A Revolt Against the Death Penalty

Mohsen Shekari was a 23-year-old Iranian man who was executed on December 8th 2022, after being convicted of injuring a member of Iran’s Basij Militia and “waging war against God”. Shekari's execution is highlighted here also for being the first known to have taken place as a direct result of the 2022 “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests in Iran.

An ongoing series of protests and civil unrest began in Iran on September 16, 2022 as a reaction to the death of Mahsa Amini, after she was arrested by the morality police for wearing an improper hijab in violation of Iran’s mandatory hijab laws.

I believe that what we are observing in Iran, as I write this, is one of the most significant and subversive feminist movements of our times. This feminist movement is one that does not exclude; it does not exclude men, it does not exclude veiled women, various social classes and ethnicities are included in this uprising, which is mainly comprised of women, but clearly not just women. And it is not even age-specific, though it is predominantly composed of very young people, born mostly between 1995 and 2010, the so-called Generation Z. For in this geography it has become blatantly clear that our emancipation is inherently intertwined.

This sense of relatedness and invitation for cohabitation is the nucleus of this uprising, and it is a revolt at its very core against the death penalty and the infinite symbolic layers of such a stand. It is a march towards an ethics of conditions of life.

We take a stand against the death penalty, this feminist uprising takes a stand against the death penalty, Nasrin Sotoudeh the imprisoned Iranian lawyer and political activist takes a stand against the death penalty. Sotoudeh was just awarded the Robert Badinter prize, and in her acceptance speech sent from Prison she reminded everyone that current public opinion in Iran is closer than ever to abolishing the death penalty.

We take an uncompromising stand against the death penalty, not just out of our humanitarian ambitions but because the interconnectedness of us all is blatantly clear, and because as Judith Butler powerfully reminds us, all lives are grievable. The people of Iran say no to the death penalty, stunningly encapsulated in this uprising of an ethics of life, and its conditions.

In the very fabric of the saying “woman, life, freedom”, there is clear connection to life, binding, linking, libido and sublimation … they are not saying we want to die for freedom, they are saying we want to live for freedom: they are taking to the streets, risking their lives towards better conditions of life. A life of dignity, pleasure, freedom and of transformation, all the very derivatives of the life drive.

Iranian people take a stand against the death penalty encapsulated in this uprising, so when Mohsen Shekari is given the death penalty and there is fear of more executions to come they take to the streets…. for inherent within this uprising there is a no to the silent Thanatos, a no that can only come from the recognition of such a drive in every single one of us.

Let me give you the example of my maternal grandfather, not because he was my grandfather but as a metaphor of what I am attempting to elaborate here. He was the district attorney in Tehran before the 1979 Islamic revolution and although he had the death penalty at his disposal he never practiced it, even when it became extremely conflictual and controversial for him. He just did not believe in the death penalty with no ifs and no buts. After the revolution he was to be executed for his close relationship to the previous regime. But the very people who he had refused to sentence to death were now in charge of executing him, and they just could not bring themselves to order the execution of the very man who had spared their lives, so they took his passport and much of what he owned but refused to give him the death penalty. He lived to be 98 years old, and until the very end we aggressively argued and had vehement disagreements about all other political matters, but we were both against the death penalty. It goes without saying that he was also lucky, unlike many others with such ethical stands who were executed, and continue to be executed. This is an uncompromising position against executions for all in any geography under any circumstances.

We take a stand against the death penalty, not because of morality: for through Nietzsche, Derrida, Freud, Lacan and … we have come face-to-face with the precariousness of our sense of justice, the cruelty masked behind morality, and how Kant’s categorical imperative is embedded within cruelty. Through Freud we have faced our inevitable internal death drive, aggression, ambivalence and the reality that pleasure in inflicting cruelty can be masked as moral duty. We can even deeply appreciate and continuously keep in mind Derrida’s assertion that abolitionists, à’ la fin, could be committed to other forms of cruelty, like long and torturous imprisonments. And we cannot deny yet again Derrida’s absolute psychoanalytic stance that maybe for abolitionists – including himself – our stand against the death penalty in a way comes from an unconscious sense of guilt, from the fear of losing our own lives, so in a sense the motivation for abolishing the death penalty comes from our own fears of being condemned. This is all true, but with all my admiration for Derrida, as Judith Butler exquisitely elaborated: that’s not all there is to it. Maybe we also take a stand, the Iranian people take a stand out of a non-humanitarian hospitality, incidentally another Derridean term. Maybe my grandfather took a stand against the death penalty not out of self interest, or any notion of how that stand might save his own life one day but because of a genuine awareness of our relatedness, of the “I” that only becomes possible via the other, out of the sense of being a thinking subject and to know we are all inevitably linked together. I think my grandfather saved his own life the day he took a stand against the death penalty, not because this stand concretely saved his life later on, but because the moment we become the executioner of someone else’s life we are killing a part of ourselves, we are joining the verdict to execute ourselves and our sense of relatedness to the other, and that is no life at all. For to survive a life is drastically different than living a life, and living a life is only possible, via a becoming of the subject through an awareness of the other. We know very well that route has its own set of hells and problematics but it is none the less the only possible route towards becoming a thinking subject.

So my grandfather saved his life long before his life was saved by another, he saved his life the day he elaborated an authentic sense of relatedness and cohabitation. This is the heritage of this uprising, of woman, life and freedom where the Iranian people, and specially the women have exhibited their authentic sense of lineage, of the objectilizing function of the drive, of interconnectedness, of relatedness, of a sense of linking, a march towards life, with an awareness of the inherent death drive, with all its seductions and traps along the way, not because we don’t agree with Derrida’s warnings about these aggressive parts of ourselves but precisely because we have embraced it in ourselves and that of the other, any “other” in your geography and mine. We take an uncompromising stand against the death penalty for in that stand we orient towards not just an ethics of life but one that is cognizant of the crucial signifier of the conditions of life.

We revolt against the death penalty in Iran in this uprising of “woman, life and Freedom” in a separate togetherness, not in the name of sameness but that of difference and all that inherently, inevitably represents. No ifs, no buts, for in the final analysis this is an ethics of the erotic, of love, of life and pleasure with all its set of ambivalences, conflicts and contradictions. For to say anything otherwise is saying no to a part of ourselves that will come back and hunt us for as Freud warned, we must be aware of the illusion of sleeping dogs which are in fact wide awake and barking.

For our lives begin to end, even if we survive, the second that another’s life and their conditions of life are not treated with dignity and grievability.

Gohar Homayounpour

Tehran, December 10, 2022

Gohar Homayounpour is a psychoanalyst and Gradiva award-winning author. She is a member of the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA), the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA), the Italian Psychoanalytical Society (SPI), and the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis (NAAP). She is a Training and Supervising psychoanalyst of the Freudian Group of Tehran, of which she is also founder and immediate past president. She is also a member of the IPA group Geographies of Psychoanalysis. Homayounpour has published various psychoanalytic articles, including in the International and Canadian Journals of Psychoanalysis. Her first book, Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran (2012, MIT) won the Gradiva award and has been translated into languages including French, German, Italian, Turkish and Spanish. Her latest book is titled Persian Blues, Psychoanalysis and Mourning (2022, Routledge). Other recent publications and book chapters include “The Dislocated Subject” (2019) and “Islamic Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Islam” (2019).