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Fractured lives; or, What is happening in Iran right now?

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Picture by Artin Bakhan on Unsplash.

‘Nobody knows what is going to happen. We have no idea. If anyone claims otherwise, they are lying. We simply don’t know.’ (Dr Sadegh Zibakalam, Professor of Political Science at Tehran University, during an Instagram Live event on 7 October 2022.)


‘Don’t worry, the media is exaggerating – showing things way worse than it is for views. I went out the other day – I saw a small crowd. I was like, ok, so these are the protests everyone is talking about – then I saw it was people lining up in front of a kebab house.’ (A friend in Tehran, 5 October 2002.)

‘Avoid all travel. Canadians in Iran should consider leaving by commercial means if they can do so safely.’ (Government of Canada, Iran Travel Advice, last updated on 9 October 2022, 17:59 ET.) 

* * *

Not that I was considering travelling to Iran, to see with my own eyes what was happening. I had ‘joked’ about it, and my son had looked at me with horrified wide eyes, ‘You’re fucking joking, right?’. (My son, 6 October 2022.)

* * *


‘This is a women-inspired, feminist movement!’ (The Guardian, The BBC, and every single social media post on my feeds about Iran; 16 Sept 2022–present day.)


‘This is not about gender. It is a crisis of government legitimacy. There have been ongoing protests – in the working class, in the provinces, over the price of gas and bread, over water – it has been continuous over the past years. This one sparked Western media interest, certainly, but it’s not about gender. Anything can start a protest due to the lack of legitimacy of the regime.’ (Dr Zibakalam, 7 October 2022. He was banned not just from teaching, but from entering Tehran University very soon after.)


‘He’s right, you know. We were stopped and harassed all the time – you remember? They killed Mahsa Amini because she was Kurdish – it was racism. They killed her because of racial hatred, and then it went viral because she was young and pretty and instagrammable.’ (Iranian expat, same date.)

‘We’re all fine, don’t worry. We just don’t have internet.’ (My relative in Iran, 8 October 2022.)


‘There is normal life ongoing, you know.’ (Another relative in Iran, same date.) 

* * *

An artist filled the fountains in downtown Tehran with red liquid

I know where those ponds are. I have been by them. 


Media reflects the ideological interests of those in power. Power controls the narrative. I have taught that to undergrads in social theory classes. We all bring our own perspective to interpret what we see. Look at this drawing: is it a rabbit or a duck? But just because something is ideological and beneficial to powerful interests, just because something is socially constructed and can be both or either a rabbit or a duck does not mean there is no truth. There is truth about what is happening; I just can’t see it. 

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Optical illusion of a rabbit or a duck. Picture accessible on Wikimedia Commons (public domain), as published by Joseph Jastrow in 1899 in ‘The mind’s eye’, Popular Science Monthly.


‘Mom! Some Kurdish people came to us and said we weren’t using her Kurdish name and we had no right to hold a vigil for her. We’re still going ahead with the vigil but I’m scared.’ (My daughter, who has been protesting and organising in Montreal, 5 October 2022.)

* * *


I helped her write speeches for the protests and vigils she was organising, editing her fierce words about women’s human rights oppressed by theocratic regimes. But, ‘this is not about gender’, said my uncle, Dr Zibakalam, a political science professor who is now banned from teaching at his beloved Tehran University, where my mom had been a professor, where I had studied for my MA in English Literature, where I had attended my mother’s memorial. Such a beautiful campus.


* * *


‘What??’ shrieked my daughter, her eyes blazing with righteous passion. ‘He said it’s not about gender? What the fuck, mom? He’s wrong!’ (7 October 2022.)

‘Please be careful – run away if the police show up – don’t argue with other factions.' (Me, in response to my daughter, same date.)

* * *


More than one thing can be true at the same time. I am an expat, what right do I have to speak about something I left behind, after all? None. 

I have written elsewhere that as an immigrant, the knowledge that I can return to my home country whenever I need is a crucial part of my well-being. Transnationalism, referring to that dual sense of belonging to more than one locality, and the recognition that becoming an immigrant does not mean cutting all ties with the home country, has been studied extensively and is now commonly used as one framework among many for migration research. That duality permeates the everyday experience of immigration, sometimes more, sometimes less pronounced, and when the home country is a conflicted, chaotic place, with an alienated government and fragmented society, the duality also becomes torn and chaotic. 


The feeling of being torn is well-known to migrants. We function here smoothly, efficiently, productive, busy being good citizens, finding joy in the everyday, new friendships, new loves, new community. Another part of us is stuck in the home country. And so we are ‘sufferingmigrants, perpetually grieving, perpetually mourning what we lost, and this has strange mental manifestations. I remember when my mother died unexpectedly in Iran while I was in Canada, how I felt the split vividly: I was at her funeral, I was with my brothers, I could see it all, a vision of grief and mourning superimposed on normal life. 


But this time it’s different; my special migrant crystal ball isn’t working, I don’t know what’s happening. I know something terrible and beautiful is going on: I watch the videos of women with their hair loose walking in Tehran and that was unimaginable ten or even five years ago. I watch a video showing Iranian state police on motorcycles protecting protestors as they march, and my mind is blown. This is new, something I have never seen before. I know my loved ones may get hurt. I know I can’t go back and this undoes me. I know there is hope, and this holds me.  

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Shiva Nourpanah

Shiva is a first-generation immigrant from Iran who has made the beautiful province of Nova Scotia, Canada her home. She works for Status of Women Nova Scotia, and is also Adjunct Faculty at the Department of Global Development Studies at Saint Mary's University, Halifax. She has several publications in the field of refugees and temporary/precarious migrants, and violence against women. She has been a Board member of Halifax Refugee Clinic, a non-profit organisation offering pro bono legal and settlement services to refugees in the region, since 2011, as well as a member of the Steering Committee of the NS branch of Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and the Board of Directors of the Muriel McFergusson Centre for Research on Family Violence.

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