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
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 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.