Women Resisting Terror in Iran: Porochista Khakpour on the Historic Protests
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Novelist and essayist Porochista Khakpour joins Fiction/Non/Fiction hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to discuss the current wave of protests for women’s rights in Iran, and the government’s brutal crackdown in response. Khakpour laments the deaths of young women who have lost their lives speaking out against compulsory hijab. She also reflects on and celebrates multiple generations of human rights protests in the country of her birth. Finally, she talks about what it means to be Iranian in the United States and reads from her essay “Revolution Days,” which is included in her latest book, Brown Album: Essays on Exile and Identity.
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From the episode:
Whitney Terrell: Discontent with the current government in Iran has a lot of sources: the pandemic corruption, sanctions, economic collapse, just to name a few, at least according to what I’ve been reading. But the current protests seem to focus on the government’s rules about the wearing of the hijab. Could you talk about the history of that rule and how it’s enforced in Iran?
Porochista Khakpour: I have a lot of thoughts on this. To put it briefly, since around 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and we use that term to differentiate from when Iran was under the Shah’s rule and other regimes, but again, the IRI, began making hijab compulsory, and it became a big priority for them. It only got worse and worse. By around 1983, they were making it not just mandatory, but there were sentences of lashes for women who weren’t observing them properly. There are all sorts of laws, including massive fines and prison sentences for offenders.
These laws have always been in place in Iran, they’ve never really gone away, but what gets confusing for some people is that around 1997 to 2005, under President Khatami, things were different. It was a little bit more lenient, the enforcement. So there was a little bit more leeway for women and how they wanted to present their hijab. So that’s where you get some of these videos and images of Iran where women were making them more fashionable or wearing them more loosely. It’s not like the laws didn’t exist.
And in fact, sometimes people could pay off police to not put them in prison for that, other times they couldn’t. It’s all been chaotic, the enforcement of this, on purpose; that’s by design to control people more, because there’s nothing more terrifying than telling someone something’s against the law, but also making it somewhat random at times.
But the laws, the Islamic Republic of Iran has always put those in place and it’s always made that a priority. It’s mystifying why, other than the obvious, right? It’s a desire to control women, a desire to control the whole population, a desire to control youth, and to spread fear. I’m Muslim and, to me, this has nothing to do with Islam and the spirit in which people wear hijab, or any sort of head coverings. This is where it’s really disgusting and atrocious. A lot of us have had relatives and friends, me included, who’ve suffered very, very harshly in prisons in Iran.
Many people just saw Evin Prison burning the other day. That’s the most notorious prison in Iran, but, I would argue, the most notorious prison in the world for good reason. The sort of atrocities that have happened in Evin! You can’t even mention some of the things that have happened to us and our people. When we say torture, it’s stuff that’s beyond the imagination. So this is where a lot of our anger and rage comes from right now, because these laws, which they like to say are Islamic law or moral laws of some sort, have nothing to do with Islam and have nothing to do with trying to serve people or create order or create a better Iran. They’re literally just evil.
WT: The current president stepped up hijab enforcement in July, which started to lead to some of these protests. These early protests were led by women, and they in turn became the face of these protests and in particular, Mahsa Amini died on or around September 16, after being arrested on charges of not observing the hijab law. Could you talk about her case?
PK: Yes, but her actual name is Jina Amini. That’s her Kurdish name, the name that her mother gave her. Iran does not recognize Kurds as they should, they recognize them in a way, but they don’t give them that because of anti-Kurd sentiment from the government, which is also sometimes widespread. They sometimes don’t call her by Jina Amini, but a lot of Iranians don’t even know about that. Some do, some don’t.
But the hashtag is still Mahsa Amini, but often Jina also. I like to use both, if possible, even though I, of course, recognize that Jina Amini is her name. So let’s go to Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian president who was elected in 2021. Everybody was very afraid that when he got there, things were going to be more strict than ever. My feeling is that he was capitalizing on a return of Islamist popularity. A lot of this was in sync with when the Taliban came back in Afghanistan. So they felt emboldened, right?
Raisi is very complicated. He’d have his daughter come on television and try to soothe people and say he’s very good and kind, but Iranian people are not easily fooled. And so they had very good reason to be suspicious of Raisi and his goal to make things more strict in Iran and to enforce the things that had seemed to be loosening a little bit. I use this very, very cautiously, because only for certain people in Iran, things might have looked more loose. There’s a lot of issues around class and things that are also key here. So when he was actually inaugurated, and now that he’s been in office, people’s worst fears became reality. It was like a return to how the earlier days of the Islamic Republic and things were, there’s lots more sensors, a lot more monitoring of people, a lot more imprisonment, and just creating a real atmosphere of fear.
They were very, very nervous about social media and how that was empowering the Iranians. I was reading a lot about people saying, “This is bad hijab wearing,” and then, “this is good hijab wearing” and things like that. So it just became very suspect, obviously, how his regime came in there. And I don’t know anybody, I truly can’t think of one person that liked Raisi or really believed in him. And yet, you know, he had a very suspicious election, with very little trouble. He was elected, and then the Islamic Republic regime likes to create the optics that he’s very popular. But that is not how I, or people I know in Iran, feel at all. We hate him. And that’s, I think, correct to hate him.
You can see now, the fears really have become completely realized. That’s why you have a population that was ready to mobilize and fight this power, because they knew what could happen here. Some people could say that the Khatami regime of 1997-2005 made people sort of complacent, thinking that things were really going to change, and they didn’t. So maybe that was also a problem in its own way. But certainly this regime very explicitly, very boldly, has not had qualms about showing its darkest sides.
WT: And that’s what happened with this young woman, right. Her family was called and told, your daughter’s in the morgue.
PK: Yeah, there’s a lot that happened there, that is, there’s different accounts. But the thing that is important to keep in mind in her case, and the cases that came after it, was that she was a young Iranian Kurd woman. She was arrested because, this is what they’re saying, her headscarf was worn improperly. Maybe slightly loosely worn, and this is not something that’s impossible to imagine.
In Iran, many women wear their scarves loosely. Some people had become strict because of Raisi and worrying more, some people had been a little bit more relaxed. I mean, it’s so absurd to think you have to wear this in this exact way. What if your head brushes against a tree or someone knocks it off? It’s just madness. The idea of to what degree is a scarf worn loosely? To what degree isn’t it? It’s really messed up.
The accounts of what happened to her are horrific. She was tortured and murdered, and her family, bless them…. Some amazing young women journalists brought her case to the forefront and had people hear it, because they were giving all sorts of weird reasons. “Oh, she had a heart condition.” “Oh, no, she died by herself in the hospital.” “Oh, these bruises weren’t really bruises.”
I mean, just the usual craven lies upon lies upon lies. That was enough to get many of us very angry, because it’s not the first time that’s happened. It’s happened for so many generations since the Islamic Republic was formed. So after that, there were protests. And then that’s when you see other Iranians like Nika, like Sarina, like all these women. All sorts of stories were created around their being arrested, and the most disgusting part of all is that not only does the Islamic Republic want to say that these women were protesting and they were punished. What happens is, once they die, they try to cut off the families from their bodies, they try to create all sorts of disgusting tactics so that people can’t get to them, to even give their daughters a proper send off.
The style, again, of torture, and evil here is so extraordinary. There’s even more people that are in prison dying right now. Another thing that I have to mention, too, is sometimes they make sure that these people aren’t dead. So they don’t want to add to a death count. So they know that “killing is immoral,” or will be perceived as that. I’m putting this all in quotes, because there is no morality here. So they will do their best to get somebody to the brink of death, but not dead, and then it won’t be part of a death count. This is like what we’re talking about here. This is the level of danger and sinister and true evil.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I appreciate all this context. I want to make sure, especially for our listeners who might not know these names, that we’re actually saying these young women’s names, and also to make sure that we’re saying them correctly so that people can go and find the hashtags and find the names and read more if they are looking for that.
PK: We put this a little bit purposely vaguely when we talk about it because we ourselves are cut off from the exact circumstances. This is by design, and sometimes you find out a month later even more horrible details of what happened. So that’s why we’re reliant on family accounts, but families can sometimes be very scared to speak openly. Journalists have been almost instantly imprisoned, there have been at least several dozen, maybe in the hundreds now, possibly even more journalists who’ve been imprisoned.
You see when Iranians say, “Please be our voice,” they’re really trying to ask for our press and our workable systems to air their stories. But the truth is, all of us are in the same boat as them. Because when you’re dealing with a truly evil authoritarian government, it’s chaos. There’s some details with Mahsa, with Nika, and with Sarina, and with lots of these cases that are muddled, but it’s not muddled because they were less severe. They’re muddled because they were probably way more than what we think. I want to be clear about that.
• Brown Album: Essays on Exile and Identity • The Last Illusion • Sons and Other Flammable Objects • Sick • Shirin Ebadi: ‘Almost a fourth of the people on Earth are Muslim. Are they like each other? Of course not’ | Working in development | The Guardian (April 25, 2017) • “What I Saw at the Revolution,” The Daily Beast (Feb. 11, 2009)
• “Iranian President Orders Enforcement of Hijab and Chastity Law for Women” by Ardeshir Tayebi, RadioFreeEurope / RadioLiberty’s Radio Farda (July 7, 2022) • “In Iran, Woman’s Death After Arrest by the Morality Police Triggers Outrage,” by Farnaz Fassihi, The New York Times (Sept. 16, 2022) • “Nika Shakarami: Iran protester’s family forced to lie about death,” by Parham Ghobadi, BBC Persian (Oct. 6, 2022) • “Another teenage girl dead at hands of Iran’s security forces, reports claim,” by Deepa Parent and Annie Kelly, The Guardian, (Oct. 7, 2022) • “Unity In Diversity: On Overcoming the Erasure of Kurdistan and Jina,” by Ala Riani and Rezan Labady, Los Angeles Review of Books, (Oct. 13, 2022) • “Protest Chants, a Riot and Gunshots: How a Prison Fire Unfolded in Iran,” by Farnaz Fassihi, The New York Times (Oct. 21, 2022)