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Sparks of unextinguished bravery amidst the darkness in Iran

Boys accompanying women without hijabs. Women wearing hijabs protesting alongside those who refuse. Strangers sheltering beaten, tear-gassed protesters. And even a Free Hugs stall as an act of defiance. Filmmaker and poet Tara Aghdashloo chronicles the moments of light that keep her and other Iranians going into the new year. 

December 22 2022, 10.45am
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Before my first day of school in Tehran, my parents reminded me of a list of things not to let slip to any of the teachers: the specifics of our liberal values, if we had parties and who attended them, whether or not they pray every day, or wear the hijab, and our secular lifestyle in general. Like children everywhere, I was afraid of my teachers and principles, but my fears weren’t about being reprimanded for arriving late, or my grades or naughty behaviour - I was afraid for my family’s safety. So, when a teacher would ask about how we celebrated iftar at home during the month of Ramadan, I’d make up fanciful stories about it. Good practice for becoming a filmmaker later on.

In the 80s and 90s, Iran’s post-Islamic-Revolution and post-Iran-Iraq-War atmosphere was of a blossoming totalitarian system that had every intention of asserting its tentacles in all aspects of society. And so many became adept at having double lives. There was a public version, which was presented as an obedient facade; mandatory hijab and dress codes in public spaces, restrictions on women’s corporal and social freedoms like something as simple as women riding bicycles, limited choice of baby names, segregated public pools and beaches. When discos and bars were closed, people gathered in house parties and went on road trips and tucked away holiday homes, always with cash nearby to bribe intrusive officers.

Life went on, somehow, and my childhood was a relatively happy one. Over the next four decades since the 1979 revolution, these boundaries continued to be pushed and slightly redefined, but never officially changed. In private, some people bought alcohol from the black market and watched MTV and Western channels via satellite TV, socialising with whoever they wanted. Some were actually conservative and traditionally religious. This meant that people had a hard time trusting each other. Even at school, I was cautious about making friends. I automatically kept close to the children whose parents knew mine, or took time studying my peers over weeks and months before getting close to them, asking questions like: “so what do you watch at home?” Or, “how strict are you parents?” Trust was a luxury and it wasn’t ever obvious who to bestow it upon. Totalitarian regimes thrive off this kind of wariness. 

Yet today, more than three months into persistent protests against the regime, there appears to be an unprecedented sense of unity and solidarity among an otherwise mistrustful people. It’s a sentiment that is hard to accurately measure, given the increasingly tight restrictions on internet access, the filtering of social media, and absence of independent journalists on the ground. But from where I sit, despite an onslaught of arrests, killings, tortures and threats, there’s an overwhelming sense of not “us” against “each other”, but “us” against “the system.” The mass uprising has broken through the state’s strictly curated propaganda and self-serving narrative; and even though the regime holds its ground and there aren’t many discernable wins, there is a more intangible shift taking shape, making people feel connected. There are disagreements on the exact goals of the protests and how to manifest them, but every day, people are acting out, or thinking about, the possibility of a collective different future. It’s an Emperor’s New Clothes moment: the spell’s been broken. Suspicion is increasingly reserved for anything and anyone directly related to the systems of power: licensed  media, police, state-affiliated companies and individuals.

From the beginning of the protests one thing was clear: women on the frontlines. “Woman Life Freedom” has been foundational to this movement, and while there are a long list of demands that are not limited to the hijab, this slogan is a reminder of how this programme of artificial segregation and religious fundamentalism has failed, as both men and women chant for freedom in unison and support each other’s dignity. 

These are undeniably dark days for Iran; while it’s difficult to get accurate estimates, there have been reportedly more than 18,200 arrested, nearly 500 killed - including 65 children. Those arrested have been tortured, raped, some have been executed, and many more face the death penalty. This is not the first time Iranians have galvanised against their government, but this time, it seems both sides are approaching it with more vigour: an impassioned fight for change, and an impassioned fight against it. 

All you can do against this darkness is to collate the moments of light. These sparks of unextinguished bravery and empathy, each illuminating a choice to do the human thing over the thing that keeps you safe or keeps the status quo help us go on. For my own part, I jot down these moments, glimpsed from friends, and strangers on social media, in my notes app, returning to them when I need the energy. Here are a few. 

  • Strangers open their homes to hide protesters as they run away from armed riot police who won’t hesitate to kill on the spot.
  • Women who choose to wear the hijab support and march alongside those who would rather not. 
  • Young men and women stand on the streets with signs that read: Free Hug. For a society that was so afraid of being caught, this is a scene we couldn’t even imagine a few years ago. For women to feel comfortable enough with their bodies in public display. The regime has often been mocked for advertisements and billboards comparing women with hijabs to a lollipop with a wrapping, and those without to an unwrapped candy that can get attacked by insects and ants. Now, unwrapped and confident, young women are showing not only that they can make decisions for themselves, but that they don’t view their peers, men and women, as an infestation to protect against, but as allies. 
  • Anonymous donors work with pro-bono lawyers to settle expensive bail funds for incarcerated protesters.
  • When they’re not protesting, people make eye contact and smile at each other on the street. They start having friendly conversations at shops or at the bus stop.
  • A woman is released from prison and is subsequently hospitalised given how badly she was beaten. She returns home to flowers sent by the local florist, and the neighbourhood hairdresser cuts her hair for free. 
  • A badly tear-gassed protester is tended to by a woman bringing water from her house.
  • Strangers show up at the notorious Evin prison to hand out tea, snacks and cigarettes to the parents of the imprisoned who camp out every day in hopes of news. A dangerous move as they could also get in trouble.
  • Iranians in the diaspora relentlessly share news of Iran, translating updates into English, French, Russian, Italian, Hebrew… echoing the voices of those back home. Some of those in the diaspora have never been to Iran, or haven’t been able to return because of their background, activism, or reporting. Like me. 
  • Some buy VPN access for those in Iran. 
  • A famous incarcerated activist, Hossein Ronaghi, was on hunger strike for 60 days and his health was badly affected. He was transferred to a hospital in the early hours of the morning. Upon hearing this via his family’s social media, hundreds of people rallied to the hospital to show their support and ensure that there isn’t foul play in the hospital. All of this with the knowledge that they’re running to the lion’s den-- the guards were ready for them. Many were arrested that night. Some were shot. A friend of mine had a gun to his head and got into a fight with a paramilia officer, and was beaten so bad he couldn’t open his eyes. He was able to flee. But then he said to me, “I’m not afraid of them at all anymore.” 
  • Many women refuse to wear the hijab every day. They walk around knowing this makes them a very obvious target. 
  • A woman walks alone without a hijab on the way home one day. She turns into an empty alleyway where a few special guards were standing. Two boys, clock the situation and her fear. They rush to her, each walking on either side of her and pretend to know her, until she passes the guards. 
  • Zahra Lori, an all-girl school principal in Kerman, refuses to give the names and security footage of her protesting students to officers. She is summoned numerous times, and dies shortly after. No cause of death is disclosed.
  • In an economy already under massive pressure, hundreds of shops close down on coordinated strikes, knowing that it makes them targets for the state. Just recently a famous publication house - Cheshmeh - was seized after participating in strikes, but there are more of them planned. 
  • The family of a murdered dissident makes and hands out food to protesters. 
  • Many celebrities announce their support for the movement. Many of them are cautioned or arrested.
  • An old man walks by a few women without their hijab, laughing and walking together, and says, “your hair is beautiful - hope you always laugh like this.” 

 

I could go on. These big, little moments of humanity are the ones we hold on to. They’re beyond brave. They’re often spontaneous, as if coming from somewhere deep in people’s subconscious, as if suddenly woken up from being numb. While the regime doubles down on its rhetoric, conducting sham few-day trials with no independent legal representation and ordering summary executions, this implosion of love among people can’t be ignored. These are the intangible jewels affirming that no matter how bad it gets, this fight’s already ours.

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