Q&A: Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson believes her home country of Iran is on the brink of a revolution

Santa Cruz City Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

For Santa Cruz City Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson, the ongoing uprising in Iran is personal. She and her family fled Iran in the early 1980s, only a few years after the Islamic regime came into power following the 1979 Iranian revolution.

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A Q&A with Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson

Santa Cruz City Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson’s eyes well up as she recites the lyrics of “Baraye,” a 2023 Grammy-winning protest song by Iranian musician Shervin Hajipour.

Baraye, a Persian term that translates to “for” or “because of,” has become the anthem of the Iranian uprising that began in September after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was beaten to death by the Islamic regime’s since-disbanded morality police.

“For dancing in the alleys / For the fear when kissing / For my sister, your sister, our sisters / For changing rusted minds / For the shame of poverty / For the regret of living an ordinary life / For the dumpster-diving children and their wishes / For this dictatorial economy,” Kalantari-Johnson recites as her gold chain earrings dance in the wind.

She is moved most by the opening lyrics, she says, a simple vignette of youth, yet one the regime has robbed from generations of young Iranian girls since it came into power in 1979.

As soon as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s government took over, her parents understood Iran would be dramatically different than the one they knew, with far fewer options for their daughters. In 1984, when Kalantari-Johnson was 7, her family fled for America, eventually landing in Sacramento. Even in those five years, her family witnessed the swift stripping of women’s rights and experienced the oppression of the new government’s new policies around dress code and female behavior.

The current uprising, now in its sixth month, is personal of Kalantari-Johnson. I met the councilmember outside Cat & Cloud Coffee’s Westside location Wednesday. At the end of our wide-ranging, hourlong conversation, my recorder failed and erased all material evidence of our meeting. Below is an edited follow-up phone conversation, this time with multiple recorders at work.

Kalantari-Johnson is hosting a Persian New Year event at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History on March 16, in conjunction with the UC Santa Cruz Iranian Student Union and the school’s Center for the Middle East and North Africa.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Lookout: What term would you use to describe what is taking place in Iran right now? Protests? Uprising? Is it a revolution?

Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson: It’s more than a protest. It’s an uprising that is reaching the point of revolution. If I were high up in the Islamic regime, I would be very scared. People are angry and rightly so. We’ve now watched children be physically and sexually harmed, and murdered, in the streets of Iran.

Thousands of people gathered outside Los Angeles City Hall on Feb. 11 to protest the Iranian government.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Lookout: You still have cousins, aunts, uncles and one grandparent still living in Iran whom you communicate with weekly over WhatsApp. What are you hearing as far as conditions on the ground and mood of the country?

Kalantari-Johnson: There’s definitely a sense of hope. There have been other uprisings since the 1979 revolution, but there is a sense that this one is different. There is a frenetic energy that’s come out during this uprising and I think part of it is because it’s led by young people. These young people haven’t known another reality, yet they know another reality exists, and they know what’s happening to them in their country is not right.

But there is also a sense of fear. Iran has long been a dangerous place for anyone who is outspoken against the government. My family, they are active but they are careful. So, I am concerned.

Lookout: The Iranian people have been at this now for six months. In what you know from your family, what place is the uprising in right now?

Kalantari-Johnson: I think they have attracted a new interest internationally. First Lady Jill Biden presented the Grammy award for Hajipour, who was arrested in Iran after “Baraye” was released. The sense I’m getting from the people I know in Iran is that they feel they are being heard, and people are listening. The Iranian people are fueled by this, and to be seen and be heard emboldens them and their movement to keep going.

Lookout: Your family left only five years after the Islamic regime came into power, but what changes did you experience during that time?

Kalantari-Johnson: Women’s rights were stripped away overnight. I remember I was about 5 years old, and my dad, uncle, cousin and I were all at the beach, playing. I was in a pink bikini, which I still have, and my cousin, a young boy, was in his bathing suit. A police officer came over to my dad and told him he was unfit to be a father because he was allowing his daughter to wear a bikini. I remember thinking why my uncle was not considered an unfit father when my cousin was wearing less than me. It’s because my cousin is a boy.

Santa Cruz City Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

I remember, too, I went back when I was 16 years old, and my cousins and I were, again, at the beach and we were getting ready to ride horses. I got on a horse and within five minutes, a police officer came over to us, with his big gun and big beard and green uniform, and pointed the gun at me and said, “Dismount the horse right away, women are not allowed to ride on horses.”

Lookout: He pointed the gun at you? My goodness.

Kalantari-Johnson: Yes, and this was a big gun. The culture under the Islamic regime is so different than here. I remember I would walk into stores and the owners would know immediately that I was from a different country, even if I was dressed in the correct uniform. My cousins in Iran would tell me I didn’t even need to open my mouth, it was just the way I walked they could tell I didn’t live under the same oppression. Then, I would come home to paradise in Santa Cruz, and I would go to college parties, and hang out with roommates, and even sit on the campus knoll, and a sense of survivor’s guilt would set in.

Lookout: Is there any nuance to what is happening in Iran that the international community might not understand? Or, is it as simple as, this is an oppressive and violent regime that has caused mass suffering and needs to be overthrown?

Kalantari-Johnson: It’s a both-and. It is as simple [as] this is an oppressive regime that has hurt the people of Iran and beyond for decades now, and they need to go. They needed to have gone a long time ago. I’m speaking for myself, but I would not promote or condone foreign military intervention. If this uprising is going to be successful, it has to happen from within.

Iran is not a country of helpless people. We’re bold, we’re courageous. I see the role of [the] U.S. as continuing to speak up and speak out about what’s happening, both in terms of the harms done to the women and people of Iran, as well as the courage that the people and women of Iran have displayed over the last six months. We need to continue to talk about it and make sure this doesn’t just fade away.

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