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Free the Future
What's next for Iranian women and the "wayward route" of radical Black politics
This week at Public Seminar, we’re reflecting on the victories won and hazards faced by Iranian women and the movement for freedom one year after the death of Mahsa Amini.
Kian Tajbakhsh offers a measured warning against assuming that the government’s retreat from strict enforcement of mandatory hijab laws is a fatal blow to the regime: “The Islamic Republic of Iran is still able to bend when its survival is at stake.” Meanwhile, Setareh Shohadaei argues against the uncritical veneration of journalist and activist Masih Alinejad as face of the Women, Life, Freedom movement.
And we’re celebrating the publication of TO BUILD A BLACK FUTURE by Public Seminar alum Christopher Paul Harris, out this week with Princeton University Press. You can read an excerpt from Harris’s book on radical politics and Black joy at Public Seminar—and listen to his recent conversation about the Movement for Black Lives with Claire Potter.
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Iran continues to surprise the world. In 1979, Western observers—and many Iranians—were astonished to see a people rise up, in the words of one wag, to demand less freedom and fewer material things. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his Islamist followers obligingly gave them both.
Almost 45 years later, I stand astonished again. If someone had told me 18 months ago that Iranian women would be walking more or less freely in the streets of Iranian cities without hair coverings or hijab, I simply wouldn’t have believed them.
And if someone had told me 18 months ago that the Iranian government would be a belligerent in a European ground war for the first time in Iran’s history—supplying weapons to Russia, entering into a close strategic cooperation with the Russian military, and bolstering its own military capabilities in the process, I would have thought they were joking.
Both of these things have happened. But a nation’s evolution rarely follows a single trajectory, but rather consists of often contradictory strands of change. As a result, it is hard to predict how Iran will next surprise us. As we approach the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death in September 2022, an event which sparked the Women, Life, Freedom movement and several months of nationwide anti-hijab and anti-regime protests, what can we expect for the future of Iranian women’s civil rights? What is the trajectory of the people’s struggle for a more “normal” modernity, for a freer, richer life?
In the past year, an Iranian journalist and women’s rights activist has captured the hearts and minds of the American public. Her name is Masih Alinejad, and she has a knack for addressing audiences on television and social media with fierce conviction, presenting herself as the archenemy of the Islamic Republic, one who will stop at nothing to bring down an oppressive Islamic regime. For months she has waged a campaign against compulsory hijab in Iran, becoming an icon for many liberals and progressives in the Western world as the representative for an otherwise massive, diffuse, and grassroots Iranian women’s movement. Self-described in The New Yorker as “leading this movement,” she has been nominated for a Noble Peace Prize in 2022, and was named one of Time magazine’s 12 “Women of the Year” in 2023. Most recently, she received an honorary degree from The New School.
Who is Masih Alinejad, and how did she rise to such a position of power and influence in the United States?
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Christopher Paul Harris
It is no accident that M4BL has demonstrated a global, multiracial reach. Nor can it be reduced to the unique convergence of circumstances that colored the uprisings. One of the critical features of the contemporary moment in Black movement, the time of #BlackLivesMatter, is how capacious the definitions of Blackness and, with it, Black radicalism have become. Included in this constellation are the variety of spaces in which these definitions are hashed out and the types of actions they manifest.
Listen to Christopher Paul Harris chat with Claire Potter about how TO BUILD A BLACK FUTURE draws on his experiences as an activist and academic to contextualize contemporary Black radicalism as part of a long history of organizing.