Iranian artist, writer, and researcher Saba Zavarei tells me the story of how she first learned to silence herself. “When I was 9 years old, I remember queuing with my class to go into a library. As we’re approaching the library entrance, there were a couple of young men painting the door. And it’s very common in Iranian culture that you say to someone who is working ‘khaste nabaashid,’ which means ‘I hope you’re not tired.’ And it’s just a nice way of interacting with a total stranger, and show your appreciation.”
“And you know how kids are, so everyone behind me starts saying that to those young men,” she continues. “And we were just so happy and excited. But once we were inside, the librarian closed the door and she was furious. She and our teacher—the grown-ups—started preaching at us how it’s sinful for us as young women to speak to strangers. And she was saying things like ‘the daughter of prophet used to put her pinkie under her tongue when speaking to strangers to conceal the femininity in her voice.”
Her story reminds me of something I saw years ago in Cairo—two and a half thousand kilometres away from Tehran—a wholly mundane memory I have never been able to let go of. On a busy main street, a man was sitting on the hood of his car, cross-legged, eating a sandwich, watching the cars go by. It’s such a nothing moment, one I doubt he ever gave any thought to. He wasn’t doing anything, there’s no event here. The guy was just chilling.
And I never understood why that sight stayed with me for so long, until I realised that that state of being—alone, public, ordinary—is, because of a thousand and one sexual violences in the everyday reality of patriarchal society, simply not an option for me. What is routine for him is a transgression for me. As Zavarei explains it, “public space has always been dominated and ruled by men. We need a reason to be there, we always have to have something to do, we can’t just be in public spaces. We have to have a purpose, and we always feel apologetic occupying that space.”
Radio Khiaban, of and for Iranian Women
Zavarei is the founder of Radio Khiaban, an online platform dedicated to Iranian women reclaiming public spaces, first through singing, and now expanding into more ‘forbidden’ acts in public spaces. The project aims to address both of these phenomena, seemingly minute but endemic to patriarchal societies everywhere: the policing of women’s voices and bodies, and their disenfranchisement from public space. How, silenced and constrained, women must creatively navigate the same streets that men simply move through.
In its first iteration last year, the podcast told the stories of women who, specifically, sang in public, an illegal act in Iran. Zavarei weaved their stories with the histories of women singers to paint a holistic picture. For the second season launching this fall, Zavarei is expanding the podcast to more kinds of ‘transgressive’ acts—such as cycling, dancing, clothing—all with the common characteristic of being everyday actions, so small and ordinary it seems absurd that they are transgressions at all.
It’s a podcast series with seemingly modest ambitions. But it’s the particular expressions of state patriarchy in Iran that make Radio Khiaban the radical, everyday resistance it is. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, women have been banned from singing in public except as background vocalists, and then only if their voice does not feature prominently or dominate. The female voice is seen as seductive, and thus immoral, by the deeply entrenched theocratic system of state patriarchy still in place today. Through a symbiotic relationship with reactionary, repressive social norms, this system has effectively precluded women from really owning—and using their voice in—public space.
Zavarei was in the beautifully ornate Sheikh Lotfollah mosque in Isfahan one afternoon in 2014 when she first experienced what it was like to transgress these particular boundaries. It was nearing the mosque’s closing time, and the security guard was shooing people out, when Zavarei found herself alone. On a whim, she began singing, then stopped. “I realised I did not want to not look like myself in a moment that was so important magical to me,” she recalls about her decision to take her veil—mandatory in Iran—off.
She proceeded to record a 30-second video of herself singing, unveiled, in the mosque, and post it to social media. The video went viral, and she found comments and messages pouring in, along with pictures and similar videos people had taken of themselves. “It was a moment of realization for me, that there are so many other women who want to do similar things, who are doing similar things in their private moments, in not-so-private spaces…it’s not just me as an individual. Women are transgressing these suppressive norms, and they want to reclaim these spaces.”
Illustrated by Parin Heidari
When Zavarei was invited to the 2017 Lagos Biennial in Nigeria, she planned a similar project, hoping for 30-40 contributions from women performing in public spaces. Within 24 hours of posting the call to action on social media, more than 1000 women wrote back wanting to participate, at which point she decided this should be a project of a much bigger scale, and thus Radio Khiaban was born.
Zavarei’s project comes in context of several other patterns of resistance in Iran over the past few years, namely the recurrent protests of women taking off their veils in public, and facing jail time, being fired from jobs, and seeking political asylum as a result. So why did Zavarei start with singing? How does music as an act create the kind of ‘everyday resistance and emancipatory spaces’ that Zavarei describes Radio Khiaban as showcasing?
“What I came across in interviewing all of these women,” Zavarei reflects, “is how [singing] is experiencing this pain, occupying it and marking it. And it’s such a peaceful way of spreading joy. How can this be threatening for some people? How can this be a sin or against the law?”
And Zavarei proceeds to answer her own question: “I think it’s revolutionary fun they’re afraid of. It’s joy that is impossible to oppress because it’s contagious and natural, it’s ephemeral and influential. And it creates cracks in those solid, dogmatic, ideological systems. And in fact, however they try to forbid it, I don’t think they can ever stop it.”
Archiving the Fleeting Moment
It’s important that this act of resistance—as well as the others she is adding to the podcast—is small. It’s not a large-scale, organized event that can be anticipated, disciplined, and subjugated by the state. It’s ephemeral, singular, and dispersed: a woman singing for a few moments, another riding a bicycle, a third navigating entry into a public space where she is not allowed.
In this dispersal, there is a collective. The violences of our world are never individual, and neither are the struggles against them. To atomise, individualise, and isolate our struggles is in fact one of the hallmarks of systematic oppression, and serves to obscure the reality of violence. Though it can and does affect individuals differently, injustice is always collective, and so is resistance.
“There we were, with so much mutual hope and energy, and mutual pain and anger, having been forced into separation from each other,” Zavarei reflects on the 1000+ responses she received to her call for contributions. “But they have fragmented public space, so each of us will transgress in our own spaces and zones. So Radio Khiaban is a collective act because it joins all of these segmented performances, these segmented acts of transgression, together.”
Though the transgressive act itself might be only a fleeting moment, what Radio Khiaban offers is also an important transformation. It archives it, and in doing so, reifies it. It consolidates and makes real an ephemeral moment, transforming it into the tangible evidence that this everyday resistance exists.
“And I think by listening to it, you’re also participating in that collective act,” Zavarei adds. “Because for you, as a listener, as the audience, that space is changed forever. You know that this performance has happened there. There’s evidence. You can always listen to it, and go to that park, and it will always have happened. And that kind of proliferates that individual act.”
More than individual and collective, Zavarei's ethos is also transnational. The first four episodes Zavarei put out were mirrored in English and Farsi, in an attempt to both reach wide audiences and highlight solidarity between women in different geographies. Now however, she's laying aside the burden of translation. She promises that for every, say, 3 or 4 episodes in Farsi, there will be one in English, but her focus on solidarity remains.
"I'll still be using histories from feminisms around the world, drawing in from places like Egypt and the West and their experiences. I'm trying to go beyond the boundaries, but this time not by translating it into English, but by bringing other stories into Farsi."
In the second episode, Nicki, a professional singer and educator, sings for a crowd in a park in Karaj.
After posting her first video to social media, Zavarei received threatening messages. “What we’ve seen from the authorities is that they’re getting harsher, they’re getting more brutal, they’re getting more backward, on everything about women,” Zavarei explains. “And what we also see is that transgression is also growing. It seems like this is their last effort to stop things that have gotten out of their control.”
“One thing I witnessed that made me so angry is they’re putting a lot of pressure on singers and musicians to not put content on social media,” she continues. “At some point, we were seeing a lot of black squares on Instagram, with a message they had been dictated, saying something like ‘this page obeys the rule of Islamic Republic of Iran.’ And then after that, nothing. In our world, in the scale of things happening in our world, it’s nothing. But to me, it’s huge.”
But Zavarei also points to a nuanced change of attitude around her, one that even she was not expecting. The number of negative messages she received, for example, pales in comparison to those who reached out in support and solidarity.
In planning the project, she had set that she would have no pictures, no videos, and no names, to protect participants’ privacy and safety. But most of the participants who have reached out to her want their names and faces featured, and want to be tagged on social media.
“I think the main thing that has happened is that people don’t believe in certain ideologies anymore, and they’re not scared anymore.”
Silencing the Hegemonic Voice Inside
Especially in the era of social media, the assumption of being alone in one’s resistance—that those who want to push boundaries are in the minority—has disintegrated. If in simply scrolling through Instagram, you find an entire generation of people transgressing norms in the way you want to—not only living their lives outside the state’s moral code, but going so far as talking about and publishing it—that internalised fear begins to dissipate.
“That’s a very important part of it, because when you lose that belief, it means that little by little you become less of a machine to suppress yourself. Because that’s what an oppressive regime does: it tries to embed that censorship inside you. So there’s no one around you, for example, and you’re outside, and you’d like to, but you don’t sing.”
“And it’s because of that thing inside you,” Zavarei continues. “That hegemonic voice in your head telling you you shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that. And I think the main change that has happened in the past few years in Iran is that internalised voice is growing less and less powerful.”
Power is most effective when it does not need to exert itself at all, having implanted in each of us a mechanism of self-discipline instead. It’s why, after that first external disciplining, Zavarei’s entire 4th-grade class grew up with a librarian’s voice in their head telling them that greeting workers is shameful. It’s why I don’t sit on a car, relishing in doing nothing in public space.
It’s why women carry themselves through streets in apology, why we do things like carry an extra shawl or cardigan to drape ourselves in on public transport, in fear of state or vigilante reprimand. Why we render our voices lower, our demeanors smaller, our movements calculated, in the spaces we must always navigate, but men can simply move through.
It’s the fear of the threat—regardless of whether it ever manifests itself—that disciplines us. Invisible and unverifiable, the power of patriarchy is fundamentally internalized, until we effectively become our own oppressors. That is why what Zavarei is doing is so immediately, minutely radical. In a podcast series, Radio Khiaban showcases profoundly personal acts of transgression, archives them, and consolidates them into the collective struggle—and resistance—of an entire generation.
Illustrated by Parin Heidari
Main image from the 'Women of Allah' series by Shirin Neshat.