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The Woman Question : Throughline : NPR

Jun 08, 2024Jun 08, 2024




MASIH ALINEJAD (JOURNALIST/ACTIVIST): Mahsa got killed for a bit of hair - for a little bit of hair was showing.




ALINEJAD: Now, Iranian women are angry and telling the rest of the world that we're not even fighting against compulsory hijab - we want an end for gender apartheid regime.



(Chanting in Farsi).


FOROUGH FAROOKZHAD (POET): (Through interpreter, reading) Alas, for the day is fading. The evening shadows are stretching. Our being, like a cage full of birds, is filled with the moans of captivity.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI (HOST): This is a poem by the Iranian poet Forough Farookzhad, recited in her 1963 film, "The House Is Black" or "Khaneh Siah Ast."


FAROOKZHAD: (Through interpreter, reading) And none among us knows how long it will last. The harvest season passed. The summer season came to an end, and we did not find deliverance.

ARABLOUEI: Farookzhad was an artist ahead of her time. She wrote modern, subversive poems that explored topics like sex, depression and women's liberation. Despite criticism from conservatives in society, she still published her work - work that remains so relevant that the Islamic Republic first banned it, then heavily censored it after the revolution.


FAROOKZHAD: (Reading in non-English language).

ARABLOUEI: She died in 1967, at the age of 32, but remains a symbolic and prophetic figure whose work is indicative of the long history of the women's liberation movement in Iran.


FAROOKZHAD: (Through interpreter, reading) Like doves, we cry for justice, and there is none. We wait for light, and darkness reigns.


MARTHA RADDATZ (CHIEF GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT, ABC NEWS): Demonstrations now erupting across the globe...


GIO BENITEZ (CORRESPONDENT, ABC NEWS): Following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.

RUND ABDELFATAH (HOST): It has been weeks - weeks since Mahsa Amini, also known by her Kurdish name, Jina Amini, died in the custody of Iran's morality police. She was a member of Iran's Kurdish minority, a group that's historically faced state repression. You'll hear both her names in this episode.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1 (REPORTER): Amini was arrested by Iran's morality police for not wearing her hijab properly. Protesters charged she was beaten to death.

ABDELFATAH: Weeks since the Iranian people took to the streets.




UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2 (REPORTER): Videos posted on Twitter show demonstrators calling for the fall of the clerical establishment in Tehran, Qom and other major Iranian cities.

ABDELFATAH: It can be difficult to parse out where exactly these protests came from and how they differ from the ones that happened in 2019 or 2009, but many analysts and Iranians are saying that this time feels different.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3 (REPORTER): What is happening right now in Iran?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: A revolution is happening.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

ARABLOUEI: I was born in Iran and still have many connections there. Over the last few weeks, I've been in touch with Iranians living in Iran and in the U.S. Everyone I've talked to has been echoing the sentiment. They point to the fact that these are protests that are angrier, more widespread than anything that's come before. There aren't just calls for reform. People are openly questioning the very legitimacy of the power of Iran's clerics. Protesters are burning their compulsory head covering, the hijab. They're cursing the name of the country's supreme leader - even destroying his photos in the street.

This is unprecedented. Iran is an authoritarian state, where doing these things is very dangerous. And so far, that's been true. The regime has cracked down hard, allegedly killing hundreds of protesters.

ABDELFATAH: But these protests aren't just a reaction to recent events. They aren't just about the compulsory hijab. They're born out of a century-long fight by the Iranian people for self-determination. And as long as this fight has been going on, Iranian women have been at the center of it. Women have played a major role in Iran's modern political and cultural movements since its first revolution of the 20th century more than a hundred years ago.

ARABLOUEI: Artists like Forough Farookzhad or human rights activists like Nasrin Sotoudeh and Shirin Ebadi have put their lives on the line for freedom of expression - for justice.

ABDELFATAH: Which Iran did these women and others like them come from? What long historical thread do they belong to?


ABDELFATAH: In this episode, we're going to explore those questions with Iranian-American legal anthropologist Arzoo Osanloo, who has studied Iran's legal system for decades.

ARZOO OSANLOO (AUTHOR/UNIVERISTY OF WASHINGTON): It's very exciting. It's very sad. But I feel like there's an opportunity for people to really see the incredible work that so many people in Iran are doing and have been doing for quite a long time.

ARABLOUEI: And we begin that story when we come back.


LENORE LEZANNE (NPR LISTENER): Hi, this is Lenore Lezanne from Missoula, Mont., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE. Good for you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Part 1 - where there are no rights, there are no duties.

OSANLOO: Sure. Yes.


ARABLOUEI: Hi. (Speaking Farsi).

OSANLOO: Hi, Ramtin. (Speaking Farsi).


ABDELFATAH: This is Arzoo Osanloo, and this is Ramtin greeting her in Farsi, which they both speak fluently.

OSANLOO: I stepped on Anya. I'm sorry.



OSANLOO: That's not part of the project.

STEINBERG: (Laughter).

ARABLOUEI: And that amazing laughter is from THROUGHLINE producer Anya Steinberg, who showed up to record this interview in person. What a champ.

OK, so Arzoo is an anthropologist and a lawyer.

OSANLOO: And I am a professor at the University of Washington in the Department of Law, Societies and Justice. And I'm a legal anthropologist by training.

ABDELFATAH: A legal anthropologist, which means she studies legal systems like an anthropologist would - by looking at all the parts of a culture that create a legal system.

OSANLOO: My first book is called "The Politics Of Women's Rights In Iran."

ARABLOUEI: To write that book, Arzoo did years of fieldwork in Iran, where she interviewed activists, lawyers, government officials and everyday citizens - especially women - who had to interact with the legal system all the time.

OSANLOO: I wanted to return to Iran because, sitting in the United States and having lived in the United States all my life since I was two years old, I wanted to know what women there really thought because it was very simplistic and very easy for my colleagues - whether it was human rights advocates or women rights advocates - who would pound their fists on the table and say they were fighting for the rights of women in Muslim societies or Iranian women in particular.

And when I went back to Iran in 1999, part of my project was to understand - where does this come from? This trope of the oppressed Iranian, Middle Eastern, Muslim woman - where does that come from? And the other was the - what's really happening in Iran? What's really - what do women really think? And what I came to understand was that the concept - it's not just that I'm studying, substantively, what are women's rights in Iran, but this is an idiomatic phrase - (non-English language spoken), or (non-English language spoken) - the woman question - are deeply politicized. And so I needed to contextualize it.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4 (REPORTER): The end of Iran's monarchy came early today when Khomeini's followers took control of the palace of the shah.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5 (REPORTER): Khomeini, almost unknown outside of Iran just a few months ago, returned a hero - the man who, from long distance, had led the revolution to topple the shah.


ABDELFATAH: In 1979, a massive popular revolution happened in Iran that overthrew the country's shah, or king. He was a dictator who was closely allied with the United States. He spent lavishly on himself and his family. He bought billions of dollars in weapons from the U.S. He embraced modernization and development. He jailed and killed people who opposed him. The popular movement against him started in the mid 1970s and included Iranians from all walks of life - students, women, leftists, Islamists, progressives, conservatives, old, young. The list goes on.

And even though these groups disagreed about a lot of things, they all agreed that it was time to bring an end to the monarchy, and they found themselves a symbolic leader in Ayatollah Khomeini. He was a cleric who long opposed the shah and had been living in exile for over a decade. While in exile, Khomeini was viewed as the spiritual guide for the revolution - a person who was the opposite of the Shah, as a kind of mystic - a progressive Muslim, above the pettiness of power and politics. He was like an empty canvas on which political groups could project their own ideas.

ARABLOUEI: My father, a leftist, was a supporter of and a participant in the revolution. He thought Khomeini would be a sort of guardian of the revolution's ideals. He even read Khomeini's speeches and books that were smuggled into Iran. On one occasion, the shah's secret police force searched his house looking for them. My mother had already thrown the books away, knowing the danger they presented.

ABDELFATAH: But after the shah left the country and Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile, it became clear he wanted to be more than a spiritual guide.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Ayatollah Khomeini, you seem to have had some success, you and your followers, in changing the government in Tehran. Do you have feeling - any feeling for how long it may be before there is an Islamic state in Iran?

AYATOLLAH RUHOLLAH KHOMEINI (FORMER SUPREME LEADER OF IRAN): (Through interpreter) It is very close. Very soon we will announce a new government.

ABDELFATAH: Khomeini and his fellow clerics wanted power, and they were willing to take it by asserting their moral authority as religious leaders in a very religious country. Clerics would say this explicitly at the time.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The leadership of the Islamic society find themselves responsible for everything that may have an effect on the development of their life in every aspect. In this way, we feel us responsible for politic, for economy, and for moral.

ARABLOUEI: For morals. Khomeini had read Plato's "Republic" as a young seminary student and loved Plato's idea of philosopher kings, a group of educated, enlightened men who would rule justly over a society. He thought, well, that's us, the clerics of Shia Islam, the form of Islam practiced by most Iranians. We should rule Iran. It's an idea called velayat-e faqih. So he and his fellow clerics started behaving this way. They replaced Iran's legal system. They started instituting Islamic laws, or Sharia, on everything from the kinds of music and movies that could be played in public to laws around inheritance and criminal justice. And they paid particular attention to what Arzoo Osanloo calls (non-English language spoken) - the woman question.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6 (REPORTER): What about the role of women in the new society?

UNIDENTIFIED CLERIC (CLERIC): A woman must be, at first, a good mother, and after that, everything. Is she allowed to sacrifice position of a mother in the way of such - of sightseeing? That we don't agree.

ARABLOUEI: This is a prominent cleric who was closely allied with Khomeini talking to a Western journalist in 1979. He's basically explaining their position on the role of women in society - that women belonged in the home, taking care of their families. He's saying this because in the 1970s, Iranian women, especially women living in the capital, Tehran, were living lives not all that different from their Western counterparts. They were graduating from high school and college in record numbers. They were in the workforce. The government didn't restrict what they could wear. Women were going to bars and nightclubs, basically living modern lives. For many women, the clerics' hardline stance felt like a step backwards. The revolution was supposed to be about bringing more freedom, not taking freedom away.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7 (REPORTER): Yesterday's demonstration was the nearest thing to an anti-Khomeini rally yet. The imposition of Islamic law here has started with an order to women to cover their heads in government offices. Many are furious. Only a minority in Iran already follow the instruction.

OSANLOO: When this announcement first came out, only a month or so after Khomeini had actually returned to Iran, women took to the streets on International Women's Day 1979 and for many days thereafter. And not just in Tehran, but throughout Iran.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

OSANLOO: They called for their rights, and they use this language of rights, you can see, even today. They held up posters and signs that called for equality.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

OSANLOO: They were criticized for being defiant of the sort of indigenous revolution that was happening. When women took to the streets, counterrevolutionaries, people who were against what women were doing, called them Western puppets, called them Barbie dolls. And they were actually physically attacked.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: But the issue has provided an escape valve for many of the men here who, for days, have been spoiling for trouble. Led by a few Islamic zealots, several hundred men eventually attacked the protesters. Several of the women, who stood their ground with considerable courage, were stabbed as they chanted slogans for equal rights.


OSANLOO: The state said, you know, we don't need this language of rights. We don't need the language of democracy. These are Western concepts, and our mission is really to elevate society.


OSANLOO: But it was precisely this point where they turned to the question of women and they said, No. 1, the family is the most important unit of society. We have no use for this Western individualism. And because family is the most important unit of society, we have to strengthen the women who are the jewels in the crown of the family, who are going to raise the children. So right there and then, the new post-revolutionary leaders made women a very important signifier of the revolutionary slogans, the revolutionary battles and also a measure of the success of the revolution.


OSANLOO: The constitution that was written after the 1979 Revolution actually has language to the point that I just made. Family is the primary unit of society. And accordance with that, women are emancipated from the state of being an object or tool of consumerism and exploitation. And this image of Iranian women wearing a headscarf would now show the world that Iran is no longer a puppet of the West. It's no longer going to focus on the individuated rights discourse or the individualism of the West but is now going to focus on the family, exalting women and women would be its signifiers, spreading that image of Iran to the world.


ABDELFATAH: By making women's issues a centerpiece of the revolution, Iran's clerics had also assured that the issue would never go away. Women's rights became tied to a more fundamental desire for liberation from any form of tyranny. This desire to get rid of the shah and to be free of Western domination didn't come out of nowhere. It was the culmination of a nearly century-long battle.

OSANLOO: One place where we could locate it is the constitutional revolution at the start of the 20th century.


ABDELFATAH: For hundreds of years, Iran was ruled by some kind of shah. A king after king, ruler after ruler, dominated the country. But in the early 20th century, something changed. Between 1905 and 1911, Iran experienced its first modern political revolution. A group of activists organized a mass movement against Iran's shah and demanded that the country adopt a constitution, the first of its kind in the Islamic world, with sweeping political reforms. It established a legislature with real power, instituted voting for some men and placed limitations on the power of the monarchy.

OSANLOO: Women were so involved, in that revolution, women's participation led to Morgan Shuster, who was an American businessman that Iran's Parliament had appointed to be the treasurer general for just, like, about six months in 1911. But he called Iranian women, quote, "the most progressive - not to say radical - in the world."


OSANLOO: Women's participation has been really pivotal to political transformation going back over a century in Iran.

ABDELFATAH: The success of the constitutional revolution encouraged women to organize more. And by the 1920s...

OSANLOO: We also saw a thriving women's press - newspapers run by women, women journalists, articles about women, which was all very, very important to the grassroots feminist movements.


OSANLOO: By the '40s, we saw the emergence of an actual political party, the Iranian women's party, which developed a platform that demanded women's enfranchisement. And its activists actually were lobbying members of Iran's Parliament.

ABDELFATAH: But even as Iran modernized and the women's rights movement found success, they got pushback from conservatives, clerics and others saying the women really belonged at home. That modernization threatened the Iranian family.

OSANLOO: At the time, a very interesting retort to this idea of, you know, women should really focus on the family was the secretary general of the women's party, Fatemeh Sayah, famously announced, where there are no rights, there are no duties.


OSANLOO: These activists in the '40s and '50s really brought a consciousness about women's roles and status in society. You cannot have this false binary of private versus public status and rights for women. If you don't have public recognition of gender equality, then women are going to suffer and hence, their families are going to suffer.


ARABLOUEI: The victory of the constitutional revolution was short lived. By 1921, Reza Shah Pahlavi, a military strongman, took power in a coup. He basically made the parliament powerless. And in the 1950s, his son, Mohammad Reza, took over power. Even though he was essentially an absolute dictator, Mohammad Reza Shah was not immune to political pressure. In 1963, he introduced a reform program that was designed to modernize Iran. It included land redistribution and legal reform. And later on, an official plan for gender equality.

OSANLOO: The shah introduced a six-point reform program, which was referred to back then as the White Revolution.

ARABLOUEI: The White Revolution. It was a turning point for Iran.

OSANLOO: And in March 3, 1963, Iranian women were finally allowed to vote for the first time.


OSANLOO: This movement that started in 1905 finally yielded it's fruit of victory for women.

ARABLOUEI: And women's right to vote was just the start of the reforms.

OSANLOO: The attention to women's enfranchisement doesn't stop just with women voting. But we need to think about reforming the laws that affect everyday lives. And this came about with the 1967 law called the Family Protection Law that sought to correct women's inequality before the law. And in particular, in the context of divorce and child custody.

ABDELFATAH: Before the Family Protection Law, Iran, like many other countries in the world, had laws that were slanted towards men when it came to divorce. Men held all the power in these matters. But after this law, women could petition for divorce. They could also petition for custody of their children after their divorce. These reforms were so significant that they drew the ire of Iran's religious establishment, including a middle-aged cleric living in exile.

OSANLOO: Khomeini issued decrees saying these were un-Islamic. Women who are divorced under this law are still married. And if they get remarried, then they're basically being - they're prostituting themselves out. So this became a very important wedge issue - if you will - in that period.

ARABLOUEI: Why a wedge issue? Well, it's important to note that as the opposition to the shah heated up in the 1970s, his reforms were often associated with his pro-Western stance. So people would say that the reforms of the White Revolution were just more Western imperialism, consumerism, commodification, capitalism creeping into Iran. And so people from across the political spectrum who opposed the shah, who considered him a Western puppet, began to view the hijab, for example, as a political statement. A rejection of the shah. And once the Revolution happened and Iran's clerics began to seize power, they used the hijab and other cultural wedge issues as a way to impose control over the country.

OSANLOO: And they were able to say that we actually have a monopoly not only on legitimate violence, which is what every nation states leaders have, but now, also the values that we are saying come from our faith, as well.

ABDELFATAH: Khomeini would order the suspension of the Family Protection Law first passed under the shah. Suddenly, women weren't just ordered to wear hijab in public. They were banned from working certain jobs. They weren't allowed to dance in public. They weren't allowed to seek divorce without a court order. Men could just declare it verbally. And they had to get their husband's permission to travel out of the country. It was like the progress of the previous century was wiped away. But Arzoo says that ultimately, the Islamic Revolution wasn't just about Islam.

OSANLOO: What was new in the 1979 era was not Islam. Islam had been around in what we now call Iran for hundreds - actually 1,500 - years. What was new was the idea of a republic.

ARABLOUEI: And with it, a renewed commitment to the idea of rights.


ABDELFATAH: Coming up, the fight for equality begins in the Islamic Republic and the Revolution continues.

NICOLE SHARMINO (NPR LISTENER): Hi, this is Nicole Sharmino (ph) from Marion, Mass. And you are listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Part 2 - A Mirror of Legitimacy.


ABDELFATAH: Two decades after the Revolution, Arzoo Osanloo wanted to see up close and in person how women dealt with the legal system and how they were fighting for more rights.

OSANLOO: And I went and talked to a number of different lawyers, men and women lawyers, and I said, I want to talk about, you know, how are women getting their rights in Islam? And they, like, stopped me right there and looked at me and said, what are you talking about? We're a republic. We're not - women aren't getting their rights in Islam, women are getting their rights. And they're getting them through our civil codes. And you need to go and read the civil codes and you need to go - they told me to go and sit in on the courts yourself and see.

ABDELFATAH: Can I jump for a - 'cause I'm - I guess I'm a little confused because what was the rationale there? Like, aren't the civil codes being derived from the specific Islamic interpretation? Like, where - how are they rationalizing kind of the connection between, you know, those two things?

OSANLOO: That was my question, too. I kind of like, you know, looked down, I turned red. I was like, how am I getting this wrong? Well, actually, Iran has civil codes that are bodies of law that are derived in part from the Shar.

ARABLOUEI: Shar is short for Sharia law.

OSANLOO: But also, procedurally, they are civil codes that come from French and Belgian civil legal systems. So Iran's laws are not - let's say, you know, you don't open the Quran and say, OK, where are women's rights there? They're actually codifications of interpretations that have been approved by several layers.


ARABLOUEI: After the Revolution, a new constitution was ratified and the country adopted a complicated civil code. The democratically elected Parliament creates laws which a non-elected body called the Guardian Council can then veto based on whether or not they think that law conforms to Islamic law. This Guardian Council is composed of lawyers and clerics, all men, of course.

ABDELFATAH: But the multiple layers of authority also left some wiggle room. If you can make a case to the Guardian Council, you can potentially carve out more individual rights and have them sanctified as Islamic law. It was a kind of loophole, or for women's rights advocates, an opportunity.

OSANLOO: What struck me at that time was this emphasis on the language of rights, what I call rights talk. This was everywhere. - everywhere I looked, on posters, on publicity, advertisements, newspapers, television, people I interviewed, people who were just, like, ordinary citizens who were going about their lives. And they said, I just want my rights; I just want what's my due. And the reason that this struck me was going back to the 1979 revolution, when women protested the, you know, repeal or the suspension of the Family Protection Law and others. They were attacked for using the language of rights. They were attacked by the revolutionaries as, you know, rights talk is Western imperialist discourse. But now this Islamic republic, 20 years later, had sanctified and sort of legitimized a new rights talk as in conformity with Islam.

And what's more, this is a state that, in its constitution, has privileged efforts to improve women's status and rights in the post-revolutionary era as one of the aims of the revolution. So suddenly, what you have is the empirical measure of improvement in women's lives is now actually a measure of the success of the revolution. And I believe that this is something that the women who were very prominent at that time were holding up as a mirror of legitimacy to the state.

ABDELFATAH: The gauntlet was thrown. Women essentially said, if we're so important here, you'd better give us our rights.

OSANLOO: Let me just start with the Marriage and Family Protection Law. So this was suspended. It was never fully repealed. So there were some suggestion that some of the provisions were not in conformity with Islam, and some of these had to do with women being able to seek divorce.

Now, what happened after the revolution was that this was taken away. However, the civil code did state a number of articles under this provision under which women would be eligible to seek a judicial divorce. So these included, oh, if the husband is a drug addict, if the husband has left home, if the husband hasn't paid marital support for the wife and child. Women latched on those very few, like, five provisions, and they started to fight, and they had to fight by going into court. And I have so many interviews with women who said, I know the laws better than any judge or cleric because I had to learn them and fight for my rights. Women in Iran said to me, you don't have rights if you don't go after them.


ARABLOUEI: In 1997, there was a historic presidential election in Iran, where nearly 80% of eligible voters turned out, and the winner was a cleric named Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami. Western media portrayed him as a moderate.


MOHAMMAD KHATAMI (FORMER IRAN PRES): (Non-English language spoken).


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8 (REPORTER): The smiling face of moderation - or at least what's considered moderate in Iran. Fifty-four-year-old Mohammad Khatami's crushing defeat of his hard-line opponent followed campaign promises of more personal freedoms, human rights and greater democracy.

OSANLOO: And Khatami was really important for the emphasis - and due emphasis - he gave to the rule of law, to the language of rights, to the language of equality.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Life is so good (laughter). He had programs for the protection of the women and youths.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER (INTERVIEWER): Are you happy he won the election?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Very much. Very much.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: We chose him because we believe in him.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: I suppose that this is going to be a very nice future for us.

ARABLOUEI: This kind of sentiment was common. I remember how excited my mom was by this election. I remember how excited the younger members of my family were. It seemed like things were really going to change in Iran under Khatami. And in some ways, they did.

OSANLOO: So, for instance, under the administration previous to his, there was a sort of office that looked at women's affairs, mostly in the family. Khatami elevated this to a ministerial position, and he actually changed the name of the position to the Ministry of Women's Participation. So we moved from the realm of women being important to the family and family affairs, to women being important to public affairs, political participation.

ABDELFATAH: But the changes weren't just in civil law and politics. Things also changed culturally.

OSANLOO: I have cousins, a brother and sister, who were detained because they didn't look enough alike, and legally, what were they doing together? Once with Khatami, this kind of stuff stopped happening.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9 (REPORTER): Once a jailable offense, the authorities now turn a blind eye.

OSANLOO: Some social freedoms with Khatami were starting to emerge. Young people could walk together, you know, boyfriends and girlfriends hold hands in public.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: He has promised more rights, more freedom and a better life within the Islamic system.

ABDELFATAH: During the Khatami presidency, women began pushing more and more against the dress code, too. Fashion and clothing started to resemble the latest styles from other countries around the world. Hijabs were worn more loosely. But the changes weren't just aesthetic, and this was also a time where more women were elected to Parliament than any time since the revolution. And these elected officials didn't waste time. They proposed laws that would further strengthen the rights of women in divorce and protect them from discrimination. They were bold.

OSANLOO: This is around when we started to see a lot of pushback to women's ability to employ and make use of the actual existing Iranian constitution and the set of civil codes, enhance them and get rights and concessions.


ARABLOUEI: Coming up, Khatami leaves office, the clerics strike back, and the morality police come out.


MARK BROWN (NPR LISTENER): Hi, this is Mark Brown (ph) calling. You're listening to the coolest show on NPR, THROUGHLINE. Thanks. Bye.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Part 3 - the regime strikes back.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).


ARABLOUEI: In 2005, Mohammad Khatami left office after serving two terms as president. So Iranian voters went to the polls and elected a new president, a man who'd never held national office.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #10 (REPORTER): Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the presidential candidate who confounded all predictions.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #11 (REPORTER): Ahmadinejad is a religious conservative who's espoused hard-line social views.


OSANLOO: And so when Ahmadinejad becomes president, he actually campaigns on this platform that really speaks to a greater emphasis on so-called traditional roles, what some people might call conservative roles, of women as nurturers, raising the children and guiding the family.

ARABLOUEI: Ahmadinejad took a much more conservative line than Khatami. Under his rule, the name of the office called the Center for Women's Participation changed again to the Center for Women and Family.

OSANLOO: They actually had a contest. They said, we're going to have a new logo. We want people to participate. And what they emphasized in the logo was we want people to highlight women's relationship to family affairs and children. We never want to use the term woman, zan, apart from the expression of women and family or women and their children.


OSANLOO: The first thing I noticed was - when I went to Iran after Ahmadinejad became president was all of the women who worked in government offices were now forced to wear the full black chador. There is an uptick, again, of women's bodily comportment, their clothing, how they express themselves in public and a kind of surveillance of women and women's tone, the way they speak, the way they laugh, their attitudes.

ABDELFATAH: To be clear, this surveillance also included violence. Iran's morality police force was established in the 1990s to enforce social rules, like proper hijab for women. Under the Ahmadinejad administration, they became more aggressive in their enforcement, which included arrests, alleged beatings and sometimes lashings. This enforcement and other crackdowns on newly won freedoms weren't popular with people who supported the reforms that happened under Khatami. Iranians were not going to go back. So in 2009, when Ahmadinejad won his second term, protests erupted in what became known as the Green Movement.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #12 (REPORTER): The incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was announced as the overwhelming winner. But many Iranians refuse to believe it.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #13 (REPORTER): After a mass rally over charges of election fraud...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #14 (REPORTER): Protesters defied Friday's orders from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.


ARABLOUEI: That was the voice of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, basically warning protesters that there would be consequences. And there were. Some estimate millions of people participated in the protest of the Green Movement. Government forces cracked down hard, killing people in the street and arresting thousands. The regime was willing to go to great lengths to scale back the reforms many people - including women - had fought hard to win.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

OSANLOO: The discursive policies of the state, which always emphasize women, make women the signifiers of much, much more of not just the status of the country but the status of the revolution. Iran is a country that is still in a revolution. If you look at the constitution, it's the Constitution of the Revolutionary Islamic Republic. And so the way that the women are dressed comes to stand in for this timelessness of the revolutionary struggle. And so the idea of women sort of not wearing this - what does that mean for our incomplete revolutionary struggle that we're fighting?

ABDELFATAH: And so after the Green Movement was squashed by government repression, the work of the morality police went on, including the surveillance.

OSANLOO: In 2015, I was taking a plane to a province in the north. And I actually asked my friend, should I worry? Like, how conservative is it? It was summer. It was very hot. Do I have to wear socks with my shoes? And he's like, oh, don't worry about it. It's totally cool. Everybody's relaxed.


OSANLOO: I get on the plane, and this gentleman turns to me, looks at my feet and says, oh, what about your Islamic hijab? Nobody had ever said anything to me in all my years of going to Iran. And I said, excuse me? Who are you? And he said, oh, no, no, no. I'm sorry. I don't mean to offend you in any way, but, you know, they told us to - (non-English language spoken). I said, what's that? Oh, it's an Islamic maxim or principle. (Non-English language spoken). It's been translated by many people as commanding good and forbidding wrong. At its worst, it unleashes a sort of vigilantism. Or we can also see it as akin to like, you know, good Samaritan laws. If someone is on the floor, you know, bleeding, you go and help them.

And the gentleman in the row behind me said, you're right, Madam - to me - but don't say anything. Just let it go. They actually made a law that says civilians, like, other citizens or people in Iran can come up to you and say, hey, your hijab isn't nice. And I say this because it's very relevant to the murder, the alleged murder of Mahsa Amini, Mahsa Jina Amini.

Once it was, you know, brought to the attention of this morality police, the Gashte Ershad (ph) - the better term for this is guidance police. And I think we can also see how this is an echo of the (non-English language spoken), the guardianship of the jurisprudence. Because one of the big debates was, what does it mean to be a guide, a moral guide or a guardian of jurisprudence? Are you just somebody who's there to, like, suggest I change my practices, like, or are you there with veto power? And I think we know the answer to the (non-English language spoken) today. We know very well.




UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Say her name.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Say her name.

OSANLOO: What this Gashte Ershad unleashes now is this kind of policing of people's morality. And one - I was really struck by one headline in Iran's newspaper, which in very black letters after the death of Mahsa Jina Amini, was - was she guided? Ershad shod (ph)?


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

ABDELFATAH: Iranian women are some of the most educated in the Middle East. They work in every area of society - doctors, lawyers, members of Parliament. The clerics were never able to take those roles away. But that doesn't mean they still aren't trying to control women, and by extension, the entire society. It's a brutal cycle. People carve out more space and rights, and the regime tightens its grip in response.

OSANLOO: We have to ask, what does the severe enforcement by the state of women's dress codes mean in contemporary Iran? Because it's not just about Islam. It's not just about the state. It's about something greater. And it's about what women, not men, what women signify for the state beyond Iran, not just in Iran. It's a message about the Iranian Revolution. It's a message beyond even Iran's enemies. It's a message to Iran's allies. It's a message of the revolutionary values that have guided and led Iran's Islamic republic since 1979.

ARABLOUEI: Most of the people protesting across Iran today were born after the 1979 Revolution, like me, two generations who've only known life under an authoritarian regime that has used its own interpretation of Islamic law and values to control Iran. None of this is just about compulsory hijab. It's not even just about women's rights. This is part of a 100-year struggle by the Iranian people to assert their individual rights and humanity. But it has always been the case that women have been at the forefront of this struggle as the vanguard, just as they are today.


FAROOKZHAD: (Non-English language spoken).


ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me. And...



STEINBERG: Anya Steinberg.







ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks to Diba Mohtasham and D. Parvaz for their voiceover work.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks also to Tamar Charney, Anya Grundmann, Micah Ratner, Gerry Holmes, Larry Kaplow, Seyma Bayram and D. Parvaz for their assistance with this episode.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was mixed by James Willetts.

ABDELFATAH: Music for this episode was composed by Ramtin and his band, Drop Electric, which includes...




ARABLOUEI: And finally, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, please write us at [email protected]. Or hit us up on Twitter, @throughlinenpr.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

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