The protests in Iran began with a revolutionary act of mourning that became a symbol of the movement: cutting off the hair. The protesters are responding to a regime that does not allow every dead person to be mourned.

  • Dorna Safaian

    Dorna Safaian ist Bild- und Medienwissenschaftlerin. Sie arbeitet als wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin im Sonderforschungsbereich „Helden – Heroiserungen – Heroismen“ der Universität Freiburg. Ihre Arbeitsgebiete sind u.a. politische Bildwissenschaft, digitale Bildkulturen und Visuelle Kultur von Protest/sozialen Bewegungen.

The revo­lu­tio­nary move­ment “Woman Life Freedom” in Iran is only a few days old when a woman sits on a box in the Iranian city of Kerman without a headscarf. In an Insta­gram video posted by the docu­men­ta­tion network 1500tasvir on September 20, 2022, she is seen holding scis­sors over her head in her right hand and her mane of hair in her left. The crowd looks up at her, clap­ping and chan­ting “Death to the dictator!” The woman begins to cut her hair and comes to a halt. Now a young man rushes to her aid. “Hono­rable, hono­rable!” the crowd cheers him on; the woman also claps her hands. After the braid is cut off, the woman rhyth­mi­cally raises her fist in the air to fire up the crowd, the young man doing the same with the scis­sors in his hand. Imme­di­atly it becomes clear: What has happened here is an act of rebel­lion, a triumph. The crowd cele­brates the cut pony­tail with shouts, clap­ping and fist waving. They appear united: in soli­da­rity with the woman and the young man who supported her, and in the heat of enthu­siasm for their action. A remar­kable scene with unusual emotions, one might think, conside­ring that the cutting of hair is a gesture usually performed in ceme­teries by people in deep pain, at graves, at fune­rals. It is mentioned as an act of mour­ning in the Iranian national epic Shahn­ameh by the Persian poet Abū ʾl-Qāsim Fird­ausī and is common in Iran – and not only there – in the mour­ning cere­mo­nies of the ethnic groups of the Kurds and the Lurs, among others. How is it that a gesture of mour­ning becomes an act of protest? What does this say about the inten­tions and values of this movement?

A gesture of mour­ning – symbol of a revolution

@1500tasvir/Instagram: The daughter of Minoo Majidi, who was shot during protests in Kermanshah, at her mother’s grave. She holds her cut hair in her hand.

The move­ment “Woman Life Freedom” was founded in death and mour­ning. Since the murder of the Iranian Kurdish woman Jina (“Mahsa” was her pass­port name) Amini while in custody of the mora­lity police, it has been fighting for an over­throw of the Islamic Repu­blic. Like any other revo­lu­tio­nary move­ment, it wants to change the symbolic order along with the poli­tical one. This becomes evident in icono­cla­stic acts of destroying monu­ments and banners of the Islamic Republic’s heroes and leaders – and the simul­ta­neous circu­la­tion of new symbols that epito­mize the movement’s goals and values. Among them, the mour­ning gesture of hair­cut­ting performed by women, which has now become iconic. Within days of the news of Jina Amini’s death on September 16, 2022, it became a protest symbol and was seen at home and abroad: In selfie videos on social media, as a symbol on acti­vist plat­forms and profiles, at protest events, and last but not least as a gesture of soli­da­rity by poli­ti­cians and cele­bri­ties world­wide. A gesture of mour­ning became a symbol of revo­lu­tio­nary resis­tance. This has to be unders­tood with the back­ground that the Islamic Repu­blic does not allow every dead person to be mourned. Mour­ning is the reco­gni­tion of death and thus of life – a core concept of the motto “Woman Life Freedom”. In a context where not every life may be mourned and every death publicly witnessed, and where not every life is reco­gnized as lived, mour­ning becomes resis­tance, an act of rebel­lion: against death and for life.

Poli­tics of death

That the Islamic Repu­blic does not reco­gnize every life as life is evident in its poli­tics of death. The sove­reignty of the Islamic Repu­blic does not consist only, as accor­ding to Foucault, in the power “to take life or let live”. Sove­reignty also decides which dead are allowed to be dead – that means, conver­sely, deci­ding who has lived. The poli­tics of death orga­nizes killing and the regu­la­tion of being dead in equal measure. In terms of state action in the Islamic Repu­blic, this means: not retur­ning the bodies of killed oppo­si­tion members and dissi­dents to their rela­tives (or delaying the return), making corpses disap­pear, crema­ting them or burying them anony­mously, prohi­bi­ting or obstruc­ting mour­ning cere­mo­nies, destroying graves with bull­do­zers, forcing hasty night burials or carrying them out them­selves. The Islamic Repu­blic has used this tech­no­logy of power since the begin­ning of its history: from the mass execu­tions of poli­tical prisoners that began in 1981 and peaked in 1988 – leaving mass graves, some of which turned into garbage dumps and were concreted over, in part to prevent family members from sear­ching for the bodies of their dead; to the recent state body snat­chings, stealing the dead bodies of protes­ters from hospi­tals and crema­toria for anony­mous or clan­des­tine burial. The logic of the poli­tics of death is to follow physical death with social death. By preven­ting or hinde­ring mour­ning, it inter­venes in the affec­tive and social networks in which the dead person is embedded, that is, in the attach­ment of others to them. For death as a physical fact is framed by social acts through which it is reco­gnized, as philo­so­pher Ege Selin Islekel writes: “[L]ike the preca­rity of life that demands its appre­hen­sion as life in order for such life to be grie­vable, death is also not a natural cate­gory, and instead is one that is bound up with its […] reco­gni­tion as death.“ Just as life is soci­ally recorded in birth and thus witnessed as such by the commu­nity, death is also produced and honored in docu­ments, emotions, and symbols of mour­ning, as well as in cere­mo­nies – thus also affir­ming its inherent anti­thesis: life. Public emotions of mour­ning testify: this person was in rela­ti­onship to others, who in their loss also testify to the person’s life. To cut one’s hair in mour­ning is to lose a piece of oneself, of one’s own body, with the death of the other. But he who may not be mourned, who may not be offi­ci­ally dead, is said never to have lived and not to have been a human being among human beings.

The cemetry – place of mobilization

The logo of „Femi­nista Berlin“, an acti­vist coll­ec­tive of exiled Iranians.

The autho­ri­ties wanted to bury Jina Amini hastily at night. Her family prevented it. They blocked the ambu­lance carrying her body. Her funeral service at the Aichi ceme­tery in Saqqez, Kurdi­stan Province, turned into a mass anti-regime protest, with mour­ners chan­ting „Death to the dictator“ and „Our shame, our stupid supreme leader“; some women took off their headscarves. The funeral mobi­lized to revolt. Reco­gni­zing the loss of her natural body, Jina Amini emerged as a poli­tical „body“ effec­tive beyond death. „Dear Jina. You do not die. Your name will become a symbol“, was written on her first tomb­stone. It was to be so. In her absence, Jina Amini has poli­tical agency. Her image has become the refe­rence of a protest for life, the hashtag of her name is the catch­word of a revo­lu­tio­nary move­ment. The Islamic Republic’s policy of death has failed here; the inten­tion to kill the dead person once again was defeated. It could not be prevented that the dead body became a symbolic-political one, which „does not die“ in death, but affects people from the grave and is effec­tive in the poli­tical process of the revo­lu­tio­nary movement.

Grief and vulnerability

What is it about grief that can move and unite people in protest? Femi­nist philo­sophy has explored the rela­ti­onship between mour­ning and the social in terms of the concept of vulnerabi­lity. In the essay coll­ec­tion „Preca­rious Life. The Powers of Mour­ning and Violence“, Judith Butler describes human beings as “soci­ally consti­tuted bodies” atta­ched to others and at risk of losing those attach­ments. The fact that they are depen­dent on atten­tion and care, that they can hurt and be hurt; that they are, accor­ding to Butler, „a site of publi­city, at once asser­tive and exposed“ is inscribed in their bodily exis­tence. The auto­nomy of human beings is limited in this vulnerabi­lity. In mour­ning it expresses itself affec­tively. The pain of a loss shows that the self is depen­dent on the other; that the „you“ is part of the „I.“ Grief, Butler writes, brings „to the fore the rela­tional ties“ and a „sense of poli­tical commu­nity of a complex order.“ Thus, by poin­ting to our onto­lo­gical entan­gle­ment, it exposes a „we.“ Grief, one might conclude, is a prac­tice of connec­ted­ness that can be arti­cu­lated in succor, protest, and other forms of communion.

Mour­ning as resistance

The very fact that not every life is mourned shows that mour­ning is poli­tical. Because, accor­ding to Butler, „certain forms of grief become natio­nally reco­gnized and ampli­fied, whereas other losses become unthinkable and ungrie­vable“, she distin­gu­ishes between grie­vable and ungrie­vable lives. In poli­tical systems such as the Islamic Repu­blic, an offi­cial cult of mour­ning such as that surroun­ding the Islamic Republic’s „martyrs“, e.g., former Quds Brigades commander Qassem Solei­mani, is flanked by the prac­tice of a death policy that declares other lives unworthy of being mourned. In such a regime, it is resis­tance to show grief at all, and, like the woman in the video of the protest in Kerman, to cut one’s hair in public. And even more: it is a prac­tice of protest in soli­da­rity, which, as a non-ideological gesture of atten­tion to the other, addresses life itself and thus connects people. As a form of protest and a revo­lu­tio­nary symbol, the gesture of mour­ning not only mobi­lizes people against the Islamic Republic’s policy of death, but also brings connec­ti­vity, respect for vulnerabi­lity and reco­gni­tion of life into circu­la­tion as poli­tical values.