Opinion by Sharare Sharoki*
Capturing the world’s imagination, the Iranian uprising’s motto, “Woman, Life, Freedom”, 1 has demanded adjustments in our philosophical and theoretical perspective. Reviving universals, on the face of the particularity of Iran, Iranian women who were supposed to be wrapped in a culture of “black chadors” unveiled their colorful existence. Challenging the narrow perspective of “us versus them”, they have reminded women around the world that they all have something in common. “Woman” is not a “fiction”, as once was claimed, though each has the power to write a fiction based on her lived experience to demonstrate how the category of “woman” can be realized in the particularity of every individual. Like the array of trees in a forest, appearing homogenous from distance, women in Iran suddenly reveal their colors and multiplicity in a close-up. Today, no one seems to have doubts anymore that for “every tree that falls”, someone is there to hear it. On the streets of Tehran, big cities, and small towns, there is always someone to capture the brutality and violence of a regime that claims to be a representative of the “God” and the “Truth”. With the help of technology, someone is always there to capture their lies, leaving no room for denials, doubts, or any kind of justification. The virtual world is not virtual anymore, it is the place where truths can be found. The harsh reality of public life, on the streets, has cut through the personal and private lives in social media.
What has happened, one may ask? Have Iranian women always been this brave and assertive in their mind and actions? Or, has a new generation been born out of years of silence? Maybe it is both. Iranian women have never been completely silent or inactive, in the last four decades, rather, their movements have had ups and downs, pushing forward, and retreating. Women were the first group who resisted Ruhollah Khomeini’s attempt to impose Islamic rules such as the “mandatory hejab”, only thirty-five days after his arrival in Iran, in March 1979. What is new today, in Iran, is that women have the support of most people, men and women, including those with religious, traditional, or rural backgrounds. They all seem to support Iranian women’s demands, or at least, do not feel threatened by their brave act of burning their scarves in public.
The demands are very simple, pointing at some basic human rights that everyone around the world can relate to. What is shocking, however, is the absence and lack of those rights for women in Iran. The void, the lack, the “what” which is not there, and especially the reactions of the younger generation of Iranians to this “void”, all have captured people’s imagination. Today, thousands of protesters in Iran are risking their lives for human dignity, Woman’s rights, equality, choice, privacy, individual liberties, democracy, freedom, …, and ordinary life. 2
Today, Iranian youth have made people around the world realize that not every social or moral value is relative. Rather, they have reminded the world of the importance of some universal values. People have found ways to be culturally sensitive without having double standards. Human experiences show, sharing values plays an important role in bringing people closer to each other and igniting a sense of compassion and empathy. Whether it is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another is behind the need to have some common values, or it is the other way around, one cannot deny the power of having some shared universal values. Of course, values can be changed, revised, or redefined.
The recent Iranian uprising that spread nationwide after the government murder of Zhina (Mahsa) Amini has forced many to rethink and reevaluate some of the dominant theories, and assumptions. The bravery of Iranian protestors, especially women and youth, risking their lives on the street to demand respect for human dignity and fight for some very basic rights, leaves observers, including scholars and academics, no option but to think harder while observing the harsh reality of people’s life in Iran. Protestors’ actions have spoken “thousands of words”, requiring theoreticians and analysts to see the complexity of the issues, and, in formulating their theories and analysis, to be, not only, more sophisticated, but also, honest.
For instance, by burning their scarfs in public, Iranian young women have posed the following question to whoever wants to hear: why has the world, in the last forty years, turned a blind eye towards the condition of women in Iran, by ignoring the word “mandatory” in the Islamic Republic “mandatory hejob” law? One may continue to think, why have women’s right to choose (for instance, abortion) been respected, and the government control of a woman’s body has been condemned, in other parts of the world, but not in Iran? What are the assumptions, stereotypes, and pre-judgments about the cultures in the Middle East? Is it hard to see the difference between being culturally sensitive and having double standards? In other words, is there any difference between being culturally sensitive and committing cultural patronizing?
An honest and sophisticated theoretician and thinker makes it easier to distinguish between the need for reevaluating, revising, or redefining some universal values and the dismissal of the possibility of having any “universal values” altogether. An honest, and thoughtful, scholar would not hesitate to ask difficult, yet important, questions, such as: Which theories and discourses have facilitated Islamic Republic narratives, both inside and outside the academia? Was it Cultural Relativism, Orientalism, or both? What about Postcolonial theories? Have they played any role in providing justifications for such “indigenous” yet brutal regimes?
Since Edward Said published his book on Orientalism, in 1978, just a year before the Iranian revolution, the world, especially in Academia, has focused its attention on the obvious sources of orientalism, the western powers, American imperialism and the European old colonial powers. With the rejection of Eurocentrism, many universal values, including human rights, individual freedom, and equality for women went under scrutiny. Is this not throwing out the baby with the bathwater? While all the attention has been focused on colonial powers and their aggression, the local and native oppressive regimes, such as the Islamic government of Iran, have enjoyed free rides. By claiming to be anti-imperialist and anti-West, they had escaped accountability and responsibility for any atrocities committed by those “native” oppressors in power. Anti-imperialist rhetoric has saved them for at least four decades.
A song by Shervin, Baraye 3 (meaning “Because” or “For …”), which became the manifesto for the recent uprising in IRran, captures the meanings, the content, and the goals of the movement. The song has been shared, admired, adopted, translated…, and more importantly understood by millions of people around the world, as it went viral on social media only a week after the death of Mahsa Amini. The song expresses the reasons for the Iranian uprising. Reflecting the spirit of the movement, both in form and content, the lyrics are created out of people’s twits, each giving a reason as to why they want to protest. Shervin, the singer, shows his talents not only musically and vocally, but also, in selecting the highlights of the ideas that represent the diversity of the issues, concerns, and pains hidden in the voices behind the texts. Reviewing the song’s lyrics,4 consisting of the reasons for the uprising, one can clearly see the multiplicity and complexity of the issues that people in Iran are dealing with: from gender discrimination to ethnic oppression, from poverty and economic hardship to animal rights and environmental issues.
Watching the world’s reactions to the Iranian uprising, embracing it as a source of inspiration, and admiring it with their supportive (re)actions, one may wonder, how can one feel empathy and have compassion 5 for this movement without having some shared values, about humanity, human suffering, poverty, discrimination, environment, and animal rights? Whether one believes, shared values trigger compassion and empathy, or having and experiencing those emotions, human beings feel the need to create some universal values, one cannot deny that there is a connection between the two. No one doubts that “global warming”, or covid, is a universal threat, thus, why do we assume racism, sexism, and oppressive regimes can only damage locally? The Islamic Republic also destroyed lakes, rivers, animal wildlife, and forests, as well as the lives of many women and men, inside and outside Iran, for many generations. With the help of some cross-cultural values, one can justify the active participation of “global citizens” in any social, political, and environmental movements, from the anti-apartheid movement, in South Africa, to gender discrimination in Iran.
When Kurdish women passed the torch of “Woman, Life, Freedom”,“Zhenn, Zhyann, Azadi”, to people in other parts of Iran, no one doubted that respect and dignity for women, the value of life, and freedom, were standing above their cultural differences. In fact, the cry for respecting “woman, life, and freedom”, has brought Iranians together and created an unprecedented unity and a sense of solidarity among them. Whoever has visited Iran can testify that Iranians are as diverse and multi-colors as their geographical landscapes, from the green mountains of Kurdistan to snowy Azerbaijan, from the forest and rice fields of Gillan and Mazandaran by the Caspian Sea to Palm trees of Khuzestan by Persian Gulf, …, from the snow-covered peak of Damavand, visible from every corner of Tehran to Baluchistan or the dry deserts in the center of Iran. The magic of the motto, “woman, life, freedom”, is in its power to create solidarity among people without any demands to become one, by respecting and acknowledging their diversity while going beyond their differences. The motto, not only, is a breakthrough, displaying the development of Iranian social consciousness, but also, it actively and dynamically teaches other Iranians who join the movement daily. Burning their scarves and dancing around the fire, Iranian women celebrate life and demonstrate freedom. 6 The magical connection between three life-affirming universals, “woman, life, freedom,” has created an imagined ideal place, a “paradise”, which may soon become reality on the streets of Iran.
* Sharare Shahrokhi, Philosophy instructor, CCC College, California.
2- Students in Iran refuse to back down from protests sparked by death of young woman (PBS)
3- Shervin Hajipour song Baraye (full version with English subtitle)
This is the full (extended) audio version coupled with Shervin’s video. Official Video: https://youtu.be/z8xXiqyfBg0 Shervin’s Official Channel: @Shervin http://spoti.fi/3sBFMQe
4- Shervin’s song, Baraye, Lyrics:
For dancing on the streets
For the fear of kissing (your lover in public)
For my sister, your sister, our sisters
For changing these rusted minds
For the shame of poverty
For yearning for an ordinary life
For child labor and their crushed dreams
For this dictatorial economy
For this polluted air
For “Valiasr” St. and its forlorn trees (For our city dying trees)
For the endangered Asiatic cheetahs’ anticipated extinction (the last one left in Iran)
For the innocent forbidden dogs (that were massacred by the government)
For our nonstop tears
For never experiencing this moment again*
For smiling faces
For the students (elementary and high school students)
For their futures
For this forced “Heaven”
For the imprisoned elites (elite students, geniuses)
For the Afghan kids
For all these countless “For” s
For all these meaningless slogans
For the collapse of these flimsy houses (cause of poor management)
For the peace and serenity
For the sunrise after a long dark night …
For the sleeping pills and our sleepless nights
For man, homeland, prosperity
For the girl who wished she was a boy
For Woman, Life, Freedom
(* a reference to a family photo of a nine year old, Reera, who was killed on the Ukrainian flight along with 175 passengers, shot down by the Iranian IRGC forces).
5- For instance, the comment below was posted on YouTube for Shervin’s song video: (Sep 2022)
“James Jameson, 2 weeks ago
I couldn’t live further away from Iran, but that hearing this song, by accident, was like a dagger to the heart, potent, desperately heartbreaking, and above all achingly human. It’s one of the most hauntingly beautiful things I’ve ever heard. I’m now AWAKE to you Iran. This is an anthem for all of us……….”
6- Iranian young women started dancing around the bun fire while burning their headscarf in public (October 2022)