all those things, and more. And because this is a religious authority that is in charge of a nation of 80 million people, and religion, again, is one of those problematic terms that no one wants to touch on Western media, despite the fact that they stereotype, sternness, despite the fact that they stereotype subalterns, despite the fact that they don’t really care. And it’s very obvious, especially American media, because the way I hear it in Europe, they talk more about the Iranian Revolution than let’s say, CNN, or MSNBC, or Fox News ever, has ever done in the past month. So that’s problematic. But also in the beginning, let’s say Trevor Noah, talked about, I guess one of the first people who on live TV talked about this revolution was Trevor Noah. And I think it was just a few days later that he said, well, people have attacked me and said, you’re actually supporting Islamophobia. Because these women on the streets are burning their hijabs. And because of the silence of American media, and also American politicians, and a lot of celebrities, including Oprah, including Michelle Obama, including our own Vice President, these were really, these came to talk about Iran, much, much later than European, than European, female European politicians did. And that was very strange, because America is supposed to be the kind of epitome of democracy. This is in a country that unlike many parts in Europe, is a country of immigrants. So we have so many different cultures, we are used to some Muslim women wearing hijab and some don’t and why do we stereotype and then follow up on that stereotype and not talk about the demands of the Iranian girls on the streets because they’re burning hijabs? It was very sad to see. 

But I have to tell you, Puja, I am so happy now that I don’t really care how awfully quiet America was about all this in the beginning. And I’m proud to say one of the first universities that started a vigil, and started to spread the word was NYU and the Persian Cultural Society at NYU.

PT: My last question kind of touches on that. We’ve seen how the cause has spread beyond borders in terms of protests, vigils and support. To our listeners, how would you describe Iran’s fight for liberal laws as a transnational international relations issue? If so, how can the US and NYU as a community support the cause? 

YA: Well, for now, we know that the NYU president has been quiet about it. He never really made a statement. Our own College of Arts and Sciences Dean, Dean Merlo never made a statement. Some other colleges at NYU made statements, the Deans did…statements, but not ours. That’s problematic, but my trust is in the students and the power of the students and they’ve been very active. So number one, please spread the word. Number two, please don’t be afraid to ask questions. Do join your friends and classmates when they have vigil, when they are going to demonstrations. And I think asking questions, daring to ask questions, and starting a dialogue is very, very important. 

As for the world community, I think this feminist movement in Iran is so important for Muslim women across the globe, especially in the Middle East and also across the globe, because we are talking about a very powerful patriarchy, and patriarchy starts at home. And then it becomes, you know, something that is more than just one’s family, it becomes part of the society and then part of the law of the nation. You could not change the law of a nation into anything that the kind of, you know, a family doesn’t somehow accept. And so this is a feminist movement against patriarchy, let’s get that straight. And this has given voice to Muslim women across the globe, from Turkey, to Iraq, to Pakistan, even Afghanistan, with all that pressure, with all that fear that women in Afghanistan have of the Taliban. They would make videos and dance for Iranians and they would put it on social media, it was just mind boggling. A few days after the protests for mass Armenia started, women in Afghanistan started to protest and went on the streets, and they were chanting that “education is a woman’s right.” This was just beautiful to watch. And with the global support, I think this Iranian movement would be an international transnational movement for the rights of women across the globe, from the Middle East to Africa, to the Americas. And I’m very happy about that. 

I think it’s important for your listeners to know that this protest or revolution didn’t come out of nowhere. There were other protests in Iran, women have been resisting the power that the patriarchy and the Islamic Republic have been trying to push on them. We have had so many women who were killed and murdered throughout the years, we have had so many men who were killed and murdered throughout the years, attending protests starting you know, even blogging. Today I want to say is the 10th anniversary of murdering Sattar Beheshti, who was ……. he was a worker from a working class family, who had a blog, he started this blog. And if you think about it, 10 years ago was the beginning of blogging. So he started this blog and started to express his anger at the Islamic Republic. He only had 30 people who actually viewed his blogs and were, you know, put their names as people who watched…. who read his ideas. They arrested him, they tortured him to death. And this is 2012. Let’s remember his name! Sattar Beheshti. It was later that in 2018, that Navid Afkari was arrested. He was executed right after he, his voice…. he made a phone call and asked the world to support him and to talk about him and ask the world to, you know, not be quiet. He said that, you know, this is an illegal arrest. They’re killing me over nothing. They executed him just right after the phone call that he made. And he begged the world to listen to the people of Iran, because we have had protests again and again and again. So it’s not as if this revolution came from nothing. It was years in the making. And it’s wonderful to see that this young generation is finally, you know, seem to be kind of culminating the demands and the pleas of their previous generations, and turning it into a revolution and hopefully winning soon. 

PT: Thank you so much Prof Alizadeh for your time. It’s been great connecting with you, getting a deeper insight on Iran’s issue, and learning about your personal experiences. It’s amazing to see you so involved on campus and bringing light to what’s happening in Iran. I really appreciate your time.

YA: Thank you so much, Puja. This was wonderful and I am grateful that you actually asked for this interview. It was an honor and I look forward to seeing you again!


Producer and Host: Puja Thapa

Producer and Editor: Roya Lotfi

Guest: Dr. Yass Alizadeh, Clinical Assistant Professor at NYU

Audio clips (in order):

Ros Atkins for BBC News, October 28, 2022

Nicole Frölich for DW, November 21, 2022

John Palmer for NBC News, February 1, 1979

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US Ambassador to the UN, speaking to the media at the UN Security Council, November 2, 2022

Wall Street Journal, October 27, 2022

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