Women, Life, Freedom (Zan, Zendegi, Azadi) has become the motto of the most recent protests in Iran, which sparked after the death of Mahsa (Zhina) Amini while in the custody of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s (IRI) so-called morality police on 16 September 2022. Since then, groups of images and videos have gone viral almost every day, revealing the ever-increasing atrocities of IRI’s repressive apparatuses in oppressive mostly peaceful protestors and the protesters’ bravery, on and off the streets, demanding their fundamental rights. Among the colossal collection of bittersweet images and videos echoing the protests, I plan to discuss the two attached images here because, as I argue, they are the literal embodiments of “Woman, Life, Freedom.”
During the protests in November 2022, a group of protesters in the capital city of Tehran used menstrual pads to cover the CCTV cameras in subway stations and inside train cars.[i] The attached images show these acts of protest. It is not too much of a leap to discuss these images of menstrual pads in regard to “womanhood.” These “visual arts” of protest are created by women; the photos are taken by women; and the images are mostly shared on social media by women who amplified them with their own personal experience of menstruation in Iran, including the taboo against it, the shame associated with it, and the (micro)aggressions they faced.[ii]
Menarche is the first encounter of most Iranian women with sexuality and plays a crucial role in constructing their sexuality based on its unique socio-cultural factors. The taboos of menstruation construct and discipline gender relations and female bodies.[iii] Disciplining the female body is not limited to constraining the ways of controlling their bodily flows but forms the ways they are “allowed” to behave in the public sphere. The older generation of Iranian women link their first encounter with menstruation to “a sense of guilt at ‘committing’ bad and inappropriate behaviour [sic]” as blood in their “special area” is linked to a broken hymen which they are instructed to keep intact until their wedding night (Sharifi, 100). Iranian women have learned to keep menstruation a secret. That’s why grocery store vendors put the menstrual pads in a black plastic bag or sometimes wrap them in a piece of paper to keep them separate from other purchased products and thus keep them hidden and minimize the (micro)aggressions. For similar reasons, some women prefer to purchase pads from stores far from their own neighborhoods and hide them not only from the strangers around them but also to tuck them away from their closest male relatives. Nonetheless, as Foucault points out, when something is repressed, “condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence,” the mere fact of speaking about it is a “deliberate transgression” (Foucault, Sexuality 6). The act of taking out the menstrual pads in public settings like the subway, sticking them to the security cameras, and then documenting the results in these images clearly transcends “speaking” about menstruation. Menstrual pads are utilized here as a counter-intelligence weapon in the fight against the repressive state apparatuses of IRI.
The Islamic rules of taharat [ritual purity] and the restrictions on menstruating women have historically gone beyond mere micro-aggressions since these rules and restrictions have prohibited menstrual women from fasting, reciting prayers, entering mosques and shrines, and touching the holy Quran. Iranian women have always resisted the disciplining discourses of menstruation formed by taboos while simultaneously reinforcing them. As Martin argues, “every taboo on something shameful has the potential for rebellion written in it” (Martin, 97). For instance, some women fake their menstruation to resist the control over performing compulsory religious practices— such as fasting, which has become obligatory under IRI. Or the younger generation of Iranian women uses several creative codes such as “Khorramshahr khoonin ast [Khorramshahr is bloodied]”[iv] to refer to their menstruation, particularly in the presence of men, as a tactic for concealing it, while simultaneously demonstrating agency in their behavior and utilization of language (Sharifi, 125).
Nevertheless, the “weaponization” of menstrual pads evident in these images rises above the notion of “everyday forms of resistance” (Scott, xvii). Women’s creative and courageous acts of producing and distributing these images of menstrual pads go beyond their everyday “tactics” of taking advantage of their menstruation to circumvent the patriarchal norms and rules of society. These acts are strategies of revolutionarily utilizing the material embodiment of their menstruation as a source of resistance to protect themselves and other protesters from being identified, prosecuted (in sham trials), and executed (murdered!) by IRI. The regime has historically used CCTV cameras as a Foucauldian panopticon to generate a permanent sense of surveillance in the hope of automatically reinforcing its power over the citizens. Hence, the menstrual pads that are designed to stop the blood of menstruation perform a similar task by preventing IRI from spilling the blood of innocent protesters; the impermeable and adhesive backing of the menstrual pads with their absorbent core, averts the panopticon gaze of IRI, granting “freedom” to protest and saving the “life” of the men and women partaking in the protest.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. Routledge, 1993.
———. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 2006.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage Books, 1995.
———. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: An Introduction. Pantheon Books, 1978.
Martin, Emily. The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction. Beacon Press, 1987.
Scott, James C. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Yale University Press, 1985.
Sharifi, Nafiseh. Female Bodies and Sexuality in Iran and the Search for Defiance. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
[i] Similar to many other viral images of the protest, it is almost impossible to pinpoint where and when these images are taken. The question of who took the photos becomes even more complicated, considering IRI actively hunts down, imprisons, and even executes the people who document its repressions. So, in this piece, I will not reveal from which social media account I took these images, or who captured the photos to protect the identity of the brave people who are fighting for their fundamental rights on the streets of Iran.
[ii] I contacted the owners of several social media accounts, who were among the first accounts to share these images online. The result was to be informed that two separate people who identify as women, took these photos and shared them on their social media. Please see the previous notes for the reasons why I will not share their identity here.
[iii] As Butler (Gender Trouble, Bodies) notes, the gendering process benefits from the physical body on which the norms of masculinity and femininity are inscribed.
[iv] Khorramshahr is a city in southern Iran that was occupied by Iraqi forces during the Iran– Iraq war. Khorramshahr was “liberated” by Iranian forces in May 1982. The liberation of Khorramshahr was reported in the media as “Khorramshahr, shahr-e khoon, azad shod” [Khorramshahr, the city of blood, is free]. So, Khorramshahr as “the city of blood” is a common trope when referring to this city.