by Dara Salam
The protests in Iran were instigated by the death of the 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Jina Amini on September 16, at the hands of the Iranian regime’s morality police, a force most despised by women across Iran, as they enforce women’s hijab under the religious edict of “Enjoining good and forbidding evil”.
The protests that initially happened in the Kurdish cities following a day of strike spread to other cities including in the capital, Tehran, and other major cities. Although this was not the first time that Iran’s police and security forces had killed women and men for various reasons in previous protests and unrests, none of those had caused such a strong backlash and rage among people against the regime. What was different this time?
The Iranian revolution in 1979 is considered a watershed in the modern history of Iran, which brought millions of people from different segments of society to the streets of major cities to demand the fall of the Shah regime. This revolutionary act by people led to the fall of a monarchical and autocratic regime.
However, what this revolutionary collective act had produced was not a progressive paradigm shift and did not bring greater prospects of freedom that people hoped for. It, rather, produced a reactionary shift from an autocratic, ostensibly secular, monarchy to the establishment of an Islamic theocratic regime that repressed all kinds of freedom.
What is remarkable about this shift is that it was not revolutionary. Although it led to the complete change of the regime, it didn’t revolutionise the minds of people and didn’t bring about an emancipatory paradigm and worldview.
One can legitimately argue that the first segment of society that fell victim to this new regime have been women, whose plight have been artistically captured by the Persepolis graphic novel and animated film. The plight of the Kurds in Iran has also been chillingly narrated in Ava Homa’s novel.
The 1979 act of collective rebellion did change the regime, but it created the conditions for a greater subjugation of women. The Islamic counterrevolution not only has enforced the Islamic code of attire on women, but it has institutionalised, religiously and politically, the various inequalities in which women have been positioned.
Some have doubted that the current protests, ignited by Jina Amini’s murder, could be seen as a revolution if they don’t lead to regime change. What is important to grasp is that change has already occurred, that is, the rise of so many young women leading the protests and burning their headscarves symbolises their defiance against their segregation from society. This act of direct defiance by women is a meaningful blow to the ideological foundations of the regime.
Women as the Driving Forces of Change
The turning point that occurs with the current protests which make them different from previous protests is the leading role of women and the adoption of the slogan: “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi”, i.e., “Woman, Life, Freedom” that constitutes the ideational foundation of the protests. This is a revolutionary worldview that seeks to change how society is structured.
It has to be acknowledged that this owes its theoretical basis to the Kurdish women’s movement and Abdullah Ocalan’s writings that see the emancipation of women from the social hierarchy ingrained by the patriarchal system as the building block of a free and democratic society. This tripartite set of values that each is structurally bound to the other is indicative of the rise of a new radical perspective among protesters.
This theory has found its place in everyday political praxis that doesn’t reproduce conventional knowledge that aims to change an article of law, which informed much of the previous protests and rebellions. This motto and its theoretical underpinnings seek to tear down the socio-political system that is built on the objectification of women.
Taking the cue from Fanon’s argument that it is not enough to detect and remove the germs of rot that imperialism leaves behind in a land, but what is more important is how to remove them from people’s minds. When this is applied to this context, revolution is not only about changing the ancien régime, which is of course crucial, but it fulfils its mission with the change of systems of thought and of people’s minds that are able to rupture the patriarchal and socio-political system and leaves no room for a revert to the rotten paradigm.
The protests of young women and men in the streets, universities and schools and women burning their headscarves, singing, and dancing on the streets are significant activisms and symbolisms that define the unwavering rebellious spirit of the youth.
It is no coincidence that woman, life, freedom has become the motto of the Iran protests and chanted by all women as well as men, as they have realised that one of the pillars that the theocratic regime of Iran relies on to exert its control over society is to continue confining women to the private walls of the family and keeping them away from the public political space.
Women Liberating Themselves
The political performance of women’s burning their headscarves and defying the authorities with their hair exposed is a clear meaning-making performance against the regime’s policies on gendered public spaces that make women’s body a direct target that needs to be covered and imprisoned. The fact that many women protesters, alongside men, have been wounded and killed and the use of the weapon of rape by the regime forces testify to what extent authorities are tantalised by the scenes of brave and defiant women who don’t accept to go home.
The theory that informs the aphorism of “woman, life, freedom” perceives freedom and the value of life through the lenses of women’s liberation not only from the tutelage of men, religious decrees and symbols, but it is to not acquiesce to the patriarchal domination and to fight it. This can only be achieved when women gain their own subjectivities and, in these protests, they clearly demonstrated their agential power.
What the French Revolution established in the eighteenth century with its archetypal motto of liberty, equality, fraternity that resonates today seems to have fallen short of addressing the underlying gender inequalities. Moving towards a worldview based on woman, life, freedom seems apt for today’s political activism and protests, and one which has a great potential to revolutionise the minds of people in every corner of the globe.