I Am Majid: A Case Study of the Iranian Green Movement
The Greens’ Art project is a repository of user-generated content produced and circulated during the pre- and post-election crisis period in Iran (2009-2011). The materials produced within the context of protests, being simple appropriated artworks or blog posts, initiated innumerable human networks in a politically suppressed situation, in both online and offline spaces. The Calendar section of this website enables visitors to find works associated with significant events of the Green Movement. Some of these gained global attention and some of them just circulated domestically. One of the most important cases in this project is the campaign “I AM Majid” which was born and drastically expanded in online sphere.
Born in 1986, Majid Tavakoli began his political activities as a university student. What brings his name to the realm of political activism in Iran is mostly his rich contribution to the Student Movement of Iran over an eight year period. His active engagement and uncompromising commitment during this period, although endangering his life, made him the symbol and “the honor of the Student Movement” (CHRR 2012). He was first arrested in 2006 and “spent 15 months in jail ... on charges of insulting religion and the country's leadership in student publications” (BBC 2009). Then, what brought him to news headlines again was his speech (Clip.1) at Amirkabir University of Technology on the first Student Day after the controversial Presidential Election of 2009.
Clip 1. Majid Tavakoli’s speech in the Student Day (2009).
After this impressive and provocative speech he was arrested by the security forces and brutally beaten by them in front of eyewitnesses (ICFHRII 2010). It is worth mentioning that more than 200 protesters were arrested on the Student Day protests across the country. The admin of the blog ‘Homylafayette Iran News in English’ provides a great list of videos of this day’s protests recorded by citizens in different cities of Iran. Later, after an unjust trial, Tavakoli “was convicted of several offenses, including participating in an illegal gathering, propaganda against the system and insulting officials” and consequently sentenced to more than eight years in prison (AI n.d.). Also, it was reported that he was kept in solidarity confinement for about five months in 2010 (ICFHRII 2010).
Like other critical moments of the Green Movement, user-generated content (Fig.1) related to Tavakoli -produced by artists and online activists - were disseminated through the internet. Angry posts against the government conquered social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter. People wanted him and other arrested protesters freed. Paintings and posters, illustrations and video clips all were utilized by activists to make people aware of Tavakoli’s story and to show protesters’ solidarity with him to the government. In the following poster (Fig.2) for example is written: “We will never forget you ... We are speaking in the heart of oppression. We shout out, strengthened by our beliefs. We stand alongside each other ... Majid Tavakoli, the dignity of the student movement” (Homylafayette 2010). As can be seen the colors green and black, which refer to sorrow and sadness in Iranian culture, and barbed wire (a signifier of prison) are mixed with his picture to deliver the message behind it.
What distinguishes Majid from other political prisoners, however, is what happened to him after his arrest. On 8th of December, one day after the Student Day protests, the pro-government news agencies, Fars News and Raja News, published some photos (Fig.3) of Majid with these headlines: “The Images of the Main Leader of Rioters of Amirkabir University in Women’s Clothing” and “The Images of Amirkabir University’s Hero in Women’s Clothing Are Released” (FarsNews 2009; RajaNews 2009). They claimed that he was escaping after his speech trying to evade security forces by dressing like this. As was vastly said it somehow displayed the government’s “vindictiveness and contempt for women” (Tait 2009):
He had makeup ... was dressed like veiled women, putting on manto, muqni'ah and chador. Although, he had a purse with him to guarantee his escape, he was unsuccessful and arrested by security forces. (FarsNews 2009)
People’s posts and comments show that most of them believed that Majid was forced to wear that clothing and found the government’s act unacceptable and disgusting. Even on Raja news’ website one can find the following comments under Majid’s photos:
- It’s clear that he is forced to sit in front of the camera. When do you want to stop fooling us?
- I did not have any doubt in his courage. Your disgusting behaviour just added more value to him… (RajaNews 2009)
What the authorities did with Tavakoli was soon answered by artists and activists. The number of posts related to him rose markedly. Inside and outside Iran people were trying to show their solidarity with him. Different pages in social media have supported him until now (such as Facebook pages ‘Majid Tavakoli’, ‘Free Majid Tavakoli’ and ‘Free Majid Tavakkoli Immediately’).
Amongst various campaigns that supported Tavakoli in this period, “I Am Majid” is the most significant one. This campaign is also known as “We Are All Majid” or “Veiled Men”. I found two figurers as the initiators of this campaign during my investigations: Arash Ashourinia, a professional photographer in Tehran and Masih Alinejad, a prominent exiled journalist. Ashourinia asked his male Facebook friends to send him their veiled picture (Fig.4). In his post (dated back to December 9, 2009) he reminds the readers the way the government treated Majid and says: “they wanted to put pressure on the Student Movement and the green Iranians. In the same time they are discriminating our women. To prove our solidarity with Majid Tavakoli, and to say ‘NO’ to compulsory hijab ... to prove that we are together send your photos to the following address.” He provided his readers with this email, email@example.com, which in ‘rousari’ means headscarf. In the same day (9 Dec), Masih Alinejad posted a similar invitation on his personal website. In this post she criticizes the government’s act against Tavakoli and says: “imagine if a part of our male protesters ... wear headscarf. What would the government’s news agencies do if they see a huge population is laughing at their act?”
The reaction of people to these calls was unexpected. Iranian men across the world published their pictures depicting themselves with scarf, chador or muqni'ah. Just a few days after the Student Day images and videos of veiled men conquered social media atmosphere. On December 12, Ashourinia published his designed posters (Fig.5) on Facebook which in hundreds of the received images were used. On the Persian version is written: “Majid Tavakoli Was Multiplied, Not Humiliated.”
People’s reactions to the “I Am Majid” campaign were not limited to photos. As usual, various sorts of artworks were produced and circulated by people. There is a page on the Greens’ Art website dedicated to ‘Veiled Men’ that demonstrates some of the produced works including performances (e.g. I Am Majid performed in Stockholm), video clips (e.g. We Are All Majid) and graphic designs (Fig.6).
The following video (Clip.2) was uploaded on December 9, 2009, two days after Tavakoli’s arrest. By combining photos, graphics, background music and a verbal presentation the creator(s) of this work tried to deliver the real story of Tavakoli’s arrest to its viewers while the government’s media were trying to sell their manipulated story. This clip is subtitled into English to be consumable for non-Iranians. Clip 2. How Majid Tavakoli Arrested? by Iran's Freedom of Expression community.
Non-Iranian supporters of the Green Movement also joined the campaign and showed their solidarity with Tavakoli (Clip.3).
Clip 3. Non-Iranian supporters of Majid Tavakoli show their solidarity.
The huge contribution of people to the Veiled Men campaign and the volume of generated content by activists and ordinary people made the major media, including the non-Iranian ones to pick up the stories related to the campaign. The Guardian (Golsorkhi 2009), the Huffington Post (Novin 2010), BBC (BBC 2009) and Amnesty International (AI n.d.) are among the media and international institutions that covered Majid’s story. These reports guaranteed that what happened to Majid was not only heard about inside Iran.
Calling it ‘I Am Majid’, ‘We Are all Majid’ or ‘Veiled Men’, this campaign was totally constructed and progressed by first, the Iranian users of digital media and then their international allies. We witnessed a range of user-generated content produced in this campaign. Among them, I can mention blog posts, social media posts, artworks, and etc. People inside and outside Iran made meaningful conversations around Tavakoli’s case through the interrupted, censored and highly controlled internet in Iran. These conversations along with the circulated materials established an alternative and distributed medium for protesters and those who wanted to be in touch with the ongoing realities at the time.
AI, Student Activist Jailed for Speaking Out. Amnesty International. Available at: http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/cases/iran-majid-tavakkoli?id=1181062 [Accessed September 9, 2014].
BBC, 2009. Iranian Men Don Hijabs in Protest at Student’s Arrest. BBC. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8409778.stm [Accessed September 9, 2014].
CHRR, 2012. Mother of Majid Tavakoli: For 3 years I have waited in hopes of seeing my Majid. Committee of Human Rights Reporters. Available at: http://www.chrr.biz/spip.php?article19511 [Accessed September 9, 2014].
FarsNews, 2009. The Images of the Main Leader of Rioters of Amir Kabir University in Women’s Clothing. Fars News. Available at: http://www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=8809171089 [Accessed September 11, 2014].
Golsorkhi, M., 2009. Iranian Men in Hijab. The Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2009/dec/16/men-hijab-majid-tavakoli [Accessed September 11, 2014].
Homylafayette, 2010. Student Day Scrapbook. homylafayette Iran News in English. Available at: http://homylafayette.blogspot.com.au/2010/12/student-day-scrapbook-7-december-2010.html [Accessed September 9, 2014].
ICFHRII, 2010. Majid Tavakoli: Four Months in Detention Without Access to Lawyer or Visit With Family. International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Available at: http://www.iranhumanrights.org/2010/04/majid-tavakol-four-months-in-detention-without-access-to-lawyer-and-visitation-with-family/ [Accessed September 11, 2014].
Novin, N., 2010. A Veiled Movement for Women’s Rights Sweeps Iran. The Huffington Post. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nasim-novin/a-veiled-movement-for-wom_b_397605.html [Accessed September 11, 2014].
RajaNews, 2009. The Images of Amir Kabir University’s Hero in Women’s Clothing Are Released. Raja News. Available at: http://www.rajanews.com/news/25568 [Accessed September 11, 2014].
RFERL, 2013. Iranian Student Activist Granted Prison Leave. Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty. Available at: http://www.rferl.org/content/iran-tavakoli-rights/25143877.html [Accessed September 9, 2014].
Tait, R., 2009. Iran Regime Depicts Male Student in Chador as Shaming Tactic. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/dec/11/iran-regime-male-student-chador [Accessed September 11, 2014].
Amin Ansari holds a bachelor's degree in Software Engineering and a Master of Dramatic Literature. Following his interest in multidisciplinary fields of study, he is doing his PhD at the Screen and Media department at Flinders University, with a particular focus on the engagement of art and digital media with activism and politics. He is the founder and curator of Greens’ Art website, the most comprehensive online archive and exhibition of artworks related to the Green Movement of Iran. Also, as a published author, he has been writing stories and plays for the past 13 years. He has published five books in Iran, Germany and the UK including three novels (Waltzing with Dark Waters, Hunt, and I [Is] Sad in His Absence) and two novellas (They Know Nothing of Heaven and Seven Years of Solitude) – all in Persian.