On September 16, 2022, a picture of Kurdish Jina Mahsa Amini connected to a life support machine in a hospital bed was spread on social media. This picture carries information about how the morality police in Iran arrested a twenty-two-year-old woman, for having worn her head scarf incorrectly, and manhandled her so brutally that she died three days later. Despite the threats from the regime, on September 17 Jina’s family arranged a burial in their hometown Saqqez in the Kurdish province that subsequently became the place where women for the first time took off their headscarves and shouted the Kurdish slogan “Jin jyan azadi,” which means “Woman, life, freedom.” On Jina’s gravestone, one can find the following engraving: “Beloved, you have not died, your name has become a codename.”
The reportage from this ceremony triggered a bomb—a bomb of discontent harboured against the regime—which subsequently turned into countrywide protests.
At the time, I was on a mobile free trip of recuperation after a stressful work period, when I received a message from an acquaintance who wrote: “What is happening in Iran? We ought to be doing something.” I switched on my social media and was hit by a wave of pictures and videos of children and young adults who, by throwing off their headscarves, were standing up against one of the world’s most brutal regimes, in a country with the highest rate of capital punishment. I was instantly taught names of freedom fighters such as Nika, Sarina, Ghazale and many more who have died and become other codenames for freedom in Iran. All over were messages that demanded: “Be our voice!” One question kept echoing in me as in many others: “What can I do here to support you while you are sacrificing your lives for our freedom?”
I was born during the first wave of protest demonstrations against the Islamic Republic regime in 1980, one year after this regime hijacked the Iranian Revolution that had toppled the Shah. My mother was arrested during a demonstration holding the baby that was me in her arms and she was forced to spend time in the notorious Evin Prison. All my life I have asked her: “How did you dare protest since they were killing so many of you indiscriminately?” She has always answered: “We had seen Vietnam; we thought the world would see us; that the world at large would never allow our voices to be silenced and therefore our protest could not be meaningless.”
That was forty years ago. Today, the generation who are rising in protest in Iran have grown up isolated, steeped in the regime’s propaganda, and with an awareness of the world’s actions that signal that nobody will care or even notice their resistance. Therefore, it is revolutionary in itself that they are challenging the narrative by sending the message to the world: “Be our voice!”
I am an actor at Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theatre and each evening as I have stepped out in front of an audience of eight hundred, I have wanted to shout out Jina’s, Nika’s, Sarina’s, Ghazale’s, and all the other murdered children’s names.
So, in collaboration with the theatre’s Managing Director and Art Director Mattias Andersson, we have now agreed to create an artistic manifestation on stage in support of developments in Iran. I was put in contact with Kholod Saghir at Swedish PEN and together with a small team at the theatre we have managed to find texts written by artists and writers in Iran during the ongoing protests, texts that will be presented by actors at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm.
For two weeks we have been searching for texts in the most unlikely places in Iran, a country where the Internet is shut down, and where apps are under constant surveillance. The interest and the demand for an IRL manifestation programme—that creates a space in which to meet beyond our screens—have been enormous and the tickets were sold out in a few hours. But four days before the opening night we were still missing texts and had lost contact with many of the artists that we had found—they had either been arrested or had just disappeared.
The protests grew and despite the regime’s violent answer they more and more came to resemble a feminist revolution. Countrywide, students went on strike and workers joined in support by implementing a general strike that spread despite more frequent arrests.
At this moment I was sent a text file and a voicemail from a person whom I had heard is taking active part in the protests and who had said earlier that she did not have the peace of mind or the time to write anything. She now wrote: “Spread my words. In them you will find what we are seeing taking place in Iran right now. Let everyone know that it is not just all grief; we are experiencing a sense of freedom and of solidarity that we have never known before. We are full of hope, and we are convinced that we will eventually defeat them, no matter how hard they try to silence us.”
That same day, Kholod Saghir also received two texts and with the help of the translator Namdar Nasser these poems were quickly translated into Swedish. We finally had a programme compiled of newly written poetry, prose, discourses, and testimony from Iran, alongside already translated poetry by Iranian poets from the exchange that took place in Shaerat in 2013. They merged into a programme that involved Swedish actors, poets, writers, musicians, designers, journalists, and activists who are jointly helping to strengthen the voice of free speech in Iran.
“Thank you for being our voice. zan zendegi azadi”—a frail message in a voicemail on my Instagram—and my feelings of powerlessness when witnessing all this violence without the power to intervene is momentarily paused. But I am soon reached by the news that the Iranian regime is planning to execute all who have been arrested these past weeks.