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Discussing Iran's growing protests with Sussan Tahmasebi: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with activist Sussan Tahmasebi about unprecedented protests in Iran.

Thousands of people continue to rally on the streets of Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, who was detained for not wearing her hijab “properly.” Sussan Tahmasebi is director of FEMENA, an organization that promotes gender equality and supports women human rights defenders, their organizations and feminist movements in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia regions. Tahmasebi has over 20 years of experience in promoting women's rights, peace and security at the regional, national and international levels. She joins Chris to discuss the precipitating factors for the sweeping protests in Iran, the structure of the Iranian political regime, fights for gender equality and more.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Sussan Tahmasebi: The initial protests were around women's issues and to ask for justice for women. And this centrality of women in these protests has (ph) carried through is also a very different and very unique characteristic of these protests because we've never had a situation like this where the entire country rises up in support of a woman.

Chris Hayes: Hello. Welcome to "Why Is This Happening" with me, your host, Chris Hayes. So, you may have seen in the news over the last six to eight weeks these remarkable images coming out of Iran, protests, street protests, violent crackdowns of those street protests, protests that have been happening all over the country actually, not localized in any one place particularly. They’ve been happening through marches. They’ve been happening on campuses. Remarkable images of women, particularly very sort of, like, flagrantly taking off their hijab or cutting their hair in public.

And, you know, this has gotten a fair amount of play in American news but not a ton. And I actually had a friend of mine who is Iranian American whose family fled Iran, you know, ask me, you know, why isn't this a bigger deal in the American media. And I sort of thought about it and I think there's sort of a few things.

One is, it's a pretty hairy situation for American Western journalists to be in Iran right now. And I think, particularly after what happened in Russia where things got very, very, very scary for American journalists, there's a real trepidation worry about having your reporters in places that might sort of suddenly and violently crack down on them.

So, there's that. That means if you don’t have people on the ground, then it's harder to do reporting. It's also harder to verify a lot of the incredible user-generated video that's coming out of Iran, which I think has also been, like, a little bit of an obstacle. I know, when we've tried to do it on the show, you want to kind of show the most remarkable dramatic stuff, but that could be very hard to run down and verify. You don’t want to be putting unverified stuff on air.

The other part of this though, I think, is a little bit of, sort of, cynicism resignation that's, I think, embedded itself among reporters, I think, and among observers about the power of protest, you know, I think particularly people who cover the Green Revolution, which was a massive nonviolent, peaceful uprising protest in Iran in the early years of the Obama administration.

Subsequent to that, there was, of course, Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring, amazing street protests. But in the end, you know, the Green Revolution did not shake the foundations of the Iranian regime. Tahrir Square managed to dislodge Mubarak. But, you know, now there's another general who essentially rules indistinguishably from Mubarak.

Syria had an uprising that turned into a civil war and ended up with Bashar al-Assad in power. And so, I think there's a little bit of this like, yes, they're protesting but, really, what can come of it? I don’t know if that's warranted or not. I think it might not be. But I also think that it ends up cutting off inquiry and I have felt little guilty that we haven't done more of this topic on the news, partly that's also because it's lead up to the midterms and American politics are particularly insane.

So, it's really wonderful to have an opportunity to have a sort of sustained discussion of what is happening in Iran, which really does seem remarkable, and I think from what I've gleaned from the people I've talked to, actually, a kind of difference in kind in terms of civil society and protest.

And our guest for that is Sussan Tahmasebi. She's the Director of FEMENA, which is an organization that promotes gender equality, supports women human rights defenders, their organizations and feminist movements in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia regions.

From Iran, she has over 20 years' experience in promoting specifically women's rights, peace and security at the national, regional and international levels.

And Sussan, it's great to have you on.

Sussan Tahmasebi: Thank you for having me.

Chris Hayes: First, will you just tell me your background? You're Iranian. You were born in Iran, right?

Sussan Tahmasebi: I was born in Iran. I'm Iranian and American by birth. So, my father was Iranian, and my mother was American. I was born in Iran, and I lived there until the time of the revolution. Our family left Iran when I was young.

And I went back. I mean, I had gone back before but I went back in 1999, and I ended up staying in Iran for almost 11 years and was part of the women's movement and part of the civil society movement while I was there during those 11 years.

Chris Hayes: Tell me a little bit about that. It was something that really jumped out to me about your bio because I know a fair number of Iranian Americans, and particularly first-generation Americans, whose parents fled Iran around the time of the revolution or shortly thereafter and, you know, have grown up as Americans and have this sort of exile, diasporic existence, right.

Like, there's a lot of other folks who left Iran who would like to return but won't return as long as this government is in power. Maybe go and visit aunties or grandmothers or things like that, might go back for weddings, even though that's, in its own way, fraught, but very few who end up going back, moving back to Iran as you did. Tell me about how that came about.

Sussan Tahmasebi: Well, I had been back to Iran in the early '90s after almost 14 years of living in the U.S. and none of us going back. My father would go back. He went back after the end of the Iran-Iraq War and was going back.

But I went back in the early '90s, and I had such an interesting experience there. I mean, things were much more closed in the early '90s compared to the time when I went back and stayed. I went back again in 1999, and I was between jobs, I was working here in the U.S. in the women's rights field, women's reproductive health and maternal and child health field, and I went back.

I'd only planned to stay for three months but it was the time of the reform movement. Iranian society was opening up. And I was surprised and amazed to see that there were a lot of organizations inside the country. At that point, most of them were charity organizations. There weren’t so many more progressive, independent, modern organizations but they were just starting to be established.

And it was a huge surprise to me because I had no idea that this existed inside the country, and I was amazed to see so many Iranians getting involved in civil society because they wanted to create positive change.

So, it was very exciting. And that’s why I kept extending my stay three months at a time and then eventually, it ended up being over 10 years.

Chris Hayes: You know, there's, obviously, a big difference between totalitarian regimes and authoritarian ones. And even amongst authoritarian regimes, there's a huge spectrum of what civil society could look like, the amount of opposition and opposition parties that are tolerated, the level of free speech and dissent. How would you characterize that in the 10 years you were there and maybe the trajectory of it over the first decade of the century?

Sussan Tahmasebi: Well, I went back, and I should say that the reform movement really came about in large part, because of the student movement in Iran that the students were demanding change and freedom and openness. And the reformists kind of grabbed onto this and came to power as a result.

The students supported reformists and especially Khatami who was elected as president, the reformist president. But when I went there, I mean, I was amazed to how quickly things were opening up.

So, when I first went there, I went there a few years after Khatami was elected, two years after he was elected, and we would go to events and conference halls, et cetera. And a government official would come, and he would criticize the system. And people would be amazed and say, oh, he's going to get arrested, he's going to get arrested, look at what he said.

And literally, I think probably in a matter of two years, that discourse had changed to, he can't be saying that. He needs to be responsive. He needs to be accountable.

So, the rate of progress and in terms of people's expectations of their government and their understanding of what civil society was, and what democracy was, was changing so fast and so rapidly that it was fascinating and interesting to see it.

There was a lot of opening up of civil society. When I say civil society, I mean the press and organizations, people setting up organizations in the form of environmental organizations, or women's organizations, or children's rights organizations. This was pretty rapid.

But unfortunately, no real laws were established to guarantee that civil society. So, as soon as Ahmadinejad came to power, and actually in the last year of Khatami's presidency, there was a backlash against a lot of these organizations and against the press. They started attacking the press, shutting down the press, arresting a lot of journalists and then shutting down a lot of organizations.

But that was the freest time that we experienced. Certainly, as part of the women's movement and part of other social movements and non-governmental organizations, that was the freest time that we had inside the country where we were able to sit together, strategize together, talk about change and also connect with our counterparts in the region and internationally. After that, again, we saw a period of serious repression that emerged.

Chris Hayes: During this period, obviously, you're involved in the women's movement and I'm curious, again, this is now central to the protest now which had been largely led by women, not exclusively, you know, what does Iranian feminism look like in that period of time? You know, again, this is about 10 or 11 years ago by the time you left. But what does Iranian feminism look like? What are the issues that women are organizing around?

Sussan Tahmasebi: Well, I should say that women, you know, from the start of the revolution, the revolution was much more than the Islamic State that came to power. It was a lot of different groups that participated in the revolution, the leftists.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Sussan Tahmasebi: But what emerged was an Islamic power. And pretty quickly thereafter, they instituted hijab laws. But also, they adopted a very conservative interpretation of Sharia law, which pushed back the women's rights, the few rights that women had gained during the Pahlavi regime, which maybe now don't seem significant but, for the time, they were significant.

There were custody rights, rights to divorce, even rights to abortion, everything but the right to vote. They kept the right to vote because they wanted women to participate in the elections that brought Khomeini to power.

And the first eight years after the revolution was very difficult for Iranians, not just for women but for Iranians to talk about change and to really push back against this very draconian regressive system, social system, that had been brought on because we were involved in war.

And speaking up was very dangerous, had many costs. But after that, really, women started to organize again and to demand change. Initially, they did it through progressive interpretation of Sharia law to say that, you know, these laws are from 1,400 years ago, they need to meet the times. But they started challenging the rights, the pushing back of women's, you know, rights and, you know, legal position.

But slowly thereafter, they began to organize, you know, within organizations. Initially, women's groups organized in children's groups. They participated in children's non-governmental organizations and then in environmental organizations.

During the reform period, there were no independent women's organizations. There were few women's organizations that were set up by people associated with the state or the ruling elite like Faezeh Hashemi who's the daughter of Hashemi Rafsanjani and who was also herself was an M.P. She had an organization. Her sister had an organization, charitable organizations.

But women like me who came from a middle-class secular background, none of them had organizations. But during the reform period, they started to establish organizations and advocate for equal rights from a secular gender equality perspective.

And the first few years of the reform period focused on these groups strengthening themselves. They met with each other. They started figuring out what they needed to strengthen themselves, held trainings for themselves but also for women.

This was essential. It was really important because by the time the reform period ended is when you see the emergence of a really strong women's movement. So, while the reform period was going on, these women's NGOs weren’t very strong. But once that ended, the very last year of Khatami's presidency, women organized a protest in front of Tehran University asking for equality, for the dismantling of all the laws that discriminated against women.

And this was through that whole process of when they were working on themselves, and they were meeting and trying to figure out what their priorities were. And their major priority at that point was changing laws that discriminated against women.

And the year after, when Ahmadinejad came to power, another protest was held. And following that, the One Million Signatures Campaign was established, which is something that I was involved in. It was the national campaign where women came together in a broad national network to demand equality and changes and their legal status.

And we were met with repression and suppression and arrest almost immediately, but we withstood that for over two years. And I think the reason why we've managed to do that is that we have those few years where space was open, and we got to work on our own capacities and our own strengths.

Chris Hayes: Let's talk a little bit about the structures of gender discrimination and patriarchy embedded in the Islamic Republic's laws. I mean, I think to Americans, obviously, this is always, I think, the first thing that Americans think about, you know, the Ayatollah, right, is the mandatory dress codes and those being enforced by these kind of virtue police, which, you know, is, I think to most Americans, certainly myself, speaking for myself, like dystopian and awful.

And this round of protests, you know, starts with an incident involving precisely that. But before we get to the death of a young woman in custody of these police, maybe if you could just describe, you know, how gender, gender discrimination pervades just, you know, life and the structures of the law in this republic.

Sussan Tahmasebi: OK. So, anybody looking at Iran should be quite aware that there's possibly two realities and this was also something that was so fascinating for me especially when I started working in this, you know, civil society sector because I think if I just stayed with my family, I would have gotten a very bleak image of the reality of Iran because, you know, middle-class secular family had suffered greatly, greatly under the Islamic Republic.

But when you go out and you see younger people, especially some of these people who'd come from religious backgrounds or who'd grown up in the revolution, they had a lot of criticism and they wanted to change things. And they were much more forceful in their criticism of the state.

So, I think it's important to take note of the fact that Iranian women are extremely strong, I think as people are now seeing. And this was surprising and super interesting to me. I don’t want to say surprising because a lot of the women in my family were also very strong.

But I was surprised to see it in the context of the Islamic Republic because I had also grown up with a lot of those stereotypes and stereotypical beliefs about what Iran was like after the revolution. But to see these strong women, despite the fact that their legal situation and the laws that govern their lives were so regressive.

So, let me give you some examples --

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Sussan Tahmasebi: -- of those laws. And I should say that, you know, it's important for people to keep in mind that, you know, the Sharia's interpreted differently in different contexts. And really, they have to look at religion as a political tool. It's not religion in and of itself.

So, I don’t want to perpetuate that notion that religion is bad because we know, even in the U.S., religion is used to suppress women or other groups and it's bad when it becomes a political tool. So, there are different interpretations in different countries.

For example, Tunisia is very progressive, but their constitution also talks about how it's based on Islam. But women have all their rights. So, I want to make that clear --

Chris Hayes: Sure. Sure.

Sussan Tahmasebi: -- because I don’t want to give the wrong impression here. But anyway, in Iran, it was a very, very conservative interpretation of Sharia law. So, initially, the age of marriage, which was 18, was turned back to 9 for girls and 15 for boys. That has changed since. So, it's 13 for girls, 15 for boys.

Men have guardianship of the family. So, basically, men get to make all the decisions about family, where they get to live if their wife gets to work, if the wife wants to travel, if she wants to pursue her education, and the man is in charge of the child. So, women don't have guardianship over their child. Even if they're given custody of their child, they still don’t have guardianship over their child.

So, if the father is absent, then it's the father's father or the court that has guardianship. So, they can't set up bank accounts. They can't make --

Chris Hayes: Wow.

Sussan Tahmasebi: -- decisions about their children's health. Yes.

Chris Hayes: Wow.

Sussan Tahmasebi: It's very problematic in that sense. Polygamy is allowed, even though polygamy is really looked down upon by Iranians, but legally it's allowed. Men are allowed to divorce their wives without any reason, but it's very difficult for women to get divorced. There are certain conditions that allows them to get divorced but it's very difficult.

So, these are some of the major challenges that people deal with in Iran. The inheritance is unequal. Men get twice as much as women. Your testimony in court counts for half that of a man. There's criminal age of responsibility, for girls, it's 9; for boys, it's 15. So, when we set up our campaign, we were looking to change all of these laws, all of the laws that discriminate against women.

Chris Hayes: I think the American, I wouldn't say obsession but, I mean, I think that, you know, again, this sort of focus of U.S. perception of Iran on the morality police and, you know, hijab and dress codes and whether hair can show and, obviously, I think everyone who knows a little bit understands that, like, there's a lot of dancing around the edges of that. And (ph) people go to parties and they take it off and it becomes a sort of like pro forma thing.

What is the difference between how you even perceive that, or Americans perceive the centrality and oppressiveness of that, and how it is understood and lived by Iranian women?

Sussan Tahmasebi: OK. So, the hijab, almost immediately after the revolution, there was these rumors about the hijab. And so, the first protest that women organized went on March 8th, International Women's Day, 1979, to object to this notion of hijab and also to talk about other things. But hijab was very central.

And the rulers, the religious (ph) rulers backed off a little bit. They said, no, no, we're not going to do this and it's not going to be obligatory.

But a few years later, in 1983, April of 1983, it becomes mandatory, it becomes enshrined in law.

And so, according to laws, women have to cover their hair and their bodies. They have to wear loose-fitting clothes. But from the very start, women have rejected this and they’ve pushed back on this. As I said, the first two years of, you know, after the revolution, were much bloodier and much more difficult times.

So, you know, but even then, women pushed back their headscarves. But every time they’ve gotten a chance to push back their headscarf, wear tighter fitting clothing or wear colorful clothing, they’ve done that. But women's bodies have also been monitored, you know, through morality police. Initially, it was through the Komiteh (ph) and then the Basij, which were these militant groups.

So, it was people who had guns, and volunteer people, young people who had guns, you know. So, it's pretty scare. But nevertheless, women were pushing back. And then they instituted the morality police or the guidance police, which, you know, has had also very serious violent approach towards controlling women's bodies.

But nevertheless, I think, you know, as you said, I think, there are different dimensions to people's lives and especially women's lives and perhaps, they're freer within their homes, within other places. And even when I was in Iran, we were taking off our headscarves in the car, in cafes. So, we were doing this.

But it's humiliating --

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Sussan Tahmasebi: -- to be told what to wear.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Sussan Tahmasebi: And it's humiliating to be controlled in that way and always be afraid that somebody's going to stop you in the street or somebody, some random person could just tell you, you know, you need to cover your hair better or your clothes are too short or, you know, your pants are too tight or whatever. It's humiliating and it's angering to have to deal with that even if you push the boundaries and you get away with it a lot.

Chris Hayes: So, in September of this year, September 13th, a young woman, 22-year-old Iranian woman named Mahsa Amini, she's actually from the Kurdistan region but was in Tehran, I think, visiting family. She was arrested by the morality police. She's with her brother. She's in front of a Metro station. They said that she had, I think, improper hijab. She was taken into custody and then ended up in a hospital and died in custody.

This death had this kind of seismic effect in Iranian society. It is the precipitating incident for the protests, which are now entering their sixth or seventh week. And I wonder if you could just speak about what it was about this death, the particulars of it, that triggered the initial anguish and street protest reaction.

Sussan Tahmasebi: I think people, you know, really empathize with the situation of Mahsa or Jina which is her Kurdish name. She was this stranger, this young, beautiful girl, a stranger in the big city, and she told the morality police, according to her brother and other people who were present, she pleaded with them, don't arrest me, I'm a stranger in this city.

And I think that really echoed and resonated with people that, you know, the level of innocence and this incredible loss of life, as I said, you know, it's a humiliating experience. I think women, either they’ve experienced being harassed by the morality police or they lived with this constant fear.

And I think men that care about women also lived with this constant fear that this could happen to people that they care about and love. I think so a lot of people identified, some people identified with her brother. I keep thinking of my sister and I keep thinking of this brother who's never going to be able to live with himself --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Sussan Tahmasebi: -- again that this happened to his sister on his watch while he was with her. So, I think, really, it resonated with people and the family did a great job. The family was under pressure from the start. The authority said, oh, you know, they gave multiple reasons for her death. They said she had epilepsy, that she had a stroke, that she had a heart attack.

And the family consistently and steadfastly refused this story, this account, and they kept saying, no, she was a healthy young woman and she died in your custody. They were also under pressure not to hold a funeral for her, but they withstood that pressure and took her body back to Saqez and held a funeral. And there were protests with respect to, you know, the funeral ceremony. So, that was important.

Because she was Kurdish, the Kurdish political parties in Kurdistan, the Iranian Kurdish political parties called for a general strike and people, you know, they strike. People gathered in Saqez and in other cities in Kurdistan and there were protests. And during these protests, a couple of significant things happened.

First of all, women took off their headscarves and they chanted in Kurdish, and I'm doing a rough translation from Kurdish to Farsi to English, but basically, a death for a headscarf, how much more of this humiliation do we have to endure? So, it really was a sense of humiliation.

And another thing on her gravestone, it was written that, you know, Jina, which is, again, her Kurdish name, you have not died but your name will turn into a code word for resistance. And it really has, I think it has.

These were two significant things that emerged from this initial protest and then in later protests, the slogan, "Zan, zendegi, azadi" or "Jin, jiyan, azadi" which is a Kurdish slogan that Kurdish women who are working, you know, towards emancipation and freedom and self-determination had used in the past. But it was picked up almost immediately and it became national and now it's global.

So, these are some of the issues that sparked the protests and have kept them alive since.

Chris Hayes: You know, just hearing you tell the story and I had sort of tracked some of this but just the details of the family's agency in this and their incredible courage and defiance, you know. And the American context of the story of Emmett Till, of course, the young black boy who goes down to visit relatives in the south. He's actually from Chicago, so he's a stranger there, right, and he is lynched, he is murdered and his body is sent back to Chicago where his mother is and she, you know, opts to have the open casket to show the world what happened to her boy and that is, of course, one of the major kind of precipitating incidents that kicks off the modern civil rights movement.

Just thinking about those parallels that this family, you know, that they send their daughter to Tehran and she dies in the hands of the morality police and they're require her body to come back and then they have a funeral there and that that is just kind of galvanizing defiant action on their part of resistance. It's very inspiring, you know, to think of the courage that they showed in deciding to do this.

Sussan Tahmasebi: Exactly. Because they were under so much pressure. And, you know, even for her 40th ceremony, because Iranians mourn on the 40th day after burial, they were under a lot of pressure not to hold that ceremony. And they refused. They were even threatened according to accounts that their son would be arrested but they refused and they said, you know, even if we issue a statement, because they were under pressure to issue a statement, to cancel the ceremonies, people will still come and people came.

They came in droves. They shut down the roads to the grave site. People abandoned their cars and they walked. We saw a video footage of people crossing rivers and the mountains. But I think, because people were sick and tired, they're sick and tired and another really important issue with Mahsa's death is that people were also sick and tired of killing of citizens with impunity that this has happened before.

It's happened in protests, it happens to people who are in prison, then the fact that the government felt like it had (ph) to tell so many lies to cover those deaths (ph) and didn’t take responsibility, wouldn't it just been so much easier for them to say, yes, one of the guards or one of the policemen did something wrong and we're going to hold him accountable --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Sussan Tahmasebi: -- they refused to do that. I mean, this has created protest across the country. They have killed so many people. There's actually a slogan that says, you're killing us so that you can prove that you didn’t kill Mahsa, which is true. They're killing so many people just to prove that this didn’t happen and now there's some sort of rumor that Iran is trying to go to war. I don’t know how true that is.

But just imagine, just because they're not willing to hold one person accountable within the system which goes to show how broken the system is, how dysfunctional the governance structure is.

Chris Hayes: We should also highlight, I think, and I know that in the early coverage of this, it was quite central to the protest there where you talked about the Kurdish parties calling for general strike. There was an obvious kind of regional and ethnic access to this.

Of course, the Kurds are spread through various countries throughout the Middle East, Turkey, Iraq, Northern Iraq, particularly in Kurdistan and in Iran and have sort of struggled for various forms of self-determination, have often been persecuted and marginalized in societies in which they are ethnic minorities. They speak a different language. They have a distinct language, Kurdish, which is different than Farsi or Arabic.

How central was that, or how important was that, in the early part of this protest because I think my understanding of the coverage, at least the initially, was that this was sort of a bunch of kind of issues stacked atop each other but one of the prime ones being, you know, sort of Kurdish pride, self-determination, et cetera.

Sussan Tahmasebi: I think the response from the Kurdish community was critical in the initial protests. And the way that they turned out to protest and the role that women played in these protests, taking off their headscarves, saying we're not going to take this humiliation anymore. This has not been a sectarian issue. And I think that’s the beauty of it.

And the government of Iran try to make it a sectarian issue. They, you know, if you listen to their, you know, Arabic language --

Chris Hayes: Totally.

Sussan Tahmasebi: -- broadcast across the region, you know, they're talking about how Mahsa was a terrorist. She was associated with terrorist groups outside the country, that this is about --

Chris Hayes: Wow.

Sussan Tahmasebi: -- you know, breaking up Iran. You know, this is what they're saying. They try to do it. They attack, you know, the Iranian Kurdish political parties that are based in Kurdistan, they started bombing them. They also did the same thing in Zahedan which is in Sistan and Baluchestan. They killed a hundred people there.

They tried to make it a sectarian issue, but they haven't been able to do that. I mean, and this is the beauty of this movement, this protest movement or revolution or whatever you want to call it because it many ways, it resembles very much the way the women's movement has been organized all these years. It's national, it's in big cities, it's in small cities, it's in villages, it's intersectional so you have people from different ethnic groups, different religions groups that are part of it.

It's different age groups, you know, so you have a lot of young people of different movements supporting it. The student movement is supporting it. The workers' movement is supporting it. And you also have middle class, people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, poor communities supporting it. So, it's very varied.

And the most important thing that many people, even myself at the beginning, I thought this was a weakness, but I think, ultimately, this has turned out to be a strength. Instead, it's not. There's no one charismatic leader. And it's locally organized, it's diverse and it's, you know, there's no one particular leader that’s doing it.

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Chris Hayes: So, you know, that flame kind of jumps, right, and kept spreading. So now, these protests are entering their sixth or seventh week and they show no signs of stopping and they seem like they're happening all around the country. There's particularly moving images coming out of both, not just college campuses, but like high schools and seemed, you know, repudiations and taking off their job and even obscene gestures directed towards, like, Iranian government officials showing up in high schools.

I mean, there's been some talk, a little bit, about like the different ways this protest has manifested itself in terms of the iconography of it, the method of protest, what people are calling for and how they're registering their discontent.

Sussan Tahmasebi: So, initially, this protest was about justice for Mahsa and the elimination of the morality police and the hijab laws. This was the initial call. So, immediately, after the protest in Kurdistan, you know, at the burial ceremony of Mahsa, the women's groups and also student groups issued calls for protest, and these were their demands.

But very quickly, these demands have expanded and they're about fundamental freedoms and serious political change. And you hear, you know, besides the slogan of the protesting echoed in a lot of these, you know, in a lot of the protests, the Women, Life, Freedom, you also hear, in many of the video footage that we get and especially with younger people that people are saying freedom, freedom, freedom, azadi, azadi, azadi.

This is one of the main chants that keeps coming out of this protest. And I think that, you know, in that sense, that says a lot that a lot of younger people are involved in these protests and what they want is freedom. They want to be able to choose, not only how they dress but how they live their lives. What they have envisioned for their own lives is very, very different than what the Islamic Republic of Iran has envisioned for them or is able to give them or wants to give them.

I think the Islamic Republic kind of wants to make it much more conservative and much more difficult, especially the young people, you know, the Generation Z, the high schoolers and the college students, they're very connected on the Internet to their peers across the world. So, their culture and their aspirations are very similar to people their own age groups.

And, you know, their aspirations are different and what they are being offered is very different than what they're willing to settle for. So, they're willing to die for it, it seems. They're willing to die for it. But I think, you know, it's important to say that, you know, initially, the protests were in universities. A lot of women are participating in these protests and still a lot of women are participating in these protests.

The fact that the initial protests were around women's issues and to ask for justice for women and this centrality of women in this protest has carried through is also a very different and very unique characteristic of this protest because we've never had a situation like this where the entire country rises up in support of a woman.

And it's also a very creative protest. When Sharif University, you know, they were having a sit-in, demanding that their fellow students would be released because so many students were arrested, the guards attacked them, there was tear gas, bullets, et cetera. The next day, high schoolers began protesting and then you saw some of those images that you talked about.

So, every time something has been shut down or there's been an impediment, people have come up with other alternative, very creative ways of continuing their protests. But it's also creative in the sense that, I'm sure that you’ve seen the images that have come out, the videos that have come out with women sort of creating bonfires with their headscarves, dancing in the streets because dancing is also not allowed in Iran.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Sussan Tahmasebi: Dancing in the street's not allowed in Iran. So, it's really a very, I think, in that sense, it's civil disobedience in its most beautiful form. But you’ve also seen a lot of pictures, images, that have come out and a lot of music. I think the music, the anthem of these protests, everybody has kind of heard it. But there's so many more anthems that have emerged. There's so much creativity that’s associated with these protests.

Chris Hayes: What is the anthem of the protest?

Sussan Tahmasebi: So, what we have is an anthem that was written by Shervin Hajipour, a young man who took tweets that people had tweeted, had written about why they want to see change, what kind of change they want to see and it's called "Baraye" or "For," "Because Of" and he talks about, in this song, he recounts these tweets and it's, you know, it starts out with so that, you know, for dancing in the streets, for not being afraid while kissing someone you love in the streets, for the Afghan children, for women, for freedom. In the end, it ends with freedom. So, it's a lot of, you know, it talks about people's aspirations.

Chris Hayes: Yes. Like, the for, like the reason I'm doing this, the reason I'm there.

Sussan Tahmasebi: Exactly.

Chris Hayes: I want to actually play a little bit of this because it has been so prominent in the protest. Take a listen.

(SONG PLAYING)

Chris Hayes: That’s the sort of protest anthem in Iran. You mentioned before, you know, police oppression and, I think, you know, basically at any context, at any society, when there's uprising, the police put it down. I mean, even in, you know, open liberal societies, that tends to be what happens.

But it does seem like there have been, and I'm sure the Iranian government disputes this. So, and I, obviously, can't independently verify nor can NBC News. But do we have a sense of the scale of the number of people that have been arrested and/or lost their lives in the context of this protest?

Sussan Tahmasebi: We do. I don’t know how accurate they are. I think, I personally think the numbers are much higher because it's very hard to verify. And I said, you know, these protests are very decentralized. They're all over the country.

But the latest figures that I saw are 245 people killed, 41 of them have been children under the age of 18, as young as 7 years old. A lot of people who are being killed are in their 20s and in their teens. So, this is significant. About 10 or 15% are women, mostly men are being killed even though it's supposedly women's revolution. But it's more men that are being killed.

And 14,000 people arrested, that’s the figure that we have. I think it's more than for 14,000, you know, but that’s the figure that we have. And people are being released with great delay. Before, in previous protests, they would be arrested and they would be released almost, you know, within a few days and they would face court cases. But they're taking longer to release them.

And prison conditions are awful from what we're hearing. They're overcrowded. A lot of the prisons are makeshift. There's not enough facilities for the numbers of people in the prisons.

And also, a lot of people are being transferred to prison, violently beaten. They have injuries. Many of them have gunshot wounds, pellet wounds with no willingness or ability on the part of the prison officials to care for these wounds. So, it's significant in that sense. I think it's really important.

Chris Hayes: Again, I'll just reiterate the fact that we have, I think, some staff on the ground there. But we don’t have the ability to sort of definitely establish as an independent news organization, you know, the numbers of arrests, the numbers of deaths or deaths in custody.

It's clear that the protests are happening across the country and I guess the next question to me is, you know, referring back to that opening monologue about, you know, the sense, I think, you know, at one level, I think there's a sort of, like, well, we've seen this before and they just sort of eventually it will, you know, burn itself out.

And then, you know, when I think about the summer of 2020 here and I can imagine, you know, if you were in another country being like, oh, I wonder if the, you know, will the regime fall in the U.S., will the American government (inaudible) 0:39:15.6, you know, at some level because of the mechanisms of what is still a functioning democratic system with competitive elections, you know, some of that was channeled into the ballot box in 2020 and Donald Trump was voted out.

I guess, the question in Iran is, like, what comes of this and you can't predict the future but what are the possibilities, what's the table of options as you see them for the results of this protest?

Sussan Tahmasebi: I don’t know. Initially, when they happened, I did a couple of interviews. And I was criticized for it. But really, I was going based on past behavior, and I said that, you know, the regime is so brutal that it's going to crackdown on these protests, and it has been brutal. But they have continued, nevertheless.

So, it's hard for me to speculate. I can tell that, you know, I think the Islamic Republic is going to be more brutal. They announced it last week that they're not going to take it anymore. And ever since they announced that, they’ve started targeting universities especially. They had targeted universities before, but they're targeting them, they're targeting dormitories.

And so, when you go into dormitories, I think people have to understand that people living in dormitories usually are from different cities. They have nowhere to go. They have nowhere to hide. They don’t have family members in those dormitories. It's not like dorms in the U.S. that are so nice. They're not so nice. If they had family members, they'd be living with their family members.

So, these kids are like sitting ducks. So, they're going, they're arresting them, they're beating them up. We've seen awful footage, you know. So, they're going into these places where the target audience or target group is easy prey and using a lot of violence to suppress them.

But nevertheless, the protests are still continuing. They're still continuing. So, I have no doubt that they're going to continue to be violent and more violent as we move along. I don’t know how the Iranian people are going to respond. It seems that they're so sick and tired of the status quo that they're continuing with their protest. We'll have to see.

So, either the protests will continue, there’ll be a lot of violence that will be suppressed or they’ll just continue in this way that is happening now until people maybe are tired or they retreat or maybe will have a revolution, will have a change in power. I don’t know. I think those are the three scenarios.

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Chris Hayes: Let's talk about the most extreme revolution. I mean, I think there's something to the effect that, you know, you see this in the French revolution, you certainly see it in Stalin's consolidation in the Soviet Union after Lenin's death and even during Lenin. A special kind of paranoia, right, about revolutionary uprising among governments that have been installed through revolutionary uprisings.

Sussan Tahmasebi: Yes.

Chris Hayes: And so, of course, that’s the case in '79 and I don’t know how familiar Americans are with this. I think everyone sort of knows that the Ayatollah, you know, was in exile and then came back and, you know, the Islamic Republic was founded. But it was a revolutionary moment and to your point earlier, there was a collision of different groups, trade union, leftists, communists, you know, Islamists, together that brought on the government through, you know, street protest, uprising, all of that.

So, you know, what I imagine, there's a special paranoia. You see this with Putin with street protest, right? I mean, he's, you know, color revolutions are sort of point of obsession for him because they have been effective in some of the neighboring countries in Eastern Europe and I got to imagine that there's something similar animating the powers that be in Iran.

Sussan Tahmasebi: Yes, of course, the Iranians have been paranoid about revolutions for many years, color revolutions. And this is, you know, unfortunately, it's clouded their judgement in terms of, you know --

Chris Hayes: Totally. Yes.

Sussan Tahmasebi: -- responding to the demands of the people.

So, even with this, they're saying, you know, these are fabricated demands, imported, you know, exported, by the West to Iran, imported by the West to Iran. They're Western demands, the women's demands are fabricated demands. Albeit, you know, the women's demands go back to the beginning, actually, before that, a hundred years. Our women's movement is a hundred years old.

So, but they're saying it's a Western demand. That it's, you know, Westerners and, you know, Iranian expats that are trying to foment revolution inside the country and they're dismissing many of these very justified and indigenous demands and they’ve been doing that for years. And that’s why they're afraid of civil society, that’s why there were (ph) such a massive civil society crackdown for all these years, and especially in the last year or so.

And really, before Raisi came to power in the last year of Rouhani, there was a major crackdown on civil society and in particular with the women's groups. Everybody who was working was either interrogated or arrested, somehow rendered inactive.

And even groups that were doing very sort of low-key work in the last few months before this were arrested. And so, the authorities have said, oh, we expected a protest like this by women's groups but just they used Mahsa's death as an opportunity to do their protest and wreak their havoc earlier than had planned. So, they're acting as if they knew this was going to happen and they were prepared for it and it's all because of Westerners that this is happening.

The reality is that, actually, part of this concern and I think part of this crackdown also comes from the issue of crisis and who's going to be the next leader of Iran that the Supreme Leader is old. For many years, there's been a rumor that, you know, he's ill and there's also been these rumors since 2009, actually, before that, that he wants to institute his son in his place. He wants his son to take over.

And, you know, we think, a lot of people think, that the reason why there was such a crackdown on civil society before these protests was because they wanted to clear the way for such a decision. So that there would be nobody to disagree or nobody to rise up. But so, this rising up has happened to their surprise and it's happened earlier, I don’t know what this does in terms of, you know, the succession issue.

But, yes, all of those same paranoia that you talked about with Putin exists in Iran and it has existed for 43 years. Can you imagine? We still have revolutionary courts, 43 years into this revolution and we still have revolutionary courts. So, that should give you a sense of how --

Chris Hayes: Wait, what does that mean?

Sussan Tahmasebi: It's a revolutionary court. It was set up to try people around the revolution, the former --

Chris Hayes: I see. Yes.

Sussan Tahmasebi: -- you know, people that were part of the former power structure. But it still exists. It's still operational. How can you have a revolutionary court 40 years after the revolution? So, that same paranoia is alive and well inside of Iran and it's contributing greatly to this crisis of governance.

Chris Hayes: Well, and I think this is true of any government even, you know, democratic liberal societies, but I think it's particularly true of kind of mixed authoritarian governments along the spectrum, you know, China being an interesting example. There's actually a lot of fair amount of protest in China and there's an interesting kind of bend-but-don’t-break often in the face of them.

You know, there’ll be protest over pollution from a plant or a corrupt local leader and sometimes there's crackdown and sometimes there's responsiveness and sort of figuring that out has been, in some ways, part of the genius of the Chinese state and continuing its authority. And I got to imagine that, you know, there's a similar choice facing, you know, any regime that one option is some form of reform, I mean, that there was or there's sort of kind of Glasnost period and Khatami in the first decade of the 21st century that that window has been shut.

But it sounds like the possibility of the Supreme Leader, how many, you know, succeeding, you know, passing away and maybe giving power to his son that it's not, from their perspective, a perfect moment for any kind of opening.

Sussan Tahmasebi: Yes. Well, you know, Iran has struggled and tried reform for over 20 years. I told you about when I went to Iran, it was the beginning of the reform period.

And I'll be honest, you know, I think Iranian people, Iranian women have greeted that reform largely with open arms because reform is less bloody. It has less cost associated with it than a revolution and people have tried reform for over two decades now with no real results, with no tangible and sustained results. So, I think, you know, that’s probably why I didn’t even mention it when you talked about the scenarios, yes, reform is definitely one of those scenarios.

I can't imagine that would happen because these hard liners who are in power now have tried really, really hard to consolidate their power and to gain control of every sector of government. And partly, I think that’s the succession issue that’s forced them to do this. They want to be the ones who make the decision, who decide who comes to power next.

This has been the reason. And, you know, unfortunately, they don’t consider the Iranian public as players, except for their immediate circle of supporters. And the reformists also have, unfortunately, a similar approach that they think that they're going to play this political game and then whenever they get the upper hand, they can call people in to come and support them.

So, I think, you know, the idea of reform has become less desirable option for Iranians just because they’ve had such a bad experience with it.

Chris Hayes: Yes. I mean, I'm, by no means, an expert in the constitutional structure of the Islamic estate but it is a pretty interesting one, kind of unlike anything else, actually. So, if you could just, like, describe because there's sort of a, you know, there's essentially ostensibly a sort of multiparty democracy sitting, you know, underneath this sort of supreme council of clergy and a Supreme Leader that have a sort of interesting interaction with each other, if you could just describe kind of how that works and who really controls, you know, who ultimately controls the state.

Sussan Tahmasebi: Well, ultimately, it's the Supreme Leader that controls the state. So, you have the Supreme Leader who decides who can be in the assembly, the Guardian Council who can run for the guardian council, Council of Guardians. But they get to, you know, provide oversight to him, the assembly of experts provides oversight to the work of the Supreme Leader but he's the one that gets to appoint them. He's the one that allows them to run, to be elected.

So, it's an indirect election process. So, it really is the Supreme Leader who has all the power. I don’t want to dismiss the president because the president also can have some say and we've seen that, like the difference between the presidency of Khatami versus the presidency of Ahmadinejad. That’s very different. They have control over the executive orders so they can ease certain things, they can make, you know, create openness or allow for some limited reform, but ultimately, they can't change very much.

And because pretty much all the power lies with the Supreme Leader and there, you know, certainly, I think people have talked about having constitutional reform, changing the constitution so that they take away some of the power of the Supreme Leader so that, you know, he doesn’t have such ultimate power, that he has to be more responsive, that the oversight bodies actually conduct oversight over his responsibility or that there's a council instead of one Supreme Leader, so there's a council. But this has never happened.

Even in, you know, small changes like having to do even with women's rights, so we're talking about women's rights, partly any change has been made throughout all of these years.

So, yes, there are political parties, but there are political parties that have to be approved through that same system where with the Supreme Leader is still the head of that system and one of the reformist political parties at the beginning criticized what happened to Mahsa. I saw a note somebody had written on an Instagram page that they had criticized and they asked for a permit to be able to hold protest. But that political party has now been suspended for a number of months as a result because they asked for a permit to hold a protest, which is actually allowed by the constitution people --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Sussan Tahmasebi: -- to hold protest without permits as long as they're not carrying guns.

But now, you have to ask for permits and nobody's giving permits and even if you ask for a permit, then you're suspended. So, it's not an open system at all. And there'd been times when it's been a little bit more open. And then, I have to say that, besides the Supreme Leader, we also have the Revolutionary Guards who have a lot of power inside the country now. So, I think it's, you know, it's not as much a clerical regime as it is to clerics and the Revolutionary Guards together.

Chris Hayes: Yes. And the Revolutionary Guard, which is the sort of kind of a special cadre within the armed forces more broadly, also have, you know, tremendous amounts of sort of political or monetary power of huge budgets. They run sort of off-book businesses, right? They're sort of kind of classic oligarchs, at least my understanding, in many respects.

Sussan Tahmasebi: Yes, of course. And you know, the Revolutionary Guards were initially set up to protect the security of Islamic revolution. So, it's not of Iran but it's the Islamic revolution.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Sussan Tahmasebi: But that security was external. Now, it's internal. So, they have a lot of power internally and they even compete for many years. They competed with the ministry of intelligence in terms of, you know, security issues.

Around these protests, for the first time, we see the ministry of intelligence and the revolutionary guards who came together, who issued together a joint statement to say that, you know, this is being fomented from abroad. So, actually, they competed for many years but around these protests, they’ve come together. So, they have a meeting of the minds.

Chris Hayes: I guess the question is how long do you think this can go?

Sussan Tahmasebi: I don’t know. This is the longest continuous national protest, I think, that we've seen ever. So, we had the protests after the 2009 elections, and they were pretty broad and especially broad in the big cities. But they weren't continuous because the candidates for the presidency, Mousavi and Karroubi, you know, initial days, yes, there were consecutive days where people protested but then they would say, OK, let's go. We'll come back in a week, right?

So, it wasn’t continuous in the sense that this is continuous. So, this has been the longest continuous national protest with over 130 cities involved, 120 universities. I don’t know. I don’t know. Because I'm surprised at how long this has lasted given the incredible violence that the Iranian authorities have used.

So, I don’t want to speculate. I really don’t know. I hope it goes until at least people get some concession whether, either, they get what they want, which is freedom to be able to decide how they want to live their lives, how they want to be governed, their relationship with people who govern over them, what that is. Or if not, then at least, they get some serious concessions and they have some say in how they want their country and their lives to be lived.

Chris Hayes: Sussan Tahmasebi is the Director of FEMENA, an organization that promotes gender equality, supports human rights defenders throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Asian regions. She's been working on issues inside and outside Iran for decades and it was just so, so useful to have you walk me through this today. I can't tell you how thankful I am.

Sussan Tahmasebi: Thank you very much for having me and for paying attention to Iran.

Chris Hayes: Once again, great thanks to Sussan Tahmasebi. That was really, really enlightening and I learned a ton there. I hope you did, too.

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Why Is This Happening is presented by MSNBC and NBC News produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory, featuring music by Eddie Cooper.

You can see more of our work including links of things we mentioned here by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email WITHpod@gmail.com. Follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.