We are posting the following two articles which offer solidarity to women, minorities and others struggling for freedom in Iran, after the state murder of the young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amani. Both articles look to real solidarity on the basis of ‘internationalism from below’ and warn of the hypocritical ‘solidarity’ of western governments and an imperialist brand of feminism. The first is written by Maryam Alaniz and was posted by Left Voice (USA). The second was written by Sanaz Taji and posted by The Canary.
1. YIN, JIHAN, AZADI WOMEN – LIFE, FREEDOM AND LIBERTY – STRATEGIC PERSPECTIVES IN THE IRANIAN REVOLT
Over a month after a historic feminist revolt broke out in Iran, what is the significance of the these protests? What strategic lessons can we take from the experience of the Iranian Revolution to push this struggle toward a victory.
Over 40 days have passed since the brutal murder of Mahsa Jina Amini shook Iran to its core and opened up the largest anti-government protests in the country since 2009. It is a tradition in Shia Islam to mark the 40th day, or chehellom, after the death of a loved one with a celebration. Tens of thousands of Iranians traveled to Amini’s Kurdish hometown in Saqqez to protest and to commemorate her chehellom. Despite road blockades, floods of people walked on foot to visit her grave.
This is just one of the many images that have captured the attention of international media over the past month. Like George Floyd almost two years ago, Mahsa Jina Amini has become an international symbol of resistance. Her death has ignited working people across Iran — university students and schoolchildren, Kurds, Balochis, Arabs, Persians, Azeris, Lurs, and Turkmens hand-in-hand. The world has watched their fearlessness in the face of the regime’s ruthless repression.
So far, at least 250 have been killed, 900 injured, and 12,500 arrested, although official numbers are hard to come by. The repression has been particularly bad in Sistan and Baluchestan Province and Kurdistan Province, which are important regions for Iran’s ethnic minorities. Internet curfews continue, but despite the shutdowns, Iran’s tech-savvy youth continue to find ways to transmit their struggle to the rest of the world. Yet, sadly, it’s the same youth who have been the primary targets of repression; protesters as young as 11 have been killed by the regime’s live ammunition.
Among the arrested, many are political and worker activists. On October 15, a fire broke out at Evin prison, which many protesters consider to have been provoked by the regime as a way to intimidate the movement. Evin is the primary detention center for political dissidents and opponents of the regime, and it is also known as the “University of Evin” because so many anti-government intellectuals, artists, and activists are detained there.
Though the regime has been steadfast in its brutal crackdown on protesters, day by day, a crisis of legitimacy is being intensified by the revolt, and it continues to develop. Even prominent hardliners have had to concede some of the movement’s points. Take, for example, Ali Larijani, a former speaker of the Iranian parliament who has been part of the top echelons of power since the 1979 revolution, and at one time was a candidate to succeed Khamenei as Supreme Leader. He has called for a reexamination of the enforcement of compulsory hijab law and for the regime to lessen its repression on protesters.
Another example of growing ruling-class divisions can be seen among the clerics who make up Iran’s Shia clerical oligarchy. Grand Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat-Zanjani, a senior cleric, recently criticized the “morality police,” which he considers illegal and contrary to Islam.
An anonymous cleric from the Shia holy city of Qom (which has also been the site of protests) told Middle East Eye in early October that “the majority in the Qom seminary, or at least a large percentage of clerics, are increasingly against the Islamic Republic, because it has both weakened Islam and clerics in the eyes of people,” he said. “This is while many clerics have no relations with the establishment and have been distancing themselves from its politics, as they don’t want to be seen as part of the Islamic Republic.”
While it remains to be seen to what extent the unrest will further divide the regime, this wave of protests has already proved to be one of the most complex challenges to the mullahs’ bourgeois regime since its inception in 1979. What makes this revolt significant in the context of Iran’s crisis?
Characterizing the Revolt
What started as a feminist uprising — breathing to life the now international slogan “Women, Life, Freedom” — has quickly evolved into a larger anti-government revolt. In many ways, these current protests are a continuation of the anti-government protests of 2017 and 2019 in Iran (and also in the countries of Iran’s sphere of influence, like Lebanon and Iraq) — which put forward the similar slogan of “Bread, Work, Freedom.” This wave of class struggle in many ways had put the spotlight on the growing anti-neoliberal sentiment around the world and was directly tied to the struggle against austerity and the high cost of living.
Unlike the Green Movement in 2009, which was reformist, led by the middle class, and mostly contained to Iran’s major cities, this more recent wave of protests in Iran explicitly call for the downfall of the regime (even if it’s still unclear what will replace it), and they are primarily made up of working-class people. Against a backdrop of a creeping crisis of capitalism, which has had its ebbs and flows since 2008, the postpandemic landscape, marked by the war in Ukraine and high inflation, is also triggering a new wave of class struggle against the global cost-of-living crisis.
Semicolonies like Iran often bear the brunt of capitalism’s crisis (as the vaccine hoarding of the world’s richest countries demonstrated) because they are fundamentally subordinated to global capitalism and imperialism’s aggressiveness. Despite Iran’s status as a regional power, its economic and military might still pale in comparison to the imperialist countries.
Moreover, Iran is contending with the ongoing impacts of the pandemic. Iran was a notorious epicenter of the pandemic and its impact on the economy was so severe that the Iranian regime was forced to make an unprecedented request to the IMF for an emergency loan of US$5 billion. And while the regime’s mismanagement exacerbated the pandemic’s worst effects, the double jeopardy of the West’s “maximum pressure” sanctions and the coronavirus battered the working class and poorest sectors of Iranian society. These sanctions continue today.
With these elements in play, it’s no wonder that Iran has been in an almost constant state of protest since the most severe pandemic restrictions were eased. In that sense, the current uprising can be seen as an apex of a social crisis that has been brewing long before last month.
What many did not foresee is that this brewing social discontent would be seized most prominently by working women in a country where the female labor force participation is one of the lowest in the world, but where, paradoxically, over 60 percent of university graduates and holders of higher education are Iranian women. In addition to patriarchal oppression, many women in Iran are subjected not only to gender oppression but also to economic insecurity.
Beyond these structural factors, the subjectivity of women in Iran must be seen in the context of a post-#MeToo era and a revitalized global feminist movement made up of women and trans, queer, and nonbinary people who are facing different yet interrelated attacks.
Another prominent feature of these protests is the unity of the diverse sectors in struggle, among the genders, Iranians and their diaspora (which has organized protests in over 150 cities around the world, including a protest of over 80,000 people in Berlin), various ethnic groups, but also among the different generations. Iran’s Gen-Z, or daheh-ye hashtadiha, has been on the front lines of these protests and is coming of age during Iran’s recent protest movements but also poignantly the BLM protests which broadened the imagination of a new generation of radicalized youth around the world. Over 40 percent of Iran’s population is under 24 years old, and youth unemployment also runs rampant.
Another characteristic that can’t be ignored is the presence and activity of the working class, which has a strong presence in this movement but has so far organized only limited independent actions. Currently, the teachers’ unions and contract workers in the oil industry are among the most prominent sectors to organize in response to the protests. In recent years, Iran has seen a rise in labor militancy from sectors as diverse as petrochemicals, trucking, and heavy equipment.
Importantly, the emergence of these protests have pushed many of these sectors to tie together democratic and political questions with economic ones. Alongside this dynamic, workers are also self-organizing in the tradition of the incipient bodies of self-organization that emerged during the revolution. These shoras exist not only in workplaces but also in universities and neighborhoods.
The Path to Iran’s Next Revolution
Despite all of the progressive elements of the Iranian revolt, the strategic question remains whether the working class and the mass movement (which emerged spontaneously) can advance in their consciousness and organization to open a revolutionary situation along an independent path. In other words, how do the protests overcome their revoltist character without being strategically diverted by domestic and foreign bourgeois forces?
Here, we can turn back to the history of class struggle in Iran, using the Iranian revolution, our most advanced experience, to draw lessons and find a way forward, especially as Iranians continue their struggle against their bondage to repressive bourgeois regimes and the imperialist system that upholds them.
One of the most important lessons we can draw is that the working class has decisive power and that organization must play a role, as we saw in the general strike that workers organized through the shoras to bring the shah’s regime to its knees. This idea runs counter to postmodern notions that have been borrowed heavily by neoliberal ideology, that is, that the working class irrelevant as a subject or is merely a cultural facet that makes up a broader subset of “citizenry” or “the people.”
Rather, it emphasizes the working class as a revolutionary subject (that the proletariat has social power to lead a revolution to its victory) and the pertinence of workers’ hegemony as a political strategy that has the working class put its social power at the service of the needs of all social sectors affected by capitalism and uniting these different sectors that are fundamentally struggling against the same enemy by taking up their demands.
In relation to this, the dynamics of the theory of permanent revolution are also relevant here and were on full display during the Iranian revolution. In the decisive movements of class struggle during the revolution, where the question of power was posed between the bourgeoisie and the working class, the workers in struggle didn’t stop at their democratic aspirations against the shah’s authoritarian regime. Instead, they put production under workers’ control at the service of the movement. In other words, through this brief experience, workers were beginning to realize that the way out of the misery that had been imposed on them was in their own hands.
The shoras, which also highlighted the importance of organization to coordinate between the sectors in struggle, also demonstrated what real democracy looks like and how society could be organized, based on this kind of democracy, in which workplaces, neighborhoods, schools, and even rural communities can democratically decide everything about how society runs.
Unfortunately, the experience of the Iranian revolution was cut short due to a process of repression and counterrevolution, at the hands of the Islamic regime which counted on the destabilizing influence of Western imperialism working covertly to prevent a workers’ revolution. At the same time, much of the Left was unable to politically challenge the Islamists, whether it was because they supported Khomeini’s regime through a stageist conception of revolutions or because they were confused about the character of Khomeini’s program.
Some thinkers, like Foucault (echoing the ideas of contemporaries like Laclau and Mouffe), fell victim to analyzing the new regime primarily at the level of discourse, because they rejected class analysis, instead advocating a “progressive” populist discourse, which Khomeini was adept at deploying — merging concepts of the Left with pan-Iranian, Shia ideas. In ignoring the class content of Khomeini’s program, much of the Left, including the Marxist Left, politically subordinated itself to the new regime’s fundamentally bourgeois program.
Based on this history, we can draw the following lessons for today:
- The working class, which controls the strategic positions that keep society running, not the abstract categories of “citizens” or “people,” has the decisive power to unite the sectors in struggle. Consequently, the absence of workers’ hegemony means that the movement will express itself in this “citizen” form, even though many of its protagonists are part of the working class.
- We should advocate for democratic bodies of self-organization at every conjuncture. These bodies could be the seeds of future workers’ councils that could eventually put the control of the entire economy in the hands of working people, so that the resources of the country are developed and distributed according to the needs of the majority of society.
- Without promoting the idea that workers’ hegemony and soviet-type organizations develop spontaneously as class struggle intensifies, the construction of a revolutionary political organization is a key task for revolutionaries. Instead of leaving the vacuum of political leadership open to be hegemonized by counterrevolutionary forces, the formation of an independent, working-class leadership that fights for leadership in democratic bodies, that can organize the vanguard of struggles with its political perspective, and that puts forward a program to confront the entire bourgeois regime is fundamental to the movement’s success.
- Unleashing the potential of this movement and opening the road from revolt to revolution also depends on the subjectivity of the international working class. Not only morally but also strategically, the question of supporting Iranian workers and the oppressed depends on the activity and organization of workers and the oppressed around the world, particularly in imperialist countries. Our struggles as working people are inextricably linked to one another, and Mahsa Jina Amini’s death, or the murder of another member of our class, could be the spark that lights a fire around the world.
2. SUPPORTING MAHSA AMINI AND OTHER IRANIAN WOMEN MEANS REJECTING IMPERIALIST FEMINISM
The disturbing death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini, a Kurdish-Iranian at the hands of Iranian police while in custody, for supposedly not observing proper hijab, has rung alarm bells for most activists in Europe and North America. Many have seen images and others have experienced first-hand police brutality. Deaths in detention of Black, brown, migrant, LGBTQ, and disabled people are commonplace.
As we in the UK continue to struggle to end state violence, particularly levelled against working class, racialised, and migrant communities, Iranian women on the ground are bravely fighting state violence and demanding bodily autonomy to dress how they want without state-patriarchal interference. However, like in the UK, the class system in Iran is firmly entrenched within society and is a useful indicator of who will be affected disproportionately by state violence.
Iranian-Swedish anthropologist Professor Shahram Khosravi said on Facebook:
While in northern wealthy Tehran women are almost unveiled but still can enjoy their time in expensive shopping malls and restaurants, protected from the law by their money, women in southern parts of Tehran are exposed to police brutality for minor violations of the dress codes.
We must think of how not only gender but also ethnicity and class contributed to Mahsa Amini’s death. Class is a metric that is often ignored in discussions, but it reveals much about who is most impacted by brutality and injustice.
As I see Iranian women fight, and die, while protesting for their bodily autonomy, I also see women, both non-Iranian and those within the Iranian diaspora, attempting to show solidarity. But while these women claim to be in solidarity with the current protests, they’re actually fronting an imperialist feminist position. They view Iranian women as needing to be ‘saved’ by the West. As feminist activist Zillah Eisenstein writes concerning imperial feminism:
[It] is a feminism that operates on behalf of American empire building. It has a history of using the Western canon of “women’s rights” to justify American wars, most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. Imperial feminism imposes rather than negotiates, it dominates rather than liberates, it declares itself the exceptional arbiter of women’s needs. It operates on behalf of the hierarchies of class across the globe, leaving most women out of the mix.
The notion that Iranian women need ‘saving’ from the West is a decades-old Orientalist idea. It places white saviourism before the safety and humanity of people actually on the frontlines.
For example, leading this imperial feminist brigade is Masih Alinejad. This is someone who has made herself a useful informant to both Western and Iranian diasporic neo-conservatives. Alinejad openly associates with people who want regime change and has cavorted with misogynists like Mike Pompeo.
Recently, The New Yorker presented a glowing review of Alinejad. The outlet framed her as a central instigator who galvanised Iranian women to protest on the streets, due in part to her online campaign My Stealthy Freedom:
The Exiled Dissident Fuelling the Hijab Protests in Iran
Lofty proclamations from fawning Western media that put Alinejad on a pedestal are an insult to Iranian feminists who have fought, and continue to fight, against misogynist laws and policies.
Some of these brave feminists, like Nasrin Sotoudeh, are still in political prisons and under house arrest for their activism. The New Yorker piece on Alinejad also ignores the vibrant Iranian feminist activism of both religious and secular women, who worked together to create in 2006 the One Million Signatures for the Repeal of Discriminatory Laws. This was a campaign that, despite state violence, arrest, and harassment of key feminists like Parvin Ardalan, Sussan Tahmasebi, Shadi Sadr and Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, was instrumental in forging an inclusive Iranian feminism.
The fruits from this campaign are what we are witnessing today among protesters in Iran demanding “optional hijab”, not the eradication of hijab entirely. These protests are demanding that Iranian women, not the state, decide for themselves whether to wear hijab or not. When Iranian women burn their hijab, cut their hair, or eat breakfast in a cafe without hijab on, these actions should not be construed as anti-Islam. Rather, these are acts of poetic civil disobedience after over 40 years of brutality and violence by Iran’s morality police.
While some non-Iranians and diaspora Iranians alike have taken to social media to show images of Iranian women from the 1960s and 70s as the Iran in which they aspire to return to, we must remember that the state-patriarchy and lack of bodily autonomy for women that we see in Iran did not happen solely under the Islamic Republic. In 1936, taking a cue from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Reza Shah Pahlavi outlawed the veil in his bid to modernise Iran. However, this decision was not emancipatory. A sizeable number of Iranian women were, conversely, forced back into the home and excluded from public life as a result of this decision.
As Iranian women shout ‘Zan, Zendegi, Azadi’, meaning, “woman, life, freedom”, there are political actors behind the scenes that are manipulating this important moment to install regime change in Iran. These charlatans are monarchists tied to the Pahlavi family and the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK) a cult-Marxist-Iranian political group, funded by the CIA, based in Albania since 2013. Recently in June, former US Vice President Mike Pence visited the MEK base outside of Tirana and stated that he had travelled all the way from his home in Indiana because both he and the MEK support:
the liberation of the Iranian people from decades of tyranny.
We need to be concerned about how both neo-conservatives and political hucksters from the US and beyond will attempt to use the momentum on the streets of Iran for their own political advantage.
Supporting Iranian women at this critical time means calling for an end to US sanctions on Iran. Iranian diasporic feminists from the No Sanctions on Iran campaign have consistently stated that “sanctions are war by another name”. They highlight how the US has used “ordinary Iranians” as collateral damage which is “justified as a means of punishing the Iranian state.”
As the campaign states:
for over a decade, lack of access to medicine and the environmental effects of the sanctions have debilitated the Iranian people and have subjected them to death.
Last year in the New York Times, Iranian feminist Sussan Tahmasebi and Iranian-American researcher, Azadeh Moaveni wrote how US sanctions are further harming Iranian women and limiting their access to employment and higher education. One cannot be for Iranian women at this very time while still espousing a pro-sanctions position.
Lastly, the Iranian government and police must take full responsibility for the death of Mahsa Amini, and of many others who have been killed while protesting for Iranian women’s bodily autonomy. Branding these brave protesters as “rioters”, and inflicting state violence on them, will only escalate tensions.