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“No one can predict how a revolution starts,” the Iranian American poet and author Roya Hakakian writes this week in The Atlantic. And make no mistake, she told me in an interview yesterday: The wave of protests now sweeping Iran is a revolution. After 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody following her arrest for improperly wearing the hijab earlier this month, Iranian men and women have filled the streets and set fire to the head coverings that have, for many, come to represent a collective loss of freedom since they were made mandatory following the 1979 revolution. I spoke with Hakakian about Iran’s “Ukrainian moment”—and about what comes next.
But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.
“We Are All Mahsa Amini”
Kelli María Korducki: You were a young teen when Iran’s mandatory dress code went into effect in 1981, three years before you left the country for good. Do you see any echoes of that transition period in the current moment?
Roya Hakakian: This revolution in Iran is 43 years old. On March 8, 1979, which was barely even a month after the Iranian Revolution had succeeded, women took to the streets to protest the hijab and the ayatollah’s reinstatement of a mandatory dress code.
I was 13. But this confrontation between the women of the country and the regime is the oldest, most enduring standoff in Iran. And I think the women are winning.
Korducki: You write in your essay, “Today I feel what so many Iranian women feel: We are all Mahsa Amini.” What do you mean by that?
Hakakian: What happened to Mahsa Amini happened to every single one of us. We’ve all been stopped [by Iran’s religious police], and some of us have been detained. I was stopped many, many times. When you think back to all the conversations that you have had with the people who have stopped you, you realize that a slight shift in tone or something very, very small could have gone wrong to get the person who had stopped you to deliver a blow to your head. All of us, the women who’ve lived under this regime, we all know what it’s like and that we could be a victim like Mahsa Amini.
Korducki: You write that Amini’s death has sparked an unusual degree of outrage and solidarity across Iran. What’s different about this particular incident, and why is it uniting so many people from such varied walks of life?
Hakakian: I think it’s in part because all previous hopes for change have been lost. In 2009, there were a lot of young people—university students, especially—who really had placed their hope in the 2009 presidential elections and were rooting for [the reformist presidential candidate, Mir Hossein] Mousavi. When Mousavi lost—the votes disappeared—millions of people took to the streets asking, Where is my vote?
Since then, there have been other demonstrations over simple, tangible, legitimate issues that people generally take to their governments. And because none of those things was ever resolved, I think the natural conclusion that people have come to is that the system is rotten and incapable of responding to our needs. So now nobody’s saying, Where’s my vote? They’re simply saying, This cast of characters has to go.
Korducki: You describe the protests as Iran’s “Ukrainian moment,” and call for the U.S. to act accordingly. What do you mean by that?
Hakakian: I testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, and subsequently had several meetings with various senators. The moment you mentioned Iran, all of these senators started thinking about Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria—that’s their context. And, in fact, that’s the wrong context.
The people in Iran aren’t asking for any foreign powers to invade the country, to come and do the job. They have done the work. They’re not demanding anything from the international community other than the sort of support that the international community, the Western world, must give to those who are vying for democratic values in one of the most dangerous parts of the world. The context to me seems far more similar to the Ukrainian context.
We support Ukrainians in their war against invading Russian forces. Iranians are, in a way, also essentially at war with a very, very powerful and highly armed government, and they need our support now. The regime’s riot police have been throwing women demonstrators against the cement curbs, and there are videos being circulated online that show police opening fire on protesters. Yet the U.S.—which has been investing in democracy promotion in Iran for at least the past two decades—is still sitting at the table and holding nuclear negotiations with these very people. To me, it seems very reasonable to demand that negotiations be stopped until the riot police stop exercising violence.
Like in every other revolution that has ever taken place, if it isn’t supported by governments that believe in the prodemocratic values that the demonstrators are demanding, these protesters will fail.
- Hurricane Ian made landfall on Florida’s western coast; the Category 4 hurricane is one of the most powerful storms to hit the United States in decades. Follow The New York Times’ live updates here.
- The European Union proposed new sanctions against Russia as a response to its escalation of the war in Ukraine, including a cap on oil prices and restrictions on trade.
- Parents of Sandy Hook shooting victims testified in the defamation case against Alex Jones.
Hollywood Learned All the Wrong Lessons From Avatar
By David Sims
When the director James Cameron was working on Avatar, he was holding the biggest bargaining chip imaginable. His last major feature, 1997’s Titanic, was the most successful film in Hollywood history, overcoming its budgetary woes and behind-the-scenes drama to become a box-office phenomenon unlike any other. Avatar was another risky bet in theory, an original sci-fi epic about nine-foot-tall blue aliens called the Na’vi who’d be rendered through advanced CGI and motion-capture technology. But still, this would be a James Cameron film—a fact the director said he had to remind the honchos of during production.
More From The Atlantic
Read. “Hill Station,” a new short story by Madhuri Vijay.
“They had been driving for hours, and the city still hadn’t loosened its grimy hold.”
Watch. The 1999 comedy Election, starring Reese Witherspoon as an overachieving (and unlikable) student, Tracy Flick.
Revisit the movie, available to stream on multiple platforms, and then hear from Tracy Flick’s creator, Tom Perrotta, about where the character is now.
Listen. The trailer for Season 3 of our How To podcast series, in which our happiness columnist explores what happens when expectations don’t meet reality.
Journey from the Land of No, Hakakian’s acclaimed 2004 memoir about her own coming-of-age in revolutionary Iran, provides essential context for the current unrest in Iran. “It precisely tells the story of [what happened between] 1977 and 1984, and the transition from monarchy to theocracy, and no hijab to forced hijab,” Hakakian told me in an email following our conversation. The book recounts what Hakakian described to me as “the randomness that we all experienced” in daily-life interactions with Iran’s oppressive regime.
Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.