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As Nickie Shobeiry explores in conversation with Golshan Abdmoulaie, Iranians are spearheading one of the biggest women-led resistance movements in recent history
words – nickie shobeiry
location – ottawa, canada
photography – golshan abdmoulaie
location – tkaronto, canada

In Farsi, ‘Farkhan’ means a call to action. That’s what I recently learned during my conversation with Golshan Abdmoulaie: an Iranian, Canada based writer and artist. It’s the perfect word for what Iranian people are putting out into the world right now; the country is going through one of the biggest women-led resistance movements in recent history, with thousands pouring into the streets to protest the regime’s Islamist rules.

For decades, Iranians have had their human rights violated under Iran’s Islamic Regime – especially women, ethnic minorities and the queer community. The most recent protests erupted on September 16, 2022 in Tehran, following the death of a 22 year old Kurdish-Iranian woman, Jîna Mahsa Amini.

Amini was arrested by Iranian authorities for wearing an “improper” hijab. While detained, she was beaten to death by police officers. Since then, Iran has seen a sea of civil unrest. At least 400 protestors have died, with reports of 18,000 being detained. To date, six death sentences have been issued, in a country which has one of the highest execution rates in the world.

The regime’s laws go beyond its severe dress code. Committing an ‘indecent’ act in public is a crime, meaning singing, dancing or kissing outside of one’s home can be punishable by law. For Abdmoulaie, it’s important to note that protesters in Iran are doing just that

– singing, dancing, kissing – claiming back their joy through their ‘civil disobedience.’

Millions of Iranians live outside of Iran. The diaspora – including Abdmoulaie – have been consistently gathering for demonstrations to raise awareness of what’s happening. This includes Iranian artists both inside and outside of the country, who are sharing their work online.

In the 1990s, Abdmoulaie moved to Canada as a political refugee with her parents. Iran makes its way into much of Abdmoulaie’s work, and she strives to create art that reflects Iran outside of the Western gaze, and doesn’t normalise Iran’s theocracy.

“Creating art about [Iran] here in the West – for me, it’s always been a sense of tension, analysis and criticism, about how extracting and colonial that is: putting [art] into the world as a discourse or idea, and then not participating in the liberation of my people.”

It’s a complex issue for many artists like Abdmoulaie. She explains that Iran’s Islamic government knows that the majority of Iranians in the diaspora are still connected to Iran:

“they'll hold your country, culture and family hostage in exchange for art that either normalises their regime, or your complete silence.”

It’s a fear that many outspoken Iranian activists in the diaspora have faced. During the most recent Jîna Mahsa Amini protests, British-Iranian journalists in the UK have been warned by police about credible death threats from Iran. Iranians in Canada say they are being threatened, monitored and followed by associates of Iran’s regime – and that’s just the most recent cases.

In Iran, hip-hop artist Toomaj Salehi is at risk of execution for his music, speaking out against the Islamic regime. Iranian filmmaker and photographer Nik Yousefi was arrested for creating a viral music video about the protests, and is allegedly being subjected to extreme interrogation. His whereabouts are currently unknown.

“I think it’s incredible that so many artists have been using their platforms to bring awareness to what is happening in Iran,” Abdmoulaie says. “The Islamic government fears this type of art and imprisons artists – that’s why it is so important that Iranians living outside of Iran use their creative voices where others cannot.” She adds:

“I vow to always speak up for the people of Iran in any way I can. We will no longer be bullied into submission and silence.”

Since the protests began, Iranians – artists or otherwise – have been getting together. Human-chain protests have been taking place internationally; in Berlin, 80,000 Iranians and supporters gathered together, making it the largest gathering in history of Iranians against the Islamic Republic of Iran.

A woman-led movement, the protest is inherently feminist, demanding women’s liberation. Despite this, for many Iranians, the lack of response from the international community has been jarring – from major humanitarian organisations, non-Iranian intellectuals, activists to online influencers.

When it comes to silence from some activists, Abdmoulaie thinks that this is, in part, because some people on the political left fear that involvement from America, the EU or Canada would smack of imperialism. “Therefore, Iranians agitating for their own social change makes them allies with imperialism,” Abdmoulaie says.

Just in case it wasn’t clear, Abdmoulaie adds that what’s happening in Iran isn’t another “coup d’etat that’s implanted by the U.S.” – which, interestingly, is exactly what the leaders of Iran’s Islamic regime wants its people to think, so that they stop rising up against them.

Another reason for the silence from some activists might be an anxiety around appearing Islamophobic. “The commodification of identity politics through social media activism has pushed us into polarised thinking,” Abdmoulaie says.

“Oppressed people have the capacity to oppress, and seeing the issue through one narrow lens leaves no room for the most vulnerable people in marginalised communities to be heard.”

When it comes to online activism, hesitation to speak out against what’s happening in Iran might be more likely to come from those who are otherwise progressive, for fear of perpetuating the stereotype that Muslim people are inherently violent. It’s not an unfounded fear: in Europe, Islamophobia has been on the rise with the increase of far-right politics, terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists and the humanitarian crises forcing millions of people to flee their homes in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

But when it comes to the situation in Iran, the lack of response from communities who otherwise speak out against Islamophobia can feel like a paradox. This is especially true when it’s been proven that the regime is less likely to take extreme measures against artists and activists whose case has become high-profile in the media.

“Imagine people who live in the West – who have the freedom of religion and due process – stay tight-lipped when people are asking for an ounce of the freedom [that they] have,” Abdmoulaie says. “You stay silent about [Iranian people’s] suffering because it doesn’t line up with your identity politics around Islamophobia. Where is your nuance?”

There’s a similar pressure from within the Muslim diaspora too – or any marginalised group – which Abdmoulaie says is a double-edged sword for women: “in order to protect the larger, marginalised group, you have to stay silent about the abuse you’re facing within your community, or country or state, because it is – or was – under attack by an external force. You don’t even have a chance.”

It might seem simple, but it’s worth clarifying: in the West, Muslims are a religious minority, and face all the systemic oppression that comes with that. In Iran, Muslims – specifically Shia Muslims – are the religious majority. Iran is a theocracy, and Islam is its state religion.

“When religion and state mix, the state hides behind ‘sanctity,’” Abdmoulaie says. “Once any religion and state become one, and it holds power over other people, the game has changed. One must critique this power dynamic consistently.”

In Iran, the regime’s rule means that minority ethnic and religious groups – such as the Kurdish community, Indigenous to the Middle East – face extreme prejudice and systemic oppression. The majority of Kurdish people live in Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Kurdish women have been speaking out against the grave injustices and violence they face across the region. Amidst rising attacks on Kurdish people, Nagihan Akarsel – prominent Kurdish journalist and editor of women’s rights advocacy magazine, Jineologî – was recently assassinated in Iraqi Kurdistan.

‘Jineologî’ is a form of feminism that is fundamental to the Kurdistan Communitiies Union, a political party which advocates for a confederation rooted in autonomy and democracy. It holds that

society cannot be free or equal without the freedom and equality of women

and that a liberated society is necessary for democracy.

It comes full-circle: the slogan for Iran’s most recent protests originated from the Kurdish community. ‘Jin, Jiyan, Azadi’ in its original Kurdish, ‘Zan, Zendegi, Azadi’ in Farsi, or ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ in English.

For Abdmoulaie, there’s a lot to be learnt from Indigenous-led feminist liberation movements, which take an intersectional view of women’s issues. She says that the voices of Indigenous women should be front and centre when focusing on decolonisation and human rights.

In North America, Indigenous women and girls make up a significant portion of missing and murdered cases, and women-led advocates are behind the push for justice. In South America, the right to abortion was won by a major feminist movement. In the Middle East, Kurdish women – the same community that Jîna Mahsa Amini was from – took up arms against ISIS.

“If we’re actually going to move towards a more just world, we need to understand why we’re divided,” Abdmoulaie says. “We need global solidarity, and the collective mandate for our liberation is being led intellectually and politically by Indigenous women, queer and gender-diverse folks. Are we listening?”

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A note: Each month, we update our site as part of our efforts to reduce the environmental impact of our digital estate. The global emissions from the digital industry are on a par with those from the aviation industry, at almost 2% of total global emissions. What’s worse, this is increasing year on year. In an effort to lessen our impact, each month we compress and archive previous features and update our site with new content. Throughout the month, our current features are available to all to enjoy; our full digital archive is accessible to boom saloon members, in thanks for their support to use creativity to inspire and empower those facing challenges. Support our work and become a member by clicking here.