Law student Hoda Katebi: Iran protests are about ‘total liberation’


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In this episode of Berkeley Voices, Berkeley Law student Hoda Katebi discusses how, after she began wearing the hijab as a sixth-grader in Oklahoma, she learned that clothes are inherently political. “It played a huge role in shaping my own personal growth, as well as my relationship to politics,” Katebi says.

Since protests broke out in Iran nearly three months ago, sparked by the murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Jina Amini by Iran’s so-called morality police, Katebi has been an outspoken supporter of the protesters. 

“The main demand that we’re hearing is, ‘Jin, Jiyan, Azadî,’ or, ‘Woman, Life, Freedom,’ which is a Kurdish, anti-imperialist, feminist, anti-capitalist chant,” she says. “I think that that’s what is really hitting at the core and distinguishes these protests from others before — this is one that’s calling for nothing short of the end of dictatorship, which means everything from women’s rights to education to class, gender, everything.”

Although a senior official in the Iranian government confirmed on Monday, Dec. 5, that the morality police had been shut down — the first concession by the government since the protests began — the mandatory dress code remains in place. It’s unclear how the government plans to enforce the laws moving forward.

a woman wearing a headscarf looks out of a window

Hoda Katebi is a third-year law student at UC Berkeley. Since the protests began in Iran nearly three months ago, Katebi has been an outspoken supporter of the protesters. “Women’s rights aren’t secondary, but central to the idea of how to build a new society for everybody.” (New York Times photo by Aubrey Trinnaman)

Read a transcript of Berkeley Voices episode 103: Law student Hoda Katebi: Iran protests are about ‘total liberation.’

Narration: This is Berkeley Voices. I’m Anne Brice.

[Music: “Lo Margin” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Hoda Katebi: My name is Hoda Katebi. I’m an Iranian American writer and community organizer and movement strategist, and I’m a 3L at the law school.

I run a worker cooperative called Blue Tin Production, which is an immigrant, refugee and working-class women of color manufacturing worker co-op, hoping to set new international standards in labor and sustainability within fashion supply chains.

We’re also building a massive community space and abolitionist organizing hub in Chicago called 63rd House in collaboration with youth Black and brown organizers.

[Music fades]

Narration: After former President Trump imposed the Muslim travel ban in 2017, when Katebi saw people who looked like her in the media, they weren’t attorneys, but always people who needed help.

Hoda Katebi: There’s just a huge lack of attorneys of color who have good politics. And so, I think that was just one thing that I was thinking about in the back of my mind.

And as I continued to do research on different state-based tools of violence against Muslim communities and communities of color, I learned about the national security entry exit registration system that Bush implemented right after 9/11 that caused over 30,000 people to be deported and not one — not one single quote-unquote domestic terrorist found, of course, and the ways in which lawyers aided a lot of that work, who were trusted in the community and pushed people to register — and understanding my own trauma of loved ones interlinked with a lot of these sorts of legal failures — I think made me begrudgingly come to law school to help fill some of those gaps rather than to become, like, a practicing 9-to-5 attorney.

[Music: “Selena Leica” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Narration: Katebi was born in Oklahoma in 1995. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Iran in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War to earn their doctorate degrees.

In sixth grade, Katebi started wearing a headscarf, or hijab, to build a deeper relationship with Islam and to express her Muslim identity.

Hoda Katebi: I think that played a huge factor in my own growth and sense of self and all the learning and unlearning I had to do growing up as visibly Muslim in that very white supremacist school and neighborhood.

I do think there was a massive shift both in my own sense of self with respect to just being a middle schooler and losing all your friends and being bullied incessantly and being assaulted — you know, all the fun stuff that comes with being visibly Muslim in the South during the Bush years. So, I think a lot of that played a huge role in shaping my own personal growth, as well as my relationship to politics, especially when it comes to surveillance and how clothes are actually inherently political. And so, a lot of my work, professionally and personally, has sort of stemmed from a lot of those experiences.

Narration: Katebi is the author of the 2016 photography book Tehran Streetstyle. While doing research for the book and for her college thesis, she traveled to Iran, where she talked to people who worked in the fashion industry.

[Music fades]

Hoda Katebi: A lot of my research in Iran was on the underground fashion scene in Iran and the role of the Iranian government in mandatory dress code — which is now so timely — but how mandatory dress codes in Iran are designed in order to create and enforce a national identity on women’s bodies, and sort of contextualizing that in its political and social history within Iran. And then interviewing people who are designers and fashion people in the industry and their understanding of their roles in the designs they make and why they do what they do.

Anne Brice: Wow. What did you learn about why they do what they do?

Hoda Katebi: I think what I was seeing in the U.S. were a lot of headlines of like, “Women are wearing jeans to defy the mullahs,” or like, “The closer that Iranian people can dress to Western ideas of dress code, the closer that they are to modernity.” And it’s like a middle finger to Islam and tradition of, like this static, backwards, historic thing that has never changed. So, everything was just drenched in Orientalism.

And I think talking to people on the ground, it’s clear that… which is very obvious, but I think is unfortunately lost on a lot of people in these conversations, but you can be against both the Iranian government and the U.S. government. You can hold that at the same time. The enemy of the enemy doesn’t necessarily make them my friend.

And being able to say, “We don’t want Western intervention. We are not saying we want Western influence, but we also are saying we don’t want mandatory dress codes, and we don’t want a national identity imposed on our bodies in public spaces and policed for it.”

[Music: “The Derricks” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Narration: On Sept. 16, 2022, Mahsa Jina Amini, a Kurdish Iranian 22-year-old woman, was murdered by Iran’s so-called morality police for allegedly not wearing the hijab in accordance with government standards. Her death sparked protests in Iran that are still happening today, nearly three months later. The government has been violently cracking down on protesters. Hundreds of people have been killed, including dozens of children.

Although a senior official in the Iranian government confirmed on Monday, Dec. 5, that the morality police had been shut down — the first concession by the government since the protests began — the mandatory dress code remains in place. It’s unclear how the government plans to enforce the laws moving forward.

Katebi has been an outspoken advocate for the protesters and what they stand for.

Anne Brice: In some of your interviews that I’ve seen, you talk a lot about how it’s about so much more than a headscarf — it’s just a lot deeper than that. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.

[Music fades]

Hoda Katebi: Yeah, absolutely. To take it back to Iranian voices on the ground, the main demand that we’re hearing is, “Jin, Jiyan, Azadî,” or, “Woman, Life, Freedom,” which is a Kurdish, anti-imperialist, feminist, anti-capitalist chant. And the slogan historically that was used and now has been translated and picked up in Farsi and popularized.

And I think the slogan itself is not a romantic, fun thing to say, but I think is connected to very tangible demands. I think the slogan is saying that we want total liberation and progress, and that there should be no gender delay in that progress — that women’s rights aren’t secondary, but central to the idea of how to build a new society for everybody that centers women and women’s bodies, but is for everybody.

And I think that that is connected to everything. That is public policing and enforcement of violent norms on women’s bodies in public spaces. And it also is economic mobility and economic liberation. And it’s connected to the sort of divide-and-conquer strategies that the Iranian government has used against ethnic minorities in Iran.

And these protests have undone decades of all of this. It has created class solidarity in Iran. It has created gender solidarity. It has created ethnic and religious minority solidarity.

And I think that’s why this slogan is so powerful and also has so much universal applicability — because at the core is a sort of commentary on capitalism, patriarchy and state power. And these are issues that are global, and I think allow so many people to build people solidarity with the people’s movements in Iran, that is really beautiful and exciting.

These protests are coming at a time of both a culmination of policing of bodies in public spaces, and particularly women’s bodies, and also a constant closure and repression of spaces that were dedicated to having open conversations about politics. And we see more and more dictatorship-style silencing tactics that have not allowed these conversations to come out in quote-unquote democratic ways, which, again, no longer exist in Iran and haven’t existed in Iran for decades.

So, I think that that’s what is really hitting at the core and distinguishes these protests from others before — this is one that’s calling for nothing short of the end of dictatorship, which means everything from women’s rights to education to class, gender, everything.

[Music: “Careless Morning” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Anne Brice: University students in Iran and across the world have been really instrumental in the protests and speaking out, and I’m curious just what your thoughts are about that.

Hoda Katebi: Yeah. So, there is a very rich history of Iranian students, leftist protest movements on campuses in Iran. A lot of that has been very effectively shut down and silenced over the past several decades by the Iranian government.

And so, I think a lot of Iranian elders are honestly surprised to see how powerful student organizing has been in this moment. And I think it does live in a tradition of very active student mobilization in Iran as a place where, historically, people shared ideas and really was a site of central organizing against the government, both before and after the revolution.

And I think it has been revived in this moment in a way that we haven’t seen in a very long time that is very exciting. And I think also what has been both just very heartwarming and extremely heartbreaking just to see schoolgirls, like middle school-aged young kids, you know, throwing down mandatory dress codes, throwing down mandatory hijabs and ousting their educators, ousting the education director of the school. And that’s power.

And as exciting as it is, it’s also heartbreaking that young kids are put in this position where they have to fight for their rights on this very basic, fundamental level. And I don’t want to romanticize that — like, these kids just can’t be kids. But it also just speaks to how intense and intergenerational this trauma is that is being felt by Iranians, that it isn’t just a specific class of people, it’s not just the specific type of people, but it’s children in the streets, it’s elders in the streets and everything in between.

[Music fades]

Anne Brice: How come you’ve decided to be so outspoken? A lot of people choose not to be, and I’m curious why that’s been something that you’re passionate about.

Hoda Katebi: Yeah, I think… understanding and looking at where we come from and being able to recognize that, at the end of the end of it all, we’re all going to die — all of us are going to die very quickly, like, very soon.

[Music: “Homin Brer” by Blue Dot Sessions]

In the Quran, it says, “Our lives are going to feel like an afternoon.” That line always gets to me. And so, I don’t understand why being silent to maybe be a little bit more comfortable for, like, two more minutes of my life is worth having a life that I regret.

I feel like our time here is short and we have one purpose, and it’s just to make our best possible attempt at doing what we think and feel is right in any given moment. And so, why waste it doing anything else?

Narration: Hoda Katebi is a third-year law student at UC Berkeley. You can learn more about her and her work on her website at hodakatebi.com.

I’m Anne Brice, and this is Berkeley Voices, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs at UC Berkeley. If you enjoy Berkeley Voices, tell a friend about us — it really helps get the word out. And you can follow us wherever you listen to your podcasts. We also have another show called Berkeley Talks, which features lectures and conversations at Berkeley.

You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.

[Music fades]