In this call for transformative, systemic change in Iran, Marral Shamshiri follows the lead of revolutionary feminists and makes powerful connections to the Iranian feminist movement in 1979. She advocates for opposing state brutality and foreign imperialism, for international feminist solidarity and for connecting the current uprising to the long lineage of fearless feminist organising in post-revolutionary Iran.
Images of an Iranian woman – standing on top of a car holding her burning headscarf on a stick, standing in the street with her fist clenching her headscarf high, standing fiercely on a knocked-over dustbin amid a street fire – have circulated since feminists organised the first gathering to protest the brutal death in custody of Kurdish-Iranian woman Jina (Mahsa) Amini for wearing 'improper hijab' on 16 September 2022. This is not the first time women in Iran have taken to the streets demanding social, political, legal and institutional change. But a primarily feminist issue, opposition to mandatory veiling, became for the first time the rallying point for a national, three-month-long and ongoing uprising. This moment is transformative and powerful because it has extended beyond formal feminist organising as people across Iranian society, particularly women and youth, have engaged in street protests, demonstrations, labour strikes and even a three-day general strike.
During the early days of the uprisings, I came across a beautifully written essay by a woman in Iran, which has been cemented in my mind, especially given my position and distance in the diaspora. The text describes the gap she experiences between viewing those images of women protesting online and the reality of being in the street.1 On her screen, L marvelled at the protesting women’s courage, even 'choking up and weeping at their actions.' But when she found herself in a demonstration later, the street was 'no longer a site of fear but an ordinary space.' She describes how every bodily action, moving, running, burning headscarves, resisting attacks by security forces, felt instinctive, one step ahead of her mind, as she became the figure she had seen in photos. The 'figure-centred character' of this uprising, the significance of the resisting woman’s body in the image and the street, makes it feminist, L writes. The 'history of the repression of women’s bodies' is captured and carried in images of the anonymous Iranian woman’s figure. The protesting woman does not realise she can become that very image until she is on the street, when the body leads, absorbing and reacting to its environment quicker than the rational mind can process.
To think alongside L, bodies feel and remember their histories. Marginalised bodies carry traces of not only physical and sexual violence but all forms of patriarchal violence and exploitation: capitalism, racism, classism and imperialism. In Iran, a younger generation has grown up rebelling against the policing of their bodies under the Islamic Republic, witnessing decades of accumulated state brutality and violence. They have faced repression at home and pressure from outside, as US-led economic sanctions, as a tool of modern warfare, have steadily deteriorated living conditions and also deprived ordinary people, not the ruling elites, of fundamental human rights. Those above a certain age will remember the years of dictatorship and surveillance under the Shah and the revolution they fought for alongside men. They will remember March 1979 when women rose for the first time – less than two months after forcing the Shah to leave Iran – in their newly liberated nation, the nascent Islamic Republic of Iran,2 sensing the danger about to be thrust onto their bodies. The origins of the organised feminist movement in post-revolutionary Iran, while rooted in a much longer history of women’s resistance, lie in 6 days of demonstrations from 8 March 1979, when thousands of women protested mandatory veiling following Ayatollah Khomeini’s announcement that women were required to wear the veil in government offices.3
An overlooked aspect of the 1979 women’s uprising is the internationalism underpinning the original plan for 8 March. Preparations had initially been made to mark International Women’s Day (significant as the celebration of this day had been banned under the Shah), but after Khomeini’s announcement, protests followed. International feminists had been invited to the celebration: Kate Millett famously attended, and a group of French feminists captured the historic protests on film, releasing the footage in a 13-minute short film.4 Today, there is an obvious opening for transnational and international feminist solidarity in the Kurdish chant, 'Jin, Jiyan, Azadi' ('Zan, Zendegi, Azadi' in Persian or 'Woman, Life, Freedom') which emerged from Jina (Mahsa) Amini’s funeral in Saqez, Kurdistan. It is often acknowledged that the slogan originates in the Kurdish women’s liberation movement. But its anticolonial and anticapitalist context is entirely erased.5 A history of women’s organising and theorising is contained within this phrase, in the first women-led revolution in Rojava. Women’s liberation cannot be one-dimensional; it requires dismantling interlocking systems of oppression. Iran’s racialised bodies, Kurdish, Baluch, and Afghan, have risen and faced disproportionate violence. Jina’s legacy is equally about dismantling racial and class domination and discrimination.
Courage is infectious – women in Afghanistan have also been chanting 'Zan, Zendegi, Azadi.' There is a history of solidarity between Iranian and Afghan women. Contrary to Western imperial feminist narratives of Muslim women in need of saving, the region has inspiring revolutionary women to look to – liberal feminism has so much to learn from the political struggles waged by these women. They have rarely, if ever, entered the history books, for example, Meena Keshwar Kamal (1956-87), the revolutionary political activist and founder of the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women, Marzieh Ahmadi Oskoui, Iranian Marxist guerrilla fighter, teacher, and poet (1945-1974) or Kurdish feminist activist and scholar Nagihan Akarsel (1976-2022). It is not a coincidence that in addition to their socialist and radical politics, these women shared the same fate: murder by patriarchal forces abetted by imperialist powers.
Beyond the region, particularly in the West, many anti-imperialist feminists are anxious because they understand how imperialism works. Foreign states, such as the United States, have persistently sought to destabilise Iran in service of empire and international capital, not people’s liberation. Today's leaderless movement is romanticised, but existing power structures can easily co-opt it. The would-be leaders of this movement have been silenced, forced into exile, or trapped in Iran’s prisons today, where the carceral state uses the same tactics of torture and forced confessions as the Shah’s oppressive regime once did, on a horrifically amplified scale. From Washington, neoconservatives have long manipulated the political grievances of exiled Iranians under the guise of promoting 'Democracy.' But the mandate for anti-imperialist solidarity remains clear: opposing state brutality at the hands of the regime and opposing imperialism and foreign interventions. These two things must consistently be held simultaneously and require collective thinking and renewed analysis of the situation as it unravels in Iran by following the lead of courageous revolutionary feminists in the region.
Fear is paralysing but begins in the mind, not the body. Revolutionary women in the past and present movements in Iran and across the region have fearlessness in common. They inspire us to follow our instincts to fight patriarchal violence and exploitation everywhere. Courageous women and men face ongoing state brutality in Iran: arrests, abductions, imprisonment, torture and executions. They declare previous attempts at reform redundant; the only way to heal the hurting nation is through transformative, systemic change. This is where the preoccupied feminist mind understands revolutionary feminist institutions, leaders, organisation and imagination, which have been obliterated over decades, as being desperately needed. But the people’s uprising, activated by a feminist demand, refuses to allow the state to monopolise the meaning of revolution.
Marral Shamshiri is an Iranian-British historian, researcher and activist in London. She is a PhD candidate at LSE and is currently co-editing a book with Sorcha Thomson on revolutionary women’s lives, forthcoming with Pluto Press.