Whisper Tapes
Kate Millett in Iran
Negar Mottahedeh



The American feminist Kate Millett arrived in Tehran just after the Iranian Revolution and just before the Persian New Year. It was an exciting time of national regeneration and seasonal transformation. Spring had sprung. A new cycle had begun and, for the nation, the vision of an unpresentable future, a future never seen before, was within grasp.

On March 8, 1979, less than two months after a revolution that overthrew Iran’s ruling monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah, International Women’s Day celebrations were held in Iran. This was the first time in over fifty years. While Persian queens had ruled long before the dawn of Islam and a vivid feminist consciousness had coursed through Iranian literature and poetry as early as the nineteenth century, the Shah had banned the celebration of International Women’s Day, decreeing instead that women celebrate the anniversary of his father’s authoritarian, pro-Western ban on public veiling on January 8, 1936.1 And so the choice to celebrate March 8 as International Women’s Day was in itself a symbol of a revolution that women had fought and won, hand in hand with men, against an autocratic Shah. Millett, who had opposed the Shah’s tyrannical rule from the United States, received an invitation to be one of the event’s international speakers. She was the only invited Western speaker to actually arrive.

Time magazine had called Millett the Mao Zedong of the women’s liberation movement in 1970. Her manifesto, Sexual Politics, published in the summer of that year, circulated as the Kapital of the women’s movement. Millett argued in the book that patriarchy was the central organizing structure of society, a “social constant” that organized all other social, political, and economic forms.2 This seminal text, though her first, propelled Millett into the media limelight and effectively “slammed her with an identity” whose weight and responsibility for the movement was too much for her to bear.3 In Iran, less than nine years after the publication of Sexual Politics, her contact with the media, surprisingly, backed her into a similar position, this time with political and diplomatic consequences that few could have imagined given her renown as an international feminist and an ardent pacifist.

Traveling to Iran with her partner, the Canadian journalist Sophie Keir, $1,200 worth of film and audio recording equipment, a duffel bag full of clothes and books, and no money to spare, Millett was burdened with technology and distracted by it at every turn. News clippings from Tehran show Millett with a portable cassette tape recorder in hand, her “memory box,” into which she “whispered” observations on her surroundings as she captured the voices of the Iranian women with whom she joined in six days of protest. With no training in the Persian language, commonly referred to as Farsi by Persian speakers, Millett was a stranger to the instincts of the Iranian women around her (see entries x, xiv, xviii). Her audiocassettes, factory manufactured to pick up all sound, captured an auditory landscape of which she was unconscious: the sentiments of Iranian women everywhere. Millett’s “whisper tapes” thus stored the spectacular soundscape of an unfettered, imaginative, and flickering moment of verve in Iran, until the final order of Millett’s expulsion by the Iranian interim government on the morning of March 18, 1979. The following morning Millett was deported. No charges were recorded.

Millett’s tapes are in many ways monuments to the articulation of a present she recognized as the beginnings of a women’s movement in Iran and, in her estimation, the first record of an independent feminist movement in the Muslim world. Women from around the world—Belgian, Canadian, French, Moroccan, German, Swiss, Italian, Egyptian, Palestinian, Mexican, and American—all were invigorated by the energy of what she witnessed: the movement’s vitality, its resilience, and the courage of Iranian women. “These are the most polished feminists I have ever seen,” Millett said at a press conference in New York City on March 26. “They fought the Shah at the risk of their lives. . . . When we marched, men volunteers—friends, brothers, husbands, lovers—made a circle around us to protect us. These men understood that women’s rights were democratic rights. Those marches were the whole spirit of the insurrection.” That exhilarating charge in Millett’s voice over the international telephone lines, woven into the soundscape that engulfed her as she reported her daily encounters in Iran to feminist comrades all around the world, quite literally woke the international women’s movement up from its sleep. For them, there was a persuasive eloquence in the chants of the Iranian women’s movement—“Azadi, na sharghist, na gharbist, jahanist”—which they only provisionally understood, and this unpresentable vision, wrapped around a sonorous kernel, stirred them into action: “Freedom is neither Eastern nor Western, it is planetary.”4 Galvanized, women flocked together, sometimes in great numbers, to organize demonstrations, telegram their support and encouragement, plan women’s circles, publish newsletters and circulars, telex messages, stage press conferences, meetings, and media events, and to send funds in support of Iranian women.

“Why does one wake up?” asks literary critic Mladen Dolar. “Quite trivially and commonly, one is awoken by a sound, by a noise, by a voice, something that has become too loud and disturbing . . . it can no longer be contained.”5 The sound of “Freedom!” ringing in the voices of millions of women at the dawn of national freedom in Iran had that kind of reverberating charge on women all around the world. Unleashed, their voices arrived, as sound always does, in that unconscious perforation between inside and outside, that “tiny brink between sleep and wakefulness” where, from the margins of a page, an imaginative narrative for a not-yet-present, collective, and planetary future could unfold.6

The Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University houses Millett’s “whisper tapes.” These tapes were meant to capture Millett’s voice, to make a record of what she saw for the book that she intended to write on the Iranian women’s movement. But there is an unconscious layer to her conscious recorded voice that sometimes speaks of things beyond what Millett could comprehend; beneath her whispers are the formidable cries, the unyielding demands, and the captivating debates of Iranian men and women. The voices that I hear as I listen to the tapes in the archive are acousmatic, that is incorporal, bodiless. And as I listen, the clicking sound of Keir’s Nikon camera and her intermittent commentary on the things she is capturing on film as she walks next to Millett anchor the acousmatic voices to the spaces, bodies, and objects surrounding Millett. The click of the camera, in other words, grounds the voices and sounds that I hear to the images I have studied for almost forty years, images of women and men in revolt in the streets and squares of the revolution, the victorious celebration of Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution, as he returns to Iran, and the women’s protests that follow upon his ascent to power. The tapes also record Millett’s regular interactions with members of the French militant feminist group Psychoanalyse et Politique (Psych et Po), a theoretical faction within the larger French women’s liberation movement (Mouvement de Libération des Femmes, or MLF) and the group responsible for the feminist publishing house and bookstore Éditions des Femmes under the leadership of Antoinette Fouque and the patronage of Sylvina Boissonnas (see entries ii and xvii). With the recorder sometimes set in the middle of a table as people speak, next to a phone, held in her hand or hidden in a bag, Millett’s tapes capture her interactions and conversations with Iranian, British, and French activists and journalists from newspapers and media outlets all over the world: Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, Ti-Grace Atkinson (see Figure 5), Claude Servan-Schreiber (see Figure 13), all four powerful feminists whom Millett regularly speaks to on the phone; the unruly American activist Ralph Schoenman; and the journalists Elaine Sciolino, Jonathan Randal, and Terry Graham, with whom she interacts on the ground.

Millett carried her tape recorder with her everywhere, and it was always on. As “whisper tapes,” her recorded cassettes have an intimate character about them, and much like Flying, the autobiographical account she wrote on the early years of the women’s liberation movement in America, they reflect Millett’s inner musings on her surroundings.7 As the auditory unconscious to Millett’s own voice, the tapes also serve as a soundscape of the streets and squares of the revolution. As such, they reveal a weave of everyday life, recording the slogans, demands, and conversations of women and men as they engage with and dive deep into political debates at Tehran University; participate in street marches, rallies, and press conferences; chant their slogans at the state-owned television station in Tehran (see entries iii, vii, xxi), outside the Foreign Ministry (see entries xiii and xiv), and inside the grand hall of the Ministry of Justice; and sit down, often over food and drink, to strategize, debrief, or just relax in various hotel rooms, bedrooms, living rooms, offices, lobbies, restaurants, and automobiles, settings where we can hear the banter, the laughter, the chatter, the mockery, the conviviality, the fears, the giggles, the threats to, and the solidarity among women and men. As I rewind and focus more closely, I take note of the revealing and often contradictory ways in which the voices layer the surrounding sounds and scenery of Millett’s visit to Iran, a visit that according to some later historians of the postrevolutionary period, as well as Iranian feminist scholars, was ill informed of the aspirations of the Iranian Revolution and ambivalent about the sentiments of the anti-imperialist women’s movement that had emerged in Iran in that period (see entry xiv).8

As I listen to the soundscape of Millett’s “whisper tapes,” the voices of these women in protest emerge for me as capable of resuscitating the narrative, theoretical, and political possibilities of a feminism vanquished by identity politics—a politics of recognition that is today wholly divorced from a transformative, collective, and planetary redistributive struggle (see entry xviii).

The sound belongs to two worlds, it embodies the break between the two, and in that break something comes up for a moment that doesn’t belong to either of the two and which only flickers for a moment, and it takes a supreme alertness and mastery to hold on to it, to prolong it, to make a literature out of it, to make sound art of it, to turn it into an object of theoretical pursuit.9—Mladen Dolar


The arrangements to leave the United States for Iran were made in a chaotic flurry: passport, visa, money, tickets, film, tape, and the laundry. Leaving New York on Sunday, March 4, 1979, Millett arrived at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran on March 5 and found herself rather abandoned. Despite assurances by her comrades who had purchased the ticket to Iran, no one had come to the airport to greet Millett, nor had anyone been sent to collect her. This was all quite unexpected. The shock of this first frightening encounter with Iran, a hoped-for adventure for this activist, writer, and feminist, turned into a nightmare that echoed throughout Millett’s stay.

Not knowing where to go, nor what to do, Kate Millett and her partner, Sophie Keir, checked into a Sheraton hotel north of the city, a “disgusting” Western-style modern building. They would soon move into a flat that Millett would refer to as the “unknown apartment,” then to a fellow feminist’s home, and then, later still, into the Hotel InterContinental with a slate of foreigners, some of whom were distant acquaintances from France and the United States: French feminists Claudine Mulard, Sylviane Rey, Michelle Muller, Sylvina Boissonnas, members of the foreign press, and Ralph Schoenman, Bertrand Russell’s former secretary, who was expelled from Iran on March 15 while Millett was still in Tehran, just before her own expulsion.


Millett arrived in Iran as a witness to the birth of an independent Iranian women’s movement and a supporter of the feminists there. She had been asked to come and to bring messages from feminists around the world to the Iranian women for International Women’s Day. As I listen to Millett’s tapes, I notice a prescience from the very start, a premonition of what is to come: an inkling, visceral at heart, that the rights of women would be curtailed in this period of transition, just as they had been in Algeria, where women had fought right alongside men to liberate Algeria from French colonial rule. The case for Iranian women was not wholly different from the conditions witnessed by women in postcolonial Algeria a decade earlier (see entry viii). Some would claim that the insurrection against the Shah drew its inspiration from Frantz Fanon’s writings on revolutionary Algeria and from Gillo Potecorvo’s sublime representation of the early struggles for Algeria’s independence in The Battle of Algiers (see entry v). That is hardly the whole story. But whatever the case may be, Millett believed even before leaving New York that it was only by making a demand for their civil rights, that women would be respected as equals in a collective vision for an emerging postrevolutionary Iran.

Within days of Millett’s arrival in Iran, on March 6, 1979, the respected theologian and Grand Ayatollah, Ruhollah Khomeini, an outspoken anti-Shah agitator at the helm of the revolution, made a religious decree that all women working in the nation’s ministries should wear a chador, the full-length veil (see entries ix and xxiii). Three days earlier, Iran’s postrevolutionary interim government, led by Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, had declared women “too emotional” to be judges.10 And while women had been encouraged to take to the streets with their male comrades and to participate in the anti-Shah demonstrations during the insurrectionary period, Iran’s new provisional government now deemed coeducational schools an evil, an evil that had turned these institutions into “centers of prostitution.” It rapidly moved to segregate the school system at all levels.11 The 1967 Family Protection Act, which made polygamy conditional on the consent of a man’s first wife and divorce accessible to both men and women in the civil courts, was summarily retracted. Barely five weeks into Khomeini’s return from his political exile as the leading voice of the Iranian Revolution, women had already had enough. Seeing their liberties waning, they flocked to the streets in outrage.


The planned celebrations of Women’s Day turned into demonstrations for women’s freedom and for women’s rights. Asked about the Iranian women’s demonstrations by a Canadian journalist at one of the protests held outside the Foreign Ministry, a branch of government from which many women had been expelled in response to Khomeini’s decree on the chador, Millett was effusive: “My God! In thirteen days they have organized thousands of people. It took us years to do that. . . . I think it’s wonderful. It is a spontaneous uprising of thousands and thousands of women, which would have been absolutely inconceivable in the West or for us in the West to have achieved. You see, these women have already been entirely politicized by the uprising so that they are able to take to the streets in outrage by the thousands. For instance, yesterday at the Ministry of Justice the announcement that we would have a demonstration here or that we would march on . . . Monday from Tehran University to Freedom Square was made with a piece of paper being held up, but everybody saw it and they tell everybody else. For us the kind of organizing we’re used to, this is completely novel, the spontaneity of it, the authenticity of it, the absolute grassroots character of it being impossible for the leftist factions to manipulate it or to develop foolishness like media stars and so forth.”


As women’s cry for freedom in street demonstrations displaced the planned celebrations on the campus of Tehran University on March 8, Millett set about making a record. Not knowing Persian, and an outsider to Iranian culture, she demurred at the idea of organizing the Iranian women’s movement. It wasn’t her place, and the Iranian women, having already fought an insurrectionary war against the Shah, were in any event better skilled than she. Instead, Millett positioned herself as an archivist, “a historian,” as she would refer to herself, eager to monumentalize the formation of an independent women’s movement and an international feminist movement with its critical kernel in the revolutionary activities of the women in Iran: “What if we had the voices of the nineteenth-century feminist women now?” Millett muses, and in wonderment shows off the tape recorder’s ability to make a document “instantly” to one of the Iranian feminists sitting next to her at the university on March 15. Millett’s literary monument to the Iranian women’s demonstrations, Going to Iran, was written and published on the basis of her “whispered” recordings on her hand-held cassette player and the photographs that she and Keir took during the women’s protests.


The gesture of monumentalizing the emergence of an independent women’s movement in Iran, less than two months after the fall of the Shah, confronted Millett with issues beyond the language barrier. The culturally induced agnotology on Iran was constitutive.12 Referred to as unknowledge to distinguish it from pure ignorance, agnotology denotes a socially constructed lack of knowledge. The West-oriented Shah had constructed and perpetuated a discourse on Iran as part of his White Revolution that emphasized the status of Iran in the modern world. This image had little basis in the lived reality of Iran, and the constructed unknowledge that was perpetuated around it was meant to bolster the Shah’s power in the world at large (see entry iii). Confronting Millett was a secondary layer of agnotology, the absence of any socially pertinent knowledge of Iran’s Shi’i culture. The Shah’s bête noire at the helm of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, engaged in numerous forms of religiously prescribed tactics that were aimed at both unifying the nation against the Shah and leading the enemies of Islam into a misjudgment of Khomeini’s position (see entries ix and xxxi); cases in point, his perpetuation of the position that an Islamic government had the characteristics of a Western-style democratic government; the pledge to extend freedom to the press, a reality that was absent under the reign of the Shah; the promise of the full equality of women and men (see also entry xxxii). Layering these agnotologies were remnants of a timeworn orientalism that shaped Millett’s own notions of “Persia,” a dreamlike setting whose radical absence confronted her immediately upon her arrival.

Millett landed in Tehran looking for what she knew to be “Persia.” The melody of a French chanson, “Les roses d’Ispahan,” barely recollected in hummed snatches and refrains toward the end of her visit to Iran, had since childhood woven a dreamworld for Millett. “Persia” was for Millett the word for a magnificent world of ancient architecture, the bridges and mosques of Isfahan; a world of courtly love, of mossy-sheathed roses and poets, of cushioned cafés; a world of abundant draped Persian carpets, miniatures, and lacquered mirrors decked with birds and flowers. Millett expected to be greeted by “Persia” when she arrived in Tehran and was dismayed at its absence everywhere.

Listening to the soundscape of Millett’s tapes, it is apparent that two concurrent upheavals, one upending the leadership of the nation with an upcoming referendum on the political character of the new government and its leadership, and the other a calendrical upheaval, springtime in the northern hemisphere, are at work as well. Nowruz, the celebration of spring marking the Iranian New Year, structured the temporal and atmospheric setting of Millett’s visit. Focused on her own agenda, however, Millett seemed largely oblivious to this celebratory ritual of rejuvenation and transformation.

Preparations for the new year began within days of Millett’s arrival; in Persian homes greens were being sprouted in anticipation of the vernal equinox, goldfish put in their bowls, sweets laid at hand, and tables were laden with symbols of a season of purification and transformation. As I listen, this spirit of the new year fills the soundscape of Millett’s whisper tapes with an energy that spells freedom’s blossoming and the newness of a season associated with the renewal of the planet on Nowruz. All around her the blossoming of trees and flowers—the narcissus, the pussy willow, violets, and the sombol—speaks of spring, of the breath of renewal and the unmooring of permanence (see Timeline and entry xxix).

An electoral vote, a referendum on the question of the creation an “Islamic Republic,” is also on the table. The vote had been scheduled for March 31, following Khomeini’s return from his fifteen-year exile on February 1, 1979 (see Timeline). Thus, at work “in the sea of incomprehensible Farsi”13 that was all around Millett were political debates and deliberations that both outlined and impacted the articulation of the Iranian women’s demands and rights, the timing of their articulation, their place within the sociocultural horizon, and their fluidity and transience in relation to the season of regeneration.


Millett’s excursions in Iran occurred within a six-kilometer range of Tehran University (see entry iv). That said, Millett rarely knew where she was in the capital. This was in part because a revolution had swept through a city whose streets, buildings, and monuments had been constructed to pay tribute to the nation’s now-fallen monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah, and his Western backers. As protestors marched the streets of Tehran in the millions in the autumn of 1978 and the winter of 1979, streets were renamed and the monuments to the Shah and his Western allies were reinscribed. Pahlavi Avenue became Mossadeq Avenue, Eisenhower Avenue became Azadi (Freedom) Avenue, and Shahyad (literally, the Shah’s memorial) became Freedom Square. Azadi Avenue ran from Enghelab Square (Revolution Square) to Freedom Square. As I listen on the whisper tapes to the reinscription of the street names and structures in conversations among women as they march, I am puzzled that the Pan-American owned Hotel Inter-Continental—that “den of thieves and spies and pirates” where Millett would have a cold drink, take a bath, and gab—remained intact. To help pay Millett’s hotel bills in Tehran, concerned French feminists would go to the Paris branch of the InterContinental and make deposits. When Millett was eventually harassed by the staff at the Tehran branch, she asked her comrades to contact the French branch and thus help ensure her safety on the property by maintaining pressure on the men who were harassing her. Judging by the way she was picked up at the hotel on the morning of March 18 to be deported—barely up and still in her slippers—global capitalism failed to do what it does best. Neither money nor Millett’s connections with the metropole would grant Millett the kind of protection she expected. When it came down to it, Millett was a stranger and remained an outsider. Having fought and won a revolution against a West-oriented Shah, Iran had declared itself autonomous from Western pressures, and everything around Millett in Tehran, from street to square, spoke of this victory. Despite her considerable knowledge and deep fascination with Iranian architecture and its political unconscious, this was something Millett seemed unable to fathom.


Street names and monuments were not the only societal structures that were shape-shifting around Millett. In the absence of the Shah, revolutionaries had established a provisional government and a series of local committees (or komitehs) that were answerable to the central komiteh in charge of law enforcement and certain social and political actions needing attention in the period of transition. Because of the nature of the revolution and the decision-making structure of the country’s leadership in this period, decisions were malleable and subject to daily pushback and renegotiation. Khomeini’s March 6 decree regarding mandatory veiling for women was, for example, modified by one of the country’s leading theologians, Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani, and later retracted by the interim government on March 11. National newspapers would reassure Iranian women that their rights would be protected (see Timeline). This made the women’s demonstrations planned for Monday, March 12, subject to heated debates, ambivalence, and indecision. What were women demonstrating against if they now took to the streets? What rights were they claiming? Would such demonstrations be seen as counterrevolutionary now? What did the promises of an interim government amount to exactly? How indeed did this turn of events reflect on the upcoming referendum and vote on the formation of an “Islamic Republic”?

An announcement by the transitional government on Thursday, March 15, of its intention to review all television and radio reports leaving the country illustrates this malleability. According to the announcement, which was published in national newspapers, anything larger than 16 mm film would need to be screened by the newly formed komiteh in the government news agency, and American television crews were told that “no film or videotape cassettes would be allowed aboard departing planes” without a letter authorized by the Iranian Ministry of Information.

As Charles T. Powers reported for the Los Angeles Times on Friday, March 16, “the transmission Thursday night went without difficulty, and there was speculation among Western newsmen that the censorship threat might contain more bark than bite. The government here has set a pattern of taking hardline positions and then backing off of them.”14 And yet, by the end of March, Iranian women had completely disappeared from the news cycle. On March 27, eight days after Millett’s expulsion, Walter Lippmann (the “other” Walter Lippmann, an activist in Los Angeles from whom Noam Chomsky would borrow the term “manufacturing consent”), would write the following to Millett:

Dear Kate,

Your presence in Iran certainly helped draw international attention to the struggles of Iranian women as these clips show.

It’s pretty obvious that this is why the ayatollah’s people were anxious to kick you out of the country. Likewise it comes as no surprise that all references to the struggles of the Iranian women have disappeared since your departure.15


Spontaneity and change informed nearly all the activities of the men and women who surrounded Millett during her stay in Iran. New decisions would immediately lead to a shift in tactics; new strategies would be explored; ideas would clash; possibilities would be evaluated and reevaluated to assess outcomes. No one arrived on time; people were left behind all the time; lunch dates had to be canceled, and meetings too. Traffic prevented group departures; checkpoints created hurdles; and komiteh detentions delayed comrades and friends, disrupting carefully planned meetings. Promises were overridden spontaneously. Frustrating. But this chaos ensured that everyone was on their toes and in the flow of sorting things out together, as a group. Leaderless, collective action in social movements is made of this flurry of activity. After all, how does a group learn to get out of a tactical freeze and collectively shift strategies if it hasn’t dealt with the tedious stuff of daily hurdles, negotiations, shifts, and reevaluations? But Millett would repeatedly insist on taking control in the midst of a fluidity she only perceived as chaos.

Because they were always changed at the last minute, announcements, posters, signs, and slogans were inexpensive and unpretentious. There was no need for gloss; most things were handwritten. In crowds, signs would be held up high overhead, seen, and noted. Then they’d disappear. Different signs would take their place with new messages carrying different or additional information. The beautiful silkscreen poster designed to announce the Women’s Day celebrations at which Millett had been invited to speak was turned back to front in the snow outside a Tudeh (communist party) rally on March 7, the new date and place for the rescheduled talk being scrawled on it. That announcement attracted two thousand women to the Shah Reza Kabir high school for International Women’s Day.

Such documents, leaflets, pamphlets, and daily newspapers in Persian and English were promised Millett at rallies or in the course of conversations. But things moved quickly and plans changed just as fast. People forgot to follow through; the papers were used for scraps, as to-do lists, food wrappings, and speakers’ notes at rallies, and then disappeared just as quickly. On the tapes, I hear Millett complaining to Keir about this all the time: “People who say, ‘I’ll give you the newspaper tomorrow. Do you know how hard it is to get yesterday’s newspaper now? It’s gone forever! . . . You pick it up then or you never pick it up. It’s the same with posters and any other documents you need. . . . You don’t postpone that. It’s like saying you’ll take a bath next week and you’re dirty now.”

A notorious collector of protest paraphernalia and a quintessential Virgo, Millett just couldn’t deal with the chaos.16


While Millett was assigned a translator for most of the rallies, sitins, and street demonstrations she attended, the women and men who were engaged for this purpose were comrades, mostly feminists or friends from her anti-Shah agitations as a member of the Committee for Artistic and Intellectual Freedom in Iran (CAIFI). They were not interpreters. They missed parts of talks, got wrapped up chanting slogans, got into heated debates or interesting conversation with others around them. They forgot to translate some things and mistranslated others.

But the problem was more insidious than the mere question of language. The demands of the women’s movement were part and parcel of the revolution that the men and women around Millett had fought. And the people had come out victorious. The question on the table was what was next? How would that translate into a new future? The constitution of a new republic inhered in and sprung from this as-yet-unpresentable vision. Without access to Persian, it was next to impossible for Millett to enter and exit rapidly moving deliberations, to grasp the narrative arc of a strategy in the making, and to sift through and predict with accuracy whether what was being said would eventually lead to an action, a vote, a march, a collective agreement, or a massive fight. A street demonstration would be called for one minute and called off the next. Then suddenly, as if out of nowhere, people would proceed to march inside the courtyard of the university. All this was puzzling from the outside.

For me, this sense of disjuncture is less obvious in reading the book than it is in listening to the tapes. Listening to the sounds and voices surrounding Millett, I can hear how she, an outsider, is out of sync with what is right in front of her. Many of the actions taking place around her arise from a collective vision, spontaneously sometimes. I hear ideas and strategies being debated politically and weighted in light of Iran’s long and tumultuous history. They are agreed upon and quickly put into action. Meanwhile, Millett, who is in the foreground of my hearing, is “talking up” the dramatic effects of a march in the international media landscape with anyone who cares to engage with her in English (see entry xxviii). The distance between what preoccupies Millett and what is being debated around her is at times so vast that the impact of her words and actions in these moments would have been difficult for her to gauge without a good command of the language and a solid sense of the weight and significance of the matters which are at the heart of the cultural and political atmosphere of the time.

By the midmorning of March 8, Millett would leave the grounds of Tehran University because the celebration of International Women’s Day she had planned to attend was filled to capacity. She had arrived at Ferdows Auditorium too late for the ceremony that was hosted by the women’s group Jamiyat-e zanan-e mobarez and was frustrated (see Timeline and entries iv and xxvi). Other groupings, meetings, and debates were taking place around campus, but she and Keir ran into the French feminist Claudine Mulard and decided to leave the grounds for the Inter-Continental. Shortly after, a group of women climbed the iron gates of the university and joined a demonstration of five thousand women that would take their protests against the veil to the central komiteh and the national ministries in Tehran. It was a watershed moment, but Millett missed it. The Iranian women’s decision to leave the university to protest had occurred spontaneously, probably out of a nearby debate that Millett had unconsciously ignored, and the gates they had climbed had been chained and locked just as spontaneously by supporters of Khomeini’s decree on veiling. When she later learned about the women climbing the university gates, Millett would repeatedly speak with regret of having missed “the picture” (see entry xx). She believed it to be a moment that would have monumentalized the women’s movement on the front page of every major newspaper.


No one seems to have taken that picture, in fact. Had Millett and Keir remained at the university, would they have made a record of that monumental event? The answer to that question is unclear to me. As I listen to Millett’s tapes, what is absolutely certain is that the sound equipment will malfunction at any moment (see entry xviii): sounds disappear and reappear; the microphone is covered by fabrics and leather bags; batteries go dead, speeding up voices and sounds. Tape runs out and a conversation continues from side A to side B. Keir announces that she needs help changing film, and she and Millett move away from a still ongoing conversation in Persian, which I am completely wrapped up in, to avoid being jolted or trampled on. I’ll never know, for example, if the woman to whom I was listening as she loudly debated one of the men in the courtyard of the university managed to convince him to join forces with the women and protest the obvious censorship of the women’s demands from national television (see entry vii). As Millett moves away from their voices, the cries of a massive crowd fill my headphones from a far distance, their voices denouncing the head of National Iranian Radio and Television, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh: “Marg bar Ghotbzadeh!” (see entries vii and xxvi). When Millett and Keir are done changing the film and return to the scene of the gripping debate, a group of men and women have staged a photo-op for the press with a big sign in both Persian and English reading, we want equal rights! In the distance I can hear Keir’s still camera clicking photographs and winding film. Schoenman is also there with his camera.

The ability to stop, rewind, rerecord, and fast-forward on hand-held recording devices connects times and otherwise disjointed spaces. This happens on the tapes as I listen. Millett does this consciously sometimes, and at other times it seems reflexive, absentminded. The unwinding and fast-forwarding of the tapes unmoor the predictability of the things I take as tangibles, things we all take for granted: this moment, that time, this person, that space. Spaces and people appear and disappear, sometimes randomly because of the technology itself.

A rewinding of that sort occurs in one of the most stunning documentaries from the revolutionary period. It is the 1979 film Baray-e Azadi, in which the Shah’s opulent coronation is played in reverse. The monumentalized time of the Shah’s reign is scrambled in the film. The recording technologies that the people have appropriated for the revolution are used not only to capture the crowds in revolt, but also now to disrobe the Shah of his stolen riches. This writing of wrongs through the inscriptive technologies of the revolution is like an act of redemption of the sort the literary theorist Walter Benjamin refers to in his “Theses on the Concept of History.” It is akin to a messianic return as well, one that inheres in the temporal consciousness of Iran’s messianic Shi’ism—a righting of all wrongs that takes place by resurrecting the past in the present. It is a consciousness enfolded in both the philosopher Jacques Derrida’s and the feminist literary critic Gayatri Spivak’s notions of teleopoiesis, a transformative crossing into a self one could never imagine being capable of becoming and doing so on behalf of an as-yet-unseen future.

Losing their objective distance from the events they are recording, and too their chronological sequence, by the press of an FF button, Millett’s tapes upend the earthbound qualities of inscription, preservation, and monumentalization and reassign to these supposedly “archival technologies” other properties, properties associated with “erasure and ephemerality,” measures of flux that in sociocultural terms are deeply connected with the sea change of upheaval and revolution.17


It has been common to trace the Iranian Revolution to Khomeini’s innovative use of the cassette tape and the sermons that were telephoned onto tape from his home while in exile in Paris. These tapes, in which Khomeini hurled insults at the Shah and demanded the monarch’s immediate departure from Iran, were broadcast over loudspeakers at mosques and played loudly over the noise of traffic on city streets in Iran. While the cassette tape was, admittedly, indispensable as an instrument in the awakening of the Iranian Revolution, its technology also served as a simulacrum for the populism of the insurrection against the Shah. The cassette tape, in other words, stood on the one hand as the material realization of a movement’s revolutionary commitment to something other than the Shah, something else besides. On the other hand, there was also a publicly held idea that the voices of nightly protests in the period of insurrection against the Shah were actually recorded voices, canned voices on cassette tapes. This was a denial in fact of the people’s very real opposition to the Shah and a form of technological agnotology constructed by the Shah’s regime about the revolutionary voices of the millions who climbed their rooftops at night in protest during the course of the Iranian Revolution. The novelty of the technology gave unjustified credence to ideas and information shrewdly manufactured to highlight the ephemerality of the people’s discontent.

In spite of the important correspondences between Khomeini’s revolutionary audio recordings and the impact of his recorded voice on his charismatic leadership, the equivalences made between the technology of the cassette tape and the people’s revolutionary fervor remain relatively underdeveloped. The discourse on the cassette tape is a discourse on the acousmatic voice: on the disembodied slogans, sermons, declarations, objections, actions, sounds, instructions, sentiments, impulses, questions, responses, and rituals. What is required is work that recognizes the capacity of the acousmatic to generate a narrative landscape that emerges from the margin, to invigorate a collective will for an unpresentable future. This work, which I see as being largely informed by the writings of the literary theorist Mladen Dolar on the voice and the unconscious, still remains to be done.

“There is,” as Dolar notes, “something acousmatic in every sound, not merely in the sense that one more often than not doesn’t see its spatial source and merely makes a guess about it . . . but in a more emphatic sense: even when one does see the source and location, the discrepancy between this source and its sound effect still persists—there is always more in the sound than meets the eye.”18 Millett’s voice from Iran and the auditory unconscious of its surroundings provided the bodiless, acousmatic sounds that would spawn imaginative narratives among feminists elsewhere. But the rumored voices of these women, often heard from a distance by foreign correspondents who were in Iran for the “oil story” and who were on the whole too comfortable to leave their hotel rooms and press conferences, were equally generative of the most outlandish theories about Iranian women and their movement. Fabulations dwell in the acousmatics of sound. Just think of The Wizard of Oz, or even Cyrano de Bergerac. Millett, who became close to the women she saw in Iran, insisted that it was necessary for the foreign press to close the gap that held the flesh-and-blood reality of the women they wrote about at bay with dinging typewriters, long lenses, and purportedly objective perspectives (see entry xiv). At the press conference she held along with the French feminists Mulard and Boissonnas and the Iranian feminist Kateh Vafadari, Millett would insist on an embodied solidarity that could close the gap of fantasy and ensure the security of a people standing for freedom on a planetary scale.

“We are here concretely,” they said to the press as they invited them to join in the street demonstrations on March 12. “We are here concretely with our voices, our ears, our bodies—given to the Iranian women.”


What follows are thirty-two entries based on the thirty-two letters of the Persian alphabet, each introducing words and numbers that are drawn from the contexts that Millett encountered in Iran.

After she left Iran, Millett would admit that when she realized that her hotel phone at the InterContinental was tapped, she carried out some of her conversations in code, resorting to a combination of symbolism (“double wedding” for the number two) and roman numerals. I have numbered each entry in the book with a roman numeral and followed each with a letter from the Persian alphabet along with a word or a number that begins with that letter—a lesson in the Persian language, essentially, drawn from words and concepts that appear in the auditory unconscious of the whisper tapes. Although the interpretive entries that follow from there are in numerical and alphabetical order, the content of the entries breaks with chronology, making rapid shifts in location. Thus, the entries mirror the capacities of Millett’s own hand-held recording technologies to not only record the present but also fast-forward and rewind, revisiting a moment or the one that follows it again and again, while erasing others.

Millett’s own use of these tapes to write Going to Iran would make my rendition of her musings redundant. But in drawing on the soundscape surrounding Millett’s own voice, layered beneath her whispers, what I attempt in Whisper Tapes is to replay what Millett saw and heard in postrevolution Iran. Formulated as an “interpretive guide” following the letters of the Persian alphabet, the book performs retrospectively as Millett’s guidebook to the demands of postrevolutionary Iran, to its slogans, its habits, its foods, and to the Iranian women’s movement—a movement some have claimed she never came to understand (see for example entries iii, xi, xiv, xxvi, xxx). Her audiocassettes capture Iranian women’s instincts and dreams everywhere she went. Most importantly, then, the book serves as an agnotology, a study of the culturally induced ignorance of Iran in the face its obvious, assertive, and eloquent presence.


I can only imagine by what processes of divination Millett’s telephonic codes were deciphered on a line that was often staticky, regularly disrupted, and clumsily dropped. But Millett was in Iran just before Nowruz (see entry xxi). This is said to be an auspicious season for making wishes and predicting their fulfillment. Falgush is one form of divination performed before the New Year and names the activity of listening in, from a fence or a dark corner, to the conversations of others, interpreting their words as codes and symbols in answer to the listener’s wishes or her unanswered questions. In writing an “interpretive guide” to Millett’s trip to Iran, I imagine the play of the falgush in the season of regeneration as perhaps what best captures what I do as I listen to Millett’s whisper tapes.

There is another form of divination associated with the period of renewal, Nowruz. It involves the eating of a certain mix of nuts—the Ajil-e moshkel-gosha.19

On Thursday, March 15, 1979, as the women began to leave the university to attend to their families and their preparations for Nowruz, someone handed Millett a bag of “problem-solving nuts.” Millett immediately turned on her cassette deck to record the moment for posterity:

“It seems at the New Year they have a . . . (little radio reporter here; everybody is laughing at me, but I’m reporting . . . )—that at the New Year they have a kind of nut that we are eating now, and someone has some in a bag and we’re all eating them now and they’re called in Persian ‘a problem-solving nut.’

A voice translates, “Ajil-e moshkel-gosha,” into Persian.

“They open every problem,” another confirms in English.

“She has problems,” Millett’s translator Taraneh giggles, teasing Millett in English.

Joining in, Millett laughs. “We all have problems now. We need a lot of these nuts.”

“It’s five-thirty now,” someone in the background reminds her friends in Persian, and this news of the lateness of the evening reverberates on Millett’s tape and against the stone walls that deck the hallway of the university where she has spent most of the day. Millett offers her bag of nuts to the Iranian feminist Kateh Vafadari, who approaches from one of her many meetings, and Millett tries to console her, “for the problems, Kateh. For the problems.” Vafadari, who misses the gist of the reference, asks one of her comrades in Persian, Migam . . . chi shodeh? “I mean . . . what’s happened? What’s happening?”

At play, in a dark corner inside Millett’s whisper box, I was listening. This is what I heard. . . .


1. Due to variations in the Iranian calendar, this day would have been celebrated on January 7 in the year 1979.

2. Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (New York: Ballantine Books, 1978 [1970]), 31.

3. Kate Millett, Flying (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990 [1972]), 23.

4. “Fantasy functions as a provisional understanding of something which eludes understanding.” Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 136.

5. Mladen Dolar, “The Burrow of Sound,” Differences 22, nos. 2–3 (2011): 129.

6. For an evocative understanding of what I mean by “planetary,” see Spivak Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, s.v. “Planetarity,” in Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, ed. Barbara Cassin (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 2014), 1223.

7. Millett, Flying.

8. See, in particular, Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, Foucault in Iran: The Islamic Revolution and the Enlightenment (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017); and Nima Naghibi, Rethinking Global Sisterhood: Western Feminism and Iran (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

9. Dolar, “Burrow of Sound,” 129–30.

10. See the transcript of the interview with Mehdi Bazargan in “Comité International du Droit des Femmes (C.I.D.F.) Présidente: Simone de Beauvoir, Les iraniennes dans la Révolution (rapport de la delegation du C.I.D.F. en Iran. 19–22 Mars 1979),” in Nasser Mohajer and Mahnaz Matin, Khizesh-e zanān dar Esfand 1357 [Iranian women’s uprising in March 1979], vol. 2 (Paris: Noqteh, 2013), 38–39.

11. See Golnar Mehran, Gender and Education in Iran (Paris: UNESCO, 2004),; and also Eric Leif Davin’s report, “Iranian Women: Women Protest Loss of Freedoms in the Revolution,” In These Times, March 21–27, 1979, 9.

12. Irvin C Schick, The Erotic Margin: Sexuality and Spatiality in Alteritist Discourse (New York: Verso, 1999), 48–49.

13. Kate Millett, Going to Iran (New York: Coward, McCann, & Geoghegan, 1982), 245.

14. Charles T. Powers, “News Film Leaving Iran Faces ‘Review,’Los Angeles Times, Friday, March 16, 1979, I:20.

15. Lippmann’s letter is part of the Kate Millett Papers in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University.

16. I should have known this from looking through the near-encyclopedic collection of papers that are now in the Sallie Bingham Women’s History archives, but the fact that Millett was a Virgo only registered for me when I read that she had died in Paris a week before her eighty-third birthday on September 6, 2017. Keir, who was in Paris celebrating her own birthday that week, is just as meticulous. I hear her on the tapes carefully taking down notes at the end of each day on the films and audiotapes the couple has recorded in Iran, then stowing them away.

17. On the question of “erasure and ephemerality,” much of my discussion in this segment is inspired by Melody Jue’s brilliant dissertation, “Wild Blue Media: Thinking through Seawater” (PhD dissertation, Duke University, 2015).

18. Dolar, “Burrow of Sound,” 13.

19. In “What Are the Iranians Wishing For?” Sara Mameni writes about the Ajil-e moshkel-gosha in the context of solidarity and melancholia. I have greatly benefited from Mameni’s discussions of and insights into both Foucault’s and Millett’s visits to Iran. Sara Mameni, “What Are the Iranians Wishing For? Queer Transnational Solidarity in Revolutionary Iran,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 43, no. 4 (Summer 2018): 955–78.