When we watch depictions on TV or film or read books about dystopian futures, we habitually forget these nightmare-inducing narratives are often inspired by the very real things happening around the world. While many of us have the luxury of engaging with dystopian landscapes through a lens of entertainment, the politics informing some of these stories exist “out there” in the real world.
With the recent news out of Iran, we believe it is critical to remember that prominent themes in dystopian narratives, while often inconceivable to us, are not merely intellectual exercises in other parts of the world.
Margaret Atwood famously said, there is nothing in her canonical dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale “that didn’t happen, somewhere.”
Right now, in the county of Iran, there are 15,000 people in the custody of the Iranian government, facing charges for their involvement over the past eight weeks, in the protests calling to dismantle policies and institutions of oppression in Iran. Last week, the Iranian court issued the first death sentence linked to the recent protests. An unnamed person was convicted of “enmity against god,” and “spreading corruption on Earth,” for their involvement in the unrest. They will die at the hands of their government for speaking out against the alarming pervasiveness of human rights violations in Iran.
We regrettably can’t provide the comprehensive socio-political analysis needed to truly touch on all the nuances of what is happening in Iran. This particular round of anti-government demonstrations began in September 2022, following the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody. Amini was a 22-year-old woman arrested and cited for violating Iran’s mandatory hijab law for wearing her head covering incorrectly. Official state-run Iranian media claimed Amini suffered from heart failure. However, eyewitnesses, including women who were detained alongside Amini, asserted she had excessive bruises all over her body and leaked medical scans led many to conclude Amini had suffered from a stroke.
The nationwide demonstrations have been in response to the widespread and brutal human rights abuses against women and girls which have been upheld by the country’s “morality police,” a religious police squad tasked with the enforcement of the Islamic dress code. In recent years, the squad has arrested, detained, and indeed harmed, thousands of women and girls as young as seven, through undercover operations which often quickly escalate to various degrees of violence. The squad is also known to crack down on men presenting themselves with “western” influences, bright-coloured, or tight-fitting clothing.
Now some months later, after hundreds of injuries and 325 protesters dead (including over 40 children), a court in Tehran has issued the first death sentence to a participant in these protests. Prompting fear and uncertainty about what the outcome will be for the remaining 15,000 protestors currently in custody.
While it is assumed each person will not be sentenced to death, those detained are all facing the death penalty for their involvement in the protests. Most will face charges or significant jail time at best, and a state-sanctioned execution at worst.
These realities, while happening, “over there” require acknowledgement. Many people in this country will face unique, and even undue hardships; indeed our justice system is not perfect, and there are plenty of examples of how authorities, institutions, and the legal system fails people gravely. However, most of us will never face government-sanctioned execution for an arbitrary violation of moral authority.
It is worth remembering that the extreme and distressing “theoretical” political climates which we often see through a lens of entertainment are experienced by many as a horrifying reality.