For our fifth episode, panellist Clare Francis discusses the interplay of poetry and protest in the Iranian state with Dr. Fatemeh Shams, an activist, award-winning poet, and Persian literary scholar. Alongside host Neema Jayasinghe, they explore the boundaries of art and activism in Iran, where successive regimes have historically sought to enforce strict limitations around acceptable versus unacceptable forms of activism. Protest movements challenge these boundaries in myriad creative ways, but they are at constant risk of co-option by the state. By examining the intersection of poetry and protest in Iran’s women-led uprising – known globally by the catch cry ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ – Dr. Shams gives voice to both the challenges and the revolutionary potential of women’s activism in Iran.
‘Keep amplifying the voices of Iranian people… If they do not make headlines, it doesn’t mean the movement is dead, or over. It’s just under the skin of the society, like an active volcano waiting for another moment to erupt.’Dr. Fatemeh Shams
Iran has a long history of popular protest which predates the Islamic Republic itself. To begin, we explore the historical continuities between the current uprising and other historical protest movements in Iran. Dr. Shams tells us that we can understand the 1905-11 Constitutional Revolution as the genesis of later mass protest movements, including the current uprising. Women, as activists and intellectuals, were politically awakened by this movement. By the beginning of the 20th century, many Iranian women publicly opposed the misogyny and hypocrisy of the other intellectuals and religious clerics of the time.
‘We must avoid the misconception that this is the first time Iranian women have revolted against the patriarchy.’Dr. Fatemeh Shams
In the mid-twentieth century, Iranian women activists fought to reform marriage and inheritance laws in Iran. Therefore, from a historical perspective, we must acknowledge that Iranian women have been fighting for their rights for over a century. Yet, Dr. Shams appreciates the uniqueness of the contemporary ‘moment’ in Iran. While women have always played an integral role in Iranian revolutions and popular movements – from the 1905 Constitutional Revolution until the 2009 Green Movement – the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ movement represents the first time in Iranian history that women’s rights are decidedly at the forefront.
Our conversation then shifts to Dr. Shams’ membership of a feminist collective of Iranian activists, which has recently published the Iran Women’s Bill of Rights, calling for equality for women to be enshrined in the future Constitution of Iran, in accordance with the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Dr. Shams speaks of how Iranian women, like women elsewhere, have always been excluded from the corridors of power and decision-making during critical moments in the past. By publishing the Iran Women’s Bill of Rights, the collective seeks to learn from history by ensuring that the voices, needs, and rights of women – and other marginalised populations – cannot be pushed to the margins. Dr. Shams notes that the Bill of Rights was developed in consultation with international human rights law experts so that it could one day form part of a new Constitution of Iran.
‘Women’s rights are a representation of the rights of all marginalised bodies.’Dr. Fatemeh Shams
Dr. Shams’ membership of the Iranian feminist collective is part of her lifelong commitment to activism, both with Iran and, later, as part of the Iranian diaspora. While she became an activist as a university student in Tehran, her involuntary exile following the 2009 Green Movement led her to engage in new forms of cyber activism. Cyberactivism has allowed many diaspora activists to participate in and organise protests, and to create educational and creative content in service of social justice goals. Dr. Shams notes that social media has facilitated greater connectivity among the Iranian diaspora community. In our present moment, the reason for the ‘unprecedented unity’ of the diaspora is the noble cause of the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ movement: human dignity and bodily autonomy. So, despite the restrictions imposed on the internet within Iran, it has played a tremendous role in uniting supporters from the global diaspora.
‘For poets, this pattern – resisting through words, and the state responding through force – has been a pattern we have seen over our history.’Dr. Fatemeh Shams
Poetry has played an important historical role in the struggle for systematic change in Iran. Dr. Shams notes that poetry is intertwined with the lives and identities of Iranian people, reflecting the centrality of poetry to the Persian language and Iranian national identity. This importance is visible in poetry’s formative role in political activism; in the past seven months alone, poets who were outspoken in favour of the women-led uprising were immediately captured and imprisoned. Even now, dozens of Iranian writers remain in prison. Nonetheless, the Iranian affinity for poetry is reflected in the creative outpouring that has marked the uprising, as embodied by the chanting of social and political slogans in the streets of Iran.
‘What the slogan [‘Woman, Life, Freedom’] offers us, as nothing else does, is that affect, that emotional and affective force that you only understand if you are in the streets, with the people, at the forefront of the protests.’Dr. Fatemeh Shams
Dr. Shams highlights the importance of understanding the uprising’s famous catchcry – ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ – and its origins in grassroots Kurdish women’s movements. The historical and political genesis of the slogan, which was first chanted at the funeral of Jina (or Mahsa) Amini in Saqqez, Kurdistan Province, reveals that the movement is about the rights of all marginalised bodies. In this context, we must remain alert to the first demand of the revolutionary uprising. Unlike ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’, other protest slogans throughout history have sought to slander Iranian authorities through crude references to mothers, sisters, or genitalia. Dr. Shams notes that these slogans are antithetical to the feminist spirit of the current uprising, and reveal deep wells of misogyny and patriarchy.
We discuss the influence of Dr. Shams’ upbringing, in a relatively conservative social context, on her own poetic work. She tells us that she became an activist when she got to know herself as a woman because she had to resist patriarchal treatment from a very young age. It required an activist spirit; you had to be actively engaged in what was happening around you, and then actively resist and defy it as well. During her late teenage years, Dr. Shams’ poetry took on new life. It became a refuge, in which she could write about experiences – dancing in public, or eroticism – which could not be discussed elsewhere. Later, the loss, displacement, and exile which followed the 2009 Green Movement deeply inspired her poetry. Poetry, for Dr. Shams, serves both as a form of activism and is informed by her activism; yet her activism is also informed by her poetry – they are constantly in interaction with one another.
‘Poetry became a refuge, and at the same time, a place where I could speak about experiences that I could not otherwise discuss’.Dr. Fatemeh Shams
As the episode draws to a close, Dr. Shams tells us she is hopeful for the future of the current uprising in Iran. Even in the United States, which has often been plagued by propaganda and misconceptions of Iran and its people, there is now a profound sympathy for the efforts of Iranian protestors. This reflects the world’s changing imagination of Iran and a growing realisation that Iranian society is not the Iranian government – and that in itself is a revolutionary act. Dr. Shams argues that we owe this revolution to the Iranian girls, women, and men who have put their lives on the line. Even the Iranian people themselves could not have imagined the events and acts of bravery that have recently taken place in Iran.
‘Girls on top of cars; burning their veils; making bonfires from their mandatory hijabs. For me, as a literary scholar, this is a metaphor for the corpse of a rotted ideology.’Dr. Fatemeh Shams
While the Islamic Republic has responded to the current uprising with force – with rape, persecution, imprisonment, and sexual assault – Dr. Shams believes the time has truly come for the world to begin imagining an Iran without the Islamic Republic. The international community has a duty to do so, in recognition of the sacrifices made by the schoolgirls, men, and women at the forefront of the protests. Yet Dr. Shams notes the failure of the international community to support the uprising, in part reflecting the long history of foreign powers’ resource exploitation of Iran. The Iranian people are ready to divest themselves of the Islamic Republic, but they cannot break free alone, and the international community must be ready to make sacrifices in order for Iranians to achieve a democratic society. Dr. Shams concludes with a call to Declarations’listeners: we must continue amplifying the voices of the Iranian people and the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ movement.
Dr. Fatemeh Shams is an Iranian activist, award-winning poet, and expert on modern Iranian history and Persian literature. She is the author of A Revolution in Rhyme: Poetic Co-option under the Islamic Republic (2021), which explores the state’s use of poetry as a tool of political legitimacy in post-revolutionary Iran. She has also published three highly regarded collections of contemporary bilingual poetry, including, most recently, the collection When They Broke Down the Door (2016). She is currently an Assistant Professor of modern Persian literature at the University of Pennsylvania.
Clare Francis is an MPhil student in Politics and International Studies at Trinity College, from which she previously graduated First Class with Distinction with a BA(Hons) in Human, Social, and Political Sciences. Her research interests – including conflict, migration, resistance, and the rights of women and migrant workers – share a central connection to human rights issues. She has previously worked in foreign affairs and public policy.