Mixing Visual Culture and Politics is Important for this New Media Artist


Mixing Visual Culture and Politics is Important for this New Media Artist

Q&A with Professor Mona Kasra
Mona Kasra Headshot

Iranian American Professor Mona Kasra speaks about a recent UVA panel on the situation in Iran, the role of visual media in the crisis, how this impacts her work, and the role the diaspora and higher education institutions can play.

You recently participated in a panel on Iranian women’s role in the fight for democracy in Iran. How have the women of Iran shaped this battle for democracy?

Kasra: Iranian women have always participated in discussions of democracy, especially in the modern history of Iran. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, controlling women, women's bodies, their rights, became very fundamental to the political agenda of the Islamic regime. This came out in the form of the compulsory hijab, discriminatory laws against women in terms of inheritance, divorce, and child custody, and so on. These were systemic tools to oppress and marginalize women, but even in the past 44 years women continued to participate through acts of resistance and resilience. As an Iranian woman, in post-revolutionary years, the way you present yourself in public can be an act of resistance. Gradually, these acts get at dismantling the systems of power and discrimination. Partly, I think civil disobedience is so important because it takes a lot to defy terror, especially when one grows up and lives every day with it.

You are Iranian American yourself. How does this identity play into your own work as a scholar and new media artist? Has this changed since the recent events in Iran?

Kasra: My perspective as an Iranian American is something I embrace. It enriches my work, but it doesn’t singularly define it. I grew up in a post-revolutionary Iran and my childhood was shadowed by the Iran-Iraq war, so politics has always been a part of my being. As a result, I’m very sensitive to social and political issues. It leads me into looking at many things through the lens of social consciousness and social justice. Because of that, I’m always looking for the moments where visual cultures and politics and the social come together. A big part of my recent published work focuses on the power of network visual media, that is photos and videos shared on social media to raise awareness, mobilize, or organize against socio political injustice, but also as a way to exercise oppressive power and to misinform. We are seeing all of these uses in the revolutionary movement that’s currently happening in Iran. 

Over the past few months, I've been working on an experimental theatrical multimedia project in collaboration with a New York-based director, Adam Kassim, who is a Palestinian American. At this moment, we’re calling the project “Dreaming in Exile.” Given what has happened in the past few months, we've been thinking that we need to get into the hearts and minds of Middle Eastern and North African artists and explore complexities of exile and the diaspora identity. We're hoping that by the end of this year, we will be able to do an experimental staging of the project and I am hoping to do one of the workshops here at UVA.

Can you describe the current state of the crisis in Iran?

Kasra: We are five months into this revolutionary movement. The first few months were really strong, but then the government, as always, had the crackdown, and unfortunately, detained and arrested a lot of people. At this point, it's estimated that there are more than 10,000, maybe closer to 20,000, political detainees in Iran. It’s terrible on the streets. But there is something very interesting about this moment in Iran. Previous protest movements were subdued by brutal crackdowns. But this time around, the protests don’t seem to be dying down. 

One of the problems now is how the government restricts the use of the internet. Rather than shutting it down, they have these mechanisms where it gets really slow at night, when they know protesters are on the street. So, it's hard for people to use social media as a way to mobilize and organize quickly. As a result, people are organizing via word of mouth. For instance, now that people can't easily protest or gather outside, they will go to the rooftops and repeat these really powerful slogans that come from videos or sound bites, but they are passing them on locally. 

What's unique about this moment is that it's not about one thing. It started with the tragic killing of Mahsa Amini due to the morality police intervention and arrest, but what we see in Iran right now is people revolting against years of indignity, injustice, and humiliation. The compulsory hijab is just one aspect of it. It's about corruption. It's about embezzlement. It’s about hypocrisy. It's about discrimination and discriminatory laws and subjugation. It’s about all these years of abuse and humiliation and injustice. So, even though the government is trying to imprison, torture, and kill again, we’re seeing a rage in people that will be really hard for this government to tackle.

Partly, I think civil disobedience is so important because it takes a lot to defy terror, especially when one grows up and lives every day with it.

You mentioned earlier that one of the things that we've seen since the emergence of the protests is visual media reflecting what is going on in Iran, both on the side of mobilizing against injustice and also on the side of misinformation. Tell us about that.

Kasra: I think the images that we have seen, such as kids at school bringing down the pictures or having their hair cut, are very powerful. There is also a symbolic aspect to this movement. Mandating the compulsory hijab was one of the first things that the government did to control women at the beginning of the revolution. This movement uses that image and turns it around, by freeing the hair or setting the scarf on fire on the streets. 

Unfortunately, the footage and the visual media coming out of Iran are pretty brutal. It's very hard to watch. Platforms like Instagram have put a warning at the beginning of these videos, making people ask themselves “do you want to see this?,” which makes it harder for the media to have an impact. People are living that reality on the streets, but those of us who are not there can just choose whether or not we want to be confronted with the violence and the abuse that is happening.

On the other side of things, there is an Iranian cyber army and a big chunk of what they're doing is creating division amongst the opposition through misinformation. They do it by creating fake accounts. They pretend that they're a part of the opposition, they get a large following, and then they start adding misinformation and fake messaging in order to create division and chaos amongst even the opposition. This misinformation takes away trust and when you don't have trust, you can't have democracy. The totalitarian regimes are learning and, unfortunately, they're now even sometimes ahead of the game in terms of how to use these technologies.

How is the Iranian diaspora working to support or help during this crisis? 

Kasra: The diaspora has maintained a very deep and consistent engagement with the events in Iran. There have been really large protests in Europe, Canada, and the US, sometimes on a weekly basis. Iranian protesters need to know that the world is watching. Seeing the solidarity with the knowledge that the world has not forgotten them has helped inspire those who are risking their lives. The opposition in the diaspora is also now trying to create councils through which they can contact or be in touch with democratic countries about the revolution and the needs of the people on the ground.

Another important thing that has been happening with respect to the use of media is that satellite media from the diaspora have been very active and instrumental. In Iran, even though they might have very restricted access to the internet, a lot of people have access to satellite dishes and can watch satellite programming. So, there are platforms and media, such as Iran International, for example, that are constantly covering what is happening in Iran in various regions. They are talking to people on the ground, showing imagery of what is happening and that has been very accessible to people in Iran.

What can higher education institutions help in this crisis? 

Kasra: I think higher educational institutions are the perfect place for us to create platforms to discuss and contextualize what is happening in the Iranian protests, perhaps even to talk about the relationship of Iran and the US and the interference of the US in the modern history of Iran. Iran and the US have a very sensitive and very complicated relationship. So, being able to talk about that and to really allow for a space where Iran is not just a nuclear power or a hostage crisis has been very important.

Another very practical way higher educational institutions can do something is to help Iranian students and academics who have been impacted by the recent events. A lot of bright students and impactful scholars from some wonderful institutions are getting expelled because they participated in a protest. So, higher educational institutions can do things like waive application fees or give Iranian students and scholars more flexibility about the time they need to acquire the resources.