Review of “What Iranians Want” by Arash Azizi: The search for a regular existence in Iran.
In September 2022, Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman, went to Tehran to celebrate her birthday and go shopping before starting university. According to historian Arash Azizi, Mahsa did not intend to become a hero or a popular hashtag. However, upon leaving the metro, she was arrested by the Iranian police’s moral security division for not following the dress code for women. Witnesses reported that she was beaten and she tragically passed away on Friday. This incident sparked widespread outrage and led to a series of protests. Azizi points out that Mahsa’s death struck a chord with many Iranian women because they could relate to her experience. He also adds that Mahsa would not have wanted this attention.
According to all reports, what she desired – and what many Iranian women and men also desire – was simply to live. This sentiment is highlighted by the popular slogan “Women, Life, Freedom” and its main request for “a normal life”. This is a significant request in a country where even posting a photo of your ponytail on Instagram can lead to arrest (as it did for well-known actor Katayoun Riahi), job opportunities are scarce, inflation remains high at over 30%, conservationists working to protect the Asiatic cheetah can be accused of espionage for the CIA (like Kavous Seyed-Emami and others), and footage of water buffaloes emerging from water can be deemed inappropriate for mass broadcast due to its potential for arousal (as revealed by one of the “absurd” but true examples recounted by Azizi).
How can a country achieve “normal” freedoms? The book “What Iranians Want” is systematically organized to cover various areas of struggle, including employment, environmentalism, and religious freedom. This approach effectively showcases the extent and depth of activism in the country. However, the smaller details of the movement, such as gathering petition signatures or organizing unions, may not make for captivating reading. The book also briefly introduces key figures who come and go within a few paragraphs or pages. It is understandable, though, that in the case of the movement’s unintentional martyrs, who were suddenly thrust into the spotlight from obscurity, there may be limited information available: “Bits and pieces, fragments, this was all we had to go on to piece a picture together of their lives, their personalities, their aspirations.” Additionally, there is a lack of discussion about larger global factors, such as the impact of the 2015 nuclear pact and its subsequent unraveling on the country’s economy and politics.
However, the book does offer insight into the hopes and dreams of Iranians who risked everything for change. It also provides a brief history of the events that led to the uprising. One notable aspect is the examination of the origins of protests against the compulsory hijab, which can be traced back nearly 50 years. In the early days after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power in 1979, there was some opposition to the requirement for women to wear veils. However, many opponents of the Islamic republic soon shifted their focus to more pressing issues, seeing the hijab as a minor concern. Homa Nateq, a broadcaster, was among those who discouraged early protests against the compulsory hijab, but later regretted her actions, realizing that it was a form of control over women’s thoughts and beliefs.
This book ultimately showcases genuine hope and a contemplative analysis of the various levels of effort that contribute to political transformation – not solely through demonstrations, but through the accumulation of civic belief and strategic resistance against a government that has long faced “dual crises of legitimacy and competency.” As of July 2023, when Azizi completed the book, the fate of the movement appeared uncertain as it faced obstacles such as arrests and fatalities. However, when placed within the larger context of a prolonged struggle spanning decades, these challenges seem entirely conquerable.
Azizi reflects on the arrest of actor Taraneh Alidoosti and remembers a scene from a TV series set in the 1950s that portrays another tumultuous event in Iran’s history – the 1953 coup, orchestrated by western powers, that resulted in the overthrow of a democratically elected government. In the scene, Alidoosti’s character, Shahrzad, consoles a tearful journalist and reminds her that they are living through a strange phase of history. Shahrzad offers words of hope, assuring her that this difficult time will pass and a new day will come.