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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Mythili Rao

What Iranians Want by Arash Azizi review – the quest for a normal life

Protesters make their way to the cemetery in Mahsa Amini’s home town of Saqqez, to mark 40 days since her death in 2022.
Protesters make their way to the cemetery in Mahsa Amini’s home town of Saqqez, to mark 40 days since her death in 2022. Photograph: UGC/AFP/Getty Images

One Tuesday in September 2022, Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman, arrived in Tehran to celebrate her birthday and go shopping – to enjoy herself a bit before the start of the university term. “Mahsa had not come to Tehran to be a hero,” the historian Arash Azizi writes, or, indeed, to become a hashtag tweeted millions of times. But soon after she exited the metro, the 21-year-old was detained by the Iranian police’s moral security division for an alleged infraction of the rules around female dress: her head covering had been deemed insufficiently modest. Witnesses reported seeing police beat her; by Friday, she was dead. The result was an outcry and a record-setting series of protests. “Her murder touched a nerve precisely because so many Iranian women knew it could have been them,” Azizi notes. Although, he adds, “Amini would not have wanted any of this”.

What she did want, by all accounts – and what so many Iranian women and men want, was only to live. It’s a sentiment underscored by the widely adopted slogan “Women, Life, Freedom”, and its key demand of “a normal life”. This is no small ask in a country where posting a photo of your ponytail on Instagram can result in arrest (as it did for one prominent actor, Katayoun Riahi), where job prospects are limited and inflation is stuck above 30%, where conservationists working to rehabilitate the Asiatic cheetah can be accused of spying for the CIA (as Kavous Seyed-Emami and others were), or where footage of the rear ends of water buffaloes emerging from water can be deemed “potentially arousing” and therefore unsuitable for mass broadcast (just one of the “ridiculous” but real examples Azizi recounts).

How might “normal” freedoms be achieved in such a country? What Iranians Want is methodically organised around areas of struggle including employment, environmentalism and religious freedom. It’s a good way to showcase the range and depth of activism going on. But the minor ups and downs of a movement – the gathering of petition signatures, the running of independent women’s publishing houses, the organising of the shoemakers’ union – do not always make for riveting reading. Key figures come and go in a matter of a few paragraphs or pages. (Though, to be fair, in the case of the movement’s many unintentional martyrs, thrust into prominence from obscurity, that’s not always Azizi’s fault: “Bits and pieces, fragments, this was all we had to go on to piece a picture together of their lives, their personalities, their aspirations.”) And, frustratingly, there is only limited discussion of larger global factors, such as the question of what the agreement and subsequent unravelling of the 2015 nuclear pact meant for the country’s economic and political outlook.

Still, the book does provide a clear “window into the aspirations of Iranians risking everything for change”, and offers a smattering of historical context into how the groundwork for the uprising was laid. Particularly instructive is an examination of the origins of anti-compulsory hijab protests, which date back nearly half a century. In the early days after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini assumed power with a “poisonous smirk” (as Azizi puts it) in 1979, there was some momentum against the mandate that women veil themselves. But many opponents of the Islamic republic soon decided that taking a stand over “side issues” such as “women’s attire” would be a distraction from more serious concerns. The broadcaster Homa Nateq was among those who worked to discourage early protests against compulsory hijab, something that in later years she came to regret. “What I didn’t understand was that someone who tells you what to wear will soon also tell you what to think,” she says.

This book is, in the end, a document of real optimism, and a thoughtful examination of the layers of work on which political change is built – not just on the streets, but in accumulated acts of civic faith and calculated defiance in the face of a regime that has been enduring “dual crises of legitimacy and competency” for some time. As Azizi finished the book in July 2023, the future of the movement – stymied by arrests and deaths – looked uncertain. But, situated in the context of a wider struggle, decades in the making, these setbacks seem eminently surmountable.

Writing of the arrest of the actor Taraneh Alidoosti, Azizi recalls a scene from her performance in a TV series set in the 1950s that depicts another chapter of tumult in Iran’s history – the 1953 coup, orchestrated by western powers, which saw the overthrow of a democratically elected government. “Wasn’t it you who always said that we are passing through a strange phase of history?” Alidoosti’s character, Shahrzad, asks the tearful journalist she is consoling. “This door will open. This night will end and the sun will rise again. Be patient.”

What Iranians Want: Women, Life, Freedom by Arash Azizi is published by Oneworld (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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