The situation in Iran is “critical” as authorities tighten their crackdown on the continuing anti-government protests after the September death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the so-called morality police. United Nations human rights officials report Iranian security forces in Kurdish cities killed dozens of protesters this week alone, with each funeral turning into a mass rally against the central government. “The defiance has been astounding,” says Middle East studies professor Nahid Siamdoust, who reported for years from Iran, including during the 2009 Green Movement, and calls the protests a “nationwide revolution.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We’re broadcasting live from downtown Cairo in Egypt with the Nile River flowing behind us.
We begin today’s show in Iran, where human rights authorities say the situation has become critical, with reports of dozens of children being killed, injured and detained at recent anti-government demonstrations. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said Tuesday that worsening repression by Iranian security forces has led to a rising number of deaths, especially in Kurdish cities. This is spokesperson Jeremy Laurence.
JEREMY LAURENCE: Since the nationwide protests began on the 16th of September, over 300 people have been killed, including more than 40 children. Two 16-year-old boys were among six killed over the weekend. Protesters have been killed in 25 of Iran’s 31 provinces, including more than 100 in Sistan and Balochistan. Iranian official sources have also reported that a number of security forces have been killed since the start of the protests. …
We call on the authorities to release all those detained in relation to the exercise of their rights, including the right to peaceful assembly, and to drop the charges against them. Our office also calls on the Iranian authorities to immediately impose a moratorium on the death penalty and to revoke death sentences issued for crimes not qualifying as the most serious crimes under international law.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: This comes as the BBC reports authorities have not been releasing protesters’ bodies unless their families remain silent. Some say they were pressured by security officials to go along with state media reports that their loved ones were killed by, quote, “rioters.”
On Monday, Iran’s national soccer team declined to sing the national anthem before their opening World Cup match in a sign of support for the protests.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, on Sunday, two of Iran’s most prominent actresses were arrested after they voiced support for anti-government protests and appeared in public without wearing a hijab, as required by law. Ahead of her arrest on Sunday, Hengameh Ghaziani wrote, “whatever happens, know that as always I will stand with the people of Iran. This may be my last post,” she wrote. Katayoun Riahi was also arrested and accused of acting against Iran’s authorities.
CNN reports Iran’s security forces are using sexual assaults of male and female activists to quell the protests.
This week, the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva is set to hold a session on the protests with witnesses and victims in attendance and will discuss a proposal to establish a fact-finding mission on the crackdown in Iran. Evidence of abuses could later be used in court.
For more, we’re joined by Nahid Siamdoust, assistant professor in Middle East and media studies at University of Texas in Austin, former journalist who has reported across the Middle East, including Iran.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Professor. If you could start off by talking about the critical situation in Iran right now and also the escalating attacks by the Iranian government on Kurdish areas?
NAHID SIAMDOUST: Yes. In recent weeks, we’ve seen, especially within the Kurdish areas, Mahabad most recently, but Bukan, Sanandaj, Saqqez, in all these cities, the Kurdish people have risen up. And the people have risen up all over Iran. And the authorities are going very harshly against protesters. We see photo after photo on social media of people with, you know, tens, sometimes hundreds, of pellets in their bodies. Some of these people do not survive those shots.
And as you already mentioned in your report, many of the people, of the protesters who are killed, are children. They’re teenagers. They’re teenagers who have taken their lives into their hands and gone into the streets to protest their living conditions, you know, the bleak future that they’re looking into, and really asking for a different future.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And could you explain specifically what is it, the relationship between Iran’s central government and Kurdistan? So many of the protests, as you’ve pointed out, too, the epicenter has been in the Kurdish region. Could you explain what the relationship between the state, following the revolution, and Kurdistan has been?
NAHID SIAMDOUST: Sure. So, Kurdistan — Iran is a system of governorates, so 30 governorates and states, so to speak. And so, each state, including the Kurdish region, will have their own governors. So, the central system controls these regions via the governors that they have in these areas, and they’re oftentimes — you know, they’re always approved, of course, by the central state.
But the people have risen up, and their religious leaders and sheikhs have spoken up in their defense. So, you know, we’ve seen one of the sheikhs in Kurdistan joining the sheikh in Balochistan in asking for an independent international body to oversee a referendum in Iran.
And so, you know, the forces that we see, the sepahis that we see, the plainclothes officers and militia that we see in Kurdistan suppressing the uprising or the revolution there, they come from all kinds of different backgrounds, all supported by the central state, of course. And Kurdistan is very much, you know, part of Iran, and this is something that the Kurdish leaders in that region have also stated. So, you know, we have to be — when you talk about the central state and the Kurdish region, we have to be careful not to play into the regime’s own discourse of this being a separatist movement.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: No, absolutely, you’re right about that. And I wanted to say also — if you could comment, in addition, to the reports that we are seeing now, and that we said a bit in our introduction, of the systematic use of sexual violence against prisoners, principally women protesters but also men? What are you hearing about this on the ground? There have been reports, widely publicized, of attacks by security forces in public, but this is the first that we’re hearing of attacks on prisoners, protesters who have been imprisoned.
NAHID SIAMDOUST: Right. So, a couple of weeks ago, there was a video published of a woman sort of open in public being, you know, sort of touched absolutely inappropriately, and that set off conversations about what is actually happening in terms of the sexual abuse of these prisoners. And more recently, a couple days ago, there was a report by CNN with, you know, sort of women and others alleging that they’ve been sexually abused in these interrogation rooms. And we’ve seen other reports coming through on social media.
The parents and the families of these detainees are very much pressured to keep silent, and so we don’t really have a full account of what is happening in these interrogations. And we know they are abused physically, but the nature of the sexual abuse is something that still needs to really be narrated and come to the fore.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the defiance of the Iranian people, the women who are leading these protests, and the significance of what’s happening right now in Qatar with the Iranian soccer team refusing to sing the national anthem of Iran before the game?
NAHID SIAMDOUST: Right. We’ve seen, you know, Iranians across the board, all over the nation. As you mentioned, people in 25 out of 30 states have been — have been killed. And so, this is really a nationwide revolution. And the defiance has been astounding. The courage with which people have gone into the streets week after week, despite the killings that are happening, despite the, you know, also severe injuries — it doesn’t just have to be deaths — people losing their eyes, people losing their limbs — despite all of that, they’ve risen up and are continuing to protest. And now they’ve been joined, as you mentioned in your report, by actresses, by athletes, by teachers’ unions and professors’ unions and so on.
The Iran national team at the World Cup refused to sing the national anthem. However, they have not been fully supported by Iranians at large. It’s a very contested field. There are some among Iranians who are supporting their national team, but there are many who are not, because the national team had a visit with the conservative president, Ebrahim Raisi, right before their departure, and Iranians did not like to see their national team sort of bowing and being friendly with a president whom they see as being at the head of, you know, the repressive government — not the state, that would be the supreme leader, but leading the charge against women, not least because since he took office, he promised to bring morality to the streets. And this wave of protests that we see was not least caused by a year long of the morality police sort of upping the ante against women in public spaces. And so, the national team meeting the president did not sit well with many Iranians. And, you know, they had a historical defeat at the World Cup, losing to England.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Professor Siamdoust, you, among others, have pointed out, of course, that there have been many protests in recent years in Iran, starting, of course, with the 2009 protest, which is the time that we spoke to you on Democracy Now! But there is something, as you’ve said, qualitatively different about the protests that are now ongoing. Could you talk about what those differences are and how you see this playing out? Do you think, despite the brutality of the state response, that these protests will go on?
NAHID SIAMDOUST: Right. In 2009, which was the biggest protest movement since the 1979 revolution, we saw masses of people coming into the streets. You know, in one of the biggest, there was perhaps 2 or 3 million people at once. But the nature of the slogans was still very much about reforming the system from within. We saw people engaging with the Islamic discourse of the government — right? — going to their rooftops and calling “Allahu akbar,” calling God to sort of bring forth that kind of Islamic morality and decency, to bring the government into a motion of reforms.
That is no longer the case. The revolution that we see now — and there’s a lot of contestation around language, as well. There are people who say we should no longer be calling this an “uprising,” this should definitely be called a “revolution.” It’s not just a matter of semantics, I think.
In the nature of the slogans that we see, this movement is no longer at all engaging with government discourse. There’s no reference whatsoever to Islamic, you know, sort of slogans or phrases that people had been using and the government itself had been using. People are calling for a new system. In the 2009 Green Uprising, for example, people would band together and say, “Natarsin, natarsin, ma hameh ba ham hastim!,” “Don’t be afraid. We’re all together.” And now it’s kind of filtered down to people saying, “Betarsid, betarsid, ma hameh ba ham hastim!,” “You should be afraid. You should be afraid, because we are altogether.”
And then, when we look at the slogans, you know, the harshness of it, sort of there’s — all notion of Persian politeness or any sense of respect for authority or any of that is completely out the window. And we see this in the cuss words that are used against the supreme leader, against the Sepah. They’re ferocious. The slogans are ferocious. The movement is ferocious.
And it’s of a different nature, because, you know, this movement is leaderless. And so, there are groups of people all across Iran popping up here and there, but there are no leaders to be put down. So the regime can’t, just like in 2009, go after the leaders of the movement and try to quell the movement through its leaders. It’s a leaderless movement. It’s a very smart movement that is sort of coming together and dissolving, and really sort of playing this strategic game, a very sort of organic strategic game against the forces.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Thank you so much, Professor Nahid Siamdoust, assistant professor in Middle East and media studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She’s a former journalist who has reported across the Middle East, including in Iran.