Marking a monumental death

In honor of the first anniversary of the killing of Mahsa (Jîna) Amini in Iran and the subsequent outpouring of protest, Penn will host a two-day conference on violence against women.

A person is shown holding a photo of Mahsa Amini, a woman who was killed in police custody in Iran in 2022.
A portrait of Mahsa Amini held during a rally Oct. 1, 2022 calling for regime change in Iran following the death of Amini, who died after being arrested in Tehran by Iran’s morality police. (Image: AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

“Woman. Life. Freedom.” This slogan, originally from Kurdish, became a rallying cry during last year’s protests in Iran following the death of Mahsa (Jîna) Amini. The 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman was arrested by the morality police in Tehran and accused of not wearing her hijab properly; she later died in police custody. Her death led to an outpouring of protests across Iran and the world, with women tearing off their head scarves and taking to the streets, demanding people “Say her name!”

To mark one year since Amini’s death on Sept. 16, 2022, three scholars in the School of Arts & Sciences—historian and novelist Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, an expert on modern Iran; Fatemeh Shams, poet and associate professor of Persian literature in the Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations Department; and history Ph.D. candidate Sarah Eskandari—have organized a two-day, hybrid international conference featuring speakers from across the University and the globe. The panels on Friday and Saturday will address violence against women and gendered resistance to such violence in transnational contexts, featuring more than two dozen experts.

The Penn scholars set to participate include Eskandari, historian Oscar Aguirre-Mandujano, poet and Penn Arabic creative writing lecturer Ahmad Almallah, and historian Ann Farnsworth-Alvear, all of the School of Arts & Sciences, as well as Penn Carey Law’s William Burke-White.

Penn Today spoke with the organizers to get a sense of how the conference came about, what they hope attendees take away, and where things go from here.

How did the conference come about?

Kashani-Sabet: This conference is the outgrowth of a webinar we convened last spring. More broadly, it reflects our engagement with the Woman, Life, Freedom movement over the past year as scholars deeply affected by the protests. We recognized early on that the issues leading to Mahsa Jîna Amini’s murder would remain critical and persist as unwieldy challenges for many in contemporary Iran. Our attempt in this conference is to place such a monumental gender protest in a global academic context by emphasizing the salience of violence against women as an ongoing struggle historically and in many communities of the Middle East, the Global South, and the world.

Shams: This conference has been a collective effort among the three of us. Amini’s tragic death sparked unprecedented nationwide women-led protests. The revolutionary movement that was born in streets of Iran has transformed into one of the most progressive emancipatory movements around the globe with women’s rights and gender equality as its core message. We believe that this movement could have potentially spearheaded fundamental socio-political transformations in Iran and the Middle East. But for that to happen, we need to build an international solidarity network around the theme of gender protest, and that has been the main motivation behind organizing this conference.

Eskandari: After the murder of Mahsa Amini, in collaboration with Iranian students and with unwavering support from professor Kashani-Sabet and professor Shams, I organized events both within and beyond academia. The first event took place at Penn, with the aim of amplifying the voices of Iranians. This movement arose from the enduring pain experienced by women in Iran and subaltern communities. The three fundamental concepts of Woman, Life, Freedom illustrate the profound hardships endured by Iranians who aspire to lead ordinary lives and enjoy basic freedoms, including women’s freedom of choice. We believe that examining this women’s movement from various academic perspectives can foster international solidarity in addressing gender violence, not only in Iran but across the Middle East. It serves as a platform for promoting the movement’s ideals and preserving its spirit by engaging scholars, activists, and experts.

What do you hope people take away from the conference?

Kashani-Sabet: We hope to spur academic conversations that show parallels between the WLF revolutionary uprising and other similar social protest and liberation movements in different political and geographic contexts. This conference invites interdisciplinary approaches to analyzing the WLF uprising, from historical and literary to legal and sociological. We are also pleased to partner with students and young scholars at Penn and nearby universities who have been inspired and motivated by this unique gender protest. We hope to co-edit an academic volume that brings together these analyses for future scholarly work and research.

Shams: The main goal of this conference is to initiate, for the first time, an intellectual conversation on Penn’s campus around gender protest and sexual violence in the global context. Those who attend the conference will hear a wide range of talks on gender and sexual violence and women’s activism across different contexts. Four panels will tackle this important and timely topic. From Iran and Afghanistan to Palestine, Turkey, Syria, Sudan, Egypt, South America, and the United States the conference brings together scholars who will speak on gender violence from different perspectives.

Eskandari: Another central goal is to amplify the voices of Iranians that have been silenced for decades. We aim to ensure that their voices remain resounding, demonstrating academia's support and underscoring the significance of academic backing. Additionally, this conference emphasizes the role of dialogue and discourse in driving change in Iranian society, with a commitment to addressing cultural dimensions to achieve this goal.

Why is it important to keep this topic in the public eye?

Kashani-Sabet: Women’s rights and liberties are under assault globally, and the Woman, Life, Freedom movement gives voice to these analogous gender issues in Iran and beyond. This conference enables us to continue focusing attention on gender violence and the state’s desire to control people’s bodies. Our participants will keep these questions alive, as they interrogate the reasons for gender aggression across the globe, and adopt a multidisciplinary approach. Our conversations will be intergenerational and international, combining academic and activist perspectives.

Shams: In the United States, abortion rights and reclaiming women’s bodily authority, is one of the most important debates in the public eye. In Iran, the violence that the state has incited on women and young girls who resist mandatory hijab is another form of top-down gender violence. This conference hopes to keep the topic of gender and sexual violence in the public eye and raise awareness among our student body, as this is a topic that continues to deeply impact women and girls across the world.

Eskandari: Gender apartheid exists to varying degrees worldwide, affecting diverse regions. This movement not only addresses the suffering of Iranian women but also amplifies the voices of women globally. It transcends geographical boundaries, emphasizing human and women’s rights issues. The conference’s goal is to highlight the global, intersectional, and intergenerational nature of this concern, going beyond geographical and national limitations. Our hope is to raise awareness, especially among young people and students, who will shape the future of our world.

Anyone interested in viewing the conference can log into the Zoom webinar.