Issue #145 To Summon Life in a Cemetery

To Summon Life in a Cemetery

Nahal Nikan

Women take off their headscarves at Jina’s funeral, Aichi cemetery, 2022.

Issue #145
May 2024

We can now decisively say that the movement crying “Woman, Life, Freedom”1 was born in a small cemetery which, on September 17, 2022, devoured the corpse of a young victim of Iran’s mandatory hijab policies and morality police.2 This woman was so young, it was as if part of our own collective youth was being buried with her. Who could have ever imagined that a movement to reclaim life would emerge from the graves of our most beloved dead? Jina Amini was being buried, and a power proceeding from her early death would go on to create the most life-affirming movement in memory in Iran.3 While I address the Woman, Life, Freedom movement as a whole, I would like to keep this text centered around Aichi cemetery and the moment the movement came to light. I will also reflect on the relationship between life and death in Iran, and in turn, their relationship to the Woman, Life, Freedom movement. In Iran, “death” and “the cemetery” have certain connotations; when we combine them with the birthplace of a movement, everything becomes more meaningful.

Can it be said that the most efficient political regimes are those that keep the lives of their citizens as close to life and as far from death as possible? Yes. Yet the truth is that in Iran, life is not based on life itself, but on a foundation of death. What I mean is that it is not life that stewards life; rather, it is death and the afterlife that oversee life and all that it contains. This is why the criteria for an efficient regime are inverted here in Iran, where the lives of citizens are kept so close to death and at the farthest possible distance from life. Life is allowed and justified only insofar as it leads to “happiness in the afterlife”; other possibilities for living that are extrinsic to that otherworldly happiness are trapped in an unbreakable web of punishments, rules, laws, and principles leading only to eventual annihilation. Subsequently, the feminine body trapped for decades in a web of religious doctrines, and in an endless set of rules, disciplines, teachings, and surveillance mechanisms, is gradually transformed into a docile and submissive body—one that is meant to be the great vitrine for the mandatory hijab for all its life. It is as if in Iran we are faced with spaces where all signs of life and death are intertwined, where life is mixed with death. All rules are established in order to extend the territory of death so far that it devours life. Some of the rules for the living are applied to the dead, and some signs and symbols of the dead slide into the lives of the living.

With all this in mind, it comes as no surprise that one of the rules implemented in Iranian cemeteries is gender segregation. These laws extend the politics of gender discrimination all the way to the grave. The strangest and most explicit sign of such gender discrimination in Iranian cemeteries is the prohibition against engraving women’s portraits on their gravestones.4 We have not forgotten that shortly before Jina Amini’s murder, the “morality police” were patrolling cemeteries to monitor dead women’s graves for any forbidden pictures. We have not forgotten the morality police for the dead. Gravestones that had portraits of deceased women without hijabs were broken or completely removed, since, according to the authorities, they “upset the deceased’s soul.” For decades, then, the obituaries and graves of Iranian women have been faceless; instead of their faces one sees a picture of a flower or a landscape, or some verses of poetry. The woman and her individual identity disappear into the general phrase “Here lies a loving mother and a self-sacrificing wife.” This is still, to this day, the dominant narrative assigned to a woman’s identity. The politics of rendering women faceless and devoid of individual identity thus continues after death. French historian Philippe Aries shows in Western Attitudes Toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present (1974) that the transformation of gravestones from anonymous pieces of rock to carefully fashioned stones bearing the name and frequently the picture of the deceased person was the outcome of historical struggles to claim individuality. Engraving a person’s name, identity, and picture on a gravestone is an effort toward upholding the person’s individuality and immortalizing their memory. So, effacing deceased women’s likenesses from their gravestones should be seen as a continuation of the effort to deprive them of identity and individuality in life, keeping them anonymous even after death. In such acts, instead of life taking care of life and being its guardian, death guards and takes care of life.

Grave of Jina Amini, 2022.

Let us return to Aichi cemetery, the birthplace of Iran’s most recent feminist movement.5 It seems that what happened there on the morning of September 17, 2022 was an unprecedented struggle to replace death with life. A collective action arose to return value and validity to earthly life, to push away and invalidate the world after death, and all those celestial and otherworldly values for which a young girl had been brutally killed. After Jina Amini’s burial, a Kurdish sentence was inscribed on her gravestone—a sentence we had never seen before on any grave: “Jina, you will not die, your name will become a symbol.” A girl has died, and the living are addressing her, promising “you will not die.” This insistent denial of the death of someone who has died is in fact a serious refusal to sanction the sacredness of death. This refusal paved the way for the power of life to be birthed from a cemetery. On the day of Jina’s burial, we witnessed two unprecedented events unfold when Kurdish women suddenly removed their headscarves, and when they shouted “Woman, Life, Freedom.” Kurdish women became pioneers in removing their headscarves and crying out for life. No one had told the mourning women who showed up to that cemetery in the city of Saqqez when and where to gather or what to do. No one had asked them to throw off their headscarves in “a coordinated move” and “precisely at a certain hour” while they were crying over Jina’s grave. No one mobilized them to shout out the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” and to perform a certain mourning ritual. But that illustrious moment, that moment that blended acts of protest and mourning and emerged from a mutual understanding between women, nonetheless crystallized. And herein lies the significance of such a moment: in its freedom from all those efforts that wanted to assign to it something exterior, it remains based solely on unique shared pain. The significance of this rebellious movement—which soon expanded to other cities—was the creation of a mutual understanding among mourning women that mandatory hijabs and other discriminatory policies have transformed life into death and the realm of the living into one huge graveyard. Kurdish women took off their headscarves precisely in a place where it is forbidden to even engrave women’s pictures on their headstones without the hijab, and they also did so during the burial of a girl who was the victim of the mandatory hijab. It was as if they represented not only all living women, but also liberated all the dead women’s visages from the hijab. This moment of the refusal of the hijab, to go back to Aries’s interpretation, was the moment of the refusal of anonymity—the moment of reclaiming individual identity and rejecting imposed identities, forced laws, and mandatory clothing norms.

Indeed, what took place was a reversal of values, from the otherworldly, sacred, and religious towards the earthly and the natural. Contrary to the “masculine and sacred” identity of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Jina movement of 2022 was born in Aichi cemetery with a “feminine and earthly” (nonsacred) identity. Therefore, we can claim that the latter movement developed in an explicit dialectical relation to the former revolution and ordered its transformations based on everything that was denied in the 1979 revolution. The narrators of the 2022 movement were women who reappropriated the masculinist 1979 slogans in order to make them compatible with the “feminine and earthly” nature of the Jina movement. Slogans such as “Independence, Freedom, the Islamic Republic,” “God, Quran, Khomeini”—itself formulated in opposition to “God, the King, Homeland”—were replaced by “Woman, Life, Freedom,” thereby turning, twisting, and subverting sacred, masculine values in favor of feminine, nonsacred ones. This crucial moment in Aichi cemetery, following in the tradition of the hijab protests of March 1979, created the foundation for the Woman, Life, Freedom movement and sparked the most serious protests against the mandatory hijab in the twenty-first century.6 Listening to these cries for life emanating from the heart of a cemetery allows us to emphasize the life-affirming nature of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement and to understand how the movement articulated itself in opposition to death and all life-antagonizing symbols. Nevertheless, in order to fully grasp the significance of this “cemetery moment” in which the movement was formed, we should bring to light a prior chain of events that unfolded in close succession, became inscribed in our collective memory, and marshalled anger in our hearts. These events quickly made tangible the infinitesimal distance between death and Iranian women. Three events drew women to the edges of graves, and in one case, pushed one to her death.

On July 16, 2022, two months before Jina Amini’s death, a widely circulated video showed a woman wearing a chador (a body-length cloak that covers the head) harassing a young woman in a bus for not wearing a hijab. The viral video revealed that the other passengers eventually kicked the veiled woman off the bus. It was announced the next day that the young woman in the video, Sepideh Rashno, had been arrested.7 Protests erupted on social media in response to this news, with the hashtag “#WhereIsSepidehRashno?” creating a Twitter storm. Two weeks later, Iranian state television broadcasted a video of a forced confession from Rashno; bruises were clearly visible on her face. Once again, a wave of anger took over social media. A second event also seeped into public consciousness via a viral video. On July 19 of the same year, a mother was standing in front of a morality police van, begging them not to take her sick daughter.8 The police, indifferent to the mother, who had draped her body over the front of their van, start driving, and the mother, crying and begging, is thrown to the ground as the van continues its forward motion. The release of this video led to another explosion of anger and hatred toward the morality police and policies associated with the hijab and women. The third event revealed another aspect of women’s oppression. On September 8, 2022, exactly twelve days before Jina Amini’s burial, a news item started circulating on social media about Shalir Rasouli, a thirty-six-year-old Kurdish woman. When a neighborhood man attacked Shalir, intending to rape her, she threw herself out of an apartment window and died.9

During Jina’s burial, the Kurdish women, more than anyone else, recalled the image of Shalir Rasouli. One of the key moments at Aichi cemetery was when a Kurdish activist read the following statement: “What happened to Jina Amini in Tehran and to Shalir Rasouli in Marivan is the direct outcome of a patriarchal culture that paves the way for such atrocious acts.”10 Ultimately, these three events, along with others that targeted women, publicized narratives of oppression against women. Then came the tragic and highly publicized death of Jina Amini. The morality police accused her of wearing an “improper” hijab and arrested her. She never again returned to the brilliant life of her youth. Indeed, the constant accumulation of images of death and oppression in the lives of Iranian women made the desire for life burst forth, like a spring allowed to flow freely. At Jina’s burial this desire for life was unleashed in the cries from the throats of Kurdish women. All those experiences of the mandatory hijab and forced anonymity, all those years of fear of the morality police, all those bans on any real presentation of the feminine image and visage, all those laws and clutches and “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts,” all those years of not living in order to respect the afterlife. The accumulation of all those visceral images of oppression and discrimination compelled the Kurdish women mourning Jina Amini to perform an unprecedented act that would soon take over the country: removing their headscarves and saying yes to the optional, but not mandatory, hijab.

The murder of Jina Amini reminded me of a photo I took seven years ago for an exhibition of my photography. This collection of photographs presented important events in the lives of ordinary people—events that divided their lives into a “before” and an “after.” In one of the photos, a woman in a black chador stands amidst the ashes of her burned-down house. On a winter morning, she had been putting on her chador to go out and run an errand. The edge of the chador caught on a kerosene heater, knocking it down and setting the house on fire. Her house was at the end of a long and narrow alley, so fire fighters couldn’t get there in time, and the whole house burned down. In a highly symbolic way, the mandatory hijab had destroyed her life. But I had to change this woman’s story in order to get a permit for my exhibition that year. At that time, the “sanctity of the hijab” was an absolute red line, rendering any criticism of it impossible. But in 2022, what happened to Jina Amini because of the hijab called into question its sanctity. The morality police’s naked violence against women in effect de-sanctified the hijab. We could even argue that, in the realm of gender politics in Iran in recent years, no idea has been as costly and problematic for its creators as the establishment of a “morality police.” Early on, the violence of the morality police took place behind prison walls. But in a rare unveiling, this violence eventually emerged from the obscurity of interrogation rooms and into the street—the most public of places. We had the fortune to witness and record these images of public violence against women in those moments when the morality police, despite their top-secret regulations and code of conduct, lost control.

The encounter between the life-affirming, death-defying nature of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement and the death-worshipping, life-rebuking nature of the Iranian regime was brought into sharp relief by a bizarre court sentence received by a woman who had posted photos of herself without a hijab during the first days of the Jina movement: washing corpses.11 This verdict was explicitly meant to remind this life-seeking Iranian woman of death. The politics of the Iranian regime has created a rupture between Iranians: some are guardians of life in this world and others are guardians of the world after death. The guardians of earthly matters are supported only by themselves, whereas the guardians of heavenly matters enjoy the full support of the Islamic regime.

As a counterpart to the Aichi cemetery moment, allow me to relate another brilliant moment, one that I myself witnessed. This moment showed how women’s fight for life quickly spread from the cemetery to the heart of life. As the movement was growing, I realized that I should look for female gathering spaces that tied together the scattered, wounded existences of thousands of women. I was convinced that only in feminine spaces could I closely observe women in the midst of a feminist tempest. Recreational complexes such as swimming pools, saunas, and jacuzzies were among those rare places where such intimate observation was possible. Such spaces in Iran are governed by a logic of “gender separation,” whereby women and men must use them during separate hours. More significantly, the rule of the hijab doesn’t apply in these spaces since everyone is half naked. No one can judge others based on their appearance or their level of conformity to hijab rules, which is precisely why the interactions among women in such spaces are more friendly and relaxed. The brilliant moment that caught my attention happened in a jacuzzi: the women gathered there loudly sang “Yar-e Dabestani-e Man” (My Grade-School Friend), a song that is a constant presence at protests in Iran.12 This performance continued as the women sung other songs of resistance. Then one of the women stood in the middle of the jacuzzi and shouted, “Woman, Life, Freedom,” accompanied by others around her. They were united in such a way that one could imagine they had been secretly practicing this collective chant for centuries in their private spaces—in kitchens and washrooms, in showers and pastoos.13 Desires repressed for so long came to life when these women comprehended what was happening to their lives due to the Woman, Life, Freedom movement. These women were not teenagers or young women; rather, they were mostly middle-aged housewives and mothers who talked about their numerous regrets and lost dreams. It was clear to me that what manifested there in the hidden feminine life of a private space was the insurmountable power of connection. A passionate connection emerged from the sudden visibility of women at the heart of a movement. After jacuzzi sessions like this, a group of these women would take to the streets and continue their feminine performance in nightly street protests. Women were able to assemble and organize their diffuse forces in such spaces, and then take to the streets, their hair uncovered. Such glorious moments of life were made possible by the refusal of death in Aichi cemetery. The power of life spread from a small cemetery in a remote Kurdish village to the largest cities and farthest villages in Iran.

Who would have thought that the return of the female body in its simple and natural form would spark a movement? Who could have imagined that the presence of a woman with her hair uncovered would be seen as an unadulterated declaration of existence? The Woman, Life, Freedom movement is the dawn of an epoch when the unveiled, uncovered feminine body is not merely a body but a banner. Are we witnessing the descent of the feminine body from the skies to the earth? Yes! This body has descended in order to take care of her natural, human affairs. This is a body that has finally broken free of metaphors, so that it can align with what it really is. Woman has arrived in her most natural and human form. And she wants to vindicate the freedom of all women.


Adam Zeidan, “Woman, Life, Freedom,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, online ed., 2024 .


Adam Zeidan, “Morality police,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, online ed., 2024 .


Editors, “Death of Jina Mahsa Amini,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, online ed., 2024 .


Ardeshir Tayebi, “Tehran Cemeteries Cover Graves that Have Pictures of Women Without Hijabs,” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, July 26, 2022 .


Aichi (Aychi) cemetery, where Jina (Mahsa) Amini is buried, is in Saqqez, Kurdistan.


Ed. note: for an account of these protests, see the essay by Elaheh in this issue, “Cleansing Personal Archives and the Birth of the Black Hole of Collective Memory.”


Rosie Swash, “Arrests and TV Confessions as Iran Cracks Down on Women’s ‘Improper’ Clothing,” The Guardian, August 23, 2022 .


Ardeshir Tayebi, “Iranian Morality Police Unit Disciplined After Video of Sick Girl’s Arrest for Hijab Violation Goes Viral,” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, July 20, 2022 .


“Marivan: The Death of Shalir Rasouli, a Woman Who Had Thrown Herself Out of a Widow for Fear of Rape,” Hana Human Rights Organization, September 8, 2022 .


See (in Farsi).


Amnesty International UK, “Iran: Authorities in Huge Crackdown on Women for Not Wearing Headscarves,” press release, July 26, 2023 .


Ed. note: for a brief explanation of the song, see this PBS article .


Trans. note: The connotation of the spaces listed here is somewhat lost in translation because they don’t have exact equivalents in Western architecture. These are all traditional, “inner” spaces assigned to women by men.

Middle East, Iran, Protests & Demonstrations
Return to Issue #145

Translated from the Farsi by Golnar Narimani. Translation edited by Soori Parsa.

Nahal Nikan is a writer and researcher.


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