[Introduction and Translation by Naghmeh Sohrabi.]
On 16 September 2022 protests broke out in multiple cities and towns across Iran in reaction to the death in custody of a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman named Mahsa Jina Amini. These protests have primarily been sustained by young Iranian women and men who have also borne the brunt of the Islamic Republic’s brutal response. Coverage of these protests, both inside and outside Iran, have emphasized the generational aspects of these protests and how the movement has been ignited and sustained by daheh-ye hashtadiha, Iran’s Gen-Z. But what of other generations, particularly that of the parents of these youth in revolt, daheh-ye panjahiya (born in 1970s)? That generation came into young adulthood in the first decade after the 1979 revolution and remembers not just the revolution itself but the violence of post-revolutionary state formation—the bloody power struggle of the early 1980s, and the bloodshed and deprivations of the eight-year war with Iraq. Their reactions to the current protests were formed not only through those events fundamental to the formation of the Islamic Republic, but also in the hope that was given by the reformist movement and taken away during the violent suppression of the Green Movement of 2009. While that generation’s voices are not as prominent in social media platforms that have been the primary medium through which Iran’s protests have been amplified to the world, they are also not silent. In the semi-private spaces of WhatsApp and Telegram, and in the privacy of their homes and circles of trust, they have been articulating their hopes, fears, anxieties, and even shame. In one WhatsApp group, a 50-year-old medical professional named FG who has lived in Iran her entire life, articulated her complex emotions arising from, on the one hand, the desire to support the youth in the streets, and on the other, a paralyzing fear she understands to be twinned to her generation. I asked her if she wanted to expand on this complexity for an audience outside of Iran. She sent the following open letter that I have translated with her permission.
It’s a good thing that you can’t easily understand the experience of living under the shadow of a religious dictatorship. I’m personally happy about this even if four decades of my life have unfolded within that experience.
At the time of the revolution, I was a 7-year-old girl who spent a carefree childish life in my simple family. Exactly on the night of 11 February 1979, all that had seemed simple became very complicated. All the concepts and values turned on their heads and life stopped as if someone pulled the emergency brakes of a train. The changes that came into the lives of us ordinary people came slowly but continuously and the first effects of it were, I think not just for me but for everyone, that we all fell down the hole of a strange politicized world. Political struggles, conspiracies, and machinations were so close and so constant that elementary school kids, during their recess, instead of doing what kids their age usually do throughout the world, were thinking of politics and arguing about politics. These endless arguments continued in taxis, in homes, in the streets, and everywhere else. It didn’t matter how old we were. Our world suddenly was focused on one thing: The government that wanted to be everything to us. Our fathers, our mothers, our religion, our country. Everything. For many, this seemed comforting but there were also those who felt they didn’t want someone else to think for them in their hours of solitude. Some people wanted to be themselves and by themselves when they were alone yet this slowly became impossible. That god of whom people would speak to within themselves and in the dark, and who was sometimes kind and sometimes indifferent had suddenly gathered an army for itself and was willing to take you prisoner for just a thought. Not immediately but possibly. As the years went by, the presence of that third person in the quiet and solitude of people became so strong that it was as if a twin made of fear had been nailed to our soul.
Despite this all, we lived much like you. We fell in love, we got married, we gave birth to children, we went to work, we argued, and of course everywhere we went, we carried with us our terrifying twin. For people looking at us from the outside, things seemed normal. Many ask themselves: How do these people seem content? How do these people seem happy? But no one can easily see the shadow we carry with us. No one understands the red lines that maniacally move around. These agitated lines can in a short time turn each of us into a criminal without us having to even take a step. Maybe it’s hard to believe that the field of written and unwritten laws could be so vast and so open to interpretation that it can be used to prove all Iranian are criminals and maybe it’s hard to believe we are the kinds of people who even as the possibility of becoming criminals any moment hangs over our heads, we can happily go and eat ice cream on the streets.
For me who has lived for half a century, and more than 4 decades under these circumstances, life sometimes becomes very complicated. In these years, many times I went along with every reformist wave in the hopes that I could change something or at the very least open a window. I looked at my two daughters and thought, I need to try for them. At home, with my motherly whispers, I raised them to be free. I even told my children about those political arguments we had as children, those never-ending arguments. I created freedoms for them that I had never had and opened pathways for them that I hadn’t even known to exist when I had been their age. Even as these memories seeped into the dark corners of my mind, I tried to turn my children away from seeing this darkness. Instead, I showed them every door that would let in the light of the future. I separated the meaning of vatan from the Islamic Republic and told them over and over again that I’m in love with every hill and stream in this country. In return what I got were the inquisitive eyes of my now twenty- and fourteen-year-old daughters who would ask: you still have hope for this country?
Times like that is also when they teach me about thousands of other worlds through their illuminated cellphone screens, connected as they are to the world online and they show me what worlds there are unknown to us. The three of us put our heads together to see things on this tiny screen, or in a small room, the three of us chat together and I learn from them. I learn to not be homophobic, I learn to not be racist, I learn what democracy can be, and I even learn that all these years, I haven’t been applying makeup correctly. The three of us are growing up together.
This new generation whose awareness far outpaces their parents and has always had this ever-bright and active window called the internet onto the world, is very different than me and us. With all their surface confusion and carelessness, they believe in the righteousness of their demands. Each of them carries their own respectful god within them and knows the power of the collective. They’ve been doing democratic drills on social networks and understand what a verbal back and forth looks like and are not scared to pay the price for it. Unlike my generation who thought the world must be made from rainbow-colored candy and believed that there is an ideal human, an ideal government, and even an ideal god, this generation knows none of that exists. What does exist is a path toward the future that leaves behind everything and everyone.
And now, I’m left with the fears that have been nailed to my soul and a generation that I cannot stop, and all that has happened in Iran after the death of Mahsa. I and others in my generation are the fearful ones living with a deep hatred and an ancient fury. For years we’d been humiliated and with every move we made, we sunk deeper into our humiliation. When we look at these kids, this youth, we’re ready to jump on the train of this social movement but we’re not ready to share in its defeat or its despair. Our bitter experiences have made us more cautious.
On the streets, I look at these young women with disbelief, at their beautiful hair, their luminous faces, and at their extraordinary courage and I want to break out of this skin of fear and go amongst them and cry out. I go along with them for a short while. I can be at the forefront for a bit. I can be like a mother and take them in my arms. But I remain hesitant, I remain scared, and I remain in disbelief. Every day I think what if a revolution happens and we, this generation that has buried a galaxy of hatred within us, miss the chance to cry out? Maybe we need another push so that my generation, the middle-aged passive generation, steps foot onto the streets and liberates our besieged souls instead of making jokes about our misery and exchanging the same old arguments in virtual spaces.
My kids ask me: Mom, was this what the revolution was like? I think of my memories when I was seven, and the sound of tanks, and the sound of bullets, and the chaos of the city, and official papers flying in the wind, and I say no, it’s still not like that. The walls of the streets are not yet filled with slogans and people when they look at each other, still don’t smile but every night, at exactly 9 pm, my kids turn off the lights and say to me: Go, go say it! I slowly walk to our balcony, and I sit on a small stool in a corner with all my might and for all my pent-up suffering, painful trauma, and unshed tears I shout "Death to the dictator." And of course, I don’t let my kids go out into the streets because if there’s a bullet coming, it should come for me, not for the generation of the future.