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  • Sevinc Səmədzadə

Feminist revolution in Iran - "You cannot force people to your paradise!"


Women burn hijab at a protest in Bandar Abbas over the death of Mahsa Amini. | Credit: Courtesy

We, as leftist feminists from Azerbaijan, express full solidarity with this feminist revolutionary process in our immediate geography and want to share how important its ideas, tactics and demands are to us. We stand with our sisters from different ethnic groups in Iran, and we hope that this struggle will serve as a historic moment for feminist struggles in the wider region and show that our feminist utopias are still attainable even without reaching their most perfect results.

On September 16, 2022, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested and tortured 3 days ago by the "morality police" in Iran, claiming that she did not wear the hijab according to the rules, died. In response to this, women started a new revolutionary process by raising their voices and protesting against the police and the regime that control and murder women's bodies.


An ethnic Kurd, Mahsan's Kurdish name is "Jina," which means "life" in Kurdish. "Jina" is a term that has been politicized by Kurdish women in Turkey and Rojava since 2013, and it is both a theoretical and a practical basis of local feminism. Thus, today the slogan "Jin, Jiyan, Azadî (Woman, Life and Freedom)", which we heard in feminist marches in Turkey, and from women fighting against ISIS in Rojava, became the main slogan of mass protests in Iran this time. The politicization of decolonial and anti-imperialist feminism in the Middle East and the push for revolutionary processes continue to show how feminism has become a broader collective force at the intersection of other struggles. The continuous protests of the last weeks since Mahsa/Jina's murder, are the beginning of a feminist revolution.


Mahsa Jina Amini

First of all, a revolution is related to, but not limited to, any regime change, uprising, or reform program. What makes the revolution different from them is that it is not a temporary social change but a permanent process. This permanent change requires specific visions and ideologies to create the utopias we want to achieve. In this process, daily life is reorganized by destroying the pre-revolutionary order and creating new political, economic and symbolic relations (Lawson, 2019, p.5). The revolution and the social transformations that come with it are a collective mobilization that leads to the future that we want to reach, i.e. utopia. Thomas More (2003/ 1516) famously classified utopias in their possibility to achieve a better world and our collective belief that it can take place. And the beginning of this alternative future requires collective rage, hope and solidarity.


For the generation and their successors who experienced another revolution in 1978-1979 and whose utopias soon turned into dystopias, the demand for political and social change has reached an existential level in 44 years. Ayatollah, who came to power in February 1979, soon began to subvert the progressiveness of the revolution by turning it against minorities, opposition and women (Moghadam, 1997, p.114). In response to this, on March 8, 1979 - International Women's Day, mostly middle-class leftist and liberal Iranian women held protest marches against the mandatory hijab, by rejecting the revolution to transition into such a reactionary state and demanding: "Either our heads will be covered or our heads will be injured," "We did not make a revolution to go back" (Moghadam, 1997, p. 114). After these protests, the decree making the hijab mandatory was suspended for a while, but soon after the leftists and liberals were removed from power in 1980, the hijab became mandatory in 1981. In addition to Khomeini and the Islamist media, who called the women protesting on the street the supporters of imperialism that obeyed "Western culture", in fact, the leftists also saw the issue of the compulsory hijab and women's rights as "secondary" in the fight against imperialism, and the constant warnings of women were overshadowed[2].

On March 8, 1979, Iranian women's celebration of International Women's Day became a protest against Khomeini's new decree on compulsory hijab.

Nevertheless, the struggles against oppression, including gendered subordination did not stop for 44 years and people continued to raise their voices of protest despite state repression. Although these protests were mainly due to economic reasons, the protest against the mandatory hijab and the related debate had been going on for some time. Especially in the last 5 years, starting from 2017, the issue of compulsory hijab became relevant again within the protests that expanded due to economic reasons. On December 27, 2017, after Vida Muvahad protested by taking off her white hijab and wearing it as a flag on Ingilab (Revolution) Street in Tehran, many women joined the protest by removing their hijabs both on the street and on social media under the name "Girls of Ingilab Street". At the same time, despite the fact that during Rouhani's presidency (2013-2021) certain reformist efforts were said to have relatively eased the prohibitions on the mandatory hijab, control and violence clearly increased with the rise to power of the hard-liner Raisi. Recently, state terrorism against queers has been on the rise as well, and in early September of this year, 2 queer activist women, Zahra Seddiği and Ilham Chobdar, were also sentenced to death.


In general, in recent years, there are a few studies showing that the majority of people in Iran do not have a positive attitude towards being a religious state and the mandatory hijab. In one of the independent polls conducted in 2020, it is shown that 72% of the population is against the mandatory hijab (GAMAAN, 2020). In other words, the use of political Islam as a tool to maintain power has created enough rage. As Collective 98 [3] said, "The Islamic Republic is already dead in the minds of its people; now people should really kill it". Therefore, today, in addition to economic issues, other forms of domination - oppression against ethnic groups, and against women and queers - have become the central issues of protests. With women burning their hijabs in recent protests and the majority of the population coming out against the mandatory hijab, the regime's long-used "pseudo-anti-imperialist" narratives have been fully revealed as illegitimate. Of course, the regime that still tries to alienate women's struggles with this discourse by calling them pro-imperialist and Western-affiliated, actually along with its local one per cent oligarchy follows World Bank directives and IMF discipline, keeps workers and their few unions under control and creates a low-wage market for capital, making itself an integral part of capitalist-imperialist order (Bouzari, 2018). At the same time, although many years of sanctions are presented as a result of the regime's conflict with the West, it is clear that these sanctions have mostly brought severe economic consequences for the lower class and have not had the effect of reducing the regime's power.


However, by the same token, some liberal feminists in the west see women's struggles in Iran within their own identity politics and any regime change as ideally a return to pre-1979, in other words, a return to the colonial and capitalist order. In Iran, the compulsory hijab is not outside of class rule and capitalist patriarchy and is one of its methods. Therefore, those who try to separate the feminist struggles in Iran from class struggles and only oppose political Islam merely instrumentalize women's voices and activities. Equating the burning of the hijab in protests with fascist Islamophobia, or setting these struggles against religious freedom, is another orientalist nonsense. Some Islamophobes on the other side of mandatory hijab are imposing the same patriarchal oppression of domination and body politics on women's bodies by banning the hijab.


Today we are witnessing a feminist revolution in Iran. These protests could be the beginning of new hope, in other words, "the beginning of the end" of the 44-year-old regime. Expressing this in their call on September 25, 2022, the "Teachers Seeking Justice" group notes that an obvious revolutionary phase has already begun and that there is no solution other than revolution. In the last few weeks, teachers, students, and workers have actively joined protests all over Iran. Repression is the only tool of the regime, which is ideologically unable to calm people's anger and cannot offer reform. The regime, which has violently suppressed protests and killed 215 people to date, including 27 children, is trying to quell the uprisings by both the police and the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) to maintain control. In the mass protests against the increase in gasoline prices in 2019[4], known as "Bloody November", these forces killed up to 1500 people[5] and completely cut off the Internet throughout the country and they of course do not hesitate to use extensive violence and torture now as well. However, these repressions at the same time create the ground for the revolutionaries to start a militant struggle. Because if revolutions aim to change the existing oppressive and violent order, power and domination, it seems inevitable to use violence to face the oppressor (Fanon, 1963, p.37).



The protests in Iran with the name of Jina, turning into a struggle for "life", give us several results for understanding the feminist revolution and seeing its transnational power. These outcomes reaffirm the main theses for the feminist revolution proposed by Veronica Gago, the leader of the #NiUnaMenos[6] (not one more woman (dead)) movement, which started in Argentina. We can look at some of these theses in conclusion.


First, feminist revolutions rediscover political transversality, that is, overlapping and intersecting political demands, by building connections between different movements in different spaces and experiences. Mahsa's murder became a collective outburst of rage of oppressed women, ethnic groups, and workers. From this point of view, we see that women's freedom and the struggle against gender oppression stand at the center of the people's demand for freedom, parallel to the class struggle.


Second, feminist struggles that combine revolutionary demands with strikes, street actions, and political campaigns eliminate the dichotomy between reform and revolution. Iranian feminists, who reject all proposed reforms within the capitalist patriarchal regime, are now expressing their demands in a revolutionary way, taking off their hijabs, waving them in the air, and burning them at barricades against police violence.


Third, the feminist revolution goes beyond including women in the revolution and instrumentalizing their representation. It is precisely when we look at the history of Iran that we see how the revolutionary nature of the protests of this time differs from the previous ones, that women's rights are no longer a "secondary" issue, but a central issue and a revolutionary force. Women are not just participants in the revolution, they are the leaders and the cause, and they do not accept any change that does not oppose gender oppression.


The results of this feminist revolution depend on both domestic and international developments. Internally, the activities of other leftist struggles with which feminism intersects politically, and the coordination between movements and the expansion of strikes are imperative. Mass strikes will render the regime's repression ineffective at some point. Internationally, it is very important to provide solidarity and support. Of course, this support is mainly to convey the voices inside in a fair way and to show the necessary mobilization to the local needs [7] .




Appendix: Kurdish Left Feminists on the Feminist Uprising in Iran [8]

A statement written and signed by leftist feminists from Kurdistan on the current feminist insurrection in Iran.


You are hearing our voice from Kurdistan. This is a collective voice of leftists and marginalized feminists from a geography whose history is marked by discrimination, imprisonment, torture, execution, and exile. This has been the case since the early days of the 1979 Revolution. We are Kurdish women and queer people who inherited a history that is not only full of violence but also of struggle and resistance. We have always had to fight on multiple fronts: in one battleground, against the patriarchy of Kurdish and non-Kurdish men, and in the other one, against the regime’s Islamist fundamentalism and the imposition of its gendered hierarchy. Against the chauvinist feminists, we have been fighting very hard to articulate gender oppression in its intersectionality with various forms of domination imposed upon us as ethnic-national minority.


Today, we are all witnessing a feminist revolution in Iran in terms of form and content. The Kurdish slogan of “Jin—Jiyan—Azadî” (“Women—Life—Freedom”) has become the central refrain of this cycle of struggles, giving it a new and fresh life. We express our uncompromising support for the struggles of the people in Iran, especially for the women’s courageous and unstoppable fights on the streets. Since the current uprising is born out of Jina Amini’s killing by state femicide, we would like to name this uprising after Jina: “the movement of Jina” [“the movement for life”]. The name Jina in Kurdish means both life and life-giving, reminding us of Jiyan, the middle term of the slogan now chanted everywhere. For us, Jina is an appropriate name because we believe “Berxwedan jiyan e” [a reference to the Kurdish slogan, “life is resistance”].


This uprising has not only elevated the question of gendered and sexual oppression to a public concern but also shown in practice how gendered, ethnic, and class forms of oppression can be articulated in a radical manner, namely as mutually interrelated. This political articulation has enabled the protestors to form a strong and united front against dictatorship, political Islam, chauvinism, patriarchy, and the domination of capital. Those women and queer people who have brought social struggles from the so-called “private” sphere to the “public” sphere, from the domestic domain to the streets, are genuinely inspiring to us, for they have shown that the liberation from patriarchy, the state, and capital are deeply intertwined.

Let us not forget that we are at a critical conjuncture, a crucial turning point in history. Jina has become our common code, uniting us in these multi-faceted and difficult circumstances. We see ourselves as part of the social movements that seek justice for the killing of all Jinas, especially the feminist and leftist movement that opposes femicide and queer killing, whilst also taking a stand against “exclusive nationalisms” (be it on the side of the left or the right).


“Jin—Jiyan—Azadî” originally appeared in the struggles of Kurdish women in Turkey and recently became one of the main slogans in Rojava; in Iran, it spread in the blink of an eye to every corner of the whole country. What is inspiring about the slogan is that it can overcome the borders historically established by colonial and imperialist forces in the Middle East—just as the Kurdish, a nation without the state, have done in the region, especially Kurdish women. We take this transnational and transborder unity as indicative of the strength of the Kurdish women’s movement, indeed as a bright omen. Just as we see ourselves as an integral part of the women’s protests and queer communities in Iran, so too, we utilize the buildup of women’s and queer people’s historical experiences in other parts of Kurdistan in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. “Jin—Jiyan—Azadî,” traditionally used in the funeral of Kurdish martyrs, is now chanted in the funeral of our martyr, Jina Amini. This enables us to speak of women’s power, subjectivity, and courage in their fight against the patriarchal forces driven by death and enslavement.


Sparked by the state femicide of Jina, the current uprising quickly turned into a movement against mandatory Hijab in particular and in favor of overthrowing of the regime more generally. The movement has been able to challenge, indeed to deconstruct, the prevailing narratives and images depicting Kurdish women as well as the women of other ethnicities in Iran, in two specific respects. First, the nationalist’s racist misrepresentation of ethnic minority women as simply puppets in the hands of political parties with no agency of their own. Second, the Western orientalist view of Middle East women.


The regime’s repressions and atrocities are not news to anyone. Since its violent establishment in the aftermath of the 1979 Revolution, the Islamic republic’s response to all social conflicts has always been repression—namely, the imprisonment and the killing of protesters. Like many other people in Iran, hundreds of women and feminist activists have been arrested during the past two weeks and are in prison now. Women and queer people, however, have shown that fear can no longer prevent them from participating in the various movements growing in society. They can and already have become the pioneers of overthrowing masculine dictators and oligarchs in the region as a whole.

What is happening now in Iran promises the beginning of a new historical era of fighting against violence, fundamentalism, and deprivation of the right to life. We consider ourselves part of this movement, inviting the leftist and feminist/queer groups throughout the region and the Global South to join us in this war. We are calling for Kurdish, Turkish, Arab, and Baloch feminists to join us in order to redefine the intersectionality of the various forms of domination imposed upon all of us in a progressive manner, namely: beyond the patriarchal formulations of ethnic oppression. We also call for the anti-capitalist and anti-racist feminists in the “West” and other part of the world to support our cause and stand beside us. The ideals of freedom and emancipation cannot be realized without reclaiming the right to our lives; this is what precisely echoes in Jin—Jiyan—Azadî. Our feminist revolution is following this slogan very carefully, thereby demanding a genuinely global solidarity for its realization in practice.






References:

Bouzari R. (2019), Iranian pseudo anti-imperialism, Open Democracy Iranian pseudo anti-imperialism | openDemocracy

CBC R. (2019), The Stolen Revolution: Iranian Women of 1979 | CBC Radio

Crimethink (2022), Revolt in Iran : The Feminist Resurrection and the Beginning of the End for the Regime CrimethInc. : Revolt in Iran : The Feminist Resurrection and the Beginning of the End for the Regime

Fanon, F. (1963), The Wretched of the Earth, Farrington, C. (trans.), Grove Press, New York, USA

Gago, V. (2020). Feminist International. Verso. Eight Theses on the Feminist Revolution - Toward Freedom

GAMAAN (2020), Iranians’ attitudes toward religion: A 2020 survey report GAMAAN-Iran-Religion-Survey-2020-English.pdf

IHR (2022), Iran Protests: At Least 215 People Including 27 Children Killed Iran Human Rights | Article: Iran Protests: At Least 215 People Including 27 Children Killed | (iranhr.net)

Krauss J. (2022), AP news, What kept Iran protests going after first spark? EXPLAINER: What kept Iran protests going after first spark? | AP News

Lawson, G. (2019). Introduction: The Rights and Wrongs of Revolution. In Anatomies of Revolution (pp. 1-18). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 9781108482684_excerpt.pdf (cambridge.org)

Moghadam V. (1997), Gender and Revolutions, “The case of Iran” Theorizing Revolutions - Google Böcker

More, T. (2003/1516), Utopia (London: Penguin)

RFE/RL (2022). Two Iranian Women Sentenced To Death For LGBT Activism Two Iranian Women Sentenced To Death For LGBT Activism (rferl.org)





Notes: [1] This article was primarily inspired by an article published by Crimethink in collaboration with Collective 98. Link to read the article (in English).

[2] Link to read more about the 1979 Iranian feminist protests and watch a short film.

[3] Collective 98, an anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian group focused on struggles in Iran, takes its name from the "Aban 98" uprising that broke out in November 2019 - 1398 according to the Iranian calendar, and expanded after the assassination of Mahsa/Jina Amini.

[4] For information on the November 2019 uprising, see Collective 98's statement published in Roar magazine and signed by over 100 militants, activists and academics.

[5] The exact number of those killed is still unknown. Amnesty International confirms that at least 304 people died, but Reuters reports the number at 1,500.

[6] Ni una menos (Not one more woman (dead)) is a fourth-wave feminist movement that emerged in Argentina and spread throughout Latin America. The movement has organized strikes and online campaigns against state and non-state femicide, gender-based violence, abortion, sex workers and transgender rights.

[7] To follow events in Iran, you can follow Collective 98 on Instagram, SarKhatism/ and Blackfishvoice on Telegram (all three in Farsi), and the websites of Slingers Collective and the Kurdistan Human Rights Network (both in English).

[8] This statement is not from the original written Persian, but its English translation published on the Crimethink platform.

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