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Without Them

In Iran, a revolution of the mind has already taken place

This time there is no way back,” Hamid said. “People have imagined life without them.”

He had to yell these words into his phone to record the WhatsApp voice message he sent me, or else the background din would have drowned him out. He was standing on a street in Tehran, in the thick of a protest on an early autumn afternoon. Around him, people were chanting in one moment and stampeding the next while cars roared and honked, paintballs hissed, and police sirens shrieked. He was forced to run for safety before he could finish speaking, so his last words were interrupted by panting. Despite the danger, his voice was loaded with excitement.

Hamid and I have been friends for nearly twenty years. We regularly met to talk politics while I was in Iran and stayed in touch after I left. The last time I heard him speak so excitedly was in June 2009, during the early days of the Green Movement, which rose in protest of the result of the presidential elections.

I listened to his message in my home in a small town in upstate New York. It’s hard to get agitated up here. And yet, hearing Hamid speak sent such a wave of thrill through my body, I could no longer remain seated. It especially mattered that this message came from someone of my generation. We are the revolution generation, born around 1979. We grew up during the dark years of the Iran-Iraq war in total isolation from the world. We were barely adults when we experienced our first anti-government action during the student uprising of 1999. We failed. We took to the streets in 2009, 2017–2018, and 2019–2020. We failed again and again. In between those peaks of activity, we organized and mobilized, wrote and sang, fought with whatever means available, and every time we lost, we fell harder to the ground. During the pandemic, we were exhausted. We had become cynical, middle-aged people, many of us scattered around the world, our youths squandered, our hopes dashed, our yearning for change thwarted at every turn. 

Before 2009, I never considered leaving Iran. I had a decent career, a regular column in a newspaper many read, an editorial job at a major publishing house, and half a dozen authored and translated books under my belt. Writing was my calling, and I would never sacrifice it for the comforts of a Western life. Then 2009 happened. A massive movement got violently crushed. The publishing house I worked for was shut down. The newspaper I wrote for was shut down. I got interrogated, and many of my friends were arrested. I had no choice but to leave. Over the following decade, I lived in three continents before settling down in the United States.

It felt as if Iran spat me out like a little bone its teeth caught while chewing meat. Insulted and hurt, I decided to live as if I had never lived there. I switched my writing language to English, befriended and dated non-Iranians, and took jobs that had nothing to do with Iran. Sometimes for weeks, save for brief conversations with my parents, I spoke to no one in Persian. When I finally had a chance to relaunch my career, I published a novel and a few op-eds in English that would block my way back to Iran, as if intentionally suppressing my bouts of homesickness, the occasional urge to return. After a few years, I grew confident that the umbilical cord was cut. I had built a life elsewhere, and I could live the rest of my life without fretting over Iran. Then the unexpected happened.

By now, the story is well-known: on September 13, goons working for the hijab patrol (it is often rendered as “morality police,” which is a terrible literal translation of the euphemism the Iranian government has concocted for this abomination) arrested a young woman named Zhina-Mahsa Amini, whose outfit they deemed improper, and took her to police station. When she resisted the officers, they banged her head against the wall and broke her skull. She died three days later.

The air has been throbbing with revolutionary fire, and we, the exiled, can feel its warmth from afar.

The officers who killed her have not been named. I doubt that they were much concerned about what they had done. Harassing young women over exposed hair is the job of these people, and beating up those who resist it is an occupational hazard. The police have gotten away with worse. But this act of brutality was the straw that broke the camel’s back. People took to the streets all over the country.

The previous uprisings I mentioned were criticized for lacking universality: they were either limited to big cities or to rural areas, their demands either predominantly economic or exclusively civil. Over time, the geographic range of the protests expanded. In every round, it included a new set of towns, sometimes a new province, but never the entire country. This time is different. High schoolers are going on strike, professors lock arms to form a corridor so their students can escape the militia, old ladies shield young girls against the police. People in the south chant in solidarity with northerners, and the Turks come out to support the Kurds. This is the first truly universal uprising in Iran in more than four decades. The air has been throbbing with revolutionary fire, and we, the exiled, can feel its warmth from afar. This has revived the spirit of pessimists like me.

“People have imagined life without them,” Hamid said. I never really have. The uprisings I experienced firsthand were reformist. We demanded alternatives from within the system in order to better certain conditions. This time, the revolution has already taken place in the mind. The public imagination has soared to a new plateau. The idea of Iran without the Islamic Republic has graduated from an aspiration to a real possibility. Thanks largely to this shift in belief, the balance of fear has tipped. We have seen countless videos of protesters attacking the police, young people corralling the guards and disarming them, armed police running from unarmed teenagers—sights unimaginable only a decade ago. People are no longer afraid, and no one remains enslaved to masters they cease to fear.

The country seems to be experiencing a moment of clarity. The opportunists and whataboutists have lost their appeal. The political scene has been polished into a mirror, making it impossible to avoid facing yourself. Thanks to this mirror, for the first time since I left, I am thinking hard about why I am no longer in Iran. My lazy chicken bone theory no longer cuts it. Over the last several weeks, while I kept my eyes fastened to my phone lest I miss a piece of breaking news, my brain was busy rethinking my relationship with home.

I have come to two conclusions: I left Iran because I was ashamed, and because I was humiliated.

“Without Khomeini’s name,” the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei once famously said, “the [Islamic] Revolution is not known anywhere in the world.” This assertion can be inverted and applied to the revolution aimed at ending his rule: without women, this revolution would not be known anywhere in the world. The current uprising is taking place for women and by women. They stand on burned trash bins, their faces covered, their fists brandished at the sky. They dance around fire and throw their headscarves into the flames. They stand face-to-face with armed and armored guards twice their size and stare them down. They cut their hair at the funerals of their loved ones. They have set an earthquake in motion that threatens the foundation of the fundamentalist patriarchy whose survival is predicated on keeping them subdued and apart. 

It is not my place to hold forth on what a women’s revolution means to them. Iranian women have already done that and will continue to do so. I want to write a few words on what this revolution means to me, a middle-aged man participating in it from afar.

Reason never drives people to the street en masse. Outrage does. You risk beating and arrest, even death, only when anger heats up your head, sets your belly on fire, draws cold sweat from your pores. And usually beneath the outrage lies deeper emotions, longstanding feelings that gnaw away at the soul, like humiliation, terror, or disgust. In my case, the strongest underlying emotion is shame.

I feel ashamed of the way I lived in Iran. My two sisters had to wear gray smocks and miqna from the age of six onwards while I could freely walk around. I knew that the law entitled them to only half of the inheritance I would receive if our parents passed away, god forbid, and that, until six years ago, they would have received only half the settlement I would get if we had been in a car accident together. I was aware that if I divorced a woman, the law would almost certainly give me custody of our child. Throughout my life, the compulsory hijab, and the unrelenting brutality the state visits upon women’s bodies, has been the law of the land. I lived through all that blithely, without really doing much to fight this gross injustice. For a while, I even took sides with people who considered the compulsory hijab a side issue and found their demands for its abolition a distraction from more pressing matters, which, depending on the fashion, ranged from Global South solidarity to the neoliberal economy.

The women’s revolution is an opportunity for me, for all men. If women can liberate themselves, I will be liberated along with them, unburdened of this lifelong shame. They are giving me, and many other Iranian men, a chance to transform our shame to outrage and eventually unshame ourselves. This is why men are also out in the streets in unprecedented numbers, getting shot and beaten to death, chasing the guards and kicking their asses, cheering their sisters as they dance with bare heads or cut their hair. As the saying goes, none of us is free until all of us are free, and I have never so acutely felt this to be true.

July 8, 1999. My phone rang at 6 a.m. A guy I barely knew told me that my friends in Building 18 of the students’ dorm complex at the University of Tehran had been beaten up and taken to the hospital. He explained that at midnight, the Basij militia had broken into the dorm, dragged the sleeping students off their beds, and beaten them to within an inch of their lives. It made no sense. The previous afternoon, I had participated in a rally at the dorm to protest the closing of the Salam newspaper. Nothing seemed out of ordinary. I threw some clothes on and ran to Amirabad Avenue.

Inside the dorm, the doors had been kicked down and axed open. The floor was covered with glass shards and torn paper. Computer screens were thrown against the walls. There were blood smears on the walls, and on beds and clothes and books and food. Outside, students milled about in their pajamas, dazed and terrified. Some strapped broken hands with a piece of rag tied around their necks. Some patched bleeding wounds with torn T-shirts.

We stayed in the streets for a week. I inhaled my first tear gas, received my first baton strike, my first kick in the ass and punch in the guts by the police. I was nineteen.

After the protests petered out, Khamenei took the podium at the University of Tehran, the site of the violence, to draw a distinct line through Iranian society. “You are an Insider (khodi),” he said. “If your heart beats for Islam, for the [1979] Revolution, for Imam [Khomeini], and you are truly on the side the people. You are an Outsider(ghayr-e khodi) if you listen to foreigners, if your heart beats for them, if you long for America to return.” I listened to that speech on the radio, overwhelmed by humiliation. My nineteen-year-old self failed to comprehend why I had been beaten for absolutely no reason, only to hear the highest authority in the land justifying it by calling me an “outsider.” This humiliation over time transformed into a ticking bomb. The events of 2009 detonated it. I could no longer stay in Iran.

Over the years, Khamenei has offered different versions of this dichotomy, increasingly replacing “outsider” with “enemy” (dushman). This is not just dictatorial saber-rattling. In his worldview, “outsiders” are the enemy within, a fifth column of citizens who have to be put in their place, contained, and if necessary, exterminated. This category has expanded over time, and as we learned during the 2019 uprising—which the government crushed by shutting down the internet for a week, arresting thousands, and killing fifteen hundred people—it now includes the majority of Iranians. Following this prescription, the Islamic regime runs the country not so much as a typical dictatorship or a totalitarian state as it does a colonial power. It has channeled all the wealth, privileges, and benefits to a very small “insider” elite, letting the “outsider” majority languish in poverty and brutally silencing them whenever they voice their despair. The uprisings in 2017 and 2019 were carried out by the disenfranchised, impoverished majority trying to make a dent in an armed-to-teeth system bloated by years of pillage and corruption, one that has metastasized into a military aristocracy. 

“You have come to my country to fight me,” a woman yells at a guard. It is September 2022. They are standing on a sidewalk in the city of Bojnourd. Both are Iranian, but the woman doesn’t seem to feel that way. She says that the Iraqi army, which waged war against Iran for eight years in the 1980s, had more dignity than this guard.

They are claiming Iran as their own and treating their government as a gang of invaders, an occupying force.

In the protests I experienced firsthand, we demanded inclusion. We called on the Supreme Leader and the government to listen to us, to see us, to acknowledge us as the people of this land and to stop regarding us as outsiders. Under the influence of the reformists, with optimism that in retrospect seems shockingly naïve, many of us genuinely believed that dialogue and compromise would work. I shudder to think how hard Khamenei and his cronies must have laughed at us all those years.

This time around, no one is interested in expanding the circle of the insiders, or even in removing it. They want to break the pen that drew the circle. People have stopped asking their government for recognition or rights. They are claiming Iran as their own and treating their government as a gang of invaders, an occupying force. This movement is ultimately a fight against the humiliator-in-chief, the Supreme Leader who has demonized and vilified the majority of Iranians for forty-one years. No wonder these protests were ignited by one of the most oppressed ethnic groups (Kurds) and spearheaded by the most humiliated social group (women). Reducing the cause of the uprising to economic pressure caused by the sanctions is naïve at best and complicit at worst. People have joined forces to wrest back their dignity.

How can you tell if a society is in a revolutionary state? I wonder if you ever can. Everyone who remembers the 1979 revolution will tell you that up to the very last day, most people were living their lives as if nothing was happening. Iran today is not different. Intense, bloody clashes between protestors and the police are interspersed with days of calm. Everyday life goes on at the same time as massive protests. If you go out on the street, you can collect evidence for both an imminent revolution and total peace.  

I am too old to fall for blind optimism. The road ahead is long and already soaked in blood. The government in Iran has entrenched itself through crisis after crisis for forty-plus years; it has excelled in the craft of oppression and control. The prospect of “life without them” can tempt one to wax lyrical about vast mountains in the distance, oblivious to the roughness of the road that winds its way towards them. But the public imagination has undergone a revolution. I have no doubts about that. People have concluded that symbiosis with this regime is no longer tenable. Minds have already migrated, and bodies will eventually follow them.