Samira Mohyeddin is a Toronto-based journalist.
There was an empty chair where she should have been sitting.
On the balcony of the press gallery in Oslo’s city hall at December’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, I found myself fixated on the ornate seat, flanked by her teenage twins, Ali and Kiana, where their mother, the Iranian human-rights activist Narges Mohammadi, should have been. But she couldn’t attend the event to receive her prize because she was, and still is, in Tehran’s Evin prison. Her children accepted the prize on her behalf.
I began to think of their dining table at home, and the empty chair that’s there, too; Ali and Kiana have been living with their dad in exile in Paris, and they have not seen their mom in nine years. I began to think about how most dining sets come in four or six, not three. I began to think of the thousands of empty chairs at the dining tables of Iranians around the world.
It was only the sound of trumpets, signalling the arrival of the Norwegian royal family, that snapped me out of it. I looked down and saw Nobel laureates, including Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian activist and former judge who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. Iran is the only country in the world to have two female Nobel Peace Prize recipients in two decades, and like many Iranian human-rights activists, Ms. Mohammadi and Ms. Ebadi are both lauded abroad, but persecuted back home. The hall that day was also filled with a who’s who of Iranian actors, artists, writers, activists, musicians and journalists – each of us in effective exile, leaving our own empty chairs at our loved ones’ tables back in Iran.
I had been invited to Oslo by the Norwegian Institute of Journalism to give a talk about the massive global uprising known as the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement. I focused part of my presentation on the protesters who had poured into the streets of cities across Iran, sparked by the killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iran’s so-called morality police. The country’s totalitarian theocracy, which officially calls itself an Islamic Republic, brutally cracked down on the movement, killing hundreds, arresting tens of thousands and proving once again that it would do anything to stay in power. Many of the protesters who were killed were just teenagers – around the same age as Ali and Kiana. I spoke about the digital markers that the young protesters left behind on their social-media accounts, and I showed the audience their forms of resistance, including singing and dancing together in the streets – a crime in Iran.
And I pointed to what they were directing their ire toward: not cinemas and foreign embassies, like the revolutionaries of 1979, but seminaries and their mandatory head scarves, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps outposts, and propaganda posters touting the regime.
Feb. 11 will mark the 45th anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution – its sapphire anniversary. But the kids want a divorce. This generation is not marching against Western imperialism and chanting for an Islamic Republic, as they did more than four decades ago. Nor are they like the protesters of 2009, who contested a disputed presidential election in search of their missing votes as part of what was called the Green Movement. They’re no longer looking for a seat at the table of the Islamic Republic, which has shown itself to be neither Islamic nor a republic.
No single government has done more to harm Islam and Muslims than this regime. So now, young Iranians want to cut its legs off.
The “Woman, Life, Freedom” protesters know exactly what it means to live under a theocracy. If it was once an alluring mystery or seen as a potential antidote to encroaching Westernization or modernity, that no longer holds. You simply have to listen to what they are chanting on the streets: “Clerics get lost,” “our enemy is right here at home, they lied and told us it’s America,” “we will never be a nation until all the clerics are gone.” This is a generation that knows exactly who and what is oppressing them, and they are unapologetic about naming it. And while their anti-religion and anti-Islamic bent may make us uncomfortable here in the West, that’s only because no one here in Canada has the right to push me into a van and detain me if some of my hair is showing.
The movement is led by young people fighting against an archaic form of government they had no hand in creating, but have ended up bitterly inheriting. In 2022, GAMAAN, a Netherlands-based independent research foundation that conducts surveys in Iran, found that 88 per cent of the nearly 20,000 people queried preferred a democratic country, and that 67 per cent felt a system governed by religion was bad. The arranged marriage of state and religion has failed miserably; if anything, it has had the opposite effect of what was intended by the clerics. Iran is now one of the most secular populations in the whole of the Middle East, led by a generation that clearly sees religion as the source of their subjugation, not their salvation.
The very fact that young Iranian men have joined the protests, taking to the streets to shout “Woman, Life, Freedom,” highlights this shift. A generation ago, they were telling women to cover themselves as a form of resistance to Westernization. Today, they understand that their freedom is inextricably tied to the freedom of women in the country. They understand that the only arms they have to free themselves with are the ones that they lock together with others.
I recently asked Kiana how she felt about being in Paris as her peers protest on the streets of Iran, and her response was as simple to understand as the protesters’ chants were. “What do they want? They want to be free from compulsory hijab. They want to wear clothes of their own choosing,” she told me. “Girls my age do not want the misogynistic laws and patriarchal views of the government to deprive them of their lives.” She also pointed to the recent letter her mom wrote to the United Nations, asking for the international body to criminalize gender apartheid as a way of holding governments, such as the one in Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan, to account.
These are the pangs of exile, and they are not things that a teenager should have to deal with, but that’s also become part of the legacy of the regime in Iran. After all, there was hardly an Iranian diaspora before the 1979 revolution, and today, they number nearly six million – and ask any Iranian, and they will tell you that they never imagined this system of governance would last this long. I know my family didn’t, having left when the revolution began. It took a couple of years of being in Canada until my parents finally accepted that they would have to put some sort of roots down here, and it was only when we buried my father in this country seven years ago that my family felt a settled permanence of place that we were not ready for, even after 45 years.
As the home to the second-largest community of Iranians in the diaspora, Canada figures prominently in the story of escape and exile for many Iranians. But even here, there are a slew of empty chairs at dining tables from coast to coast to coast. The nefarious acts of the regime in Iran have never been confined to its borders. Its transnational repression has left an indelible mark in this country, from its hostage diplomacy, to the death and torture of Canadian citizens, and the disastrous downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane that killed 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents.
Like many immigrant communities in Canada, we often carry our homes on our backs and live out our politics in our host countries. That was on full display during the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement, with tens of thousands of Iranians marching in step with protesters back home, calling for an end to the regime in massive demonstrations across the country. Still, it was protesters in Iran who paid the ultimate price for speaking out against the regime and they still are, as executions continue. And even still, Iran’s leaders are showing that they are not afraid of devouring their children in order to keep the revolution alive, even if it widens the generational divide between those who took to the streets in Iran in 1979 and today’s young Iranians.
I often associate Langston Hughes’s poem Harlem with Iran’s youth. Hughes asks:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore – And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over – like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Iran’s youth will take to the streets to defend their dreams again; it’s not a matter of if, but when. What will be the next spark?