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Zan, Zendegi, Azadi: Young Iranians are dreaming again

After three decades of broken promises, many Iranians no longer trust their government. The slogan popularised during the ongoing protest, “women, life and freedom”, embodies the connection of the women’s rights movement with other economic and social issues

The connection between women (Zan), life (Zendegi), and freedom (Azadi) is not coincidental. Women are the creators of life and life itself cannot be free unless women are. (AP)

Written by Soheil Saneei

“‘They will never let go of us of their own will. No more than they did in Vietnam.’ I wanted to respond that they are even less ready to let go of you than Vietnam because of oil, because of the Middle East.” These were the first few sentences written by Michel Foucault 43 years ago in his essay, ‘What are the Iranians Dreaming About?’ In it, Foucault reveals his interest in the reassertion of spirituality in politics that would dominate the next four decades of Iranian politics. This raises a question: Do the recent outbursts against political institutions indicate a spiritual crisis? That is, have political institutions corrupted the very spirituality they are purportedly committed to? To understand the inner spiritual dimension of modern Iran, that is to understand what Iranians are dreaming about today, we must examine the historical political-economic forces that have shaped the modern Iranians’ psyche.

As Foucault’s quote encapsulated, the Islamic Revolution that swept Iran in 1979 occurred against the backdrop of 20th-century Cold War politics. The United States and the Soviet Union were fighting for ideological influence globally. Marxist ideology had spread from the Soviet Union to China and then throughout the lands that had experienced western colonialism and imperialism, including Iran. Since 1925, Iran had been ruled by the Pahlavi dynasty, a repressive monarchy. In 1953, Mohammad Mossadegh was elected Prime Minister of Iran by the parliament with popular support for his policies such as the nationalisation of Iran’s oil industry, which had been under the control of the British government for over 40 years. Losing his power to the idea of democracy with populist economic characteristics, the Shah then colluded with British and United States intelligence agencies to stage a coup d’etat that successfully deposed Mossadegh and crushed the few moments of democracy experienced by Iranians.

The Shah’s collusion with western governments, insistence on free trade economic policies over popular nationalist ones, and modernisation efforts made him seem like a western puppet in the eyes of Iranians. The persecution of Marxists was intense under the Shah and, combined with a large antagonistic religious community and the fear of the dictatorship associated with Marxism, Marxists could not spark a revolution by themselves. This resulted in an Islamic-Marxist alliance that would create the most popular revolution in history and oust the Shah.

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Iranians would soon realise that no dream lasts forever. In his correspondence with Ali Shari’ati, the ideologue of the Islamic revolution, the post-colonial Marxist Frantz Fanon warned about this sober awakening. Fanon acknowledged that Islam, “harbours… an anticolonialist and anti-western character…” and he hoped that would help intellectuals “with the aim of emancipation of humanity and another civilisation…” Fanon warned, however, that failure to “breathe this spirit into the weary body of the Muslim orient” would risk “reviving sectarian and religious mindsets” that could “divert… a ‘nation in becoming’ from its ideal future, bringing it instead closer to its past.” Fanon was drawing from his own experiences in the revolutionary struggle.

Shari’ati died two years prior to the revolution while in exile and the Islamic socialist revolution would soon move away from its original values. After the revolution, Iran established a president and parliament with a Guardian Council to veto un-Islamic legislation. During this period, the hijab was highly recommended but with the assurance that it would not be made compulsory. There were promises of democracy and an improved economy, including free electricity and water and monthly cash payments to citizens from oil revenues.

After a few months, the organisation of Iranian governance had completely changed. Ayatollah Khomeini’s Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist (Velayat-e Faqih) was implemented, giving him the position of Supreme Leader. This position had all-encompassing powers to control political and economic life within Iran. Hijab became compulsory, political parties were suppressed, Iran’s first president Seyyed Abolhassan Banisadr was impeached, and draconian measures were enforced on Iran’s women and minorities. The political suppression included mass executions in 1988 of thousands of Marxists who had participated in the earlier revolution and caused a rift between the conservative and more reformist factions of the clergy.


After Khomeini passed away in 1989, Ayatollah Khamenei was elected by an emergency assembly to the position of supreme leader. Dissent has intensified with each decade of his rule. In 1999, college students organised the largest demonstrations Iran had seen since the revolution in response to Salam, a newspaper run by reformist clerics, being shut down. A decade later, Iranians observed the rise of the Green Movement, a reformist movement led by Iran’s former prime minister, Mir-Hossein Mousavi who, along with many other opposition leaders, questioned the legitimacy of the 2009 elections. Many were killed and beaten in the massive protests that followed and opposition leaders, such as Mousavi, were jailed.

Over a decade later, we are again witnessing protests, this time sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish-Iranian who was detained by Iran’s morality police for “improper hijab”. These protests are most likely the outcome of conservative hardliner and new president Ebrahim Raisi’s systematic revamping of Iran’s morality police and hijab enforcement. The Islamic Republic claims that Amini’s death was due to a heart attack she suffered in Iran’s re-education camps, Gasht-e Ershad. Her family contests this, claiming that her death was caused by police brutality.

It is clear that due to three decades of lies and broken promises, many Iranians no longer trust their government. Women within Iran have faced systemic discrimination, including discrimination in law and practice in relation to marriage and divorce, inheritance, child custody, nationality and international travel. There is very little accountability for sexual and domestic violence against women. Women are treated like second-class citizens, which makes their historic feats, such as making up nearly 70 per cent of Iran’s STEM college students and producing the first-ever woman Fields Medal winner in mathematics, all the more impressive.


The slogan, “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi”, which originated in Iran’s Kurdish region, has echoed throughout these recent protests and made its way around the world. The slogan embodies the connection between the women’s rights movement in Iran with other issues the country faces, whether economic or social. For 40 years, Iran’s GDP has been stagnant; income inequality has risen due to corruption within the government; women, ethnic and religious minorities have faced brutal oppression, and no opposition movement has been allowed to contend for power and provide alternatives and reforms. While many of the economic problems within Iran can be linked to sanctions enforced by the West after the 1979 revolution, Iranians are no longer accepting excuses from a government that has failed to create a better life for its citizens for decades. Ordinary citizens have suffered the brunt of sanctions while they have witnessed their religious figures live in luxury. While many women have been beaten in the streets by the morality police, those from the families of the clergy are living free lives abroad.

The connection between women (Zan), life (Zendegi), and freedom (Azadi) is not coincidental. Women are the creators of life and life itself cannot be free unless women are. While Iranians engage in a new “dream”, we should take lessons from its rude awakening from its last major one. Right now, the Iranian opposition is not very organised and has no real leaders. This is to be expected from a constituency fed up with past leadership. Government persecution has played a role in this as well. Yet, with ordinary citizens becoming harder to crack down on and different ideological factions becoming less likely to schism, more people are able to participate in the protest. We should still be wary of the West’s interest in Iranian affairs. We saw promising movements in our neighbouring countries during the Arab Spring devolve into worse situations due to a combination of Western interest and a lack of ideological alternatives after the removal of power in Egypt, Libya and Syria.

Foucault’s analysis holds true 40 years later. However, now Iranians are starting to believe that their own government will never let go of them. No more than they did in Iraq when they continued the war six years past its expiration date. The Mahsa Amini hashtag has made a new record on Twitter, but the majority of those using it are outside Iran, as internet access is severely restricted inside the country. Despite foreign interest in Iran, we must respect the agency of the Iranian people. That is, despite the different historical and social forces shaping modern Iran, we must respect the restricted breathing spirit inside. It is obvious that any spiritual body will suffocate if its “Zan, Zendegi, and Azadi” are suffocating as well. Iran remains an inspiration for people interested in emancipation, just as it was for Foucault and Fanon four decades ago. The Iranians are dreaming again. May our dreams take us into our next stage of history.

The writer is a Tehran-born researcher and graduate student in mathematics and biological engineering at Louisiana State University

First published on: 15-10-2022 at 16:37 IST
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