by Maria Katsounaki
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi claims that people in his country have freedom of expression. He also branded the protests that have broken out there as unacceptable “acts of chaos,” which is why the army is getting ready to intervene, certainly multiplying the number of casualties when it does: to defend freedom of expression. Change appears to be afoot in Iran following the backlash over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police in Tehran.
Isn’t there an obvious contradiction that a country claiming to be a democracy has a special police force tasked with carrying out sartorial controls and upholding the hijab dress code in public? And has the army on standby, just in case? Of course, when a republic also defines itself as Islamic, none of what we associate with the former term really counts. “Murdered over a hijab! How much more humiliation?” runs one of the slogans being chanted in Tehran’s streets right now.
Artists too are in peril, with many being jailed as dissidents. Truth be told, can you really be an artist and blindly support a theocratic regime? Visual artist Shirin Neshat lives in New York and “Persepolis” graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi in Paris: The list of diaspora Iranians is a long one.
The Iranian government shut down the internet in order to drastically curb the dissemination of information about the protests and pushed the country further into isolation. Conflict seems inevitable. Like most uprisings, the event that triggered it was just the spark. The fact that society is ready to combust is well documented, and in this specific case, the cause is the demand embodied in another slogan: “Woman, life, freedom!”
Artists had been conveying the message that the people of Iran are fed up long before television and computer screens around the world filled with images of women burning their headscarves. Sure, it was a message that had undergone some processing, yet it was no less raw or realistic.
Now it is society that has thrust itself into the spotlight and demands to be heard. Its courage and sacrifices will determine the next step and shape the next day. Lives will be lost and others will be won. And an improvised flag made of chopped-off hair will become a symbol and a source of inspiration. More importantly, it will become a reminder that there is no life or art without freedom of choice.