‘Woman, Life, Freedom:’ Decoding the Political Poetics of a Woman-led Revolutionary Movement

By Fatemeh Shams

This article is based on Fatemeh Shams’s presentation Poetics and Politics of Jina Amini Revolutionary Uprising in Iran at the EUME Berliner Seminar on 5 July 2023.

Inciting Incident: Jina Mahsa Amini

Last September, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman named Jina Mahsa Amini set off from her Kurdish hometown to visit relatives in Tehran. Driving down the Shahid Haghani Expressway with her brother, the Hijab Patrol stopped their car. Her hijab was a little loose. They could see some of her hair.

Jina was bundled into a police van with other female detainees bound for the notorious Moral Security Headquarters to undergo what is called ‘re-education’. The patrolmen threw insults at the women in the van. Jina resisted their taunts. They pushed her out her seat and slammed her head against the van several times. At the police station, as she was trying to convince the police that she was observing Hijab, she clutched her head suddenly and collapsed. Blood trickled from her ears.

By the time they got her to hospital, Jina was in a coma. Three days later, she died. A heart attack, said the police, forging medical documents. A brain tumor from childhood, said a neurosurgeon on state TV. Her family confirmed that Jina was a healthy young woman with no pre-existing health conditions. Leaked medical scans confirmed the cause: a skull fracture, cerebral hemorrhage, and brain edema from severe trauma to the head.

Protests began as soon as the news broke – first outside the hospital, then all around Tehran, before spreading across the country and igniting protests across the world. Women and girls throwing off their headscarves and tossing them onto pyres, police stations torched, burning wrecks of cars, protestors rounded up as riot police fired water cannons and pellet guns, the state blockading streets, shutting down communication networks and launching mass arrests.

Eight months on, the initial spark of outrage has grown into a revolutionary movement on a monumental scale. The rage building in Iranian women and men for months, years, decades, has finally found its moment to erupt. The initial epitaph on Jina’s tombstone read: ‘You will not die. Your name will turn into a codeword – a symbol of not just women, but all marginalized, oppressed people, rising up together against an oppressive regime. Jina’s death galvanized an intersectional identity of otherness, ushering in a new era of unified activism, eloquently described by the Iranian sociologist Asef Bayat as “the moment to reclaim life.”[1] (bazpasgiri-ye zendegi)

Grafitti in New York City, photo by Georges Khalil
Navigating Affects and Slogans

If people in Iran are finding a voice, what words are they choosing to say?

All revolutions have slogans – the collective fight reduced to a handful of memorable, chantable, printable words. But what are the origins of these slogans? And how have they changed over time? As I was scrutinizing the banners, placards, hashtags and chants from this uprising, a pattern emerged of similarity and difference – a continuation of, and departure from, uprisings in the past. What can analysis of the rhetorical strategies and techniques employed by these protesters tell us about this particular “moment to reclaim life”? And what have they got to do with literature?

In his study of Egyptian revolutionary rhetoric, and what slogans reveal about meaning-making within movements, Elliott Colla identifies two genres: Hamasa – slogans of zeal – and hija or invective slogans of insult.[2]  Hamasa slogans (such as ‘People! Join us! Raise your voice!’), he argues, evoke “positive, solidaristic values… that might be embraced by any [citizen].”[3] Such epithets have long formed the traditional core of protest rhetoric, alongside specific and concrete demands such as bread or the vote. An invective slogan on the other hand (such as ‘Death to the King!’), “does not intend to correct a situation so much as it means to harm the honor of a target” and “would not move anyone who did not already share its stance.”[4]  

In short, while “hamasa slogans consciously appeal to gathering and building; hija slogans seek to separate and tear down.”[5] Colla distinguishes between the two categories as “open” or “closed” to dialogue with authority. It is interesting to note, therefore, a shift in recent years in which invective slogans are deployed more commonly than their traditional hamasa counterparts, and are particularly prevalent when met with oppression and force.

This points to an evolution within revolution – the core purpose of protest has changed. The older activists that Colla interviewed saw demonstrations as opportunities to articulate specific demands in positive terms, inviting dialogue to implement change. The new wave of protestors, however, are responding to the fact that dialogue and change did not occur. They no longer demand small specific changes – everything needs to change. The only solution is dissolution.

Charting the evolution of recent uprisings in Iran clearly demonstrates this. Until Jina’s death, unrest had centered on specific, concrete demands: for example, the 2009 pro-democracy Green Movement protests called for fair and equal voting rights in the wake of the fraud presidential election; sporadic protests responding to water and electricity shortages; unrest in 2019 following overnight inflation in fuel prices; protests in response to downing the commercial flight by IRGC missiles in January 2020, ongoing protests about academic and cultural censorship; calls for specific individuals to be released from unlawful imprisonment, or death sentences. But nothing changed; in fact, each protest served to tighten the state’s grip, with increasingly brutal levels of force taken against protestors, including the murder of at least 1500 protestors in November 2019.

Zahhak Khamenei Grafitti, Twitter

A specific look at the slogans used in 2009 show an immediate switch from hamasa slogans calling for fair votes to potent invective such as ‘Death to the Dictator’ – but only after security forces opened fire. Little wonder, then, that the slogans used in the wake of Jina’s death focus on one premise: toppling the regime. This also explains why it has unified such a variety of different groups. The outburst of slogans in different tones and in different languages have been one of the most unprecedented accomplishments of the current uprising in Iran. For the purpose of this talk, I aim to examine only three of these slogans which were commonly used in the current uprising in Iran: “Women Life Freedom”; “Khamenei the Zahhak, We’ll Take You Down to the Grave”; and “Cannons, Tanks and Guns Won’t Work Anymore, Tell My Mother that she doesn’t have a Daughter Anymore.” I explore each slogan revealing how they fit in the categories of hamasa and hija. As Colla reminds us, “slogans have histories.”[6] Today, as I unravel these three slogans, I will demonstrate not only their socio-political histories but literary origins, too.

The literary roots of the Kurdish chant Jin, Jyan, Azadi could be traced in the poetry of the prominent twentieth-century Kurdish poet, Hemin Mukriani who once wrote “until a woman won’t be liberated, the spring of life will remain a marsh.”[7] In this sense, the chant’s core values have been long existing as part of the collective psyche of the Kurdish population in the region. During the 1980s, it became an established slogan in the Kurdish women’s movement, used for decades by grassroots activists seeking social justice and equality. In his famous speech in 1998, Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the emancipatory Kurdish movement, built his argument on this rich literary and social grassroots efforts and said that women are basically the first captives in history and until they’re not liberated, any emancipatory movement, in fact, will be doomed to fail. The revival of the slogan during the recent uprising marked Jina Amini’s murder as a symbol of both patriarchal and political oppression, galvanizing support across different marginalized groups, and presenting a potent challenge to the Islamic regime by tapping into its entrenched conflict with the Kurds for decades since the establishment of the Islamic Republic.

1. “Woman, Life, Freedom”

Moreover, I take “Woman, Life, Freedom” an example of a hamasa slogan, a call-to-arms around universal concepts that appeals to the majority of citizens in Iran. In its linguistic and rhythmic features, it has similarities with one of the main slogans of the 1979 revolution: “Bread, Work, Freedom” (نان، کار، آزادی), with two important differences: firstly, the primary positioning of women and their right to bodily autonomy; and secondly the performative aspect which saw women chanting the line while cutting their hair. Hair-cutting quickly became a central way to express solidarity with the movement – celebrities around the world took scissors to their hair on social media, while a female Turkish parliamentarian and a later Swedish delegate in the European Parliament chopped off their hair mid-speech.

This collective action has given the slogan a powerful emotive embodiment, placing the protest firmly in the realm of women’s bodies. As one protester who documented her bodily experience of participating in the protests wrote, she felt that her body was moving much faster than her perception in the street and it took some time before the two were synchronized: “we have been liberated from thinking about death. We have left death behind us, in the intimacy of encountering our fears and running ahead of them in the warmth of the body.”[8] Her words resonate with the observations made by affect theorists, Seigworth and Gregg, who argue that what is “integral to a body’s perceptual becoming…” is “indeed its composition through, the forces of encounter. With affect, a body is as much outside itself as in itself – webbed in its relations – until ultimately such firm distinctions cease to matter.”[9]

If we consider revolution as a form of becoming, then a complete transformation of bodily relations and collective imagination of the protesting crowds has taken place in the past ten months. As Asef Bayat has noted, it feels as if “a paradigm shift in Iranian subjectivities has occurred; this is reflected in the centrality of women and their dignity, which related more broadly to human dignity.”[10] To Bayat’s thoughtful analysis, I also add that there has been a paradigm shift not just in goals and ideas and place of women in the society, but also in the bodily relations of the citizens and ways in which those goals and ideas have been embodied in them.

This shift in bodily relations appear in new modes of protests that were not common prior to Jina’s death. As public unveiling has become much more pervasive than nine months ago, ordinary citizens have become more alert and protective of each other. Footages of male citizens coming to the rescue of women who are being stopped by Hijab patrols, or shopkeepers who offer discount to unveiled women continue to push against state-imposed restrictions. Sometimes their support comes at a heavy cost such as the closure of their business or their own arrest. No matter how much the current regime has tried to control women’s bodies as incorporeal subjects, the recent uprising revealed that they can no longer be considered peripheral entities. It also alludes to the vitality of bodily entanglements of all genders and marginalized bodies across the world highlighting its intersectionality that enable new bodily configurations to be brought into being.

Posters in New York City, photo by Georges Khalil

“Woman, Life, Freedom” and its concomitant act highlights the performative aspect of slogans discussed by Colla, who states they are “performative in the sense they are deliberate compositions intended not so much to reflect collective will but to create it.”[11] In this sense, hair-cutting taps into an ancient and familiar custom, deeply rooted in Mesopotamian and Persian mythology, associated with death and mourning as well as protesting against an oppressive force (be it a person or fate).

The performative aspect of this slogan has also direct associations with the literary tradition. Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh – a monumental text in the formation of Persianate identity – refers to the haircutting tradition in the story of Seyavush, the slain Persian hero when his wife, Farangis and her servants cut their hairs to mourn his unjust killing. In one of the scenes, Farangis bounds her locks around her waist as a sign of protest.[12] Other poets such as Hafez, Khaqani and Salman Savoji have cited hair-cutting to signify times of despair and mourning. The prominent Iranian novelist, Simin Daneshvar references the story of Seyavush in her famous novel Suvashun to depict Zari’s despair upon the killing of her husband Yusuf.[13]

2. “Khamenei the Zahhak, We’ll Take You Down to the Grave”

Three days after Jina’s burial, a new chant emerged: Khameni the Zahhak, We’ll Take You Down to the Grave[14] – pure invective, unapologetically unambiguous, and epic (Hamāsi) in its tone, it is a militant call to topple the leader of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei. The reference to Zahhak – a well-known character from the Shāhnāmeh – differentiates it from simpler iterations in previous protests such as ‘Death to Dictator/Khamenei’. The comparison at first seems straight-forward – Khamenei likened to despotic king Zahhak. But what could a deeper look at the literary roots of the slogan tell us about this particular uprising?

The legend states that Zahhak kept a serpent on each shoulder, which had to be fed with a daily stew made from the brains of two young citizens. All of the blacksmith Kaveh’s children had suffered this fate except one. Determined not to lose his final son, he rallied a crowd to the Alborz Mountain and convinced the banished king Fereydun to lead the people against Zahhak. Fereydun defeated Zahhak, released all his prisoners, and imprisoned the evil king in a cave underneath Mount Damavad, where he would remain until the end of the world.

The tale of Zahhak has been recounted by storytellers, poets, and novelists in different phases of Iranian history to make sense of hope and despair in the face of tyranny and injustice. Does its current use in a famous slogan mean that slogans can be seen as a poetic form? After all, they possess rhythm and rhyme, tempo, assonance, and alliteration, and are written to communicate clear messages to a wide audience. Furthermore, although they remain authorless and anonymous, there is a clear role within movements for a person or group of people responsible for writing them, drawing on a familiar corpus of well-known poems, songs, and literary works. Just as poets edit their collections and respond to feedback, activists try out and then edit their slogans. Therefore, “it’s important to identify this as poetry, because these people see it as poetry.”[15]

It is useful here to think of Asef Bayat’s definition of a social movement as having a “repertoire of performances.”[16] Slogans that work well become part of this repertoire, performed and re-performed, shared and spread, until they are inseparable from the movement itself, acting as a shorthand for the beliefs and ideals at stake. Just as classic Persian texts such as Shāhnāmeh have shaped national identity in their telling and retelling, protest slogans are also part of identity creation – of individuals, of groups and factions, of a diverse populus joined by one revolutionary intent.

3. “Cannons, Tanks and Guns Won’t Work Anymore, Tell My Mother she doesn’t have a Daughter Anymore”

Slogans, and the performance of those slogans, have far more than semantic significance – they express, and then evoke, a spirit or mood, similar to Durkheim’s “collective effervescence” or Heidegger’s “Stimmung.” Feeling and content are symbiotic, enhancing and exacerbating the other, until they are inextricably bound. Perhaps this is why the resurrection of revolutionary lines from the past can retain such potency – the words might be adapted for the new situation, but the same feeling is instantly restored. Reconfiguring old slogans is always part and parcel of the process of meaning-making in new revolutionary movements. Decoding verbal and semantic modifications can tell us a lot about the protest’s purpose and tactics.

For these reasons I have decided to dig deep into a popular chant from Iran’s 1979 revolution: “Canons, Tanks, and Guns Won’t Work Anymore, Militant Curfew Won’t Work Anymore.”[17] The slogan was a call on the royal army to join the protesting masses now that military armor failed to serve their purpose. Its main effect was to defy the fear of facing the army in the streets and to implicitly convey to the target that the protesters are no longer afraid of militant aggression. As the revolution progressed, and more lives lost, the second line was modified to: “Canons, Tanks, and Guns Won’t Work Anymore, Tell My Mother She Does not have a Son Anymore.”

Fast forward to March of this year, when female students gathered on campus at Shariati University in Tehran chanting “Canons, Tanks, and Guns Won’t Work Anymore, Tell My Mother She Does not have a Daughter Anymore.” What a profound impact changing just one word has – a complete transformation of the understanding of gender in the collective consciousness. Now the “daughter”, too, is a heroic fighter whose agency is neither defined nor controlled by the institutions of family or society, unafraid of facing militant aggression to reclaim her bodily autonomy and freedom.  One could also argue that “tell my mother she doesn’t have a daughter anymore” intersects with official eulogies for Karbala and echoes the tone of officially sanctioned eulogies while at the same time manipulating and reversing the effect by shifting the meaning of sacrifice for a different cause.

In a similar vein, the Iranian artist Maysam Azarzad published an illustration that drew on a famous couplet from the Shahnameh: “An Army of Soldiers Is Useless, A Fighting Man Is Stronger Than a Thousand Soldiers” – substituting “Man” (mard) with “Girl” (dokht) to reveal the militant revolutionary spirit of a women-led uprising.

Concluding Remarks

The evolution of slogans points to an intellectualism that augments the status of the movement. These are not yobbish throwaway statements but carefully crafted words laden with historical, literary and cross-cultural layers, demonstrating knowledge, insight and intelligence. Control over language is one of the hallmarks of the Islamic Republic regime; by taking back that linguistic control, and reclaiming the foundation stories at the heart of Persian identity, protestors are fighting the state at their own game. A ruling power can seek to control as many aspects of their citizens’ lives as they wish, but they cannot control independent thought. As Hannah Arendt comments in her writing about the Nazi regime, linguistic impoverishment leads to the “banality of evil.”[18] The banners and placards borne aloft by protesters today in Iran demonstrate that, despite all their efforts, the state has not won that battle over thought, language and minds of its citizens.

So, can slogans be considered a form of poetry?

Good poetry reassures us we are not alone. That anything we are going through, good or bad, love or loss, violence or enlightenment, has been experienced and expressed by centuries of people before us. Poetry renders the individual experience into a collective experience, tethering us across time and space into something far bigger than ourselves. Slogans are no different. And as this revolution continues to grow in power and strength, perhaps it is time to finally recognize them as belonging to a poetic genre of their own.


[1] Asef Bayat, “A Moment to Reclaim Life,” Qantara,  https://en.qantara.de/content/asef-bayat-on-the-iran-protests-a-movement-to-reclaim-life

[2] Elliott Colla, “In Praise of Insult: Slogan Genres, Slogan Repertories and Innovation,” Review of the Middle East Studies, Summer 2013, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Summer 2013), p 38.

[3] Ibid, p. 41.

[4] Ibid, p.40.

[5] Ibid, 42.

[6] Colla, 38.

[7] «تاکوو ژن ئازاد نەبێ سەرچاوەکەی ژین لیخنە»

For the full poem in Kurdish, see: https://allekok.ir/poet:2/book:2/poem:13

[8] L. “Figuring a Women’s Revolution: Bodies Interacting with Their Images,” Jadaliyya, https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/44479.

[9] Seigworth and Gregg, The Affect Theory Reader (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 3

[10] Asef Bayat, “A Moment to Reclaim Life,” Qantarahttps://en.qantara.de/content/asef-bayat-on-the-iran-protests-a-movement-to-reclaim-life

[11] Colla, 42.

[12] Shahnameh, Story of Seyavush, https://ganjoor.net/ferdousi/shahname/siavosh/sh12#bn10

[13] Simin Daneshvar, Suvashun 1971 (Tehran: Kharazmi).

[14] It’s unclear in which protest gathering and on what date this slogan was disseminated.

[15] Elliot Colla, “The Poetry of Protst,” Campus Watch, https://www.meforum.org/campus-watch/25198/the-poetry-of-protest-lecture-analyzes-slogans

[16] Asef Bayat, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 4.

[17] Sergey Bareqian, “Tahlil-e Sho’arha-ye Enqelab,” Tārikh-e Irāni, https://shorturl.at/ikAKL.

[18] ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ Hannah Arendt (1964)

Fatemeh Shams is Associate Professor of Modern Persian Literature at University of Pennsylvania. Her area of expertise includes literary production under authoritarian states, the social history of modern Persian literature, ideology and literary production. She is an internationally acclaimed, award-winning poet with three poetry collections. Her third collection, When They Broke Down the Door, won the Latifeh Yarshater annual book award in 2017. Her first monograph, A Revolution in Rhyme: Poetic Co-Option Under the Islamic Republic has been published by Oxford University Press. In the academic years 2021-2023, she is a EUME-CNMS Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Other articles by Fatemeh Shams:

Fatemeh Shams, Notes from Another Exodus: The Four-Month Struggle to Evacuate Afghan Poets and Scholars, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 24.05.2022

Citation: Fatemeh Shams, ‘Woman, Life, Freedom:’ Decoding the Political Poetics of a Woman-led Revolutionary Movement, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.07.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/47928

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2023, 18. Juli). ‘Woman, Life, Freedom:’ Decoding the Political Poetics of a Woman-led Revolutionary Movement. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 21. April 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/ut7c

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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