The Jina Revolution

More than four months have passed since Jina Mahsa Amini's death, and protests in Iran against the regime continue to this day, as do reports of executions of protesters. What does this revolution mean for Iranians in the German diaspora? What tools of solidarity do they use, what visions do they dare to have for the future of Iran? And what role does art play as a means of resistance? Azadeh Sharifi talks about this with Azadeh Ganjeh and members of the Woman* Life Freedom Collective Ozi Ozar and Anahita Safarnejad.

Azadeh Sharifi: Hello, everybody. Thank you for joining this discussion. I’m really looking forward to it. I was asked to do the moderation. I’m Azadeh Sharifi. I go by she and her. I am a theatre and performance scholar from Germany, but I’m currently an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. I am Iranian in the German diaspora. My family came in the 1980s as refugees. I grew up in a refugee camp and I didn’t have a German passport until I was 18. My parents were leftists, against the Shah regime, and they also lived in hiding during the Mullah regime until we had to flee the country. So this is my Iranian heritage. 

Azadeh Ganjeh: I am also Azadeh – Ganjeh. This name has something to do with the year we have been born in. It has a long history with cultural and political reasons behind it, I think. I go by she or her, and I am also a performance and theatre scholar. I did my PhD in philosophy and, in particular, theatre studies in Switzerland, but I lived in Iran before, and afterwards, I moved back there. I was an assistant professor at the School of Performing Arts at the University of Teheran for nearly five years, and then I had to leave the country, and now I am residing in Berlin as a scholar at risk. Meanwhile, I am a member of the Philipp-Schwartz-Initiative and a fellow researcher at the University of Hildesheim, the Institute for Media, Theatre and Popular Culture. I am also a performance artist, a theatre director, play writer and dramaturge. The field is more theatre for social purposes, for democracy and development. And I think I should add, it’s been nine months that I am living in Berlin, so I am new here. 

Ozi Ozar: My name is Ozi, I go by they/them, and no pronouns in German. I have been studying dramaturgy at Goethe University Frankfurt, and before that I have been studying theatre and film directing in Teheran. I have been living in exile since 2018, officially since 2019. Since the beginning of Covid, I have been focussing on working with multimedia and social media platforms and trying out “theatre” on digital platforms, and how to approach mostly queer topics on these platforms and research these perspectives. With the beginning of the current revolution in Iran, I felt that I should use my platform to publish educational material and now I am in the middle of it.

“I am interested in how to put these things that we are experiencing into art.” Anahita Safarnejad

Anahita Safarnejad: My name is Anahita. Numbers cannot define me, because who cares how much or for how long. My heart lives in a borderless utopia. What I burn for is words and cinema. I seek light in darkness. I love diving within, living it and expressing it through the language of cinema, expressing it through the magic of words. I am a filmmaker. I studied cinema at Soore High School and went to Soore University afterwards. For those who don’t know, Soore is one of the really Islamic organisations that have a university. People have asked me how I got into that university, but that’s another story. I was studying cinema directing. I moved to Berlin in 2016 to study producing cinema in Babelsberg. I had just finished my studies when the revolution in Iran started. Such a coincidence that my country was also going through a transformation phase. So we just hold each other’s hand and we are running towards victory, hopefully. I mostly try to just stick to the art. Because as Ozi said, every time, if I try to talk about politics, it requires me to also read more, but now I am interested in how to put these things that we are experiencing into art, which is also important, to bring people on board. That’s our mission, I guess. 

Azadeh S.: There are so many similarities but also quite some differences. And for sure, the difference in the upbringing – fleeing Iran as a child and growing up in the diaspora versus coming or fleeing Iran as a student or adult – can create major differences in point of view. But let's start with introducing your collective – the Woman* Life Freedom Collective – and then connecting it to the events that happened in Iran.

“As a collective, we practise something that is called ‘deep democracy.’ There is no veto option in this system, but we have an awareness concept.” Ozi Ozar

Ozi: The collective started with a Telegram group. It actually started in front of Südblock on Kottbusser Tor at a solidarity demo. It was an extremely welcoming situation where we could find each other. And that’s one of the things that this whole collective owes to the Kurdish community. For the beginning, we should really address that the work and the resistance of this community built up the possibility for us to make a connection with each other. I knew Anahita before, but I didn’t know that Anahita would just jump into this demo and into organising political acts. And in this gathering in front of Südblock, we realised that we want to do something. We created a Telegram group and then, just like a mushroom, it was an explosion of people. We suddenly had over 100 people, including some we didn’t even know. When we started this collective, we saw that we needed to educate ourselves but also understand what perspectives need to be developed – especially queer ones. Because from the very beginning, we were very critical with the usage of the term “woman.”  We needed to really address what we mean by “woman“. And also something that needs to be mentioned, “jin” in Kurdish doesn’t have this colonial, binary understanding of a “female” or “cis female” body. But then again, even in the Kurdish community, there is homophobia and queer antagonism to be addressed. So how do we address it, without changing the slogan? And I think, we are one of the only few collectives that still put the asterisk, the star, after “woman”, which puts us in a rather fragile position, because we are the “leftist,” “liberal” group that is “intersectional,” but at the same time it opens a door for the queer community to come to us and talk. We have created a safer space to have this sort of communication. As a collective, we practise something that is called “deep democracy.” Basically, there is no veto option in this system, but we have an awareness concept in which, when someone feels that they are discriminated against, the whole collective sits in a safer space and discusses what has been done wrong there. And I think that was one of those parts of our collective existence that brought us really forward. 

Anahita: It was really beautiful and empowering that we went together. I felt like I was drowning in the tears of people around me, even if I couldn’t see them. I was hugging everybody. It was like a feeling of togetherness, and this experiencing pain collectively was a kind of a phenomenon to bond together more. We have this mission, we have this anger, but also we have this power together, so let’s do something.

“What happened in these events after this uprising here in Germany was kind of a big revolutionary step for changes for marginalized groups inside the diaspora even.” Azadeh Ganjeh

Azadeh S.: It’s very interesting for me, because my experience with going to demonstrations here in Toronto wasn’t really nice. Although there is a huge community, their political position is opaque to me. I did not feel safe. But your movement, a movement of people coming rather recently from Iran, or being really connected to the people on the streets of Iran, that is something that your collective represents. And that is really inspiring. 

Azadeh G.: I’m not a member of the collective, but I’m a “consumer” of what the collective did in many aspects. As an Iranian person, I didn’t feel like being in the diaspora before all this happened, because I couldn’t even find my community. I feel like I became a member of the diaspora through the events. Because there was a collective, or a community, forming, despite all the differences. The first time I met Anahita was at Kotti. I think it was the first demonstration in Berlin. We were all very shocked about what happened. And I was actually feeling from the first moment, when Iranians, and in particular many women, gathered in front of Kasra Hospital after the brutal murder of Jina Mahsa Amini, and they wanted to protest as an act of mourning, but they couldn’t even form a community. They couldn’t even stand there and chant. I saw my former students just that morning, the ones who are now like friends and colleagues, I saw them gathering at the University of Tehran just after the burial of Jina Mahsa Amini, and they were demonstrating, and I felt the ache in my body. I felt that I needed to move. I needed to do something. It’s more than just writing or posting things. I really needed to appear in the public space for that. And what happened at Kotti was somehow therapeutic. They went on the stage, cut their hair and had a very performative appearance, which already started online and I felt, wow, this online performative thing that happened is coming to the streets of Berlin. And then, the very interesting thing was that mostly it was pictures of Anahita and others who were there on that day which were actually going around, as that performative act of hair cutting. And I felt like, wow, they are doing great, and they are doing something. And something is happening, something can happen, and there are people who I can relate to. Then the collective had other demonstrations and protests, and I joined, and I really found the idea of not having any flags very helpful at the beginning. And I do go with the idea that Ozi mentioned, because meanwhile I saw many discussions, to be nice, with the board of discussion during some demonstrations from other parties, or other groups of Iranians who are in diaspora who asked to have their flag. And I remember there was a very important question: Why do the Kurdish and also the LGBT+ movement have their flags while we don’t? And I think that was a very important question, not only for these events, but also for what happened after the “Jina Revolution” – let me call it that way – concerning the right of appearance. And the right of bringing marginalised groups to the stage, to the stage of the street, to the stage of the public space. Not as a group who can be active, or try to find a space to be active, but to have them in the centre of attention. They are the ones who actually have to have flags, because they are oppressed. Not only by my own country, and the state, and the rules, and everything there, but also by us in the diaspora. And I think it was very important. I found it very effective, I found it very helpful, and I found it very illuminating. I think what happened in these events which were formed after this uprising here in Germany was kind of a big revolutionary step for changes for marginalized groups inside the diaspora even. 

Azadeh S.: You have said it beautifully. The Jina Revolution, the feminist revolution, is led by LGBTQIA+, female, Kurdish, Baluchi, marginalised groups within Iran. They are fighting for acknowledgement, they are fighting to be able to speak their languages, to live their lives, without the constant fear of being oppressed. But how do people in the diaspora react? What stand do they have? What does it mean that people endorse the son of the previous Shah? What role does for example Deutsche Welle Persian play when they give him a platform to pronounce his chauvinistic and backwards ideas? I do remember from our previous talks that you, Azadeh, were mentioning that it often seems there is only the political “vision” for Iran: going backwards, i.e. going back to monarchy. For me as a German-Iranian, it is appalling that people live in Germany for decades, in a democratic country, but still long for a corrupt and broken system of monarchy. I see big similarities to “Reichsbürger*innen” and their crude political ideas.

“For me, approaching people who are your opposition or who discriminate against you is not a new thing.” Ozi Ozar

Azadeh G.: This going backwards is not only what some groups inside the diaspora are asking for, or maybe people in Iran are affected by. I think this is a vision of Orientalism. And when they put us in this category, they expect us to go backwards – they don’t expect from us something like deep democracy. And I think this is the problem with some media, like what you mentioned with Deutsche Welle. Who are we? How do they define us? How do they see us? How did they characterise us? What is the scenario, what is the story that they have written about us? And I think the very important thing that is happening during this uprising is, this is actually broken and some are trying to put this broken thing back together, which I don’t like. I don’t like this kind of trying to rebuild their expectations on us. And using us as their own actors, like their own characters, putting us on the scene. This is what I would like to resist.

Ozi: Maybe I can say something about monarchy, because as long as I was living in Iran I never thought that I would go to a demonstration with lion and sun flags and actually have to speak with these people. Because as the organising person, who is kind of mediating with the audience, you don’t want them to fight with each other – you need to approach these people and talk with them. For me, approaching people who are your opposition or who discriminate against you is not a new thing. Before this whole thing about Iran, I was just an entertainer. In comedy, I find a power where I can actually approach people. And I built a queer community for myself, or around me. But social media or being open out there is never safe. And me, as a person like this, going to a demo, in front of a person with patriarchy dripping from their eyes – how to approach that person? At the demo on the 1st of October, there was a moment where I really made this leap. A few times I had to approach small groups with lion and sun flags – even though we asked everyone to not bring any flags other than Kurdish or Pride flags – and ask them to not make a cluster which was not a peaceful conversation. There were many people in the demonstration, 10.000 people and we were prepared only nearly 2.000 people, therefore it was evident to us that we couldn't control everything.
Afterwards, I held a speech there. I went onto the truck and I said to everyone, “I talked to every one of you, the ones with the Kurdish flag, the ones with the pride flag, the ones with the lion and sun flag, to all of you fighting with each other and swearing at me. This is not the time for this fight. Let’s just get rid of the Islamic Republic, and then we need to sit down democratically and talk with each other, because this in-fighting won’t bring us anywhere.” And then I cut my hair off, on the truck, and I came down with the scissors and gave them to people in the audience and asked them to help me cut my hair. And there were lots of people with the lion and sun flag who helped me with this. This was a moment where we understood that we can talk with each other, we can understand that we are fighting the same common enemy, but we need to understand where the red lines are. So all in all, my task from the past four months has been to think about how to make a safer space, and how to make a situation where the people with lion and sun flags can also feel that they can come there and to avoid conflict. Because we should be honest: Lots of the people with this flag are kids who were born into the revolution, their parents fled the country and they only know part of the history. For many, the flag does not even represent the Pahlavi dynasty – they just use it. And we need to make it possible to get in contact with each other and speak, because our division is one of the things the Islamic Republic is also nurturing itself from. But, all in all, it doesn’t matter how much we try to make this room. As long as the other communities don’t try to critically engage themselves with themselves, it does not bring us anywhere. Because up until now, Reza Pahlavi did not say, “Okay, my father was not the best person on the planet, these things happened and I will try to fix them.” You know, they never take any stand on what has happened, and that’s not how you get minorities behind you. 

Anahita: I think the solution for us is to realise that if we want to do a revolution, we have to have a revolution for ourselves. We have to make this revolution internally, and then we have to put ourselves outside of our comfort zone and seek change. And that’s why I have a problem with the monarchy, because if you want to change something, you cannot stick to what you have – you have to give birth to something new. And as long as you stick to what was, you cannot do it. And for me, I think, a solution is to realise that each of us – almost all the Iranians raised in the Islamic Republic – have to accept that we have the Islamic Republic kind of pattern of thinking inside ourselves, and then we can go through it. Then we can criticise ourselves and ask ourselves, “This pattern in which I’m thinking right now – is it my own, or is it what I was given during this life I had?” Not criticising ourselves to feel guilty about it, but to just understand this brainwashing and how we can go further and understand what is going on. 
So I believe that this revolution has to take place within each person, even me. When I’m sitting here and talking, I have to be open about where this kind of reactionist thinking is coming from. Because now, to be honest, all of us are in a situation that we have like this glass and we can see each other’s scars. They are open and they are bleeding. I believe everybody needs to educate themselves. As for me, I learned a lot during these 100 days. It has been like a compact lesson of history, but in a practical way which helps us also to understand that that was exactly what the Islamic Republic wanted from us: to separate from each other, to not know what the Baluch language is, or where the Baluch people come from, for example, or what is their culture. This separation happened for years and years, also in our jokes. People were against each other. And now, what really pisses me off is that people outside, in the diaspora, have the freedom to talk about the situation, to be the voice of the voiceless. But they don’t – they are not their voice. We don’t need the monarchy, we don’t need anybody to rule us. So I think it’s a betrayal to use this voice and to not listen to the people.

“We have to make this revolution internally, and then we have to put ourselves outside of our comfort zone and seek change.” Anahita Safarnejad

Azadeh S.: My parents were part of the leftist student movement during the Shah regime. My mother went to prison as a very young person, like many other young Iranian women at that time. In 1978, people went into the streets because they were hungry, they did not have access to education, and illiteracy was so high in Iran. Iran had a lot of natural resources that have always attracted imperial powers, but the wealth was never distributed among the people. And as we want to remember correctly, the Shah was implemented by the US and UK imperial powers after what is now well known as “Operation Ajax” or the Coup d’Etat of 1953. The first democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown because of his attempt to nationalise the oil companies and the Shah was re-instated. All the political events that followed are built on a corrupt system that never was for the Iranian people but just for keeping power and wealth. So, when the revolution in 1978 started, the left-wing parties and groups aligned themselves with the Islamic groups in order to get rid of the Shah regime. But they got betrayed, they got murdered and exiled – for example Abolhassan Banisadr, the first president after the Iranian revolution who was elected with the votes of the left-wing groups. And that’s why I’m very cautious about coalitions with people who have a rather fascistoid ideology, exalting a nation and the “Aryan” race above the diverse communities and ethnicities and standing for a centralised autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, i.e. Reza Pahlavi. So, in that sense, it is a betrayal by the diaspora. 
I would like to come back to our own practices, which are more or less artistic and academic. Which roles can art play? And how can institutions like HAU create space? I myself am very cautious and I do have institutional critique. But at the same time I am all in for the actions and interactions that Gayatri Spivak suggests as affirmative sabotage. And I also find Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s notion of “the undercommons” helpful. A theory and practice coming from Black radical tradition referring to the ungovernable realm of social life, the place where we – colonised, queer, otherwise marginal – make meaning with each other. 

Anahita: I was thinking about Feminista Berlin, where we were talking about a possible exhibition with all kinds of artworks: poems, art installation, videos, a section where you hear the recorded story of the Revolution. They call it “Diary of Revolution”. To make a space, to use the resources we have, and make a place for everyone who wants to engage with the art. For example, as Tehran Art Circle, we don’t have any money now, but we’re trying to make this installation every week. And that’s what the art’s mission is: to express the situation. 

Ozi: How can we have access to resources, how can we make podium discussions, or whatever we are doing right now? It took nearly five months, because institutions are lazy, because of the structure that is imposed on them. And also because they are not interested in certain topics. We have the experience with Ukraine where everyone was going suddenly to the borders, helping Ukrainians from there. And it’s great, we should do this – don’t get me wrong. But only 50 kilometers away, other refugees were dying a month earlier and no one really cared. So how do we make marginalised causes visible?
So I think the easiest thing that cultural institutions can do is to reach out to groups like the Woman* Life Freedom collective and ask how they can support – for example, with stipends for people who are working in this field, to help them go further.

“As people who want to represent their countries, as people who kind of try to be transnational, not international, we need a ‘third space’.” Azadeh Ganjeh

Azadeh G.: I think the problem with Iranian artist-activists is that cultural institutions are objectifying us. Do they really want to give us agency? I think what we really need is all kinds of agencies, and I would like to quote Gayatri Spivak: we should look at varieties of agency. And to do that, we have to answer some questions, like, how can we conceptualise migrant agency? And how can we actually reach communities in the diaspora who have a country, a homeland, which has been conquered? We feel like we have a country that has been conquered, which is kind of strange, but it’s our feeling. I think it’s the same with different groups, with different political beliefs. And in a way we all try to be a transnational political entity, transnational artists. And are we actually trying to operate on behalf of our entire people? No, we can’t be operating on behalf of an entire people of Iran. And if we believe that, then we need different groups to have agency. 
Azadeh, you mentioned that you were just a child when you arrived in Germany. And you mentioned that your experience is different from ours, including in terms of representation. I would like to say that many of these cultural institutes perhaps found it easier to access those who grew up already inside of their structure. I saw in many events that moderators were among the second or third generation, which was really very nice. But I also found a lack of varieties of agency. I would like to ask, what are the possibilities that we can communicate as a social, political activist? And what possibilities can these cultural institutions give us? And I think one problem in Germany is that we are given a second space. And this is not what we need. As people who want to represent their countries, as people who kind of try to be transnational, not international, we need a third space. A “Thirdspace”, as Edward W. Soja talks about it, is a real space but for example digital. People can be there with different parts of their identity and “conditions and locations of social and cultural exclusion have their reflections in symbolic conditions and locations of cultural exchange.” HAU4 – the digital stage of HAU – is such a space for me, which allows these different policies. It is inside the German institution, and you are still able to make a Thirdspace where different circumstances are possible. For example, there are many materials that we receive online in this uprising. This uprising is extremely performative. This uprising really relates to the performing arts. What we see in the street are like a performance, they are performative in the street. People who are activists in Iran can actually be their own voice, they can actually have their own stage, a digital stage, an online stage. They post videos of their activities. They post videos of their activism online. In the beginning of the uprising, we always heard that people in Iran asked us in the diaspora to be their “voice.” And we tried to be their voice, but we lost track. They themselves can have their own voice. We can give them this stage. But we can try to create a structure, because agency needs a structure. Without a structure, agency is not established. Therefore, we need discourse to make a Thirdspace possible. 

Azadeh S.: It is beautiful to listen to all of you! I myself see the necessity to bring the cause to our allies within the racialised and marginalised communities, the BIPoC community, because there is a long-lasting solidarity. It’s not just about making the White audience, making the German Dominanzgesellschaft listen to the causes, but rather finding out who our real allies are and whom you can rely on and find the resources. And again, for me, there is already a network of BIPoC community activists which I call home, a home in the diaspora, that shares the same values and visions. And maybe we can end with visions for Iran.

“Hope something that we have to practise every day.” Azadeh Sharifi

Anahita: I have a lot of beautiful visions. I mean, if you can close your eyes and envision, what is your image of a free Iran? For me, it’s the acceptance that we are such a rich culture that it is not limited, and we have to accept that we are diverse and then start to learn from each other. One of the most goosebumping moments when I think about a free Iran: That the children are literally reading the history and also learning about the cultures. And the freedom of expression. After 44 years of repression, of suppression, people now finally can express themselves. All that dead art, now coming out of the grave and haunting the Islamic Republic. That, for me, is one of the things I envision. And I hope that this loop is broken, this loop of blood is broken. That we don’t face a nation by borders again. This is what my motivation is, and also not closing ourselves off to all kinds of traumatising situations that have happened in Iran. We are still only seeing the tip of the iceberg. If this is broken, then we know what is under water. We need to  put our attention there, because our attention can be their safety. We cannot just forget about it. We cannot ignore that the new generations are being mentally and physically tortured. So this is also our responsibility, to acknowledge it and help with healing. You know you cannot expect a broken community to build something new. We need to realise that we have to start by ourselves, and the revolution needs to happen internally, and then we come together and think about structures. 

Ozi: I want to be honest with you: I’m not an optimistic person. And I think there has been a certain reality that I’ve been living since 2019. I don’t believe that there is a future for me in that country. So regardless of what happens in Iran, I really don’t think there will be a safer space for me or people like me to exist there. I think my vision for this revolution and the reason I am continuing is so that I don’t feel guilty later, that I didn’t help the discourse and that’s why this thing is happening. This sense of inactivity, of not taking part, not using your expertise in the field that is necessary. We all need to play a part. My vision is that the generation of people who have the same troubles as I do and the next generation don’t have to go through as much rough shit as I went through, and have rather more welcoming or more approachable surroundings for them, where they can fulfil their needs and stand up for their rights. You know, really, discourse really changes things. I’m very happy that a community exists for me on social media and I am welcome there. I hope that the next generation can have access to the free internet, to find this society for themselves as well. 

Azadeh G.: I have missions and I have visions. My mission has been and will remain being a link, to be a field for connecting what is happening there to here. And it’s not only a social mission – it’s also for myself ,because as a person living in the diaspora, I am very much afraid of becoming detached, of not having direct access to what is happening. So my mission is to be connected. My vision for the future, for the politics of Iran, I don’t really know. I would like to have democracy in my country. And I think one definig feature of people in the diaspora has always been, theoretically, looking forward to going back to their homeland. Is this true about us? I don’t know. And for this, I really hope – as a theatre scholar, as a performance art activist – to have cultural hybridity in my country. I’d love to see a hybrid situation for culture, for art. I would like to have freedom of speech in the future. I think this is very necessary: freedom, knowledge, accessibility for every group of society. I think that the situation for marginalised groups in Iran has slowly been changing. I know there is huge support from people in Iran for these marginalised groups, but they have never had real rights. So we need real changes in laws. We need a new constitutional law. This means changes for democracy, for human rights, for freedom of speech. There are different kinds of duties, different possibilities of agency, and we have to conquer them. Thank you. I would like to remain optimistic for many years to come.

Azadeh S.: Beautiful visions! Even the ones without an optimistic outcome. In my research, I work with postcolonial and decolonial scholars and writers coming from marginalised, indigenous and racialised groups. My thinking is informed by Black feminism, Black womanism and queer scholars. And for my vision, I want to quote Mariame Kaba, an Afro-American activist from the Black Lives Matter movement who said, “Hope is a discipline” – something that we have to practise every day. It comes within times of despair, and it is not something which we should let go of. And even in these times when the violence and oppression from the Islamic regimes seems to overpower the people, we need hope as our daily artistic, academic and activist practice. Thank you for the beautiful talk!

This conversation took place on 20.1.2023 via zoom.

Save the date:
On Violence #5: Iran – A Feminist Revolution and Beyond
With Chowra Makaremi, Kamran Matin and Nina Vabab, Moderation: Bahar Noorizadeh

7.2., 19:00 / HAU1

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