In a 2020 piece titled, “Migration and Brain Drain from Iran,” the authors estimate the total number of Iranian emigrants at 3.1 million in 2019.[i] In an earlier article, Persis Karim posits that “Since the 2009 contested presidential elections, Iran has continued to experience a considerable “brain-drain.”[ii] This “brain-drain” has of course been a long-time trend among the educated urban youth in pursuit of proper employment and better lifestyle. In the current revolution, however, the youth are chanting slogans indicating their intention to stay at all costs.
In September 2022, when protests broke out across Iran after images appeared on social media of the 22-year-old Kurdish Jina (Mahsa) Amini, unconscious on the hospital bed where she was declared dead three days after being arrested by a “morality patrol,” universities became the center for what’s been called a “feminist revolution.” Students began chanting slogans such as: “We’ll fight, we’ll die, we’ll take Iran Back.” Indicating their unwillingness to give up on Iran, this generation is not interested in joining the previous generations of “brain-drain.” As a result, they have increasingly ended up in the Islamic Republic’s prisons. In early October 2022, Sharif University, among other prestigious universities in Iran, was under siege by the regime’s security agents. They beat and arrested the students en masse. As of February 2nd, 19,623 people are imprisoned, around 718 of which are university students with 144 campuses on strike.
Over the past few months, Iran’s prisons swiftly metamorphosed into the nation’s universities, and admittedly the nation’s universities morphed into prisons.
There are, however, so many examples of such arrests of Iran’s intellectuals, journalists, politicians, activists, and regular citizens within the nation’s long-standing history. Putting Iranians in prisons and “bringing the country to a cultural standstill” is the regime’s way of securing its longevity and power via surveillance.[iii]
Creating a Foucauldian panopticon, the Islamic Republic has generated a permanent sense of hyper-visibility in Iranians that automatically reinforces the regime’s power.[iv] Due to this hyper-visibility, Iranians live under constant surveillance not only inside but outside of the prisons. This surveillance lays down the principle that power is visible and unverifiable – visible because people understand that they are being watched; unverifiable because they never know whether they are being watched at any one moment. Consequently, this pervasive surveillance has resulted in the mass arrests, imprisonment, and torture of political dissidents.
This shows how torture, pain, and power are bound up. In Elaine Scarry’s words, the sadistic potential of “agency” which in “torture, …[becomes] in part the obsessive display of agency … allows real human pain to be converted into a regime’s fiction of power …” and structural torture allows for “first, the infliction of physical pain; second, the objectification of the … central attributes of pain; and third, the translation of those attributes into the insignia of the regime. … Torture inflicts bodily pain that is itself language-destroying, …. the purpose of which is … visibly to deconstruct the prisoner’s voice….”[v] The news coming out of Iran tells us about the difficulty of expressing this inflicted pain for the prisoners. The voicelessness of pain, the non-shareability of it, and its resistance to language have deemed those in prison bereft of the resources of speech. Male and female prisoners targeted by the regime forces are exposed to violence, sexual assault, and rape within the regime’s prisons.[vi]
The inadequacy of language to express pain for those who are/have been inside the prisons forces us outside to speak on behalf of them and allow their exposure to the regime’s atrocities to enter the realm of public discourse. Speaking on behalf of the prisoners also highlights the significance of testimony, the possibility or impossibility of witnessing, the responsibility of the witness, and the way that writing about those who are voiceless bears witness to bearing witness – that is an apparent meta-witnessing with a certain limit which makes absolute witnessing at the same time possible and impossible.[vii]
This obviously casts doubt on my attempts here at witnessing from the diaspora – witnessing and contemplating its limits!
[i] Pooya Azadi, Matin Mirramezani, and Mohsen B. Mesgaran, “Migration and Brain Drain from Iran.” Working Paper 9, Stanford Iran 2040 Project, Stanford University, April 2020. Iran has been ranked the second-largest brain drain in the world.
[ii] Persis M. Karim, “Guest Editor’s Introduction Iranian Diaspora.” Iranian Studies 46.1 (2013): 49-52.
[iii] Shahrnush Parsipur, Kissing the Sword: A Prison Memoir. Trans. Sara Khalili. The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2013, p. 202.
[iv] See Michel Foucault, “Panopticism.” Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. trans. Alan Sheridan. N.Y.: Vintage Books, 1995, pp. 195-228.
[v] Elaine Scarry, “Introduction.” The body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 18-20.
[vi] There is precedent even to such violence as rape in Iran from the 1980s. It has been documented that to prevent virgins from going directly to Paradise after death, the Islamic regime’s prison guards would deflower them via rape.
See CNN’s report on rape in Iran’s prisons: https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2022/11/middleeast/iran-protests-sexual-...
Yalda Agha Fazli’s narration of violence and pain in prison here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTM0N9h6_pY
[vii] See Jacques Derrida, “Poetics and Politics of Witnessing.” Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan. Eds. Jacques Derrida and Tom Detroit. N.Y.: Fordham University Press, 2005, pp. 65-96.