Issue #145 A Power from Within

A Power from Within

Nuzhan Didartalab

The Mothers of Khavaran gather in Khavaran cemetery on August 28, 2020. Despite pressure from state authorities, the Mothers of Khavaran have persisted for more than three decades in seeking justice for victims of a series of mass executions of political prisoners carried out in 1988.

Issue #145
May 2024

During the past three months I have tried to reflect on the “value of life” and the “right to life.” And yet now, amidst of the incessant bombs being dropped on the people of my region [the Middle-East], bombs that have claimed, at the time of this writing, tens of thousands of lives; amidst the increasing number of executions in Iran and the horrifying news of femicide every single day and in every atrocious way possible; amidst the heartrending murder of sixteen-year-old Armita less than two weeks ago,1 which feels like a repetition of the murder of twenty-two-year-old Jina, which made the Iranian people cry out for freedom, a cry heard around the world—amidst all this, I find myself in a perturbed and ironic situation. A situation in which anything I might write seems like it would add nothing to the reader’s memory—would be but repetition and abstract babbling.

What’s more, speaking of the value of life and the right to life implies that the writer takes a certain distance from the concrete situation of others, since by referring to their situation, the writer is trying to develop and express her own ideas. And yet, I am determined not to transform any situation or person—especially a person who went through very different experiences during the short time before her death—into an “object of analysis.” I am determined to go beyond such a distance when it comes to people I write about in this text. I will try to mention those things that, though not lived directly by me, have an undeniable resemblance to my own situation. Throughout this text, my unconscious efforts might drive me to distance myself from notions such as “value” and “right”—notions that obtain their meaning in the context of certain “criteria” (in a capitalist world) and in the context of “law.” They might drive me to denounce “human rights discourse” as a discourse belonging to world superpowers (especially considering the harrowing conditions in Gaza and the support for Israel by these same world powers, which undermines such a human rights discourse). They might drive me to articulate something visible and perceptible, something that can be lived and has an undeniable connection to the three elements of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” slogan: desire. In each individual, desire is the driving force that motivates her actions. It can manifest in diverse forms regardless of whether the person’s life is considered “valuable” by exterior authorities, or whether such authorities believe in or respect her “right to life.” In this journey, I walk among the corpses of those who were killed this past year during the Jina uprising. This gruesome wandering has taken me through blood-covered streets to secret torture chambers and suffocating prison cells. From the content and form of one of these deaths, which has repeatedly given me pause, I have recovered a meaning that I have insistently named the desire for life. And if, from grasping and cleaving to the life and death of the dead, and later returning to the world outside and to collective space, I have discovered a concrete power in society, this power was set in motion by the Jina uprising.

A Brief History of Struggles for Abolishing the Death Penalty in Iran

In autumn 2013, twelve political activists and artists published a statement announcing the founding of the “LEGAM” campaign to abolish the death penalty in Iran.2 The campaign started by focusing on abolishing the death penalty for individuals under eighteen years old. It also sought to abolish death by stoning, an atrocious form of execution. As the campaign grew, renowned figures joined in, and efforts turned towards convincing families of murder victims to pardon the accused.3 In light of the Woman, Life, Freedom uprising, it’s relevant to mention the case of Reyhaneh Jabbari, who was executed by hanging in October 2014 for killing her would-be rapist. Even though this was ostensibly a manslaughter case, various circumstances turned it into a political case and brought to the fore the gaps in Iranian law regarding rape, not to mention the inadequacy of the law from the perspective of women’s rights. The case was hotly debated in the media. Efforts by influential people and NGOs—whose help was requested by Jabbari’s family and government officials—to persuade the victim’s family to pardon her were in vain.4

The Mothers of Laleh Park are a group of women whose spouses or children were killed by government agents in the protests following the disputed 2009 elections, known as the Green movement. Here they visit the mother of Farzad Kamangar, a Kurdish teacher and poet executed in 2010.

Participants in the LEGAM campaign, for all its strengths, were largely middle and upper class—political and civil rights activists, artists, writers, and influential figures. The campaign was not successful in extending its activities to different social classes and ordinary citizens.

However, in early September 2022, an extraordinary demonstration in front of the judicial ministry in Tehran expanded the fight against executions, from one limited to political activists to one spearheaded by ordinary people. These ordinary people were family members of those facing imminent execution. They had gathered in front of the ministry to stop the execution of their loved ones. The important aspect of the gathering was the absence of well-known figures. It was also notable fact that there was a plurality of families whose loved ones were charged with different crimes. This communicated a message to those passing by, one that the well-known activists of the LEGAM campaign had been unable to communicate after a decade of effort. Amazingly, this gathering lasted for six days. In the end, security forces violently repressed this people’s demonstration against executions, arresting several family members.5

There was a young man in this gathering whose presence was even more eloquent than the surrounding banners and slogans: Farhad Qahremani. He came into the streets crying out from the depths of his pained soul, speaking not only to the passersby but also, thanks to social media, to all of society. He “narrated the pain” of the past eleven years of his life. His father, a political prisoner, was executed in 2011. Qahremani’s suffering after this violent loss put him in the position not of a political or human rights activist, but of an aggrieved narrator. His presence in this six-day gathering, alongside the families seeking justice, was a force that bridged the gap between ordinary people and political activists in the struggle to abolish the death penalty. In other words, Qahremani’s public narration of his lived experience bridged the gap between those demonstrating and those facing execution, which the activists couldn’t fully bridge because of their exterior position.

On the last day of this six-day gathering—September 12, 2022—Farhad Qahremani was arrested and taken to Evin prison.6 The next day, Jina Amini went into a coma.

Struggles against the Death Penalty During the Jina Uprising

The Islamic regime killed more than five hundred people during the Jina uprising, both in the streets and in torture chambers. As the movement grew, the revolutionary people were just as strong and determined as in its early days. Faced with this, the regime launched a systematic fear campaign and started handing down death sentences for Jina protesters. More than twenty people were sentenced to death. While discontent over these death sentences spread quickly on social media, no major action was taken outside virtual space. On December 8, 2022 the regime executed a protester whose name was not even on the official list of people sentenced to death, which circulated on social media. This put Iranian society into a state of shock: Mohsen Shekari, a twenty-two-year-old protestor, was the first child of the Jina uprising devoured by the execution machine of the monstrous Islamic regime.

On the morning of December 8, when a society in disbelief was coming to terms with this shock, a group of people gathered in front of Mohsen Shekari’s house, in an act of protest and mourning. But before the public had time to absorb this shock, the regime delivered another blow: Majidreza Rahnavard, another young protester, was executed.

One of the first organized reactions to the execution of protesters was an open letter from female political prisoners inside Evin prison.7 The eighteen prisoners who signed the open letter belonged to different political groups, from union activists to monarchists. Citing the impossibility of protesting in the street, they declared in the letter that they would stage a sit-in at the prison guard’s office on December 12, in solidarity with the Iranian people outside the prison walls. This brave act coincided with the second execution of a Jina protester. The latter created an atmosphere of sorrow and temporary helplessness among people outside the prison. Early in the Jina uprising, there had been a living bond between people outside prison and prisoners inside. For instance, when Evin prison caught fire in October 2022, masses of people quickly gathered outside and surrounded the prison.8 The open letter, however, sought to do the reverse: revive the scattered forces of the people on the other side of the wall.

The mothers of Khavaran gather over the unmarked graves of their loved ones in Khavaran cemetery.

Small protests reemerged around the country. They would eventually fade out, but what was remarkable about them, at least as reflected on social media, was how people from different class backgrounds and different political tendencies highlighted the class status of Mohsen Shekari, Majidreza Rahnavard, and other prisoners sentenced to death. This suggested that a union between different social classes was beginning to form, a union made possible by the Jina movement.

After the first executions of Jina protesters, the public reeled from this spectacle of state violence. They also worried about the protestors who had been sentenced to death, but whose sentences hadn’t been carried out yet. Then on December 17, a seemingly ordinary night, officers at Ghezel Hesar prison did what was considered their job, their “responsibility”

A Portrait of the Desire for Life in Prison

Siamak Baba, a thirty-six-year-old man serving a nine-month sentence for a crime that had nothing to do with the Jina protests, was killed at Ghezel Hesar prison on December 17, 2022. What were his last days and hours like? Let us try to imagine:

You have spent nine months in prison. Your sentence is coming to an end. The prison administrators will soon initiate your release process. According to people who have been to prison before, these are the slowest days of your imprisonment, when freedom is near. The wait is endless.

You are not even a political prisoner. You are an ordinary person with an ordinary life. On the night of December 17—at the end of the third month of the Jina movement, with many protesters feeling shocked, angry, and worried—prison officials are transferring a twenty-year-old man, sentenced to death for a crime unrelated to political activism, to a solitary cell in preparation for executing him the next morning. Other prisoners riot to stop this transfer and to defend a twenty-year-old’s life. Along with other prisoners, you protest against this atrocity. The response to this uprising is teargas and rubber bullets—the same response that protestors on the other side of the wall have been facing.

But you’re in prison. There are no back streets to escape through. No fellow protestor in a car will drive past with the door open so you can quickly escape death. In the chaotic, suffocating prison hallways, the only chance for escape is to reach the prison yard. But how many rioters can fit through the narrow hallways and into that small yard? You and a few others find yourselves trapped, and your body is bombarded with rubber bullets—like many of those killed in the streets during protests over the past three months.

Siamak Baba, without being a human rights or political activist, on the threshold of freedom, rioted against the imminent murder of someone much younger than he. Not expecting death, his motivation was not martyrdom but the will to affirm life, the life of another. In fighting to wrest the claws of death from the young neck of this other, Siamak was killed. Every aspect of this story suggests that what compelled him to act, in my view (I, who am not a human rights activist and have not, like Farhad Qahremani, lost a loved one to execution, but who have faced imminent arrest numerous times and have worried about people close to me dying, by a bullet in the street or by hanging in prison), was not some abstract conception of the value of human life but an intuitive, preconscious desire to protect life in its multitude of forms and meanings.

On that horrifying night, Siamak and other wounded prisoners were taken to the hospital. Three days later his family was called to retrieve their son’s corpse. According to his mother, they didn’t let her see his full body, only his face. His eyes had been shot by rubber bullets—an injury that, if they survive, permanently mutilates street protesters who are targeted with rubber bullets. The hundreds of protestors who have suffered serious eye injuries are a testament to this regime’s oppressive violence.

We have found a trace of the desire for life in an incarcerated man, Siamak Baba. Is it possible to find, in the protests and public gatherings that happened in the weeks after his death, this same desire on a larger collective scale? Can we find in the streets the kind of solidarity that fights to prevent the deaths of others?

Struggles against the Death Penalty during the Jina Uprising, Continued

Early January 2023 saw the atrocious executions of two working class Jina protesters, Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini and Mohammad Mehdi Karami, which prompted solidarity across classes. Then on the night of January 9, information circulating on social media suggested that two other protesters, Mohammad Borouqani and Mohammad Qobadlou, who were incarcerated at Rajaee Shahr prison, would soon be executed. A crowd quickly formed at the prison gates. With its strong sense of solidarity, shared destiny, and common desire, this crowd truly deserved to be called a “society.” On that night, perhaps contrary to the expectations of many—myself included—these “ordinary” people, who had come together without any call to gather (though they may have been drawn by the news that the families of Borouqani and Qobadlou were there), people who had been protesting in the streets for months, found each other again at those prison gates. One could call it a “spontaneous” gathering. While I don’t want to exaggerate the events of that night, it’s fair to call it a historical turning point—a history whose starting point is the Jina movement. On the face of it, one might be inclined to see this gathering as a direct consequence of the executions that happened two days before. However, if we look closer, we can see that it was the years of struggle against the death penalty, bit by bit, that pulled these people together. From the campaigns led by well-known activists, to the struggles of the mothers of executed protesters, to the open letter and sit-in by female prisoners at Evin, to the protests against the death penalty from within the Jina movement, to the prisoner riot at Ghezel Hesar prison, when Siamak Baba, a nonpolitical prisoner protesting the death sentence of another nonpolitical prisoner, was murdered in a way that closely resembled the murder of Jina street protestors—this anti–death penalty movement had been building for a long time. (We should not forget that, among all those murdered during the Jina movement, whether in the street or in prison, Baba, who had no background in political activism, is the only one killed for protesting against the death penalty.)9

Dayeh Sharifa, the mother of Kurdish prisoner Ramin Hossein-Panahi who was executed in 2018 following an unfair trial and alleged torture, sets fire to a noose during the Iranian festival of fire taking place on the last Wednesday of the year.

In May 2023, people gathered outside Dastgerd prison in Isfahan to protest the imminent execution of three young protesters, Majid Kazemi, Saleh MirHashemi, and Saeed Yaqubi.10 Tragically, these protests could not stop the executions. Two days later, a group of “the children of the executed political activists of the 1980s” released a powerful, brilliant statement decrying the death penalty.11 The statement described the atrocity of execution from a personal perspective—the kind of testimony that, only a few days before the life-affirming Jina uprising began, also issued from the burning throat of Farhad Qahremani.

Harass Watch has published in Farsi a comprehensive text about the struggles against the death penalty during the Jina movement, connecting them the history of feminist struggles in Iran.12 Here I have only presented a small selection.


If during the eight years of the Iran-Iraq War people fought to “defend their motherland,” and if the Green movement was about people “fighting for their right” to determine their future, the Jina uprising seems to have been a more organic and authentic space. This necessary space emerged from desire. The movement conceived of “Woman,” “Life,” and “Freedom”—its key animating ideas—in a way that was before and beyond preconceived notions.

Final Words

In Kurdish, the word “jina” means “life.” On Mahsa Jina Amini’s gravestone is the inscription “Your name will become our symbol.”

That turning point on January 9, 2023, when a crowd gathered at the gates of Rajaee Shahr prison, happened when the Jina movement was almost four months old. Four months is when a fetus is supposed to be able to start hearing for the first time.13

Siamak Baba was killed at the end of the ninth month of his prison sentence, as he waited for his “rebirth.”

And we cannot forget the continuity between the September 2022 protests against the death penalty and the birth of an uprising whose watchword is “Jina” (life). I assert that the street was pregnant with life when they murdered Jina. A life-affirming uprising was born from her death. Is it far-fetched to believe that a prescient power links the struggle against the death penalty and the life-affirming Woman, Life, Freedom movement? Is it far-fetched to believe that one man’s outcry against the execution of his father called forth a struggle for life, a struggle that, over time, formed into a womb that gave meaning to the death of a thirty-six-year-old man in prison?

These are signs that we can read and portray, that can be recited as poems. By remembering them, we let them resonate in our minds. They show the feminine spirit of the people who filled the streets with their bodily presence and their passionate voices. These signs cannot and should not be interpreted with a masculine, analytical mentality.


Armita Geravand died on October 28, 2023 after being in a coma for several weeks.


In Iran, courts sentence people to the death penalty for a number of different crimes, including manslaughter, drug crimes, extramarital affairs, and political crimes. Execution has been carried out by various means over the past forty years, including firing squad, hanging, and stoning. The latter is specific to extramarital affairs—a crime according to Iranian Sharia law. Trans. note: “LEGAM” is an acronym of sorts that combines the first letter of the Persian word for “abolish” with the word “step.” An English equivalent would be “ASTEP.”


Trans. note: In cases of intentional murder, the legal principle of qisas dictates that the assailant be executed according to Iranian Islamic law, unless the family of the victim pardons the assailant, in which case diyah or blood money is paid. Qisas or qiṣāṣ (Arabic: قِصَاص, literally “accountability”) is the Islamic term for “eye for an eye.”


Trans. note: For more information about this case, see the 2023 film Seven Winters in Tehran by Stefani Niederzoll. Jabbari stabbed a man who had dragged her into an empty apartment to rape her. Various pieces of evidence that were recovered—e.g., drugged fruit juice, condoms—testified to his intentions, but these were largely ignored or obfuscated by the court, and Jabbari was ultimately tortured into incriminating herself.


This demonstration stands in stark contrast to one that took place a decade earlier to demand the repeal of the death sentence against a person who had attracted the attention of civil rights activists and the media. The demonstration was organized by civil rights groups rather than ordinary people. The family members of the accused were present, but the gathering did not attempt to foster solidarity by bringing together other families who were in a similar situation.


On October 15 of that same year—the twenty-seventh day of the Jina uprising—there was a fire in Evin prison. Farhad Qahremani, along with other prisoners, was subsequently transferred to Rajaee Shahr prison, after being brutally beaten. His situation was raised by well-known civil rights and political activists, albeit on a much smaller scale than before.


See (in Farsi). Three days later, on December 15, two hundred and thirty five union workers published an open letter against the execution of Woman, Life, Freedom movement protestors (in Farsi). In February of the following year, on the anniversary of the detention of a number of environmental activists, seven female political prisoners in Evin once again published an open letter against the death penalty (in Farsi).


See .


Trans. note: Mohammad Borouqani’s death sentence was revoked by an appeals court, but Mohammad Qobadlou was eventually executed in January 2024. Accused of killing a police officer during the Jina protests, Qobadlou was twenty-two and had bipolar disorder. Initially, his death sentence was revoked due to lack of evidence and his mental state. But while he was supposed to be awaiting retrial, the public learned that he had been executed without his family or lawyers being notified or present. His death shook Iranian society to its core.


The three young men were accused of killing a police officer and a soldier from the Basij paramilitary militia.


See (in Farsi).


See (in Farsi).


According to Islam, which is the basis of Iranian law, the fourth month of pregnancy is when a soul is “breathed” into the fetus, and terminating a pregnancy is murdering a “human.” What a startling contrast there is between this definition of human life and the reality of death sentences against humans with a history and emotional ties to countless other humans.

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

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

Nuzhan Didartalab is a feminist activist.


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