Dr. Sousan Abadian | United Nations | New York City
September 14, 2023
Dorood doostan-e-aziz—welcome and good morning, friends. Thank you Marjan for the invitation to speak today. I’m honored to be joining these distinguished speakers. And as well, I am profoundly humbled, in light of what Iranians have faced and are continuing to face. I have contemplated what I want to say, struggling to find words that are adequate. What could any of us possibly say except to bow down in humility and awe for what Iran and Iranians are undergoing now.
In the minutes I have, though, I thought I could offer a perspective on the Women, Life, Freedom movement that’s somewhat different than what we typically hear, at least out of the think tank circuits in Washington D.C. where I currently live. The favored story circulating makes sense on one level.
It tells the tale of young Iranian women, Gen Zs, as they are called, or Zoomers, 99% of whom are highly educated. And because of this, they are more exposed than ever via social media to the freedoms and material opportunities available to their peers in other countries, causing them to ask themselves, “Well, why not us?” We are told that this is what’s fueling the current movement alongside the worsening economic situation.
It’s a typical western lens—youth-focused, individualistic, materialistic in thinking, and lacking in cultural or spiritual context. The story is not completely wrong, but I suggest it’s missing depth, and that, perhaps, there’s more going on than meets the eye.
I will speak today not just as a political economist but as a cultural anthropologist with an expertise in collective trauma. One of my areas of research is: what happens to whole groups of people, communities, nations who have endured generations of trauma. What distortions tend to take place in their cultures as a result? And how do they typically respond out of these traumas?
What I have observed is this: following years, decades, or even centuries of trauma, people and their communities have a drive to become whole again. What they do to try to make themselves whole sometimes ends in disaster, but it is an ongoing striving. This drive to heal and become whole usually involves attempts at reconfiguring their culture and a sense of identity. And this, I believe, is part of what Iranians are up to right now. Even the 1979 Iranian Revolution was part of this ongoing endeavor. In other words, this goes beyond protesting for pensions and freedom to not veil.
It is also more than a political revolution but a cultural (and spiritual) evolution as Iranians reconceptualize who they are and what matters to them. We are not just addressing 44 years of collective trauma, but perhaps the effects of over a millennia of colonization.
Let me put it another way. What I am suggesting is that the chant “Women, Life Freedom,” while it sounds like a group of Gen Z Iranians embracing progressive western values, the reason that it has traction amongst Iranians of all ages and from all walks of life is because it is an instinctive drive toward healing and cultural restoration that involves a return to indigenous Iranian values.
I may be able to see this better than most not only because of my training, but also, because I am one of the very few remaining Zoroastrian Iranians – Zartoshti’s—that represent these indigenous virtues. Let me share how Woman, Life, Freedom represents indigenous values.
Let’s start with Woman-Zan.
Many scholars of Zoroastrianism describe an earlier time when Iran was rooted in values and traditions that honored women. From the very beginning, both women and men had initiation rites, and both women and men served their communities as priests. Early texts instruct Zoroastrians that whenever it was necessary for a woman priest to travel, duties should be allocated in a balanced manner between married couples so that neither priestly duties nor family responsibilities should suffer. Women also had independent control over property, even after marriage.
Evidence from 2,500-year-old records in Iran demonstrate that men and women were paid equal wages based on experience, something the U.S. and many so-called developed nations have yet to accomplish, let alone present-day Iran. Ancient Iranians were far from perfect but, relatively speaking, they valued their womenfolk alongside men, and women enjoyed a measure of freedom they struggle for in our day and age.
The second value in the chant is Zendegi or Life. Life on our Earth was considered precious to early Iranians and to Zoroastrians alive today. Material existence is not considered a corruption to be endured till we depart to some spiritual heaven. Zoroastrian values teach us to rejoice in the bounty of Nature and seasonal gifts of life on Earth. Nowruz, the exuberant Iranian New Year celebrations during the spring equinox, is an example of Zoroastrian traditions that continue to be commemorated by a number of peoples and nations that were once part of the Persian sphere of influence. Zoroastrian rituals and ceremonies tend to be celebratory of life on Earth—no ritual values suffering or is meant to elicit sorrow. Traditionally, Zoroastrians cover themselves in vivid colors, not mournful black. Life, material existence, the arts, and sensuality are to be delighted in and relished in a balanced way.
The third value in the chant is Azadi or Freedom. Iran’s Zoroastrian worldview considers human beings as having an honored role as collaborators with the Divine in safeguarding the Earth. Humans are not seen as inferior, sinful creatures or pitiful servants of God, needing to be controlled, coerced, and manipulated so that we won’t misbehave. We develop our divine capabilities only through the freedom to make responsible choices. The value of freedom is core to the Iranian culture.
But this is not just about our past glory. It is about Iran’s future being birthed now, bringing together the best of this past with the best of today: a place where every religion (or non-believer), every ethnicity, race, and gender will be welcome, free to flourish. Regardless of religious affiliation, all Iranians can tap into our indigenous values. In fact, Zarathushtra, Zartosht, the founder of Zoroastrianism, made declarations that went beyond simple tolerance of differences to radical pluralism!
And if I could, I would add just one other Z to the trio “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” and that would be Zamin—or the Earth, which includes of course the elements of air and water. Like the Native and Indigenous peoples of this continent, the original teachings of the Iranian people consider the natural world as sacred and view humanity’s role as stewards of this sanctity. Fortunately, Iranzamin is abundantly rich in natural resources, but at this time, is in desperate need of proper management and regeneration.
Zan, Zendegi, Azadi, Zamin.
In closing, those unaware of Iran’s pre-colonial heritage might not realize that when Iranians are shouting “Woman, Life, Freedom,” they are drawing upon their own indigenous values. Even though it has been, at times, forced underground, this worldview endures, for example, in our stories, poetry, as well as ancient rituals and traditions continuing to be practiced by Iranians, regardless of ethnic and religious affiliation.
We should not be surprised then that the chant “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” is unifying Iranians. It is also why it’s not surprising that, in the face of overwhelming brutality, Iranian women and their men will continue to rise up, over and over again, until their demands are met—to be treated with dignity, to have the freedom to learn, think, debate, dress, and choose for themselves, and the opportunity for creative expression and greater joy in their lives.
Zan, Zendegi, Azadi, Zamin - Deep within us, woven in our Iranian cultural DNA, we have always known that this is our birthright.
Zan, Zendegi, Azadi, Zamin. It is more than a chant or a slogan. It is a manifesto for a different cultural, and political order, a reconfiguration towards healing, towards wholeness, towards a regenerated earth, and our shared liberation.
Let’s co-author a new Iranian epic!