The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, after having worn her hijab in the wrong way, sparked a major wave of protests in Iran. Barzoo Eliassi at Linnaeus University conducts research on, among other things, nation states in the Middle East, and how they justify gender oppression and create ethnical hierarchies. He says that the events in Iran show that people are no longer willing to be ruled by patriarchal systems.
Eliassi originally comes from Kurdistan, in Iran, and came to Sweden as a political refugee.
What is your reaction to the events in Iran?
“I view the protests favourably as they have united much of Iran in challenging an Islamist dictatorship that oppresses the people, in particular women and religious, ethnic minorities.”
“This is a strong message to regimes throughout the Middle East that women and men will not be brainwashed by patriarchal systems. And that they have a shared dream of a better world in which women and men can live as equals. This is not something that can happen overnight, but the ideas are growing and spreading across ethnic and religious borders”, Eliassi explains.
Those who protest want to get rid of the regime. They are tired of the Islamic regime’s superstitions that God dictates how men and women should behave
- Associate professor of social work
- Areas of research: Middle East studies, social policy, social work, migration, citizenship, statelessness.
- Defended his doctoral thesis in 2010: “A stranger in my homeland: The politics of belonging among your people with Kurdish backgrounds in Sweden”
What is the background to the protests in Iran?
“The protests started in connection to the murder of 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini from the Iranian part of Kurdistan. Jina, which is her Kurdish name, could only be used privately as Kurds are a subordinate minority in Iran and lack political and cultural rights. The Iranian morality police arrested Jina in Tehran for not wearing her hijab ‘correctly’. She was taken to a detention centre to be lectured on how a woman should wear her hijab. Jina died on 16 September as a result of physical and psychological violence”, says Eliassi.
“When her body was to be buried in her Kurdistan hometown, hundreds of demonstrators gathered and started shouting slogans against the regime. Shortly after, protests broke out in other parts of Iranian Kurdistan, to condemn the murder of Jina”, Eliassi continues.
“Jina was treated in this brutal way because she was a woman, Kurd, and from the working class. Her tombstone reads: ‘Dearest Jina, you will never die! Your name will be a symbol!’ These words have become a fact and her name is now a symbol for the Islamic regime’s oppression of women and minorities”, Eliassi explains.
This is without a doubt a feminist revolution, perhaps the first of its kind
How have things developed?
“The protests spread also outside Kurdistan, to large parts of Iran, where women and men from different ethnic groups and religious groups joined in and shouted slogans against the regime: ‘Death to the dictator’. They started tearing down pictures of the religious leaders. And women removed their hijabs and burned them”, Elisassi explains.
“The hijab is a symbol of the Islamic regime’s violence against women. The Islamic regime is based on a strictly hierarchical gender order in which women’s bodies and how women dress is strictly monitored, and any deviations are punished, like in the case of Jina’s murder. The protesters’ attack on the hijab was a direct attack on the regime and the religious leaders in Iran”, Eliassi continues.
“This revolution is, without a doubt, a feminist revolution, perhaps the first of its kind, in which women and men shout the slogan ‘Jin, Jian, Azadi’, which is Kurdish and means “women, life, freedom’. This slogan has been used before within the Kurdish movement in Kurdish parts of Turkey and Syria, against the patriarchal regimes in the Middle East that have put women in a strongly subordinate position”, Eliassi explains.
How do the protests affect Iran’s relations with the rest of the world?
“They have a big impact. Iran has a big and well-educated population and there is good opportunity here to influence the region as a whole, in particular the position of women and minorities in the Middle East. For instance, Iran is neighbour with an Islamist regime that is oppressing women; the Talibans in Afghanistan. This is a clear signal to other countries in the Middle East, and the world as a whole, that the Middle East should not necessarily be seen as the stereotype of a world in which women are oppressed. There are great forces at play in Iran, for change towards an order in which gender equality is possible”, says Eliassi.
There is a possibility here that an Islamist regime will be replaced by a new order that promotes world peace and gender equality
How should the world react to the events in Iran?
“Europe and the West should offer moral, political, and technological support to the protests, as the regime uses lethal force and kidnappings to stifle the demonstrations. There is a possibility here that an Islamist regime will be replaced by a new order that promotes world peace and gender equality. Some in the Middle East are skeptical of the West as there is a strong belief that the West is not interested in supporting democratisation processes in the region. This is a belief that the West can change by supporting the protests”, Eliassi explains.
“We must not forget that there are strong forces also in the West that are averse to feminism and women’s rights. Thus, feminism is not something exclusive for one continent. It is something that both women and men must fight for to keep alive”, Eliassi continues.
Why is the regime blaming the protests on the United States and Israel?
“The Iranian regime wants to depoliticise the protests and link them to Israel. The ayatollah also blames Iranians who live in other countries, whom he defines as ‘traitors’ who collaborate with Zionists. This does not have a lot to do with the United States or Israel”, says Eliassi.
“The protests are deeply rooted in the oppressive order that the Islamist regime has established, and this is also where the cure can be found; a new order in which the mullahs do not have power over women’s lives. There is nothing natural about women and minorities being oppressed in a society. It is rather the abuse of political power that normalises such oppressive relations between men and women, between majorities and minorities”, Eliassi continues.
Fascist regimes are often the ones afraid of information
Can you see any signs that the regime in Iran is getting weaker or stronger?
“I would say the regime cannot feel particularly strong considering what is happening in Iran. The only thing the regime can do is to kill and use violence and kidnappings. The regime has shut down the Internet to stifle the protests”, says Eliassi.
“Fascist regimes are often the ones afraid of information. The Islamic regime in Iran wants total control over the narrative about the protests and how to define the protesters (as ‘traitors’, ‘Zionist collaborators’). Even if the regime manages to shut down the protests, these ideas will live on among the Iranian population”, Eliassi continues.
How does your research relate to the events we are seeing in Iran?
“I have written quite a lot about the nation states that have been built in the Middle East, about how they justify gender oppression and create ethno-national hierarchies, in which minorities are often defined as a security threat to the nation as soon as they claim equality. My research has also focused on how the Kurdish movement in the Middle East affects women’s position, in contexts of religious oppression and patriarchal state structures”, Eliassi concludes.