Mahsa Amini

    by Mandakini Pachauri


    What feminine part of yourself did you have to destroy in order to survive in this world?

    Alok Vaid-Menon

    Jin, Jiyan, Azadi

    I arrive first at Vienna’s Yppenplatz market and look around in Mani, a small restaurant run by siblings from the Kurdish part of Turkey and Iraq. The market teems with fruit and vegetable stands equally frequented by native Austrians and immigrants shopping for fresh produce on a Saturday morning.

    22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini, originally from the city of Saqqez in Kurdistan Province, in western Iran, travelled to Teheran with her brother. She was detained by Iran’s morality police on Friday 13th of September 2022 and pronounced dead on 16th of September. Within 24 hours, collective and individual protests spread across social media in Iran to counteract the government narrative of her death given on state media. As the police cracked down violently on peaceful protest in the commons, these images and videos of brutality and oppression spread on social media across the world.

    She had been detained about what she wore or didn’t wear, or didn’t wear precisely the way it was stipulated by the police. It was about her hair, about covering it with the hijab — it was about the disruptive power of animal protein secreted from a feminine head. Hair seems to epitomise the archaic primitive that must be held in check to uphold a dominant but fragile hegemony.

    In Indian and other myths, unloosed hair as protest can send kingdoms to war. Heroes and even immortals, go to their deaths because of it. In the epic Mahabharata, Draupadi refused to groom and tie up her hair until it was drenched in the blood of the men who partly disrobed her in Duryodhana’s court. This happened in the public presence of her husbands, his courtiers and several high personhoods who stood by and did not prevent the injustice. The humiliation led to an epic war that decimated an entire warrior class of mythic India at the time.

    The governing of these innocuous strands of protein, particularly on the feminine body, has found a place in almost every major religion of the world. In today’s consumer culture, the norms for hair are set online, also on social media. The protests in Iran too were sparked on social media by images of Jina Mahsa Amini, whose original Kurdish name is Jina which means life, and also in colloquial Hindi — of burning hijabs and selfies taken without hijabs.

    As crowds chanted Jin, Jiyan, Azadi in Kurdish or Zan, Zendegi, Azadi in Farsi, woman, life, freedom, they seemed to decry what Iran had lost since the Islamic Revolution. Jina Mahsa Amini became the new face of an older movement that sought to set right the accumulated loss of civil liberties in Iran and her name became associated with many others. On December 12th, 2022, The Guardian reported, “at least 488 people have been killed since the demonstrations began in mid-September, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that has been monitoring the protests. Another 18,200 people have been detained by authorities.”

    My friend Negin Rezaie, an artist and activist living in Vienna, arrives and we greet each other in the oriental fashion, asking about the wellbeing of each other’s families. We speak at first of our mothers, each a leading figure in our lives. Also, of our sisters — their truths and endeavours. As we each tell of their gifts to us, of their past and present challenges, an angry sorrow hangs over our heads. Unconsciously, we drop our voices as our words take on more emotion and we hold hands across the table. We speak courage and solace to each other. We soothe some of the upwelling survivor’s guilt and the sense of responsibility with words of mutual understanding. One prominent section of the protests in Iran came from the Justice-Seeking Mothers, women whose children were killed in or have been missing after crackdowns over the decades.

    Negin then tells me how the protests took form and spread in Iran. Though not all regions speak Farsi and in several areas the Internet was cut, she describes the inventiveness with which even remote areas in Iran protested and were echoed across the country, adopting the language and medium of protest. The protests cut across class and social strata. She explains that large sections of the disenfranchised population in Iran do not have identity cards and are thus barred from any civic process. Some of the marginalised population are illiterate. Lacking written language, images and video provided an outlet for their outrage. Social media spread the news of a man tied to a flagpole who thirsted while he bled to death. A glass of water was placed just outside his reach by the morality police. Protesters across Iran posted images of themselves making a gesture to evoke his death and suffering on social media. These gestures and posts are witness that the dead, tortured and disappeared are not forgotten. Reembodied manifold with the repetition of their deaths and their suffering, their resistance is resurrected to remind oppressors, to give some solace to the grieving and inspire activists.

    She says that cutting off one’s hair is a ritual of mourning among Iranian Kurds and we speak of the times heads are shaved in Hindu ritual, for example in childhood, in penance, or on widowhood. Several French celebrities, such as Marion Cotillard and Isabelle Huppert demonstratively cut a strand of their hair on social media in a somewhat questionable and weak act of solidarity with the protests in Iran, tagging Jina Mahsa Amini.

    I have thick natural curls quite different from the smooth, oiled and groomed hair of my childhood peers. Some adults explained to me then that my head had not been traditionally shaved in early childhood and therefore, my growth was unruly. The attention given to my hair sometimes led me to question my own belonging.

    I remember a stab of recognition when I first saw the LP covers of my father’s jazz collection with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte’s Midnight Special, each with skin darker and curls wound tighter than mine. Still, I loved the music, the songs and narratives, secretly proud of the volume of hair I carried on my head. It was only later in adulthood that I recognised the revolutionary blend of acoustic and electronic instruments in Davis’ genius. I learnt of Makeba’s soft-spoken and determined activism against South African apartheid in long years of exile. I grew to appreciate Belafonte’s engagement in the Civil Rights movement in America, standing alongside Martin Luther King and others. Later on, I went on to read Audre Lorde who famously wrote “Your silence will not protect you”.

    I remember cutting the longest length of hair I have ever had in my teens and the light-headedness it gave me. To raise one’s head freed of the weight of years, even generations, of hair – that subcutaneous substance of subterranean conditioning. We struggle on with something we can never see completely, a veil that falls behind the field of sight — a halo of identification that allows us to inhabit the commons within designated spaces.

    As part of her artistic and personal struggle here in Vienna, Negin tells me of the online archive of the modes of protest that she has created. She explains that personal archives are endangered in Iran and often fragmented or erased. Providing a collected record of the protests preserves the inventive energy of a people under tyranny and their refusal to capitulate. She says that the archive has no owner as such, that it is constantly updated and not necessarily exclusive to Iran.

    Negin Rezaie’s archive strikes me as an act of healing, to re-member all the many ways a society seeks to survive trauma and to protest, to integrate resistance within the system as a marker of resilience. One image shows an anonymous arm marked by plastic bullet wounds, each surrounded by a line drawing of Iran’s map. A public fountain has been coloured red for life or Jiyan, the red standing for dead and damaged women Jina and the readiness to fight for freedom for Azadi. An illustration shows a Molotov cocktail with a thick strand of black hair as the fuse, already ignited.

    As I search for #mahsaamini on Instagram today, I see the Viennese government has recently voted to name the very first street in the world after her, Jina-Mahsa-Amini Straße in the rapidly developing 22nd district. It is a vast area bordering on the Danube inhabited mostly by younger families, some of them first and second-generation immigrants from across the world. It has not yet been decided where exactly the street will be and consequently, where it will go. As Negin and I make our own ways out into the city, we wish each other wellbeing and courage, with love.

    Mandakini Pachauri
    Vienna, 15th May 2023

    Mandakini Pachauri is an India born poet and nonfiction writer living at the edge of the Viennese Woods. Presently, she interrogates the contradictions and rifts in her personal history within geopolitical regions. Sound, image, codes and languages are expressive modes of her movements in the body, mind and in writing. In a state of whiplash, entangled perhaps in broken and remembered structures – she reaches not just for terra firma but also to imagine emergent realities.

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