The Freedom Revolution, Awakened Ancestral Roots of a New Generation, and a Population Moving as One

As part of the Iranian diaspora, a professor of psychology, and a therapist, I have had a front-row seat to the trauma inflicted upon the people of Iran, historically, in the present under the Islamic Republic, and through the processes of out-migration. This is not a traditional, longitudinal account full of bounded categories ripe for comparison but a reflection on how a new generation’s vision for the future has awakened the resilience of an entire population. It is not Iranians’ demographic characteristics that create unique socio-psychological bonds within generations, but their shared experiences. In other words, the dispositions we see as Generation Z leads the protest marches—both those in Iran and the solidarity marches around the world—of what is now the Woman, Life, Freedom revolution are also expressions of a collective self.

When we speak of the generations that make up any society, it’s key to look deeper by studying the zeitgeist that existed during the most critical periods of their development, including traumatic global events of the sort that shift entire populations’ ways of life (as the 1979 Islamic Republic revolution did for Iranians). What makes different generations stay within a particular spectrum of cognitive dispositions, and consequently, demonstrate a particular prominent pattern of behavior? What are the lived experiences that contribute to those uniquely formed generational cognitive schemas and how do they create divides across generations so that they struggle to understand (and frequently dismiss) others’ perspectives, choices, and actions?

In my work, I often find myself paying attention to how individuals within generations deal with systematic trauma and complex grief experiences, how they pass on their stories of survival and resilience to subsequent generations, and how those future generations interpret the covert meanings embedded in those histories.

Gen Z Iranians have been breaking every norm as they paradoxically learned to live, within Iran, under the Islamic Republic, and beyond it, as activists moving toward the overthrow of that Islamic Republic’s regime. And from the looks of it, their innovative approach is exactly what it takes to shake up the stability of the fascist system that has exploited religion and destroyed nearly every part of the Iranian society for over 43 years. Perhaps this is because Gen Z is a product of a multigenerational experience, and a product of nearly half a century of religious and sociopolitical trauma and oppression. Gen Z is subconsciously incorporating the lived experiences of four previous Iranian generations living inside of Iran, as well as those in the three major waves of out-migration that formed the modern, global Iranian diaspora. Today, all these interlocked experiences and systems are showing up in one body, as the collective self we see challenging the status quo, which has been the normalization of and tolerance for systematic oppression and gender apartheid.

TIME Magazine chooses "The Women of Iran" as its 2022 Heroes of the Year.
TIME Magazine chooses “The Women of Iran” as its 2022 Heroes of the Year.

Generation Z carries, within them, the Iranian Silent Generation. They shared an inclination toward enduring and avoiding conflict, having been born between World Wars. Now, they are too hypervigilant to lean into the patterns of leisure and “second acts,” including the psychosocial development we expect for those in the later adulthood stage of the life cycle.

Generation Z carries, within them, Iran’s Baby Boomer Generation. With scant resources, the Boomers are proud of the sacrifices they made to rebuild lives from scratch after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. They found the ability to respond to unimaginable shifts in their socioeconomic positions and to a series of deep losses, all so that the generations that came after them would have a different experience of life.

Generation Z carries, within them, the Iranian Generation X, those adults who have spent a lifetime assimilating to a world so different from their early childhood years. Whether living under the Islamic Republic in Iran or forced to migrate, they were fundamentally changed by the Iran-Iraq war, responsible for the loss of over a million lives. Often called “the burned generation,” Gen X had no models for building lives to move forward in a new environment. They had to create their paths forward, even before the Internet, which would have made finding resources so much simpler. Raised, like the Boomers, to avoid many of the traumas inflicted on their parents’ generation but informed by the rise of their collective, transgenerational psychological discourse, they became prone to a sort of persistent, collective depression. Their ability to experience the depth of their emotions—consistent with chronic, oppressive circumstances—gifted Gen Xers the potential to feel deep empathy. It sets their generation apart from the rest.

And Generation Z carries, within them, Iran’s Millennial Generation, those who strove to live anew, acculturated to globalization. They have brought the culture and pride of Iran and Iranians through food and music and dance and hospitality back to life after decades of degradation under the Islamic Republic. This generation dusted off the decades long dark shadow of the Islamic Republic looming over Iranian culture and revived the excitement about engagement in the cultural task for all Iranians. They have been keenly aware of the need to pave a path for Generation Z.

Iran’s Generation Z, who live in and well beyond Iran, comprises all these past generations’ dispositions, all the embodied lessons of their traumas, triumphs, and modes of survival. This is not a burden, but an engine, moving them toward a collective goal, a free Iran for themselves and for generations to come. This collective self is part of a global generation that will make the world a much better place for all global citizens. It’s not that generations are tidily divided, fully unified, or always getting “better”—but that the messy boundaries are places of transmission. More knowledge, more self-understanding, bigger worldviews, longer timescapes, these have accrued in the young leaders we see today. They aim to free and rebuild Iran without the Islamic Republic; and I believe they will succeed, because their force is much bigger and more powerful than the eyes can see.

In many ways, Gen Z Iranians are a combination of the very best and the most important learning experiences of their previous generations. They are marked by their perseverance and their refusal to use old modes of protective denial in order to navigate the impact of the paradoxes of life in, as their parents and grandparents did before them. They will continue to form a collective self through their agentic, adversarial approach to effecting change. For all these reasons, “The Women of Iran” are the right choice for Time Magazine’s 2022 Heroes of The Year.

Bahareh Sahebi is in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University where she serves as assistant program director for The Center for Applied Psychological and Family Studies’ Marriage and Family Therapy Program. She is the author, with William B. Russell and Douglas C. Breunlin, of Integrative Systemic Therapy in Practice: A Clinician’s Handbook.

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