Women played a prominent part in Iran’s 1979 revolution. (Wikimedia Commons)

From the Iranian revolution to ‘We are all Mahsa’ — Iran’s women have been at the forefront of change

Iranian scholar and peace activist Leila Zand discusses the radical socio-economic, cultural and religious shifts informing the current protests in Iran.
Women played a prominent part in Iran’s 1979 revolution. (Wikimedia Commons)

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In this second installment of two-part episode on the protests in Iran, we continue our discussion by speaking with Leila Zand, who focuses on Track 2 Diplomacy in Iran/U.S. relations, as well as Citizen Diplomacy with CodePink.

Despite now living in the U.S., Leila was born in Iran and raised in the throes of both the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the Iran-Iraq War that followed shortly after. Leila uses her personal experience to illuminate the radical socio-economic, cultural and religious shifts that the Iranian people have experienced in such a short time period — and how this impacts what is being expressed by women and young people on the streets today. Together, Stephanie and Leila discuss the possibilities in this context for creative, nonviolent solutions, when there are also active and destabilizing risks like widespread anger, devastating sanctions and threats of armament.

In spite of this, at Nonviolence Radio, we know that one thing is for certain — wherever there is conflict and violence, we will find nonviolence in action, even if it’s small. There’s always something we can do.

For more on nonviolence in Iran visit the Metta Center.

Stephanie: Greetings everybody and welcome to another episode of Nonviolence Radio. I’m your host, Stephanie Van Hook and I’m with the Metta Center for Nonviolence in Petaluma, California. Today’s program is Part 2 of our two part series on the Iranian Mahsa Amini protests. In this interview, I speak with Leila Zand, born and raised in Tehran and is now working on her dissertation about Track 2 diplomacy for Iran U.S. relations, and also working as a leader for citizen diplomacy with CodePink. Let’s hear from Leila.

Now, tell me about you. What have you been up to these days? You’re living on the East Coast.

Leila: Yeah. I live near D.C., just outside of Washington D.C. And so, I have my dissertation defense at the end of this year. I’m excited about that. It is, of course, nonviolence in international relations, which is a focus on U.S. Iran and basically Track 2 diplomacy, which is a nonviolent way of reaching peace, hopefully. So, I’m excited about that.

But also, I work here and there with a couple of organizations, like a project base, but mostly with CodePink. So, I’m focused on, still, Iran/U.S. and all these works.

But recently, because of the unfolding stories from Iran, all my focus and all my life is actually – my body is here, my soul and mind, everything is there. It’s sad to see how people are really demanding what they deserve, which is justice, equality, and dignity.

And sometimes government, you know, either they don’t want to think about possibilities and about, you know, they don’t want to be creative on how to fix a problem, how to deal with it and people, how to get engaged in a conversation with people. And the first thing comes to their mind is using violence and using gun machines. And that is very sad to see.

And specifically, this generation, it’s very young. And I’ve heard the majority of demonstrators are between 15 to 25 years old. I think when we were in that age, a long time ago, we also were more brave, and we were okay to go in the streets and shout. And now we have a lot of things to think about. And we don’t do it as easily.

Stephanie: Were you born in Iran?

Leila: I was born in Iran. I was born in Tehran. I went to school there. All my education, basically, until my bachelor was in Iran. I was actually in kindergarten in 1979, when the Islamic Revolution took place in Iran. And then – yeah, my school time, everything was there.

I have experience of eight years of Iran-involved war. I was in Tehran. I didn’t experience it like, you know, in the first hand. Basically, not going to the front. But bombs and missiles and rockets and, you know, all of those things, was part of my childhood and teenage years.

Like going to the shelter in our school sometimes when I was in high school. Yeah. I grew up there.

Stephanie: And the country really changed before 1979 and after. And so, to spend the majority of your life growing up in the post revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Tie that into the way that young people are protesting today about the sense that women are feeling repressed. Can you kind of contextualize from your own experience why women and men are protesting today, as it relates especially to the Mahsa Amini, but also people are saying, “We’re all Mahsa Ahmini.”

Leila: So, I guess before I answer this question of yours, I want to just briefly talk about how before the revolution in Iran, still probably, women – the constitution gave equality and Iranian women got the right to vote in ‘60s, early ‘60s. So, when – at the same time that here, were engaged in the Civil Rights Movement, in Iran, women got the right to vote – with a little problem.

Actually, I call it ‘a problem’ because they didn’t ask for that. It was handed to them. So, that means there was no big movement for women to get the right for vote. The shah, it was part of the King of Iran, so it was part of the ‘modernization’ quote/unquote. And he wanted – you know, part of that was equality and giving women this right to vote.

So, that happened. But women’s status was, you know, much better, I would say, based on the constitution. But not culturally. Iran still lived in the, you know, pre-modernized society, culturally. Like not a lot of educated women. It was only educated women belong to this certain social-economic level of the country. Not many women in the important positions. So, all of this was there.

But after the revolution because the Iranian society still was a little more traditional. A lot of fathers, a male, powerful male members of the families, didn’t allow their daughters to go to school or having higher education. This is before the revolution.

The main reason was because the society was very open. A lot of Western culture, as part of – under the title of modernity, came to Iran while the people were still not ready to accept that. For example, you know, bikini was still too much for many Iranians who were more traditional and based on Islamic values which the majority of population then, which was 36 million Iranians lived then. They were, I would say, not having higher education. And still they lived in rural areas. The economy was not as aggressive and as modern as we saw later.

Iran got money in the early ‘70s based on the oil price. And then it was the time that the economy boomed and then just the higher level of the society – when I say higher, I mean mostly economic and social levels of the society, they have access to money, access to good education. Access because the majority of people still lived in rural areas.

So, in the late ‘70s, in less than a decade, the revolution took place, and everything changed, basically. But the thing is, after the revolution, under the slogan of – everything became more moderate and Islamic and all of those things. And you know, like wearing bikini, as an example. I’m going to the very, you know, high at that end. It was not legal. When women went to work or went to university, then it was not that they wanted to be part of the modern society and wear very short skirts.

So, it gave some comfort to more traditional families and to rural areas, which the majority of Iranians then were in that section. So, men of the society, of the families, which often were the decision makers, main decision makers, they started to make their home more open. You know, the law of the home. So, many girls started to get higher education. Girls went outside because the families were more comfortable that my daughter is – nobody is going to bother her, so if she is going to different, you know, to get higher education, that doesn’t mean she will be out of our traditional path.

So now, for example, I know the latest numbers and statistics that came out from Iran in, I think, it was 2018 that I looked at them. And 60% of people who hold a PhD and masters in Iran, they were women. So, women got a higher education. They’re in a lot of positions – in the good higher positions. But still, in this time, women got a lot of power, basically, also, because they had a voice now. They had income.

Economy, you know, has always given women a voice. And so, they had income, and it was much easier for them to get engaged in a society in many different levels, you know – physicians, teachers, whatever you can imagine. Lawyers, but not the judge. So, this goes to this section that unfortunately after the revolution, although women gained a lot of power and financial power and in their families because, as much as I remember growing up, my mother, for example, was the boss in our family instead of my father. And that was basically in every family.

Women ran their home and their neighborhood and everything, all was their decisions. And men only said, “Yes, ma’am.” I guess that was it. But from the country’s perspective, the constitution, what was law, they didn’t have any power. They lost a lot. And for example, they couldn’t be a judge because based on Sharia, that was a Sharia defined by that specific government.

I’m not an expert in Sharia, but I have heard, you know, there are a lot of things when the government decides – because mainly they are men, they make decisions based on their own interests, I believe. And then, based on their definition of Sharia, women couldn’t be good judges. They didn’t have a good judgment. They couldn’t be in that position.

Or, for example, they believed, based on Sharia, women are considered half of men. For example, if a man – in an accident, in a fight, or whatever, if a man kills a woman, so the woman’s life isn’t considered equal with a man’s. If the woman’s family wants to get equal for the life that they have lost, so they have to pay to the man equal to another woman. So, that would be two women, one man.

So, these things are very ugly when, as a woman, I look at that. As I said, a lot of women in Iran are educated, and they understand these things, and they don’t accept it. I told you that they got voice. They talk about these things and they want to change everything. Basically, they are more nonviolent than men. And they have done wonderful jobs changing a couple of laws.

For example, one of the successful paths that they took was on family planning, on using contraceptives. For example, the birthrate in Iran immediately after the revolution was up to 4.3 [children], I guess, per woman. But later, many reasons, including women having a voice and talking about family planning and adding this as one section in the constitution, adding it as a law. So, they worked really hard, and they changed it. Right now, I guess, is 1.2 is reduced. This is one successful path.

Another one was, for example, if an Iranian women marries to a non-Iranian man, the children of that marriage don’t consider as Iranian. But if it was an Iranian man married to a non-Iranian women, the children consider as Iranian. They get the nationality, but the women actually had wonderful movement, and they changed that.

So, there are a lot of women now, although their husbands are not Iranian, and they live outside of Iran and the children are born outside of Iran, but the children consider as Iranian. They get Iranian passports. So, these are the movements that I, you know, I can say they’ve been successful.

But besides this, back to your question on what they want in the streets now, you said it correctly that I grew up after the revolution. Most of my life was there. Yesterday, I was talking to a friend. She said, “Almost everybody has similar experience, better and worse, than Mahsa Ahmini.”

And I was 12-years-old. I want to say, first – when the morality police – or in Iran, you know it as Gasht-e-Ershad – they’re supposed to come and convince people the way that you are dressing up, the way that you are walking in the streets is not correct. So, they offer a new way. And they have been around probably just immediately after the revolution.

And in my case, I was 12-years-old. I had nail polish. And I was arrested. I was arrested. Nobody called my parents about where I am. They took me into the, you know, one section or office they have on the other side of town. And my parents, you know, at 3 o’clock in the morning, they allowed me to call my family to let them know where I am.

So, my parents were all around the town, in the cemeteries, in the funeral homes, in the hospitals, looking for a 12-year-old – their 12-year-old daughter. So, this is one example. I have many examples. Almost everybody in Iran has one or two experiences with these people.

I was in high school. Girl’s high school is different than boy’s high school. They are separate. And then one boy, which was, you know, who was very handsome and every girl in our high school had a crush on him. It was interesting – when we left the school, we used to come home at 2pm. And at that time, no boys from boy’s high school were allowed to walk in the certain streets of our high school, girl’s high school.

This guy, very handsome guy, went home, you know. I saw him maybe 20 years later in England by accident. I said, “What are you doing here?” So, I never forget him. He was walking in that street that boys were not allowed to walk. And this morality police arrested him, beat him up in front of us, in front of all girls. They started to beat him really bad. Really bad.

A week later, he came to the same street with black and blue face and also broken hand. But then was the time that we were so scared to talk about anything, and especially – it’s very important, I guess, this part for your audience.

Because of the war that was going on between Iran and Iraq, we couldn’t talk. We didn’t want to talk, on one hand, because we wanted to stay under the flag, under the same flag. We wanted to keep unity. We didn’t want to make our government distracted from fighting with a foreign enemy, with the invasion, with all of those that was happening.

But also, we were so scared from our own government because they would label us as working with the enemy because we already had the war and, you know, all of those things. So, I was like 16-years-old when these things happened in front of my eyes. I didn’t say a peep. Nothing. And nothing happens except that guy probably is, you know, still seeing nightmares, probably from that time because he probably was also 16, 17 years old. In that age.

So, it was horrible. It was a horrible experience. For a while, men were not allowed to wear – even women – to wear jeans because it was a symbol of the United States. Anyone with jeans would get arrested. You know, all of those things. And it was very bad in the ‘80s. It was really bad in the ‘80s. But after Khomeini’s death everything became a little softer, a little more comfortable.

But since Khatami came to office as a reformist president, everything became much open. The society, the cultural – everything, basically, even economy. But politics also, he started to have a relationship with a couple of countries. So, everything became very different. That was the time I left the country.

But any time I went back to Iran, I was very surprised. I was most covered than all people in Iran. A lot of my friends said, “Why are you covering yourself?” I said, “Because, you know, my experience. Because I grew up during that time.” Still, when I visited Iran in 2018 for the last time, I was covered very well. Not other people, you know?

And some people had a little scarf on top of their head. All their hair from back, from front, anyone wore whatever they wanted. But since Raisi came to office – Raisi is not moderate. He’s not reformist. And a lot of people came to office with him who were very, you know right-wing fundamentalist groups, fundamentalist from the political perspective in Iran. I’m talking about that. He ordered for the more severe prisons of the morality police.

And the morality police, they stay in the street, you know, ask people to, you know, “Your hijab is not good.” And they want to take him – and they often have a small bus, a mini bus. And they get people – and that mini bus – or sometimes they have SUVs or a van. And they just pull people into the van. And before what happened to Mahsa, I saw a couple of videos. It was devastating to look, you know.

They are just pulling a girl. And these are all anti-Islam. You know, basically, in Sharia, a man and a woman who are not relatives, not a brother and father, actually even if they are even just – or husband. They cannot touch each other. If you go to Iran, for example, as a woman, you are not allowed to shake hands with a man whom you see.

But they just hold these people’s hands, these girl’s hands and legs – two of them, and push them and pull them into the van. And this woman is, you know, it’s a very, very bad scene. And in one of them, a mother was crying and begging, “My daughter is sick. Don’t take her. Don’t take her.” And all of those. But they do that. And because, you know, they say her hijab is not good, but you are touching all of – I mean all over her body. And you have a problem with her hijab?

And so, I don’t know. They said, you know, they take them into their main office, and they have, I don’t know, one hour, two hours – like emergency classes for them. And tell them why you are here and why you should change your style or whatever. And there was one argument the other day – someone actually mentioned this, and I think it’s really funny that the government doesn’t understand this.

These people have been in your school system. All of the books and all of the information that was possible was published by you and taught by you and your system. So, if they are not the way you want, there is something wrong, and you cannot teach them in one hour – you cannot make them change, as far as their belief or whatever in one hour.

When they got Mahsa – so, we still don’t know why she died. But I say we don’t need to know. Some people, there are two arguments. Some people say she was beaten by the police. Some people said she was scared very much. Some people said she was already sick. So, there are many arguments against and pro what, you know, the government has done.

My personal belief, I would say I don’t care if she was sick or not. If she was – you know, of course I care if she was beaten by the government. But the main issue here is she was arrested by the police, and she died there. And she was under your control. First, come and explain what is that? Why do you this? Is it by force? You want to make people to believe in something? Do you understand this is belief? This is not, you know, like… When I think about it, I want to scream.

But, yeah, and people came to the street not only because of that. Of course, that incident was horrible. She’s so beautiful, and she’s 22-years-old, and she, you know, she had a lot of dreams. And she was from the province in the northwest of Iran. She came for a trip to Tehran. And this happened in Tehran.

But not just because of that, because of people have had enough, of this condition. So, they started to pour into the streets. And basically, they ask for a better life, what is possible. And I understand Iran, in general, is under a lot of pressure, economically. People are suffering really, really bad.

Even if you make a dollar compared to what you spend in Iran, you cannot live with, I don’t know, with maybe $4000 a month. So, it’s very tough. It’s a very difficult time. And people don’t need this, above what they already are dealing with. You know, they came out of this pandemic like all of us, but the problem is the government didn’t have money for vaccine. They didn’t have enough ventilators. Because of sanctions, they didn’t have enough medicine.

Besides that, a lot of people have lost life. Cancer patients, they have lost life because of the lack of medicine. Medicine is very – there is a scarcity of that, plus it’s very expensive. So, it’s a very difficult time for people.

And besides that, you are creating this problem for them. And these people, these young people who are not like me, who seen the war and what we experience in social movements in Iran, these people are between 15 to 25. And they have a life ahead of them with no hope because of what happened to JCPOA. You know, it’s been since 2015 – there a lot of ups and downs with JCPOA since Trump, unilaterally basically, came out of the deal. And there is no relation with the outside world.

So, these are all anger from many different reasons, which started with Mahsa. And it was a horrible incident, Mahsa’s death was devastating for everyone.

Stephanie: Can you fill in the blanks of how nonviolence or nonviolent solutions can be supported so that we’re not looking at a question of getting American arms to people in Iran?

Leila: This is a wonderful question and a very difficult answer for it. Because first of all, yes, we don’t want United States arms, nobody’s arms because, you know, it would be only chaos. And we have seen what has happened with just delivering arms over there, like in Libya, in Syria, and direct involvement like in Iraq, it’s horrible. I don’t want to see this happen.

My heart is still bleeding for Syria. I don’t know much about Libya, but Syria and Iraq, I know much more about. And it’s horrible what happened to them. And we don’t want to see the same thing happen for another historical country, besides people and all of that wealth. I guess many look at – we, as human beings, you know, losing Iraq and Syria as part of our ancestry, you know, we came from those areas. All of us, not just Middle Eastern, but you know, that beautiful history of Mesopotamia belonged to all of us. And we have lost it. The beautiful monuments, historical 3000-4000 years old historical beautiful places. We have lost all of them.

I don’t want to see the same thing happen in Iran. When I write to my senator, for example, I ask, “Please, don’t support military. Don’t get engaged with sending arms. But lift the sanctions.” Last week, U.S. Treasury lifted sanctions on internet and internet equipment because U.S. wanted to support the movement in Iran. And that is beautiful.

So, these people are dying because of lack of medicine, because medicine is not under sanction, but banks are sanctioned and there is no way for the Iranians to pay for the medicine that they buy. So, please lift the sanctions if you want to help them.

But answering to your question, unfortunately, Iranian government has closed all the doors that once was open or possible to be opened for negotiation, for reform, for making it better. Everything is under control of the government, like newspaper, media, everything. And a lot of people who talked about reform, they are either under house arrest or they left the country, or they are in prison. So, we don’t have much.

My Iranian perspective says we should just pressure the government to open a little, doors to open little windows, you know, for possibility of dialog. But my American part also are looking at this and say, “Education is the best way. It’s not going to respond today and maybe next year and maybe in four years, but in the long run is the only way.” And unfortunately, people are angry now.

And these young people, when they are angry, and they don’t see any way that they could send a message to the government, they don’t see any path toward that, they use force and violence, that we have seen. They have burned buildings.

I’m very sorry to say sometimes I don’t see much in a short term, to say we can do this this week or next week to make the change. And of course, nonviolence is a long path, in general. I would love to see possibility of just maybe some educational programs, possibility of just engaging even in the conversation of nonviolence.

Even to introducing that there is a possibility under the title of nonviolence, under the name of nonviolence. And probably, you know, just bringing some ideas to some of these people. I don’t know how successful that would be because young people, like I remember myself a thousand years ago, when I was young, I wanted to see the change immediately. And young people often, you know, they say, “Oh, in ten years I will be 35. Or I will be 25, very old. I don’t want to –” you know, these things.

I really don’t have an answer. I was hoping to get that answer from you guys, to see, to hear from you and to see what do you think? How can we help? And this aside from any kind of organized relationship with the movement in Iran will jeopardize both the movement and the possibility of trust between Americans who are working here with Iran.

I don’t know if I answered your question, but also part of your question was what these people want. Again, in the long run, and in the big picture, they want to see the whole system changed. But if you asked them how, they say, “Just get rid of these people.” And that is the worst possible option, I believe.

Specifically, when we talk about this, we should think about Iran as a very big country. I think it’s the largest in the Middle East, but it has many different ethnic groups and many languages and religions. There are a variety of these things there. And there are countries like Israel or Saudi Arabia or the United States who don’t want to see a large one-piece Iran. And there are separatist groups in Iran, like many different Kurdish, [Alzari], and different groups who get also support from these countries that I mentioned – from outside.

So, if this kind of unrest continues, I’m very fearful of seeing something like Syria, seeing that the country is going to be divided into many different small sections with civil war get engaged between them. And that is scary.

So, unfortunately, as I said, because the government controls everything, a lot of dissident groups are – it’s either outside of Iran or they are not allowed to do any activities, there is no leadership for this movement. People just – they decide to go into the streets and show their opposition. When we criticize the government for their actions and using violence against these people, the government said, “Oh, who?” Because they are violent. They are bearing this. Why, if they had a demand, why they do that?

And then the response to them is how can they talk to you? You have closed all the possible options. You close down anything and everything. They don’t have any other option. My suggestion to them was, don’t go into the streets. Don’t yell death to this, and we want to change because we don’t know any government in this world who will just look at you if you say, “I don’t want you to continue, and I don’t want you to have power anymore.

They show reactions. So, it’s better to – your problem right now focuses on the hijab and the mandatory hijab and fighting with morality police. And your demand must be just take your scarves out and go into the streets, all of you, and sit down or go to your work. They cannot just fire all of you from your work. Take your scarves out and start with these small things.

But when they are angry, they don’t listen. They just want to shout out, and it’s tough to find a good nonviolent solution now. I think, at this point. But do you have any suggestion for them?

Stephanie: Well, I think that they’re up against a huge repressive force. So, women and men – but especially women who are choosing to go out and demonstrate, understand that they could be arrested or killed or hurt in these struggles. So, it’s highly escalated, so even – so I suppose that the advice, based on like Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s research is find ways of mobilizing everybody in a way that if they’re not willing to take that risk of life and limb, that they can still actively participate.

So, to creatively think about how to get more participation where it’s not just life-threatening action that they have to take.

The other part about it is to learn how to leave the streets when necessary so that it doesn’t become a Tiananmen Square issue, where at some point the government will push back with even greater violence to stop it.

So, how to bring the struggle indoors or have more creative options at hand. And then, Mehdi Aminrazavi, with whom I was just speaking with, was saying there’s three things that are missing which, I think, are debatable in terms of the research. But he said, “One of them is that there’s no leadership. There’s no specific leadership.” And while we know that charismatic leaders can be an issue, you have a Gandhi or a King and you shoot them, and they’re dead, and the movement ends and that’s what people believe.

Having some kind of clear leadership in the movement could be useful. He also called for general strikes, and reaching out to the military. Because once you have those things, he said, it’s basically what they saw in ‘79. When the military started coming over to them, they knew that it was over, and they knew they were winning.

Leila: You’re right, but there are some differences because then the shah had only one military, Artesh. But now these people have – you know, this government has three different organized military sections. One is Artesh. Which often doesn’t get engaged with these kind of, organized by the government, actions against people. But there is another one which is IRGC. And also, Basji. These are the groups that are part of the government and doesn’t have anything to do with that. Artesh, this is a difference.

But a strike is something that people are talking about. Specifically, in the universities. I think that was a really good plan. The response from the universities, they said, “We don’t participate in the classrooms.” And school has started just two days ago. So, it’s just at the beginning. This week is the first week of the school year. But students announced, “We are not going to participate in the classrooms until our classmates get free,” because there are a lot of students arrested by the government.

I like that idea. And I think, you know, it is really good if professors and students all say the same thing. But there is another thing in the middle. A couple of times people in previous years and previous, basically, uprisings in other years, a lot of times people discussed the strike, but it never was successful.

I never have done any research to say why it was not successful. But based on just thinking about it, I think one is the economy is really bad. And some people think, “If I don’t go and others go and they fire me, what can I do? How can I afford living?” This is one thing.

Second thing, unfortunately, that society is a little sick, I think, because there is no trust among people. You know, they don’t trust others not to participate, either. You know, they think, “Oh, I probably – or my group probably are the only ones who will participate in this strike and they can get us fast, so we will lose.” So, I guess that is another.

But I still think the main idea goes back to the lack of leadership, because if there was a leader, a leader would say, “Yes, go do the strike and everybody listens to that leader. They would do that.” And what you said on King and Gandhi, yes, after they left us in this world, I guess, we can say, “Yeah, the movement was fatherless,” because both of them are men also.

But, no. At the same time, that is not true because the movement still exists. You know, although it doesn’t have the same power, it never had the same voice and the same power, it never was as the time that they were alive, probably. But it still exists in many different ways and paths.

And somehow, another thing came to my mind. Iranian people have the experience of revolution and war and all of this violence. But somehow, the Green Movement in 2009 it was, I think it was a beautiful movement, and it showed the maturity of these people. And that was my generation. The Green Movement took place among people who were my generation and maybe ten years younger than me, people who had the experience of war and revolution.

You know, part of that, that movement was amazing. And I think it showed the maturity of the people who said no to the violence. They had the most beautiful silent demonstration. They were in the streets with just having a band-aid on their mouth as a sign of, “I cannot, or I don’t want to talk.” Just millions and millions of people into the streets.

I was not there, unfortunately. But I saw a lot of videos and I talked to a lot of people after that. People who participated said it was so powerful. But that generation are the people, as I said, in my age. The majority of them either are in house arrest, they left the country after the Green Movement lost, basically, what they asked for.

And this generation is not like them. I guess, these are the Z generation in Iran. And they don’t have – they are the children of people in my generation. You know, my daughters are 25 now. They are in that generation. And they never had the difficulties we experienced.

Still, sometimes when I think about a war, I think about the bomb that exploded near my house. Dropped, basically, near my house in Tehran. And I could hear people, you know, just two minutes after that, I could hear people screaming, “I’m burning!” You know, “My kids! Help me!” You know, all of those things.

But this, in my mind, and people like me in their mind, we don’t want to see that again. We know we are very lucky right now that we are not engaged in any war. We know that we are lucky now that in the morning when we say goodbye to our family, go to school or work, most probably will come back home. But people who are in the streets now, they don’t have that experience. And unfortunately, they see a lot of doors are closed to them.

I don’t have a good answer. The answer that I want to have… I wish I had something to say. Even my suggestion to the group that I was talking about, my suggestion that what if everybody takes their scarves out with their husbands, with their fathers, and with everyone in their family.

Even a lot of my friends, they are religious. They have their scarves. They have, even their veils. But they support the movement. And I said, even with those friends, get hand-in-hand and go into the streets instead of shouting and screaming. But it was not received positively. It was, “Oh, you think they don’t kill us? Oh, you think that,” la-la-la-la.

I was reading an article on your website. I think the section was Solidarity 2020 and Beyond, Nonviolent Movement Building. And it was talking about how we need to change the nonviolent movement. And not just showing and demonstrating in the streets, but you know, he talked about strikes, and he talked about many ways that I was thinking about that before, but I don’t know if you can convince angry people – angry, young people.

I work with CodePink now on citizen diplomacy as part of the work that I do.

Stephanie: Yeah. What does that mean, citizen diplomacy? Like going on trips and –

Leila: Yeah, some people also going to trips, take delegations, peace delegations to different countries. But mainly citizen diplomacy, known as Track Two. So, what we know in international relations or what we know in diplomacy, it’s Track One. It’s when government engage in a conversation. They have relationship, foreign minister with foreign ministers – officials.

But sometimes when there is a conflict between two countries or two or more countries, there is no relationship and there is no officials involved. Basically, they close down each other’s embassies. They ask people at the embassy to leave their countries. Like Iran and the United States. We haven’t had any relations in the past 40 and so years now. Since the revolution, we don’t have embassies in each other’s countries.

So, how can we fix our relationship? How can we resolve this conflict? How can we know each other? Because if we don’t see each other, if we don’t hear about each other, if we are not friends, then we are enemy. And then so often our media have very negative images of ‘us’ and ‘them’ basically. And they become, you know, ‘they’ and we don’t know anything about them. They have all the negative definitions that one can have. And it’s the same from the other side.

You know, when I go to places and talk about this, I always start with my experience when I was in Iran. I was maybe in middle school. It was a program on our TV, a documentary. And talked about – I remember exactly this, and vividly. It was a mother. It was in the morning, an American family in the morning at the breakfast time. And the mother was leaving pills next to her kids plates at the breakfast, and while they are having breakfast and going to school.

The narrator of the documentary says, “This is an American family. These are very immoral. Americans are very immoral. And this mother gives contraceptive pills every day to her kids when they go to school, so because of this – ”. And of course, I believed that. And of course, it was so scary.

But when I came to America and I started to notice, but basically my first – so let me in parentheses say this – Iran because it has been controlled by the religious government, Iranians are not really that religious. So, outside of the parenthesis – parenthesis closed. I said when I came to America, I was very surprised how religious and moderate are Americans. I was fascinated by looking at the embassy.

And then I learned, no, it was not contraceptive pills. They were vitamins, probably. And in the morning, and she was a good mother to remind her kids, “Have your vitamins.” So, this is the – and exactly the same from here.

How many times you have seen that they talk about the beauties in Iran and the beautiful country, and the gorgeous restaurants, and historical places, the fascinating geography. You never hear about this. You always hear the negative things. So, this is when the citizen diplomats, people who are not working with the government, official government of their countries, they start to have a negotiation with one another.

For instance, the worst that I have done in this regard, relationship within faith communities, Iranian faith communities and Americans. Collaboration and relationship between artists of two groups. Educators, students. So many different groups – women, activists, environmentalist activists.

And so, basically each group that you find, and you introduce them, sometimes they work together, they collaborate together, something comes out, which is the collaboration of two enemies. Sometimes they publish papers, like if they are working on the foreign relation with other countries. So, they publish papers about their own relationship, their countries’ relationship with one another, and how can they bring them together.

So, this is what citizen diplomacy is, and often among, actually, practitioners often also known as Track Two diplomacy.

Stephanie: You’re listening to Nonviolence Radio and this has been Part 2 of a two part series on the Iranian Mahsa Amini protests. This time I’ve been speaking with Leila Zand. She was born and raised in Tehran, now working on her dissertation about Track 2 diplomacy for Iran U.S. relations and she also works as a leader for citizen diplomacy with CodePink.

With thanks to our mother station, KWMR, Matt Watrous, Ashley Jordan, Bryan Farrell over at Waging Nonviolence, to all of those who syndicate our show at Pacifica and especially to you, our listeners. Learn more and find out more about nonviolence at the Metta Center’s website, MettaCenter.org. Until the next time, please take care of one another.