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Why a scholar banished from Iran 15 years ago is hopeful about the current protests

Iranian American scholar Pardis Mahdavi, who was once dragged out of a Tehran classroom by morality police while lecturing about her latest book, "On Iran's Sexual Revolution" joins Tonya Mosely to help shed light on the protests in Iran.

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Today, for some insight into the growing protests in Iran, our guest interviewer, Tonya Mosley, speaks with an Iranian American scholar who's researched and personally experienced some of the state actions that have provoked outrage in recent weeks. Here's Tonya, who begins with the event that sparked the protests three weeks ago.

TONYA MOSLEY, BYLINE: Twenty-two-year-old Mahsa Amini was with her brother at a train station in Tehran when she was stopped by Iran's morality police. Amini had a few strands of hair that peeked outside of her headscarf, which police said violated the country's hijab rules. They took her into custody. And three days later, she was dead. The Iranian government says Amini died of a heart attack and possibly a stroke. Her family and thousands of protesters think she was killed.

Pardis Mahdavi, an Iranian American scholar, understands what it's like to be detained by the morality police. Fifteen years ago, she was also arrested while giving a lecture in Tehran on gender and sexual politics. Mahdavi is provost of the University of Montana, a trained anthropologist, and the author of several books including "Passionate Uprisings: Iran's Sexual Revolution." Pardis, welcome to FRESH AIR.

PARDIS MAHDAVI: Thank you so much for having me.

MAHDAVI: Yes, thank you for being here. And I want to start by asking you what you're hearing right now from your networks in Iran. Are the violent crackdowns deterring people? Or are the protests growing?

MAHDAVI: What we're seeing right now, Tonya, is the protests are actually growing despite the violent crackdowns. We did follow what was happening at Sharif University with the tear gas. The protests not only show no sign of decreasing, but what we're seeing actually are increased generations out there protesting. Some of the images that we were seeing yesterday are of young schoolgirls even, resisting, protesting, adding their voice to the protests. And to me, it's interesting to see this generation. This is the generation born after the 2000s who were born into resistance. You know, we think about my generation. We were really the children of the revolution, born into, you know, a post-revolutionary moment where the Islamist regime had taken power, born into the Iran-Iraq war. This is a new generation that has been born into and come of age under a moment of resistance. And they are showing incredible courage by speaking out despite the high stakes.

MOSLEY: This is a really interesting detail because women in Iran have been fighting against repression for decades. But this is being called one of the biggest and most widespread protests ever in the country. And you're saying it's because of this specific generation and the place and the time in which they were born during this resistance?

MAHDAVI: That's exactly right. These are young people who - you know, they're building on the decades' worth of work that women - that feminists, women and men, have been doing since the revolution, right? So for the past 44 years, you've seen resistance brewing. But this is a generation that was born into an atmosphere where the resistance was really taking root. And so as long as they have been alive, they have seen people speaking out against the regime, which I think has emboldened them to protest in the way that they're doing today - schoolgirls even, standing up, videotaping themselves speaking out against the regime. This is incredible courage that comes from the decades' worth of work that has been done since the revolution.

MOSLEY: Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accuses the United States and Israel of orchestrating these protests. It's in line with the historical suspicion of Western culture. And this goes way back to the revolution of 1979, when incoming leaders sought to remake Iran into what they called the antidote to the West. West-toxication (ph) is what I've heard you describe it. Can you explain what West-toxication means?

MAHDAVI: So the regime, the Islamist regime that came to power under Ayatollah Khomeini, this regime ran on a platform and really took power by promising to bring about moral order for Iran. They accused Iran under the shah, under the monarchy, of becoming overly infatuated with the West. And this is what we call West-toxication. They accused the shah of having lavish and ornate tastes and of leading the Iranian people into an immoral West-toxication where women were seen on the streets of Tehran and Iran wearing miniskirts. People were drinking alcohol - violating Islamic tenets. So you have an Islamist regime that came to power under a fabric of morality, promising to bring back Iran to an old Iran and Iranianness, you know, that harkens back to a time of pre-West-toxication, pre-fascination and overindulgence and an overdeference to the West.

MOSLEY: And they believe they're doing God's work.

MAHDAVI: That's exactly right. They believe that they are upholding God's will. And so one of the things that the Islamist regime did when they came to power is that they created a few different arms of the police. So they created the Revolutionary Guard, and that is, you know, a group - an arm of the police that most people outside of Iran are familiar with. But they also created a group called the morality police, or Guidance Patrol. And this body was charged with upholding right and forbidding wrong. And now today, we're seeing a lot more discussions outside of Iran about the morality police. But it's important to contextualize that this group, this body, was created by the Ayatollah Khomeini when the Islamist regime came to power in 1979.

MOSLEY: Can you describe for us a little more on how the morality police works?

MAHDAVI: Absolutely. So the morality police, as I mentioned, they're charged with upholding right and forbidding wrong. Now, how that is interpreted - right? That leaves a lot of room for interpretation, right? So morality police, you know, they walk the streets looking for any signs of what they would deem immorality. So in the case of Mahsa Amini, it is wearing a headscarf or hijab that is improper. So the Islamist regime mandates that the proper wearing of a headscarf for a woman is where all of the hair is covered and only the oval part of the face - in Persian, we say (speaking Persian). Only the oval part of the face is showing, no strands of hair.

Now, if women were seen with a headscarf that was loose or pushed back with strands of hair coming forward, that was seen as immoral, and they could be subject to arrest. Other signs of immorality might be red shellacked nails, makeup. Again, these are for women. For men, these would include eye-catching hairstyles such as faux hawks, accessories - large jewelry and accessories, sort of, you know, blinged-out watches, etc. And then, they're also policing the streets for immoral behavior, such as young men and women holding hands, maybe making out in the park. And so all of these could be subject - all of these behaviors could be subject to arrest from the morality police.

Now, what's really interesting is that the children of the revolution - we've been talking about these decades of, you know, organizing that's been - that have been happening. One of the things that's interesting to me is, you know - and this is what I began studying in the late 1990s with - you know, following what young Iranians called Iran's sexual revolution. Young people were using this same logic of morality to attack the regime, to fight back. And so they said, OK, this is a regime that is overly focused on our bodies. We're going to use our bodies to speak back.

And that is how it began, with people pulling out one strand or more of hair. People started calling it the millimeter revolution, right? The headscarf was going back one millimeter at a time. Young women organized to come out en masse in open-toed shoes with painted toenails. And now, Tonya, you and I might think, is that really an act of resistance? Well, it is if it could get you arrested. And so the morality police, this is their mandate.

MOSLEY: I wasn't aware that men were also arrested for way of dress or hairstyles. How common is it for men to be arrested?

MAHDAVI: You know, and this is one of those things that comes in seasons. Under certain presidencies, it's quite common, more so than under others. So you know, when I began my research under President Khatami, the numbers of raids and arrests from the morality police of men and women were really waning. But under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and under today's President Raisi, you see an increase. When I was doing my fieldwork, I would say that for every three women that I saw arrested for, you know, immoral behavior, arrested by the morality police, there would be one young man. So you know, I'd say maybe 25% of the arrests were men, again, engaging in either what would be considered immoral behavior. So one of the components that I didn't speak to is that morality police are also known to raid private parties, to raid homes. And in that instance, they round up everybody who's there drinking, dancing, smoking, you know, engaging in heterosexual behaviors that they deem immoral. So in the case of a party raid, they would arrest everybody, men and women.

MOSLEY: You know, I'm really interested in this millimeter rule because I know that you've also had experiences when you visited Iran of, also, a perpetually slipping headscarf.

MAHDAVI: That's right.

MOSLEY: And older women would yell to you, sister, guard your veil. Was that a stressful feeling, when it wasn't an act of resistance but just moving through your day, constantly navigating while also having to be aware of this thing, a slipping headscarf?

MAHDAVI: Absolutely. It weighs heavily, I think, on everyone's heads and shoulders, right? You know, for me, I would have nightmares, you know, before I would go to Iran. Or when I was in Iran, I would have nightmares that I was out in the street without a headscarf. And this was, like, my nightmare - right? - or that my headscarf had blown away. And then I was going to get either taken in by the morality police, or I would get chastised by people who saw themselves as an extension of that. So that's a heavy weight, you know? That makes it - for me, you know, it's not so surprising, then, that people would rebel against that - right? - that, that weight is so heavy. And if you're living under that constant stress day in and day out, you know, it makes sense that you would start to push back, that you would start to rebel, especially if you felt that the government did not have your interest at heart. And I think, you know, for me, one of the most salient things I would hear from young people is a frustration that here was a regime that focused more on, you know, what they were wearing. Was the headscarf slipping? Did they have makeup on? They focused more on outerwear and outer comportment, as we would say, you know, anthropological terms. They focus more on these kinds of morality norms than they did on solving the country's unemployment crisis or infrastructure issues, like traffic. But back to your question, you know? I think it was something that very much weighed heavily on me. I was - you know, I was not accustomed to wearing the headscarf properly. And so mine was constantly slipping.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, I'm talking with Pardis Mahdavi, provost of the University of Montana, about the latest uprising in Iran. Pardis Mahdavi is an Iranian American who is the author of several books, including "Hyphen" and "Passionate Uprisings: Iran's Sexual Revolution." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF REZA SADEGHI'S "PIHAN-E-MESHKI")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today we're talking with Pardis Mahdavi, provost of the University of Montana, about the latest uprising in Iran. Mahdavi is an anthropologist and the author of several books, including "Passionate Uprisings: Iran's Sexual Revolution." She has focused her academic career on diversity, inclusion, human trafficking, migration, sexuality, human rights, feminism and public health.

There's also just this fundamental thing of living and the joy of living. There's this quote that you say is painted across buildings and billboards in Tehran. It says, the Islamic Republic is not about fun. It is about morality. I'm just thinking how that weighs on the consciousness of someone as they're moving through daily life. What is daily life like, specifically today for women?

MAHDAVI: You know, I think that daily life is a struggle for women oftentimes. I just think about my students at the University of Montana. And I compare them to students I was lecturing to at Tehran University. And the students walking onto campus at Tehran University, they have to walk through gates that are often patrolled by the morality police, who are looking at their outerwear, making sure - is the headscarf properly placed? Are you wearing too much makeup? Is your outerwear too tight? Think about all the things that they have to go through just to get onto campus. And then they get onto campus. They go into a classroom. And they might meet with a misogynistic professor or not. They might feel challenged by what a morality policeman might have said to them on their way in. Let's say, after class, they need to go to the bank and withdraw some money.

I talk about this in my book, the experience of me just trying to go to the bank and withdraw money before the weekend hit, and the bank teller saying to me, well, where's the letter from your father? I'm not just going to give you money and, you know, really relishing in the power he held over me to not actually release my funds and send me home without any funds, you know, for the weekend. So these are instances of institutionalized misogyny that women face every single day. And it's something that weighs on their daily lives.

MOSLEY: The foreign minister of Iran visited the U.S. last week and spoke with NPR's Steve Inskeep, and Steve asked him if he felt the people of Iran had legitimate concerns or grievances. And this is how he responded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HOSSEIN AMIRABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) Regarding the lady, Mahsa Amini, something happened to her that made us all very, very sad. Similar incidents happen all around the world, like tons of examples similar to that, in the United States or in the U.K.

MOSLEY: The foreign minister went on to say that Amini's death will be fully investigated. As I mentioned, she died in police custody, and authorities say she had a stroke or heart attack. And of course, the family and protesters do not believe this is true. What is your perception of what the foreign minister is saying here, that what happened is unfortunate, but it happens everywhere?

MAHDAVI: You know, Tonya, I think this is a classic case of members of the government or regime downplaying - right? - the brutality and the cruelty. You know, his point about these things happen, you know, everywhere - well, first of all, I think we have to take a look at the facts of the case. Would morality - would any arm of the police, you know, in most countries, take a woman aside for a few strands of hair peeking out from their headscarf? No, right? I mean, Mahsa Amini was an innocent. She was walking the streets, walking in a train station, with a few strands of hair showing, right? This is not something that women would face in most parts of the world.

The other component of that is, you know, do people in places like the United States face police brutality? Yes. But it's also that - those incidents become a catalyzing force. They become a call to action. You know, think about the murder of George Floyd - right? - and caught on film, you know, an innocent that, you know, was - fell victim to brutality. That ignited a movement. So either way you interpret the minister's quote, it's problematic.

MOSLEY: I want to play a song that has become somewhat of a de facto anthem for Gen Z protesters. It explains why young Iranians are putting their lives on the line. Let's listen to a little bit of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BARAYE")

SHERVIN HAJIPOUR: (Singing in Persian).

MOSLEY: That song is by Shervin Hajipour. And some of the words are, for the shame of having no money, for the fear of kissing a lover on the street, for the political prisoners. It's the words that you've been talking about, articulating a mix of a lot of things coming together in this moment.

MAHDAVI: That's exactly right. And it's that frustration, that pain that you can hear in the singer's voice. I think even if you don't speak Persian, you can hear the longing for a different Iran and, you know, speaking about all of the challenges that, you know, multiple generations have now grown up under, you know? And I think the intergenerational aspect is incredibly important, not only for - because of Gen Z, but also, I think about, you know, my parents and the way my parents described the Iran that they remember, right? And, you know, some of the lyrics from the song you just played, you know, he's talking about the smog and the traffic and a failing economy. And he's also talking about the trees that are dying. And he's talking about, you know, the dogs that are starving. And he's talking about a country, a country with a rich and deep history, being starved in this painful way.

And, you know, I think my parents' stories about Iran and what Iran was and, you know, reading about Persia and reading about the history of our people and our country and then looking at what these generations have been born into - it is a moment of a lot of things coming together. And it's also a moment where, across generations, people are saying enough is enough. This is not a regime that is interested in bringing back Iran for Iranians. This is a regime that has hurt not only our people but the land on which our people live and all the creatures who live on it as well, as the lyrics of the song states.

DAVIES: We're listening to the conversation our guest interviewer Tonya Mosley recorded yesterday with Iranian American scholar Pardis Mahdavi. We'll hear more of that interview after a short break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BARAYE")

HAJIPOUR: (Singing in Persian).

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're listening to the conversation our guest interviewer, Tonya Mosley, recorded yesterday with Iranian American scholar Pardis Mahdavi. Fifteen years ago, she was arrested by Iranian morality police while giving a lecture in Tehran on gender and sexual politics. Mahdavi is the author of several books including "Passionate Uprisings: Iran's Sexual Revolution."

MOSLEY: In the early 2000s, you went to Iran to begin this research on the sexual politics of women there, and you were introduced to an underground world. And in that underground world, as you mentioned a little earlier, there were parties. And that was surprising. Can you tell us a little bit about these parties?

MAHDAVI: Yeah. So, you know, I initially went to study feminism in Iran. I went to study the, you know, different forms of feminism happening, taking place, and, you know, Iranian women's movements. And then, I became introduced to what young people called the sexual revolution, Iran's sexual revolution, or (speaking Persian) in Persian. And this entailed resisting the regime by resisting that fabric of morality. So in public, it meant headscarves slipping back and, you know, eye-catching outerwear. And in private, it meant, you know, these very elaborate parties. And when I say elaborate, I don't mean just for folks who are socioeconomically advantaged. What I observed were parties amongst all different socioeconomic classes.

So I observed very lavish parties that included, you know, different forms of sex, drugs and rock and roll, I guess, as we would say it. You know, one of the things I wrote about - one of the scenes I wrote about in "Passion Uprisings" (ph), in my first book, was, you know, observing or going to a party at the home of the child of a cleric who was - you know, parents are out of town. They had a party. They brought in - 'cause, of course, you know, alcohol is illegal, they brought in their alcohol dealer. They brought in their pork dealer. There was bacon, etc. And again, you and I might think, wait, what? But...

MOSLEY: But there was bacon. Right.

MAHDAVI: But there was bacon. And there was vodka. And they had drained the swimming pool and placed carpets at the bottom of the swimming pool. And they were engaging in a exploratory sexual orgy, I guess, is how I describe it in the book. But that's just one instance. You know, I also would go to raves or parties that were just, you know, outside of Tehran. They were in the mountains. They were in the forests. I would attend parties at warehouses where, again, sex, drugs, music, alcohol was flowing.

And this was, you know, a way for young people born into the frustration of a regime that they did not see as aligned with their interests. This is a part of how they negotiated their identity, was this pent-up frustration. And so the parties were a way to kind of let that out - right? - and to kind of resist that. There's no fun to be had in the Islamic Republic - right? - that quote. This was a way to resist that. This was a way to, you know, pour out their frustration.

But the parties were also used as spaces for organizing. So, yes, you know, I talk about that sort of the partying, the sex, drugs, rock and roll. But for me, one of the things that stays with me to this day is - was also the fact that at every one of these parties, you would have people sitting in circles, discussing the political situation, the political system, the sociopolitical system, and, you know, how they might organize, how they might come together to push back against the regime. So, yes, they were drinking, dancing, partying. But they're also resisting and organizing.

MOSLEY: You witnessed and experienced all of this in the early 2000s. Does this world still exist in Iran?

MAHDAVI: You know, I think this world exists, but it's different. So certainly, COVID, we have to acknowledge - right? - the impact of COVID, you know, around the world. But certainly, as you might recall, COVID hit Iran pretty hard. Iran was one of the earliest countries hit very hard with COVID. So that limited, of course, gatherings. That said, I mean, people were still gathering, you know, in outdoor spaces. And, you know, the parties do certainly continue.

One of the things I wrote about in my book is over the course of the eight years that I did fieldwork, some of the changes that I noticed were that, you know, parents were kind of in on it, you know? And so instead of, you know, young people saying, I'm going to have a party when my parents are away, one of the things I tracked in my research was, you know, the fact that parents would, you know - because, again, these were parents who were also frustrated with the regime. They felt some amount of guilt or weight. They - you know, I would interview parents who said, we feel like we failed our children. We let this regime take power, and look at how our children have to live. And so one of the things I tracked was over time, and certainly by 2007, when young people wanted to host parties, their parents would say, OK, you know, we'll help you stand guard. We'll pay off the morality police if we can, or, you know, we'll help you with procurement.

That intergenerational component has always been interesting to me even since, you know, I was doing my fieldwork in the early 2000s. The fact that you saw, you know, women of my mother's age, my age, and then, you know, my daughter's age - my daughter, you know, is 12 now. But - coming out wearing, let's say, you know, a white or a bright pink outercoat and a - you know, a headscarf that was slipping. And you saw that across the three generations even in 2007. Those were those early seeds of resistance that were sowed that are now bearing fruit in what we see today.

MOSLEY: Right. Because theoretically - I mean, not theoretically, literally, these parents were born before the '79 revolution. So...

MAHDAVI: Correct.

MOSLEY: Many of them experienced Iran in a different context and then watched their children deal with this repressive regime.

MOSLEY: That's exactly right. And so I think about my mom or my aunts, all born in the 1950s - you know, my father born in the 1940s. And I would talk with them, and I would talk with that generation. And, you know, they would say, oh, gosh, you know, our Iran was a different Iran. You know, one of the things that they would say is, you know, we were always at - you know, at the forefront of progress, of modernity.

You know, one of the - one I think about - and again, this is not to be flippant, but rather to speak to the cues that the regime takes. I remember a woman I was interviewing who had recently helped her daughter have a party. And she said, you know, parties - Tehran was - it was like a fashion show. And, you know, we were wearing Yves Saint Laurent, you know, miniskirts before, you know, people in most parts of the world. After Paris and Beirut, it was Tehran. And, you know, we were at the height of all of that. And now look what my daughter has to wear to school, you know, on a - and that's not just flippant, right? Because, again, what they wear is symbolic, right? What they wear - what they're forced to wear is symbolic.

And again, it's important to underscore that the resistance isn't about ensuring that no one wears hijab. It's about choice, right? And it's about saying, yes, if the headscarf is slipping, you know, that should not result in what Mahsa Amini had to go through. So when we talk about outerwear, it's not to be flippant, but it's as a stand-in, as a signal for a much larger issue. But back to my parents' generation, you know, like I said, they narrate a different Iran and an Iran where you could study what you wanted to study and, you know, engage in the behaviors you wanted to engage in. And so they feel that they have let down the next generations.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, I'm talking with Pardis Mahdavi, provost of the University of Montana, about the latest uprising in Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman who died in police custody after being arrested by the morality police for showing a bit of her hair underneath a head wrap. Pardis Mahdavi, an Iranian American, is the author of several books, including "Hyphen" and "Passionate Uprisings: Iran's Sexual Revolution." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF REZA SADEGHI SONG, "VAYSA DONYA")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today, we're talking with Pardis Mahdavi, provost of the University of Montana, about the latest uprising in Iran. Mahdavi is an anthropologist and the author of several books, including "Passionate Uprisings: Iran's Sexual Revolution." Pardis, the last time you were in Iran was 15 years ago when you were arrested by the morality police while giving a lecture on Iran's sexual revolution. What happened?

MAHDAVI: So I was invited to give a lecture to present my findings. I had by then been doing eight years of research on Iran's sexual revolution. And my friends, colleagues and all of the incredibly brave young people who opened up their hearts and their stories to me encouraged me to present my findings in Iran first, you know, and I wanted to honor their wishes. So I agreed to give a lecture on my findings with regards to Iran's sexual revolution. I began my lecture, and 13 minutes into my lecture, the auditorium doors banged open and roughly a dozen members of the morality police came clanking in. I can't remember Tonya, if I saw them, smelled them or heard them first, but pandemonium erupted. And I should have been shredding my lecture notes is what I should have been doing, but I was just gripping the podium, you know, in sort of this state of suspended animation. And I was watching all of this happen. And then two members of the morality police walked up the four steps that I had walked up 13 minutes earlier to get on to the stage. And they grabbed me, and I blacked out.

MOSLEY: Did someone call them or they had gotten wind that you were going to be there, they'd seen the promotion about it? How did they know that you were doing this?

MAHDAVI: That's a great question. I think, you know, any of us who work on Iran and certainly have been in Iran, you know, phones are often tapped, emails are often read. In my case, when I was doing my research, I sent my field notes via, you know, an encrypted FTP site back to the United States. And then I shredded them just to keep all my interviewees safe, right? 2007 was a summer where a lot of academics and journalists and especially a lot of Iranian or Iranian American women who were seen as feminists and/or activists were arrested.

So one of my mentors, Haleh Esfandiari, had been arrested that same summer, just a month before the incident at the auditorium. So, you know, the arrests were increasing. And, you know, Haleh had been taken to Evin Prison. Evin is Iran's most notorious prison where a lot of political prisoners are kept. And I remember in the summer of 2007 people saying, oh, gosh, you know, they should call it Evin University because if you want to finish your dissertation, you know, you're going to have to go over to Evin since most of - you know, grad students would say most of our dissertation members, committee members are in Evin Prison. That's how many academics had been arrested. So that was a summer where arrests were increasing.

MOSLEY: When they arrested you, they said to you, quote, "you are a ruined woman who is here to ruin our country." And they held you for 33 days. What were some of the things you saw and experienced?

MAHDAVI: Well, Tonya, I always say I was one of the lucky ones, right? I mean, I didn't go to Evin. And so I think it's important to to think about, you know, and I certainly didn't...

MOSLEY: You didn't go to the prison.

MAHDAVI: Not to Evin, no, no. I was just - I was in my apartment, but it didn't feel or look like my apartment. Everything had been taken out, and there were a couple of folding chairs and a folding table.

MOSLEY: They stripped your apartment, and they held you there in custody.

MAHDAVI: That's right, under house arrest. Yeah.

MOSLEY: When you were being held, you were also interrogated. Is that right? Can you take us there? That had to be traumatic.

MAHDAVI: It is incredibly - it was incredibly traumatic. And it's very difficult for me to think about, talk about, write about it. A lot of it I've actually blacked out. But over and over, I was asked, you know, are you here to foment a velvet revolution? And then I was asked questions about my work on sexuality. And at one point, I was even accused of being involved in a prostitution ring because I had been interviewing sex workers. And I just remember feeling so disoriented and confused at this - these different lines of questioning.

MOSLEY: After that 33 days, you were stripped of your Iranian citizenship. And you were forced to leave the country and never come back.

MAHDAVI: That's right. So I was put on a plane. I was driven to the tarmac, put on a plane. I had been blindfolded, driven on to the tarmac. Blindfold comes off. I was put on a plane and - without any of my documents. And I was told that I was stripped of my Iranian citizenship, and that if I ever came back to Iran, that would be a one-way ticket to Evin. And that I should just be grateful that they were sending me back to the Great Satan, which is the United States. So I was released after 33 days, told never to return.

Honestly, Tonya, I think many of us are wondering if what we're seeing today in Iran might actually overthrow the regime, which would mean we would get to go home. It's funny. I was with my two boys last night, and we were actually listening to that song that she played. And then we listened to - my 9-year-old son has another favorite Iranian song. And in that song, it's an Iranian exiled singer - Andy Madadian - and he says, I'm going to go back. I'm going to be able to go back home. And my son and I were talking last night. And he said, you know, Mom, do you think that I will ever get to see Iran? Do you think you will ever get to go home? Do you think that this might be the opening for us to finally be able to go home?

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, I'm talking with Pardis Mahdavi, provost of the University of Montana, about the latest uprising in Iran. Pardis Mahdavi is an Iranian-American who is the author of several books, including "Hyphen" and "Passionate Uprisings: Iran's Sexual Revolution." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today we're talking with Pardis Mahdavi, provost of the University of Montana, about the latest uprising in Iran. Mahdavi is an anthropologist and the author of several books, including "Passionate Uprisings: Iran's Sexual Revolution." She has focused her academic career on diversity, inclusion, human trafficking, migration, sexuality, human rights, feminism and public health.

What do you do for yourself? I'm just curious. I mean, have you been able to process this, aside from your work, in other ways?

MAHDAVI: Yeah. I'm actually - I'm an avid equestrian. I ride - I learned to ride horses while doing fieldwork in Iran. And I learned to ride horses by riding Caspian horses, which are the oldest breed of horses on the planet today. And they're the same horses that you see etched into the carvings of the Persepolis, of, you know, of ruins. And you see the, you know, Caspian horses featured in, you know, paintings - thousands-of-year-old paintings of the Persian Empire. And I learned to ride horses while doing fieldwork in Iran. And since my exile or since, you know, coming back to to the United States, I have continued riding horses as a way to connect back to my ancestry.

MOSLEY: In Montana, are you able to ride horses there?

MAHDAVI: Yeah. It's actually one of the main reasons I wanted to move to Montana. I could - I can ride my horse to work if I want to.

MOSLEY: Oh, really?

MAHDAVI: Yes, actually, I can. You know, Montana is horse country in many ways. And so I have my horses with me. And my daughter and I go on sunset rides. My daughter and I go on sunset horseback rides out into the mountains surrounding Missoula, Mont. And it's an important way for us to connect to our lineage and to connect to each other.

MOSLEY: One last thing. How many horses do you have?

MAHDAVI: I have two horses. And actually, my next book is called "Book Of Queens," and it's about how my grandmother on my father's side, she rode Caspian horses. And she smuggled women out of domestic violence situations on horseback by getting the horses drunk and smuggled them into Afghanistan, where they helped to build an all-female army that fought against the Taliban on horseback.

MOSLEY: Wow. You identify as Iranian American. Your family first moved to the United States, to Minnesota from Iran in 1978. You were just telling us these details about your family and your parents and their thoughts about Iran. Why did they leave Iran in that moment?

MAHDAVI: You know, my parents, they had done some amount of their education in the United States, but they had gone back to Iran to start a family. And when the revolution was brewing, my mom was also, you know, as you see in - on the streets, protesting. And at one point, she was arrested. And that terrified my grandmother. And it terrified my father. And so when my mom became pregnant with me, they knew that they did not want their family to be born into violence, into revolution. And so they had the chance to come back to the United States, and so they did.

And so I was born in Minnesota. My mom left Iran when she was eight months pregnant with me. And so I was born in Minnesota. But my parents always had a bag packed and a suitcase packed in the corner of the house. They always kept one suitcase in the corner, thinking, OK, well, someday we'll be able to return. Someday this regime will be overthrown. And we will be able to return. And Iran will return to the way it was when they were growing up.

And then, you know, I watched in the mid-'90s as that suitcase kind of went away, and my parents seemed to have lost hope. At the same time, I was watching other Iranian Americans go back to Iran. And that's what inspired me to say, hey, I want to go. I want to see our ancestral homeland. And I want to study what's happening there. And I convinced my mom to join me on my first trip. And that was an incredibly emotional three months for us, our first trip.

MOSLEY: Are your parents still alive?

MAHDAVI: My parents are indeed still alive. And they live in Southern California. They live in San Diego.

MOSLEY: Have you all talked about what's happening in this moment?

MAHDAVI: Absolutely. We've talked a lot, actually. We talk pretty much every day, as is the way of our culture. And I think, you know, my parents have right now that same mixture of hope and fear that I have, right? Every time we look at the images, every time we talk to friends and relatives in Iran, you know, we have tears of love, hope, joy, but also sorrow. And so, you know, we've been talking - you know, I talked with my parents about, you know, do we think this is it? Do we think this is what is going to unseat the mullahs? Do we think this is going to be the transformative movement that we have been waiting 44 years for? You know, at a certain point, I think many of us thought, well, not in our lifetimes.

But watching this unfold, we actually have hope for the first time in a long time, which, coming out of COVID, is incredibly helpful to have. I mean, during COVID, you know, we lost - my father lost two of his siblings. And we could not go to Iran. We were FaceTiming into their funerals. And, you know, I have not been able to go back for 15 years. And I feel that pain that my parents must feel, you know, just 10 times worse, because that is their home, right? Iran is their home. And they have been feeling the pain of exile for 44 years.

MOSLEY: You feel the hope that it will happen in your lifetime?

MAHDAVI: I do, Tonya. I feel - watching what's happening on the streets right now and the fact that the protests not only haven't decreased but have only increased - and we're seeing these brave, young schoolgirls out there protesting, fighting, filming themselves, getting their message to the world. And I'm watching the world respond. I mean, the fact, Tonya, that you and I are having this conversation this morning here in the United States and we're talking about them, that gives me hope. That gives me hope that the world is supporting the Iranian people. And the Iranian people are not backing down. This might be the moment that so many of us have been waiting for.

MOSLEY: Pardis Mahdavi, thank you so much for this conversation.

MAHDAVI: Thank you, Tonya. Thanks so much for having me. It's been an absolute honor and pleasure to be on your show.

DAVIES: Pardis Mahdavi, an Iranian American scholar. She's provost of the University of Montana, a trained anthropologist and the author of several books, including "Passionate Uprisings: Iran's Sexual Revolution." She spoke with FRESH AIR's guest interviewer Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "JOHN BOY")

DAVIES: If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed - like our conversation with Rachel Bloom, who co-created and starred in the series "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," or with investigative reporters Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsyth about the consulting firm McKinsey & Company - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "JOHN BOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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