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Catherine Z. Sameh

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October 20, 2022

Woman, Life, Freedom: A Feminist Movement Reimagines the World

While there is a long history of feminist activism in Iran dating at least as far back as the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11, this new movement is striking in its departure from the more pragmatic and reform-oriented campaigns of the last several decades. The uprising is not against Islam or the choice to wear hijab; rather the protestors are refusing conscription into regimes of patriarchal authority and gender-differentiated citizenship.

The feminist uprising in Iran is now entering its second month and despite numerous arrests and killings of protestors, it appears to be gathering strength each day. Sparked by the death of Jina/Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish Iranian woman arrested for “improper” hijab, then brutally beaten and left to die in police custody, the uprising has increasingly unified a broad swath of society around a feminist politics of liberation and justice for women and other oppressed groups. While there is a long history of feminist activism in Iran dating at least as far back as the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11, this new movement is striking in its departure from the more pragmatic and reform-oriented campaigns of the last several decades.

In one of the most significant of these campaigns, the One Million Signatures Campaign of 2006-2009, women mobilized to end the legal discrimination that undercut their growing social presence in Iranian society, a presence facilitated by the post-revolutionary government’s investment in education, literacy, health, and welfare.

While the first feminist demonstration in the weeks following the 1979 revolution was in response to Ayatollah Khomeini’s imposition of the mandatory hijab, an end to compulsory hijab has not been the central or most pressing issue around which feminists have organized in the decades since. In periods of reform governments, particularly under Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), surveillance of women’s dress and hijab loosened, and issues like citizenship status, rights in marriage and divorce, and custody of children became more pressing and potentially winnable. Campaigns like the One Million Signatures Campaign drew on the promises of the revolution to grant women and all people equality, demanding an accounting from the state for its discriminatory laws. Periodically successful, these targeted campaigns nonetheless exerted sustained pressure on the state to address political demands for women’s rights.

However, the Iran in which Jina/Mahsa Amini came of age has all but severed itself from its post-revolutionary era. The profound mismanagement of the economy and the COVID pandemic by the government, sustained water and pollution crises, an extended drought, high inflation, and food and fuel shortages have eroded the middle class and squashed any remaining hopes and dreams of better days to come. Sanctions and geopolitical isolation have only compounded the dismal life circumstances of many Iranians and strengthened the state’s rationale for securitization against encroachments by the West. Like some of his predecessors, hard-right president Ebrahim Raisi has wrought “national security” through crackdowns on dissent and surveillance of women’s dress and hijab. The violence against and ultimate death of Jina/Mahsa Amini for “improper” hijab has thus tapped the widespread immiseration, and profound anger and despair of women, religious and ethnic minorities, students, workers, and ordinary citizens, who are demanding an end to the Islamic Republic and any new forms of patriarchal state authoritarianism that would trade away their freedom in the name of national security.

As young women and girls put their bodies on the line, they are moving against violence and death, even as it comes at them. Their struggle against compulsory hijab in Iran is one and the same with a struggle for the self-determination of all Iranian people. The uprising is not against Islam or the choice to wear hijab; rather the protestors are refusing conscription into regimes of patriarchal authority and gender-differentiated citizenship. A feminist vision of women’s freedom is the sign under which a new world-making in Iran unfolds: Jin, Jiyan, Azadi; Zan, Zendegi, Azadi; Woman, Life, Freedom. Rejecting conscription into patriarchal authoritarianism and forms of national belonging that are built on violence, surveillance, securitization, gender-differentiated citizenship and belonging, and a drive towards multiple forms of death, these protesters embody a politics of love, care, joy, and solidarity. Refusing to defer women’s freedom to a future that is never guaranteed, this feminist uprising is demanding a world where the centrality and affirmation of women is the condition for enduring life and deep freedom for all.

Catherine Z. Sameh

Catherine Z. Sameh is Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Axis of Hope: Iranian Women's Rights Activism across Borders (University of Washington Press, 2019), which examines the discourses, practices, methods, organizational cultures, and transnational networks of Iranian women’s rights activists in Iran and the United States. She is a co-editor of Jadaliyya's Iran Page.

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