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Why a scholar banished from Iran 15 years ago is hopeful about the current protests

A protester holds a drawing of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in Berlin, Germany, on Sept. 23. Amini was arrested by Iranian authorities in Tehran on Sept. 13 for not wearing her headscarf properly. She died three days later, apparently due to a severe head injury.
Sean Gallup
Getty Images
A protester holds a drawing of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in Berlin, Germany, on Sept. 23. Amini was arrested by Iranian authorities in Tehran on Sept. 13 for not wearing her headscarf properly. She died three days later, apparently due to a severe head injury.

Protests continue in Iran after the death of a 22-year-old woman in the custody of the country's so-called morality police. Mahsa Amini, also known to family by her Kurdish name, Jina, was detained for apparently violating the police's standards for modesty. Reports vary on whether they objected to how she wore her hijab or the style of her pants.

In either case, the morality police have been known for their seemingly arbitrary standards and punishment of women for decades. Iranian American scholar Pardis Mahdavi says the current protests are built on the resistance of the previous generations.

Mahdavi's 2008 book, Passionate Uprisings, chronicles a recent sexual revolution among Iranian youth, in defiance of the country's conservative regime. Fifteen years ago the morality police — a branch of the Islamic regime's police charged with upholding conservative dress code and behavioral norms — barged in while she was giving a lecture in Tehran.

"I began my lecture on Iran's sexual revolution, and 13 minutes into my lecture the auditorium doors banged open, and roughly a dozen members of the morality police came clanking in," she says. "I should have been shredding my lecture notes — that's what I should have been doing, but I was just gripping the podium in sort of this state of suspended animation."

Mahdavi was dragged out of the classroom and spent 33 days under house arrest, during which she was asked repeatedly about her research and her intentions. Eventually, the police blindfolded her and drove her to the airport, where she was sent back to the U.S.

"I was told that I was stripped of my Iranian citizenship and that if I ever came back to Iran, that would be a one-way ticket to Evin [a prison in Tehran] and that I should just be grateful that they were sending me back to the Great Satan, which is the United States," Mahdavi says.

Now provost of the University of Montana, Mahdavi wonders if the current wave of protests might result in lasting change in Iran.

"I think many of us are wondering if what we're seeing today in Iran might actually overthrow the regime, which would mean we would get to go home," she says. "This is a new generation that has been born into and come of age under a moment of resistance, and they are showing incredible courage by speaking out despite the high stakes."

Interview highlights

On the impact of the government's violent crackdown on protesters

The protests are actually growing despite the violent crackdowns. ... The protests not only show no sign of decreasing, but what we're seeing actually are increased generations out there protesting. Some of the images that we were seeing yesterday are of young schoolgirls, even, resisting, protesting, adding their voice to the protests. And to me, it's interesting to see this generation, this is the generation born after the 2000s who were born into resistance, these are young people who are building on the decades' worth of work that ... feminists, women and men, have been doing since the revolution.

For the past 44 years, you've seen resistance brewing. But this is a generation that was born into an atmosphere where the resistance was really taking root, and so as long as they have been alive they have seen people speaking out against the regime, which I think has emboldened them to protest in the way that they're doing today.

On the Islamist regime rejecting the West and installing a morality police

The Islamist regime that came to power under Ayatollah Khomeini [in 1979], this regime ran on a platform and really took power by promising to bring about moral order for Iran. They accused Iran under the shah, under the monarchy, of becoming overly infatuated with the West, and this is what we call the "westoxication." They accused the shah of having lavish and ornate tastes and of leading the Iranian people into an immoral westoxication, where women were seen on the streets of Tehran and Iran wearing miniskirts. People were drinking alcohol, violating Islamic tenets. So you have an Islamist regime that came to power under a fabric of morality, promising to bring back ... an old Iran and "Iranianness" that harkens back to a time of pre-westoxication, pre-fascination and overindulgence and an overt deference to the West.

They believe that they are upholding God's will, and so one of the things that the Islamist regime did when they came to power is that they created a few different arms of the police. ... They ... created a group called the "morality police" or "guidance patrol," and this body was charged with upholding right and forbidding wrong. And now today, we're seeing a lot more discussions outside of Iran about the morality police. But it's important to contextualize that this group, this body, was created by the Ayatollah Khomeini when the Islamist regime came to power in 1979.

Pardis Mahdavi is the author of <em>Passionate Uprisings: Iran's Sexual Revolution.</em>
/ Christine Johnson
Christine Johnson
Pardis Mahdavi is the author of Passionate Uprisings: Iran's Sexual Revolution.

On how the morality police work

They're charged with upholding right and forbidding wrong. Now, how that is interpreted, that leaves a lot of room for interpretation, so morality police, they walk the streets looking for any signs of what they would deem immorality. So in the case of Mahsa Amini, it is wearing a headscarf or hijab [in a way] that is improper. So the Islamist regime mandates that the proper wearing of a headscarf for a woman is where all of the hair is covered and only the oval part of the face is showing, no strands of hair. ...

Now, if women were seen with a headscarf that was loose or pushed back with strands of hair coming forward, that was seen as immoral behavior and thus they could be subject to arrest. Other signs of immorality might be red shellacked nails, makeup. Again, these are for women.

For men, these would include eye-catching hairstyles, such as faux hawks, accessories, large jewelry and accessories, blinged-out watches, etc. And then they're also policing the streets for immoral behavior, such as young men and women holding hands, maybe making out in the park. All of these behaviors could be subject to arrest from the morality police.

Morality police are also known to raid private parties, to raid homes. And in that instance, they round up everybody who's there drinking, dancing, smoking, engaging in heterosexual behaviors that they deem immoral. So in the case of a party raid, they would arrest everybody, men and women. In terms of on the street, I would say, roughly for every three women who are taken in, it would be one man. And that's really since 2000.

On the day-to-day stress caused by living with the morality police

I would have nightmares that I was out in the street without a headscarf or that my headscarf had blown away. And then I was going to get either taken in by the morality police or I would get chastised by people who saw themselves as an extension of that.

It's not so surprising then that people would rebel against that. That weight is so heavy. If you're living under that constant stress day in and day out, it makes sense that you would start to push back, that you would start to rebel, especially if you felt that the government did not have your interest at heart. ... For me, one of the most salient things I would hear from young people is a frustration that here was a regime that focused more on what they were wearing — Was the headscarf slipping? Did they have makeup on? — ... than they did on solving the country's unemployment crisis or infrastructure issues like traffic.

On the Iranian sexual revolution in the 1990s and early 2000s

I initially went to study feminism in Iran. I went to study the different forms of feminism happening, taking place, and Iranian women's movements. And then I became introduced to what young people called the sexual revolution and this entailed resisting the regime by resisting that fabric of morality. So in public it meant headscarves slipping back and, you know, eye-catching outerwear.

And in private, it meant these very elaborate parties. ... What I observed were parties among all different socioeconomic classes. So I observed very lavish parties that included different forms of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. ... I also would go to raves or parties that were just outside of Tehran. They were in the mountains. They were in the forests. I would attend parties at warehouses where, again, sex, drugs, music, alcohol was flowing. And this was a way for young people born into the frustration of a regime that they did not see as aligned with their interests, this is a part of how they negotiated their identity, was this pent-up frustration, and so the parties were a way to kind of let that out and to kind of resist that there's no fun to be had in the Islamic Republic. ... This was a way to pour out their frustration.

But the parties were also used as spaces for organizing. ... One of the things that stays with me to this day is also the fact that at every one of these parties you would have people sitting in circles discussing the political situation, the political system, the sociopolitical system, and how they might organize, how they might come together to push back against the regime. So, yes, they were drinking, dancing, partying, but they're also resisting and organizing.

Amy Salit and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Larry Kaplow adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Tonya Mosley
Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.