Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Q&A with Malu Halasa




Malu Halasa is the editor of the new book Woman Life Freedom: Voices and Art from the Women's Protests in Iran. Her other books include Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline. She is the literary editor of The Markaz Review.


Q: Why did you decide to create this anthology of voices from the women’s protests in Iran?


A: I’m part of a small community of writers and editors in London with a focus on the Middle East.


During the women’s protests in Iran during the fall and winter last year through to the beginning of this year, we were watching the short films and art interventions from the protests in Iran on social media and reading IranWire’s coverage of the events inside the country.


Some of the mainstream reporting in the West was disturbing. When the Iranian government pulled the morality police off the streets in Iran, the NYT article reported it as a concession to the protests and this was from a naïve point of view especially when protestors were being shot 50 times by pellet guns used by the security forces, arrested and some were executed.


So I started to write critically about the mainstream coverage of the protests for The Markaz Review where I’m the literary editor.


I also wrote about the music that fuelled the protests and after I went to the art exhibition in London Jourat (Courage) co-curated by Emilia Sandoghdar – who would later become the art editor for our anthology – I was convinced that the voices of women there, the art and activism coming out of the movement, and the music, all would make an intriguing book, which would provide a more in-depth, nuanced understanding of the protests from the ground up inside Iran.


Instead of Western reporters interpreting events inside Iran from far away outside, Iranians themselves could control their own narrative.


Q: How did you choose the writers and artists to include in the book, and how did you decide on the order in which their work would appear?


A: I am very lucky in many respects to know Persian translators, writers, editors, artists, photographers, cartoonists. and art historians.


This is because I co-edited two books on Iran, Transit Tehran: Young Iran and Its Inspirations with the former Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari, and Kaveh Golestan: Recording the Truth in Iran, with pioneer Iranian woman photographer Hengameh Golestan.


I was also able to approach artists and writers I didn’t know and ask them to contribute to the book.


Deciding the order of the contributions in the book was a process that took a few days. I wrote a post-it note for each contribution and stuck them in a straight line on the blank wall in front of my desk.


Then the line was disrupted and they were grouped by type of contribution—reportage, memoir, political theory, art, photography, etc., and then these groups were broken up by themes: reportage from the ground inside Iran; art and activism; articles, art, and photography that give context to women’s lives before the 1979 revolution (because it was important for the book to not only address the present-day protests but to give readers an idea of women’s lives and how they changed once Iran became an Islamic republic and women’s rights were revoked); the power of the protests; and surveillance, the importance of activist tech in Iran and innovative uses of the internet by artists and musicians.


Once I identified which contributions fit which theme then I got down to the nitty-gritty of who says what first.

A good anthology is like telling a story and creating a dramatic chronology. But the sequence also has to provide pauses or breathing spaces for the reader, a moment where the reader has a chance to take everything in before the flow of ideas starts again.


The run-up to the end of the book is also important, and how each and every one of the contributions coalesce around, in the case of Woman Life Freedom: Voices and Art from the Women’s Protests in Iran, ideas of women and queer bodily autonomy, social justice and individual free expression.


People in the US come to the Middle East with a wealth of preconceptions. It’s important to provide a platform for more nuanced ideas so that readers can meet, understand and hopefully think about concepts new to them, but more importantly hear the voices of people who live there.


Q: What impact do you think these protests have had, both in Iran and worldwide?


A: Because the protests no long figure as they did in the Western news last year, there is an idea that they are done and Iranian women are free.


However in Iran right now, women who do go out without wearing a hijab are beaten with sticks inside Tehran’s metro or subway system, by women morality police.


In October new laws were enacted. Women are now being arrested and there is such a system of surveillance in the country, courtesy of Chinese technology, that people who drive cars and don’t wear a hijab inside them, get a call on their cell phones, and are threatened with a fine or court appearance. If they continue to drive without wearing a hijab, their cars are confiscated by the state.


The lessons learned? The fight for social justice continues for women, and not just in Iran and the wider Middle East. As women, we should not take our freedoms for granted.


This is also true of America, where some people think democracy is not worth fighting for.


The very first thing that’s sacrificed in countries where women are threatened by violence, whether over social media or by right-wing, religious fascism, is women’s control over their own bodies.


If we are to learn anything from the experience of Iranian women, particularly in the US, vote and secure your rights. If you have to rely on someone else, no matter how well meaning they are, you will be disappointed.


In our book the art historian and curator Vali Malouji writes about how totalitarian regimes have historically controlled women’s bodies, from Germany in the 1930s to Franco’s Spain and the Islamic Republic of Iran.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: A more nuanced view of the politics, social justice issue and gender politics of Iran.


And how what happens there, can happen anywhere in the world, even next door to you.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: The Markaz Review is a Middle Eastern arts, culture and ideas website. We finished its October issue themed on the public intellectual, people whose ideas are far-reaching and can change the world. All the editors picked two modern-day public intellectuals.


I write about former defender and team captain of Afghanistan’s national women’s soccer team Khalida Popal, who saved her fellow players from the Taliban.


My second choice for a public intellectual of our times is: Shereen El-Feki, author of Sex & the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, a rigorous social scientist who has surveyed Arab populations about their sexual habits.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: To have the free, just world we long to live in, we must shape it—even if it means fighting for it whatever way we can. Anthologies are activism; creativity is activism; ideas are activism. The time is now.


Thank you so much for having me.


Upcoming event:

Women Life Freedom: Voices and Art from the Women’s Protest in Iran will be featured as book of the month for The Markaz Review’s Book Club, on Sunday, 28 January 2024.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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