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Embodied Resistance, Diasporic Disciplining, and Woman, Life, Freedom Movement in Iran

In this reflective essay, we explore how embodied and affective reactions to the Woman, Life, Freedom movement serve to discipline women in the Iranian-American diaspora.

Woman, Life, Freedom was sparked by the tragic death of Mahsa Jina Amini while detained by Iran’s ‘guidance patrol’ in September 2022. Women-led protests and strikes burgeoned across the country as Iranians protested the state’s repressive treatment of girls and women and continue into the present. Throughout Iran’s feminist uprising, our Collective journaled and shared personal reflections about witnessing horrific state violence against Woman, Life, Freedom protesters, as well as gendered forms of harassment against Iranian-American women from within the diaspora. Our shared experiences include the adoption of self-censorship as a form of protection against diasporic disciplining of Iranian-American women. Self-censorship colours our connections across multiple domains including avoidance of diasporic spaces, emotional and psychological distancing from the community and its struggles, and the use of pseudonyms which detach us from our own bodies of work. We have merged our reflections, organising our entries thematically through three key affects: hope, fear, and anger.


Author 1: “Watching the Woman, Life, Freedom movement unfold in Iran was exhilarating. I was in awe of the courage of Iranians, knowing what risks they were taking against a violent and coercive state which I expected would deploy every tool to suppress the protests, as they always have. I tried to temper my excitement with memories of past uprisings, which I had watched on the edge of my seat, waiting for deeper transformations to catalyse out of people’s righteous anger at a regime that has rejected every opportunity for compromise or conciliation.”.

Author 2: “During the initial weeks of the revolutionary uprising, like many Iranian Americans, I was glued to the news, following every act of rebellion. I was flooded by texts from friends and family eagerly watching scenes of young girls heckling security forces, women standing on top of vehicles and dancing around bonfires as they burned their hijabs. I felt a deep sense of pride that the dominant images of Iran were being replaced by courageous and innovative protesters, with the slogan Woman, Life, Freedom circulating across the globe. In a political moment when there was a global rollback on girls and women’s rights, feminist activism for revolutionary change was being modeled by Iranian girls and women.”


Author 2: “Our Vashti collective tried to hold hope and fear in tension, knowing that we were witnessing a momentous socio-political shift in Iran but that the brutal suppression of protests would immediately follow. We braced ourselves for another show of authoritarian force.”

Author 1: “As a political scientist with a long history of criticism of the Islamists in power in Iran, I knew to expect deep conflicts around what direction the protests should take. I also anticipated that the already serious divisions in the Iranian-American community would deepen. I was not surprised when I saw that some Iranian Americans were influenced by the pulsing undercurrent of hostility against anyone critical of the maximalist position on Iran. Their willingness to believe logically inconsistent conspiracy theories about a purportedly vast network of paid regime operatives, even outspoken critics who had themselves spent time as political prisoners in Iran’s notorious prisons, seemed a relatively predictable manifestation of their feelings of anger and frustration at a regime which was out of reach, across an ocean.”


Author 2: “I did not anticipate that violence would also emanate from within the Iranian American diaspora. My initial hope that WLF would draw us closer in our hope for change in Iran but was quickly dissipated by deep divisions within the diaspora. As scholars, we frequently walk a thin line of trying to dispel xenophobic, orientalist narratives of Iran while also keeping the spotlight on the regime’s abysmal human rights record. However, my scholarship on the humanitarian consequences of US sanctions against Iran was held with deep suspicion by Iranian-American colleagues at my university. The backlash against anti-war and anti-sanctions positions is so severe that, despite being outspoken against the Iranian regime, I was inexplicably read by my local Iranian community as pro-regime.

While collective hope for this feminist uprising – like any other revolutionary moment – should not be equated with uncritical unity among the diaspora, I was deeply distressed by the lack of compassion in our communities. I struggled to make sense of my fear of being targeted by the diaspora while our families in Iran navigated state surveillance and violence repression. The divisions within the diaspora seemed to mimic the regime's playbook – to turn us against one another by centring paranoia and political difference over collective action and solidarity.”

Author 1: “The sheer scale and speed of the vitriolic public accusations against anyone critical of sanctions or war made me shrink with despair. I thought, ‘Why are we working so hard, at great risk to ourselves, to talk about what’s happening in Iran if so many of the people we would consider our compatriots in the struggle are enthusiastically embracing a politics of division and suspicion? Don’t they see that they are undermining the movement for which they claim to be working?’ It seemed that some members of my community preferred to see those of us who disagreed with their maximalist tactics as not only enemies but traitors in league with the regime. Anyone critical of sanctions and war, according to their logic, was guilty of normalising the theocratic government rather than isolating and weakening it. They don’t see any disagreements as legitimate; anyone not aligned with their viewpoints had to be a traitor of the people.

At first my own anger at this self-sabotage propelled me to do more. I accepted every media interview request, every invitation to publish an essay, every podcast. I invited multiple speakers to campus to discuss the situation in Iran, desperate to raise awareness and rise above the discord for the good of the cause. But over time, I found myself sinking further into despair about what I could hope to accomplish in a climate of deep hostility and distrust. My anger at our community for the escalating circular firing squad grew into a force for self-censorship. I retreated into private conversations and made my social media accounts private. Righteous feminist rage had turned into a simmering bitterness at my own community that I have spent years studying with love and care.”


During times of violence, fear often permeates social interactions and colours our perceptions of ourselves and our communities. Throughout the Woman, Life, Freedom movement, we have witnessed the reproduction of Iranian state violence as members of the diaspora (self-) silence as a consequence of adopting the logics of the state. Our constant worry about the safety of our loved ones in Iran – while also guarding against targeted harassment in the US - perpetuates these fears. Our fury at repression in Iran coexists alongside anger and indignation at our diasporic community eating our own.

We don’t know where we will go from here. We can only hope that – collectively - we will see the futility of this internecine warfare before we splinter into a thousand disparate factions. In the meantime, we continue building our cherished collective to further the struggle for liberation.

Vashti collective original
Image caption: Queen Vashti refuses the summons of her drunken husband, King Ahasuerus (Khashayar in Persian), son of Achaemenid Persian king Darius. Ahasuerus had demanded she appear before his friends to showcase her beauty. For her defiance, she was banished from the kingdom in the fifth century BCE.

About the author

The Vashti Collective is comprised of Iranian-American women whose scholarship and activism centre on human rights, social justice, and feminist imagination.

We are faculty members in US universities, drawing on interdisciplinary backgrounds in support of collective hope and struggle for positive transformation of our communities.

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