'I Fought For Freedom in Iran in my 20s—Protestors Now Won't Back Down'

I hadn't heard from my relatives in Iran for days—not since the university protests broke out again and another schoolgirl was killed by the Revolutionary Guard in Ardabil.

I checked my phone incessantly for news, and scrolled through social media, even though it gave me nightmares. I couldn't sleep or eat. I walked around my home in Missoula, Montana in a state of suspended animation. Every part of me wanted to be on those streets in Iran.

And then, a few days ago, my cousin Ali called me with bone-chilling news. He told me that one of our dearest friends, a young woman named Noor, has been hospitalized after being shot while protesting in the streets of Mashad. Every part of me went numb. Was she going to make it? How badly was she wounded? The phone line went dead again. I punched in Ali's number on WhatsApp but was met only with silence on the other end.

I texted an endless stream of questions. Two hours later, after I had fallen into a fitful sleep, my entire body trembling on high alert, I heard from Ali that Noor was still alive.

My experience as a child of the revolution

My mother was nine months pregnant with me in 1978 when she left Iran on the brink of revolution. It was the last flight from Tehran to the United States for the next 44 years.

We landed in Minneapolis, but we never fully settled there. Growing up, my parents always had a suitcase packed in the corner, waiting to go back "home" to Iran. Every night my mother, father, and grandmother sat glued to the television or radio, hoping for news from Iran that the mullahs had been ousted, that the Iran-Iraq war was ending, that it would be time to return home at last. But that time never came.

Pardis Mahdavi in Montana
Pardis Mahdavi in Montana, where she now lives. Mahdavi's mother left Iran when she was nine months pregnant, and raised her daughter in America. Pardis Mahdavi

Things were getting worse, not better. By 1999, I could not bear to watch Iran on a television screen or hear about my native country through weekly phone calls with aunts and cousins left behind. They told stories of a feminist movement afoot, led by children of the revolution—people like me who were born during those most precarious years. I decided it was time to join the fight.

How I joined Iran's Sexual Revolution

I convinced my mother to join me for my first research trip to study the women's movement in Iran in 1999. We arrived in Tehran to find that 70 percent of the country's population was roughly my age.

These young people were born into the Islamic Republic of Iran; a world of austerity where women were told to wear long black cloaks from head to toe, covering every inch and curve of their bodies. A country where the morality police watched their every move, lest a few strands of hair escape a headscarf or young people were found holding hands, attending a party or reading a book deemed immoral by the regime.

As my generation became more frustrated and more educated, the critiques of Iran's past drilled into them by the Islamists made less sense.

We found our voice and challenged the morality police by using our bodies to speak back. Between 1999 and 2007, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Tehran, Shiraz, Esfahan and Mashad, both researching and participating in what young people my age referred to as Iran's Sexual Revolution.

Protest rally in Iran
Iranians rally in the northeastern city of Qom, on October 28, 2022, to denounce a mass shooting at a key shrine that killed more than a dozen worshippers. Pardis Mahdavi believes the protesters will not back down. Ahmad ZAHRABI / Isna news agency / AFP

This was a response to the morality-infused rhetoric of a regime we did not agree with. The revolution was fought through comportment: defying the morality police by sliding headscarves back, dancing in the streets, and engaging in sexual and social behaviors that defied austerity.

We continued pushing for change, despite what it cost us. For me, in 2007, the cost was particularly high. I was arrested while giving a lecture on sexual revolution in Iran at the university in Tehran. I was charged with the crime of trying to "foment a velvet revolution," interrogated and held by the morality police for 33 days and then stripped of my citizenship. I returned to the U.S. a disoriented Iranian American, watching my fellow children of the revolution continue the fight.

The current situation in Iran

The revolutionaries pressed on. But they, like me, also grew older, got married, and started families. And now it is our children who are leading the revolution.

The streets of Iran have once again erupted in protests sweeping the country. But this time, the faces at the forefront are schoolgirls as young as 10 years old. These girls walk the streets without their headscarves, tear up pages of Islamic leaders from their textbooks, and post videos and photographs on social media, fearlessly demonstrating their resistance to the world.

My 12-year-old daughter, Tara, is now glued to the screen—like I was at her age. Though she has never known Iran firsthand, the recent protests have inspired her to take action.

She has posted calls for revolution and resistance on social media. And her calls have been answered by other 12-year-old girls in places like Butte, Montana, Jackson, Wyoming, and Spokane, Washington. Middle-school girls who have never left their hometowns, let alone the country, post in solidarity with their counterparts in Iran, telling them that they stand together, that their cause has set off shockwaves throughout the world.

New York Protest for Women in Iran
Protesters call on the United Nations to take action against the treatment of women in Iran, following the death of Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police, during a demonstration in New York City on November 19, 2022. Yuki Iwamura / AFP

I know a number of folks in Iran who have been arrested, and my heart pounds each time I learn of another friend or child of the resistance who is going to face the brutality of the morality police or the revolutionary guards. I wonder if they will face the same painful, endless interrogations as I and others did more than a decade ago.

I hope that they are finding solace and peace in knowing the profound power of what they and other Iranians have done, by speaking out against decades of oppression. I close my eyes and send all the strength my heart can muster across the ocean to them. I think about the generations of strong women that came before us, and I pray that intergenerational strength reverberates in their bones as they keep up the fight.

I do not think that the threats of execution will end the resistance. As my colleague Dr. Ali Ansari said in a panel we were both on recently: "It is the people outside of Iran who are running out of patience, not the protestors." I couldn't agree more.

It has been nearly two months since Mahsa Amini's untimely and painful death, and the regime has only ramped up its brutality. But the protestors won't back down. They will find new ways to speak their truth, to speak out against the regime. Even as they watch their friends and loved ones face arrest and brutality, they are not giving up. This gives me hope, and reminds me that we shouldn't be giving up on them either.

Pardis Mahdavi, PhD is the Provost and Executive Vice President at the University of Montana. She has published six books in addition to numerous articles. For more information, please visit pardismahdavi.com.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.