'This is a feminist revolution': An interview with exiled Iranian-American journalist Negar Mortazavi
For six weeks, Iran has been in the middle of its most significant uprising in years. The country ignited in protest following the killing of Mahsa ‘Jina’ Amini, a young woman who was arrested and beaten to death by Iran’s morality police for wearing her state-mandated hijab improperly.
Women and girls have been at the forefront of the protest movement, courageously confronting security forces and demanding an end to decades of oppression and state-sanctioned violence. Iranians from all walks of life and parts of the country have joined the movement demanding revolutionary change.
The New Arab spoke to exiled Iranian-American journalist and political analyst Negar Mortazavi, who has been following and amplifying developments with cautious optimism, about this watershed feminist moment, intersectionality, diaspora response, and what the future may hold.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Nadine Talaat: To start us off, can you explain to those less familiar with the Iranian context what the driving forces are behind the current movement? Why did Mahsa, or Jina, Amini’s death, out of all the cases of police violence, trigger this movement?
Negar Mortazavi: Jina or Mahsa Amini was a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who was picked up by the morality police in Tehran. When we see images of Mahsa Amini, right before her death in police custody, she seems like a very normal girl wearing her Islamic covering. So many women and men sympathise with that because women see themselves in Mahsa Amini. A lot of women are saying: ‘This is how I dress. Are you going to pick me up, take me to detention and have me end up in a hospital and die?’
Men are seeing their own sisters in Mahsa Amini, saying: ‘This is how my sister dresses and goes on the street. Is she going to be next? Is she going to also end up in a hospital?’ The arbitrariness and the violence of the enforcement of the mandatory hijab is one thing.
There was also a progression. When the Ibrahim Raisi administration came into power, a conservative and hardline administration, the morality police enforcement became even tighter. Then we saw progressions of this violence. A woman named Sepideh Rashno was brought on national TV with bruises on her face and body for what’s seen as a forced confession for not wearing the hijab.
There was another mother saying ‘please don't take my daughter, she's sick’, while the morality police van drives away with her daughter. That also created a lot of anger and sympathy and national conversation against the morality police. Essentially, it became a watershed moment now with women pushing back against decades of discrimination, of misogyny, of state-sanctioned violence against them.
"Women see themselves in Mahsa Amini. A lot of women are saying: 'This is how I dress. Are you going to pick me up, take me to detention and have me end up in a hospital and die?'"
N.T.: The movement is led by women, but it's also extremely intersectional and wide-reaching across all sectors of society, with strikes in universities, commercial centres, and even the oil sector. What do you make of this?
N.M.: The movement is essentially a feminist uprising or feminist revolution led by many women, young girls and also allies, and the incredible scenes of bravery and courage of these women risking their lives, staying on the street, and facing security forces in the face of brutal and violent repression has been incredible.
It's also an intersectional community of protesters, each bringing their own grievances to the mix, with a lot of overlap against the entirety of the system, chanting against the entirety of the Islamic Republic, chanting against supreme and senior leadership and the entirety of a system that they see as politically repressive, economically corrupt, and inept, with so many restrictions on their social and cultural life.
There are ethnic grievances each community is bringing into this, there are political grievances, and people see the political space as closing further and further with no avenue left for change. So, the pressure is widespread and diverse and across sectors of the country.
N.T.: That's arguably one of the reasons why they've been able to sustain the protests for so long, going into the sixth week. The key question now is: what's next? How could this play out? Do you expect there to be lasting change?
N.M.: The regime, as we've seen in the past in the 2019 and 2009 mass protests against the government, has the will and the capacity to use a lot of brutal violence to repress the protesters. In 2019, in a matter of days, the state brought down an iron fist, hundreds of protesters were killed and thousands arrested, many of them handed very harsh sentences.
This time around, hundreds have been killed by security forces, thousands arrested and possibly facing very harsh sentencing. In 2019 we saw internet disruption, a near total blackout of the Internet, and in 2009 there were also limitations put on social media. This time we're also seeing strategic limiting and blocking of the Internet.
We’re also seeing the targeting of journalists or political activists, especially female journalists, a lot of women who are leading this on their political and journalistic level. There's also a lot of misinformation by the state by various interest groups and actors. And it's an attempt to stifle the protests.
The protesters want fundamental change, revolutionary change. Many of these Iranians are on the street in every province in the country, dozens of cities, demanding an end to the entirety of the system, not really looking for any moderate change, which they don't see an avenue for, but calling for an end to this repression, to the discrimination, to the injustice, each with their own slogans and grievances, but also under this very beautiful banner of ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’, which is at the core of this Feminist Revolution.
It's hard to speculate what will happen or which side will prevail. Will the protesters be able to continue this courage risking their lives and bringing fundamental change or an end to the system? Or will the system use the same tactics, with brutality, violence, internet disruption, pressure on activists and journalists to suppress the protests as they have done in the past?
It's unclear. But so far, the bravery and the courage of a lot of these women and young girls has just been incredible to watch.
"Many of these Iranians are on the street... demanding an end to the entirety of the system, not really looking for any moderate change, which they don't see an avenue for"
N.T.: The entire international community has been watching in awe of their bravery and their courage. Let's talk about the international response. What has it been so far? How can the international community best show solidarity?
N.M.: We've seen messages of support and solidarity and condemnation of the state violence from international organisations like the UN Human Rights Council and from world leaders and governments, mostly Western countries in North America and Europe, urging the state to allow the protesters to continue their protests and not use violence.
We've also seen some governments imposing sanctions on individuals who are human rights abusers. The entirety of the morality police was sanctioned by the US and then Canada, and now European countries are following suit. These sanctions are welcome by human rights activists and women's rights activists and ordinary citizens on the ground.
The US government also removed some sanctions restrictions for tech companies to be able to provide messaging apps and services that can be useful to Iranian protesters. Because the protests are not just on the street, the extension of that is also happening online, and online campaigns and information sharing are a show of solidarity, both inside the country and outside the country.
N.T.: And what about average citizens, how can they show solidarity?
N.M.: Iranians are asking for global citizens to use their voice to share images and information and videos from the protests, and essentially echo their voice, be their voice in their own communities and keep the spotlight on the violence and the repression by the state, to show solidarity so Iranians feel like they're not alone.
N.T.: Let’s talk about the response from the Iranian diaspora, many of whom are in exile for criticising the regime and are very supportive of the protest. But at the same time, there's been quite a bit of infighting and accusations made by different factions.
N.M.: The majority of the Iranian diaspora has been very supportive of movements inside Iran and have tried in their own way across the world to join these movements or show solidarity. Protests after protests, trying to keep up with what's happening inside Iran, keeping the spotlight and putting pressure. There’s also unfortunately part of the diaspora that's involved in infighting between various political factions and groups, different claims to leadership, each having a vision for what the future of Iran should look like.
Should there be a monarchy? Should it be a republic? Should it be a constitutional monarchy? Should there be free elections? There's a lot of disagreement on what should come.
There’s also paranoia among the community and a lot of accusations, which is something that we've seen in the past of these revolutionary environments and times. The accusation of working with the Islamic Republic or having ties to it, is something that's being hurled at many political activists, many civil society actors in the diaspora. It's targeted at academics, analysts and journalists like myself.
Many women are the top targets of very coordinated and targeted harassment campaigns online in campaigns that seem to have a lot of resources behind them. Past interviews and reports are being taken out of context … by various different interest groups or state or foreign actors who want to try to create division among the diaspora and try to defame those who are speaking to the situation and chronicling the movement, echoing the voices of Iranians.
I was targeted this week as I was supposed to give a talk at the University of Chicago. They received a bomb threat. It's under investigation. It’s an attempt against free speech, freedom of the press as a journalist and also academic freedom.
Another issue is that the main source of tyranny and repression is so far away and so powerful that the diaspora feels powerless as far as doing anything to help the protesters. And so they go after other targets as they see us as the low-hanging fruit, except it's from a different tree.
I want to emphasise that it's not all the diaspora. You also see thousands of Iranians coming with the Mahsa Amini signs, with ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ signs, bringing their own children, their families, and just very peacefully, angry but peaceful, protesting to show solidarity with Iranians.
These radical more fringe groups that have an outsized voice, they have access to some diaspora media, and they're just adding fuel to the fire of paranoia and division, which critics of this environment are saying helps the regime as it only creates divisions among the diaspora at a time when there needs to be unity.
"The main source of tyranny and repression is so far away and so powerful that the diaspora feels powerless as far as doing anything to help the protesters. And so they go after other targets as they see us as the low hanging fruit, except it's from a different tree"
N.T.: Given that this is, as you said, a feminist revolution, does the irony or hypocrisy of women being the main targets surprise you or is this something you would expect?
N.M.: It's ironic that female journalists like myself, analysts and academics are the predominant targets of these online and very coordinated harassment campaigns. People like myself and my friends are receiving death threats, rape threats, threats against our family, our physical safety.
These are all tactics of intimidation, of trying to silence our voices. It's not just women, it's also queer people, people of colour, academics and people with critical thinking and independent voices who bring nuance to the discussion…in a very sexist and misogynistic and violent way, to intimidate and to threaten and to eventually silence us.
And it has an impact. I know young women in academia, in human rights organizations, some in the media, who have completely left the online space or are not present on social media. They continue to do their jobs in their own corners, but their voice is missing at a time when it's so critical for us to hear from them.
N.T.: As we wait to see how things will play out, are there any misconceptions that you would like to clear up or any final messages you have, either to those protesting in Iran or to the international community?
N.M.: Iranians have their own agency, they're looking for self-determination, and going against a repressive and corrupt government. But an added layer to the economic situation is also US economic sanctions, that shouldn't be something that's forgotten.
And just because the regime is against sanctions, doesn't make anyone who's reporting on the impact of sanctions or who's bringing this into the equation of the economic situation an accomplice of the regime.
We can't see Iranians just through the lens of social media campaigns, especially on Twitter, which is highly weaponised, highly political, especially Farsi Twitter. And Iranians have very limited access to it from inside Iran because the regime also filters it and limits internet access. It's just not an environment where you can gauge Iranian public opinion on a mass scale…it's highly weaponised by many interest groups.
"Accurate reporting, objective reporting is very difficult in this situation, especially when there's limited access to the ground"
But social media nevertheless is an important environment. So, we need to have more media literacy, more social media literacy, more language skills, to read what's going on to sift through the information and separate it from the misinformation and the disinformation.
Accurate reporting, objective reporting is very difficult in this situation, especially when there's limited access to the ground. Foreign outlets have very limited access to Iran, especially during protests. And domestic local journalists are being threatened and detained.
So, the citizens, the actual, on-the-ground protesters and their voices play a very important role. We just have to be careful and creative about how we can bring that voice into objective and professional reporting.
Negar Mortazavi is an award-winning journalist and political commentator, and editor and host of the Iran Podcast, based in Washington DC. She has been covering Iranian and Middle Eastern affairs as well as US foreign policy towards the Middle East for over a decade.
Follow her on Twitter: @NegarMortazavi
Nadine Talaat is a London-based journalist writing about Middle East politics, human rights, borders and migration, and media representation. She is also part of The New Arab's editorial team.
Follow her on Twitter: @nadine_talaat