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‘Whisper Tapes’ Takes Readers To The Streets Of A Revolutionary Iran

Book cover
Courtesy of Negar Mottahedeh

In the aftermath of the overthrow of Iran's last monarch Mohammad Reza Shah, women in that country marked International Women’s Day for the first time in 50 years. The event held deep symbolic importance for the women who had been instrumental in that overthrow. But what was conceptualized as a celebration soon became a protest against a mandatory veiling decree.

Face of author Negar Mottahedeh
Credit Courtesy Negar Mottahedeh
Negar Mottahedeh poured through 90 hours of historic recordings by feminist writer Kate Millett to get a nuanced picture of protest movements in Iran following the fall of the country's last monarch.

American feminist Kate Millett travelled to Iran to stand alongside Iranian women at this time of deep historical transformation. Recording equipment in hand, Millet documented the sights and sounds on the streets as a day of celebration turned into weeks of protests.

In “Whisper Tapes: Kate Millett in Iran” (Stanford University Press/2019), a new book from scholar Negar Mottahedeh, the author uses those tapes as a starting point to examine how Iranian women organized and how that movement influenced other protest movements around the globe in the 1970s. Host Frank Stasio speaks with Mottahedeh, a professor of literature and media studies at Duke University, about solidarity, the cult of celebrity and new insights into the Iranian Revolution.

Interview Highlights

On the prominence of Kate Millett in the 1970s:

So Kate Millett was a feminist in the 1970s. Her PhD dissertation ... "Sexual Politics" was written at Columbia University and then turned into a book in 1970. It hit the newsstands, and it was an instant success. It was known as the Das Kapital of the feminist movement. And she was known as the Mao Zedong of the feminist movement — the Supreme Leader essentially of the feminist movement. She was the face of liberation feminism in the 1970s.

On how Kate Millett came to be in Iran:

Iranian women decided to join other women around the world to celebrate International Women's Day. And they invited Kate Millett amongst other feminists from all around the world to join, she was the only one who showed up. And she showed up with 16-millimeter camera with two cassette tapes, with two still cameras and a ton of batteries and tapes.

On women’s protest role in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Shah of Iran:

What's key here is that Khomeini, three days before the International Women's Day, made a decree that all women working in the Iranian ministries had to veil. And so when women went to work the next day, they were told to go home and get their veils. As they were coming together on the streets, they were met by men, supporters of Khomeini, who insisted that they should either veil or they'll be smacked in the head. So there was violence. This is where the protest started. They joined other workers, students, and they walked towards the university. And that's when university students also converged and 10 days of revolts began at that time.

On how Kate Millett was not fully present with the women of Iran who she documented:

Her focus was elsewhere, in a sense. I mean, as much as she was there with the Iranian women in solidarity body and soul and spirit, she was also very conscious … That patriarchy was the overruling sort of condition of the world. And that women as second class citizens, in the context of patriarchy, needed to stick together. So she wanted to be the leader of a global sisterhood. And she saw this as an opportunity in the middle of all sorts of Third World liberation movements to stand in the forefront of this coming together of women around the world.


Laura Pellicer is a digital reporter with WUNC’s small but intrepid digital news team.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.