Mass demonstrations in Iran rooted in decades of 'quiet acts of resistance'

As mass demonstrations continue to erupt across Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini, 19th-century journals of Iranian women reveal a 'hidden resistance' to authority. Safaneh Mohaghegh Neyshabouri studied these journals and observed how small acts of resistance can give root to massive social upheaval.

19th century diaries reveal Iranian women’s subversive tactics, says scholar

A woman playing the 'tar' in 19th-century Iran. Recent research is changing the typical view of women's lives and activities during the period. (Institute for Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies)

*This episode originally aired on June 5, 2019. We have updated this story to ask Safaneh Mohaghegh Neyshabouri, a former PhD student who is now an assistant professor, to respond to the current situation in Iran.

Unprecedented mass demonstrations continue to erupt across Iran after the death of a Mahsa Amini. The 22-year old Kurdish woman died while detained by Iran's 'morality police' in Tehran. 

"Women are spearheading the current movement," said Safaneh Mohaghegh Neyshabouri, assistant professor of gender and sexuality studies and Muslim cultures at the University of Calgary.

"But this isn't something that happened overnight."

For her PhD, Neyshabouri studied journals of Iranian women from the 19th century and observed how small acts of resistance can give root to massive social upheaval.

For me, it was like listening to women talking back to me from a hundred years ago.- Safaneh Mohaghegh Neyshabouri 

"What's going on today in Iran is what everyday resistance does — it creates the groundwork for when that resistance turns into a social movement," said Neyshabouri.

"It catches the oppressor by surprise because they've been blind to the methods, tools, the rhetoric, the framework, and the ways of thinking that are used by people in the movement. "And as a result, the oppressor feels trapped."

As Neyshabouri read the journals, she discovered just how different these people were from the stereotype of women from that time, known as the Qajar era.

"The general understanding of Qajar women's role is that they were absent from the public, that they were prisoners inside their homes, and their only job was to satisfy men's desire, and produce and raise kids," said Neyshabouri.

 "My investigation into their daily lives shows ways that they're resisting and circumventing patriarchy," she added.

Safaneh Mohaghegh Neyshabouri is an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies and Muslim cultures at the University of Calgary. (Submitted by Safaneh Mohaghegh Neyshabouri.)

"These women are perfectly well aware of how to use the spaces that are available to them to express themselves, share their experiences, and to resist coercive power in a way that was least costly to themselves."

One of the diaries she examines was written by Aliyeh Khanoum Shirazi. The handwritten text entered the archives at the University of Tehran in 2007, and Neyshabouri is the first scholar to analyze it.

In 1892, Aliyeh Shirazi left her husband and kids to do the Hajj pilgrimage. Her travel journal spans two years as she travelled to India, Jeddah, Mecca, and Tehran (where she spent more than a year).

In her journal, Aliyeh carefully critiques the men she encounters. One of these men was the most powerful man in Iran, Nasser al-din Shah. The Shah had 84 wives. 

"Aliyeh's account of Nasser al-din Shah's court is one of the two accounts that we have by women," said Neyshabouri. "Aliyeh's vantage point is closer to the regular people. So she describes these details and this is, to my knowledge, the only record we have of the routine of the Shah."

While Aliyeh cannot explicitly protest the king's extravagances because she would fear repercussions if the journal fell into the wrong hands, Neyshabouri notes that Aliyeh goes as close to the line as she can with her critique.

"She does not want to directly mock the king and his behaviour, but she does that between the lines, by describing things, by describing the way he acts towards women," she said. "She basically makes fun of him or questions his behaviour."

Neyshabouri's work adds to a growing trove bringing women's voices into recorded history.

'Where are the women in your history?'

Harvard University professor Afsaneh Najambadi is a driving force behind a massive online archive of documents, photographs, and recordings of women's lives in the late 19th century and early 20th century Iran. 

"For the longest time, histories of Qajar period were focused on, and largely about, men of the period," said Najambadi.

"Normally, when you would ask historians, 'Where are the women in your history?', the response was that there are no sources. But, as it turns out, actually there are plenty of sources."

Neyshabouri likens the writing of the women from the 19th century to how women in Iran today are using social media to resist authority in subtle ways.

Just as women in the late 19th century used handwriting to make observations and quietly protest injustices, Neyshabouri said, women today continue to technologies and 'spaces' available to them. 

"Every act of resistance is important," she said. "It is never useless to resist injustice. We should use whatever possibilities we have to speak truth to power."

Guests in this episode:

  • Afsaneh Najmabadi — professor of history and of studies of women, gender, and sexuality, at Harvard University. Afsaneh is also a driving force behind the massive online archive of documents, photographs, and audio recordings relating to women's lives in 19th-century and early 20th-century Iran. Visit the archive.
  • Asef Bayat  — professor of sociology, global and transnational studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He's author of many books including Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring and Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East.
  • Hadi Milanloo — musician and PhD student, University of Toronto. His research focuses on women instrumentalists playing classical music in Tehran. 
  • Safaneh Mohagegh Neyshabouri — assistant professor of gender and sexuality studies and Muslim cultures at the University of Calgary. She was a PhD student in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta where she also taught a course in "Islam and Feminism."

** IDEAS from the Trenches: The Encroachment Game was produced by Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell.

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