New Middle Eastern Uprisings: Gender, Class and Security Politics in Iran

This blog is adapted from a talk that was part of a teach-in held on February 22, 2011 at the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis New York University and followed a talk by Paul Amar on the uprising in Egypt. The event was co-sponsored by Social Text.
You know times have changed when the question, “Is Iran next?” no longer refers to whether Iran will be the next target in the US “war on terror,” but whether or not it will be next to succumb to a wave of revolutions. I obviously don’t have the answer but I can say that there is a profound radicalization under way in Iranian society that overruns the boundaries of class and sweeps across the continuum from religious to secular. By way of contributing to our understanding of what is happening and why, I’m going to focus on the impact of state violence on popular consciousness, and how issues of gender and class inequality figure into a movement that has largely been focused on opposing dictatorship. Along the way, I’ll draw out some similarities and differences with the revolution in Egypt. Comparisons between Iran and Egypt have to be done carefully, and in relation to two points of reference: the 1979 Iranian revolution and the 2009 green uprising, as the Egyptian events contain features that overlap with both of these moments in Iran’s long history of struggle against tyranny. I hope to find a productive way of talking about the specificity of local histories and conditions while also taking into account the transregional spread of economic trends, security practices and popular movements for self-determination.
I’ll just give one example of the radical shift underway in Iranian society, one that has been many years in the making. The Islamic Student Association (ISA) of Tehran University was originally set up by the regime as the only legal student organization at the nation’s most important university. During the conservative/reformist battles of the late 1990s through 2005, ISA sided with reformist President Mohammad Khatami and has led the dissident student movement ever since. After two students were killed in the February 14, 2011 protests (called in solidarity with Tunisia and Egypt) and the Iranian parliament demanded the executions of reformist politicians Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the ISA issued a statement that opened with a quote from the Quran to the effect that “Harsh punishment awaits the perpetrators of oppression.” They addressed the regime: “On behalf of the Islamic Association of Tehran University students, if you have the audacity to harm the leaders of the green movement we will create widespread revolutionary violence.” 
There are many factors contributing to this radicalization: most immediately, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the violence of the regime itself. On the first point: witnessing successful uprisings against entrenched dictatorships generated the sense of possibility and hope necessary to bring people back into the streets. These events also pushed the green movement leaders and grassroots supporters to escalate their demands to a level unthinkable in 2009, when the central demand was for free and fair elections. At this year’s protests on February 14th and February 20th, there was not one slogan against Ahmadinejad or his administration. The slogans were “Mubarak, Ben Ali, now it’s time for Sayyed Ali” and called for “Death to Khamenei”both references to the Supreme Leader who has final say over all major government policies. Protestors explicitly identified with Tunisians and Egyptians in their chants (not a small thing given the history of anti-Arab sentiment in Iran) and called for a change in the structure of the entire regime. “We will die before we will be subjugated,” groups of hundreds chanted as they broke the sidewalk into stones to throw at riot police.
On the second point: the green movement was brutally repressed in 2009; thousands were jailed and tortured and what has been called an “executions tsunami” is still underway (estimates are close to 400 death sentences carried out last year).


State television has broadcast show trials as well as confessions extracted by torture. This repression had its desired effect, forcing the movement into dormancy and many of its most experienced and respected activists into exile (if they weren’t locked up in prison).

However, footage from the protests on February 14th and 20th shows the movement has only deepened its base of support and become more resolute. Unable to reach Tehran’s equivalent of Tahrir Sq (Azadi Square) to gather en masse, people stood their ground in groups ranging from dozens to thousands throughout Tehran and other major cities. Armed only with stones or nothing at all, they engaged in running street battles with security forces who toted rifles and batons, hurled tear gas canisters and charged crowds on their motorcycles. “Don’t be scared, don’t be scared, we’re all in this together,” people chanted to one another.
Despite this brutality, the regime has not yet resorted to the scale of force we have seen in Yemen, Bahrain and, most spectacularly, in Libya. Why is this? What are the checks on how much violence the Islamic Republic can unleash on its people? Obviously, international media is not a factor. There are no Al-Jazeera cameras to allow the world to bear witness. There are some foreign reporters still on the ground but they are not able to take video or photographs or openly report on opposition activities. The major media coverage of the recent protests in Iran has come from cell phone videos and eyewitness reports. And unlike in Egypt, Iranian state repression does not produce a US diplomatic crisis generating pressure behind the scenes to protect America’s reputation the worse the Islamic Republic behaves the better for US policy goals.
State violence against the citizenry is a problem for a regime founded on a popular revolution against despotism and imperialism. The nationalist mythology of the Islamic Republic pays perpetual lip service to fighting oppression and uplifting the poor. Lest we forget and think Iranians made a revolution because they wanted a dictatorship by a Supreme Leader, it’s worth remembering popular slogans from the mass marches of 1978-79: “Islam belongs to the oppressed, not the oppressors”; “Islam is for equality and social justice”; “Islam will free the hungry from the clutches of the rich.”
The regime’s very existence is supposed to be an institutionalization of these ideals and an expression of the will of the people. In the chasm between rhetoric and reality, is the lived experience of millions of Iranians, 70% of whom are under the age of 35. The more security forces beat, torture, rape and execute dissidents, the more they confirm that they are now the despots and the oppressors.
Across Iranian society, from the leadership of the green movement to the large urban middle and working class (a majority of the population is urban), the regime’s loss of credibility is virtually complete. Last week Karroubi declared, “This is neither a republic nor is it Islamic.”
Of course, the regime can continue to recruit to the paramilitary Basij forces from among poor peasant families, just as it can bus unemployed people into Tehran to demonstrate in favor of the government for little more than a day’s worth of food and hire thugs to attack green protestors for the equivalent of $15/day (roughly the daily minimum wage).  But South Tehran, the poorest part of the city, was among the most active in protests on February 14th, giving the lie to simplistic analysis that characterizes opposition to the Islamic Republic as predominantly a middle/upper class phenomenon. Even many people who voted for Ahmadinejad in 2009 have turned against him subsequently because of the viciousness of the repression.
So does this mean the majority of Iranians want a revolution? This is not a simple question, of course, and we cannot approach an answer to it without understanding the fraught, contested legacy of the 1979 revolution. In Iranian society, the word “revolution” itself has negative connotations since it is repeated ad nauseam as part of the official state propaganda. The experience of over thirty years of this “revolutionary” regime has led millions of Iranians to adopt as common sense the idea that revolutions only make things worse and should be avoided at all costs. This particular political landscape played a role in keeping rank and file demonstrators from moving beyond the reformist demands of green movement leaders in 2009.
As we heard again and again, the specter of the Iranian revolution haunted the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt whether in the form of threats from Mubarak that Egypt would suffer an Islamic takeover like Iran, or assurances from the Muslim Brotherhood, activists and scholars that these threats were empty. There seemed to be a consensus across the board that the Iranian Revolution was synonymous with the theocratic and authoritarian state it ushered in.
In a strange coincidence, the Iranian and Egyptian revolutions occurred exactly 32 years apart to the day; they were each born of different eras, different histories, yet they expressed similar popular sentimentsdespite the fact that those aspirations were articulated through very different frameworks. There are far too many oversimplified accounts of what happened in Iran in 1978-79, and lest these accounts be continually used to discredit or police the idea of revolution, it is worth going back and recuperating a more complicated understanding of those historic months. This is necessary to counter the revisionism of dominant regional, Western and official Iranian state narratives.
If we can, for a moment, bracket the Islamic idiom in which the revolution was waged and the fact that Khomeini was a shrewd politician with the most extensive organizing network on the ground at the time, we can turn and look at what we are not supposed to remember, at crucial factors without which no religious fervor or charismatic leader would have been able to succeed. The reason it only took a few months to dislodge three thousand years of monarchy is because, like in Egypt, virtually every section of Iranian society participated in the movementsecular professionals, women of all backgrounds, leftist students, workers, the unemployed, migrant laborers from the countryside, the traditional bazaar merchant class, and, of course, key sections of the politically heterogeneous clergy. These groups were united by their opposition to the Shah and his US backers and by the desire for Iran to be independent. The actual ideology of the revolution was a thoroughly modern and innovative hybrid, which filtered Marx, Sartre, and Fanon through a reinterpretation of Shia Islam as a religion of resistance and radical egalitarianism popularized by lay thinkers such as Ali Shariati.
During the revolution itself, the army eventually went over to the side of the people. Like in Egypt in 2011, this was a turning point. Unlike in Egypt, the Shah’s army turned over its weapons to the people and then disintegrated. Only the Imperial Guard tried briefly to defend the Shah but soon gave up its guns as well. The population was armed, and signs appeared outside banks that read, “Please check your weapon with the attendant before entering the bank and pick it up on your way out.” 1979 was a classical revolution in the sense that the old ruling class was swept away and replaced by a different strata of society led by Khomeini’s faction of clerics.

The two groups that most contested Khomeini’s consolidation of power were women and labor. Iranian women were at the forefront of the struggle to overthrow the Shah; they participated in leftist guerrilla struggle as well as in the mass demonstrations that formed the iconic images and collective strength of the revolution. Women’s experience of making the revolution empowered them to launch the modern Iranian feminist movement in its immediate aftermath. Missing from most histories and timelines are a series of marches and sit-ins organized and led by women demanding that gender equality be written into the new post revolutionary constitution. On International Women’s Day, March 8, 1979, just weeks after the revolution had triumphed, tens of thousands of women from all classes, some veiled, some took to the streets. “We didn’t make a revolution to go backwards,” they chanted.

For Iranian women, a new phase of struggle against new state forms of patriarchy began at the very moment when the struggle for national liberation was over, when Khomeini told everyone to stop protesting and go home. They marched for days against Khomeini’s draconian family law and mandatory veiling and sat in at the Ministry of Justice. On March 9, Khomeini revoked the mandatory veil decree, only re-instituting it after discrediting the women as corrupted by Western-influence and then driving them off the streets with violent repression. 


Women were betrayed by the revolution they helped to make. Subsequent generations of women’s rights activists have taken this legacy seriously and drawn the lesson that national self-determination in no way guarantees self-determination for women (a reversal of the common wisdom at the time). Significantly, among the first groups of Iranians, if not the first, to express solidarity with the Tunisian revolution, was the women’s movement, which issued a statement excerpted here:

“Tunisian women’s rights activists should know that what they manage to accomplish in their quest for democracy and the equality of women will significantly impact the region and serve as a model for us all. Today, a gain for the women of Tunisia is a gain for all the nations in the region and for all women in Islamic countries.”

Iranian women were out in front of the riot squads in 2009 and joined the protests again this past week despite the violence. The women’s movement struggles to find ways of injecting feminist politics into the broader struggle. This is, of course, not an easy task but activists have continued to organize under severe repression. All of the major feminist leaders are in jail or exile, but new leaders have stepped up and the decentralized structure and word-of-mouth strategies enable the work to go on.
Also rarely mentioned in references to the Iranian revolution is the role of labor. Not only were there strikes in every sector of the economy in 1979, including most decisively a protracted strike by oil workers at the Abadan refinery (one of the world’s largest at that time), but workers formed their own councils, or shoras, to coordinate their activities and put forward demands.


Again, the experience of making the revolution translated into demands that could not be met within the framework of patriarchal capitalism that Khomeini was attempting to consolidate. Instead, workers demands revealed competing definitions of what an Islamic Republic should look like. On March 1, 1979, less two weeks after the revolution had been victorious, the Founding Council of the Iranian National Workers’ Union issued 24 demands including: “government recognition of the shoras; the expulsion of all foreign and Iranian capitalists and expropriation of their capitals in the interests of all workers; and the inclusion of workers’ shoras in industrial decisions such as investment and the general conditions of the plant, as well as buying, selling, pricing and the distribution of profit.”



These demands far exceeded the intentions of Iran’s new ruling elite. The clerics and their allies needed desperately to get the economy going again and bring it under their control. Oil workers and others resisted Khomeini’s calls to go back to work, defying him with strikes and workplace occupations. I can’t help but think of the dynamic playing out in Egypt right now as the army orders an end to all strikes and workers resist, not wanting to give up the power to control their own lives. Although in some cases it took over a year, pro-government forces eventually either infiltrated or arrested the shora leadership and replaced the workers councils with government-controlled “Islamic” councils.

The Iran-Iraq war that followed was devastating for the Iranian economy and resulted in a tremendous loss of life (1 million casualties). War is the best excuse a government can have for crushing dissent, and the Islamic regime took full advantage of the opportunity to deal the fatal blow to the shoras as well as to the left and anyone else who didn’t fall in line. At the end of the war, the regime emptied the jails of thousands of political prisoners through mass executions.
Over the last ten years, however, strike activity has picked up. In Iran, all independent unions are illegal and workplace actions are very dangerous. Despite this, mine workers, steel workers, teachers, nurses, autoworkers, and, perhaps most famously Tehran bus drivers led by the fearless Mansour Osanloo (now reported to be very ill in prison), have fought back largely over issues of unpaid wages and working conditions. In the last few months there have been strikes of tire workers and a hunger strike of sugar cane workers. In each case, the leaders were arrested and sentenced to harsh prison terms.
In Iran today there is tremendous overlap between the student movement, the feminist movement and the green movement. However, unlike in Egypt where the April 6th movement began with groups of activists reaching out to support textile workers, we have yet to see explicit links being made between the green movement and labor. Other than Moussavi’s speech last year stating that greens do take economic hardship seriously, we have yet to see specific demands put forward by the main opposition coalition that address economic and class issues. Part of the reason for this lack of organizational connection is that the conditions of repression have tightened over the last year and a halfmaking phone calls, meetings and other forms of communication extremely dangerous. 
But part of the reason is also political and has to do with the particular way that the dynamic between economic issues, state authoritarianism and Iran’s role in the global economy have played out. Iran gets 60% of government revenue from oil exports, creating a lopsided economy not reliant on a mass tax base. Sanctions have hurt the population as a whole, but have made the economy far less dependent on European and US economies than is Egypt. Iran’s major trading partner is now China, then India. Other major partners are Japan, South Korea, and Russia (trade with France and Germany has decreased with the latest rounds of sanctions pushed through by the Obama administration). Therefore, Iran is not dependent on tourism or trade from Europe and North American the way Egypt is.


In this context, Ahmadinejad is pushing through an economic agenda many years in the making, what I call “neo-liberalism with Iranian characteristics.” He is doing this in close consultation with the IMF, which was invited to Tehran for high-level meetings in 2009 and issued a glowing report on his administration’s plans. Structural adjustmentliberalization of trade, subsidy cuts and privatizationhave not been imposed on Iran by an outside force but have been chosen by the government hoping for a way out of an intractable economic crisis (characterized by an inability to pay off state debts, skyrocketing inflation, double-digit unemployment, and the closing of factories).

Instead of using neoliberal strategies to strengthen the private sector and dismantle the state’s influence over the economy as in the classical application, the current regime has transferred state-owned companies to the Revolutionary Guard Corp, or Sepah, which is the backbone of Ahmadinejad’s support. Whereas in Egypt the army’s role as a major player in the economy worked to separate its interests from that of Mubarak’s government, the dynamic in Iran has been the opposite. Sepah controls an estimated one third of the Iranian economy and the regime’s loyal shock troops: 125,000 military personnel including ground, air and naval forces, and the paramilitary Basij militia, which has 90,000 active personnel. It operates telecommunications, infrastructure and energy concerns by subcontracting out the work to private companies, thereby further co-opting the private sector and making it even more dependent on the state than before.
How has all of this affected the population? Despite Iran’s protracted economic crisis, absolute poverty is a third of that in Egypt while income inequality is higher, creating a widening gap between people’s expectations and their worsening economic conditions. At the same time, Iran still spends significantly more of its GDP on health care and education than Egypt did under Mubarak. Approximately 73% of Iranians, including the large urban middle class, are covered by some form of government-funded social security and subsidized health care.


So far, neoliberalism in Iran as not included the shredding of the social safety net, as this is one legacy of the revolution the regime has been afraid to attack wholesale. 

However, this does not mean that people aren’t suffering. Official unemployment statistics are 11.3%, and 24% for those ages 15 and 24 with actual unemployment figures substantially higher. Inflation has been upwards of 30%. In this context, the Ahmadinejad administration has cut food and gasoline subsidies, sending prices tripling overnight. To offset the shock and prevent a repeat of the gasoline rationing riots of 2007, the government is depositing $40/month into family bank accounts. This is a stopgap measure that will only delay the full brunt of these policiesand it is being distributed with the kind of ineptitude people have come to expect from the regime (many families having yet to receive their money). The talk in Tehran’s shared commuter taxis is that after the Iranian new year at the end of March, when annual price hikes usually go into effect, people will reach the limit of their tolerance.
Given these conditions, it may seem surprising, if not incredibly frustrating, that the Iranian opposition has not seized this opportunity to expand its critique to the regime’s neoliberal attacks. While in Egypt opposition to political repression and structural adjustment programs imposed at the behest of Washington could coalesce around the figure of Mubarak, in Iran the situation is quite different. 
Iranian conservatives and reformists are caught in a cul-de-sac, both sides having embraced the idea of free market policies as the road to salvation for the Iranian economy. Neoliberal economic reforms are not a site of controversy or disagreement; in fact, policies designed to liberalize foreign trade were implemented by reformist President Khatami. In the choice between authoritarian and uncompetitive state capitalism on the one hand and the chance to make Iran a more open and attractive place for private sector and foreign investment on the other, reformist leaders chose the latter, hoping to shift away from the extreme economic and political centralization of the war years and help Iran more fully integrate into global capitalism. Reformists really believed that economic and political liberalization would go together, and this left them unable to address the conditions of crisis against which some groups of workers have fought back. Up until now there has been a broad consensus across the political spectrum that subsidies are too expensive and are dragging Iran’s economy down. One left-wing economist who criticized both the government and the reformists’ support for subsidy cuts, Fariborz Raisdaana, was promptly thrown in jail. And let’s not forget that the opposition in Iran has been led by former regime insiders who became more and more alienated and sidelined since the end of the Khatami era and the successful Sepah-Ahmadinejad power grab (Moussavi was Prime Minister during the Iran-Iraq war when the mass execution of jailed dissidents occurred and Karroubi was a member of Khomeini’s advisory council and a former head of parliament).
In addition to/ the difficulty of organizing under extreme repression, there is a real political question about whether and how to oppose these forms of neoliberalism and what economic alternatives are viable. Whether or not green activists succeed in linking the fight against repression and lack of democratic rights to the massive anger about unemployment, working conditions and the increasing cost of living remains to be seen. Put another way, whether groups of workers involved in labor struggles will come to see the green movement as a reliable ally in fighting the effects of economic crisis will depend on what shifts in policy and strategy green movement leaders and activists are willing and able to make. But here it is important not to slide into any kind of economistic register. I want to emphasize a point I started with: it is not true that working class Iranians have sat out the green movement or that they will only get involved when the movement addresses their bread and butter issues. In fact, and despite media coverage here and by Iranian state outlets to the contrary, Iranians of all classes participated in the uprising in 2009 and working and middle class people have been at the forefront of the most recent demonstrations. These groups have suffered the most under Ahmadinejad’s policies. In the lived experience of urban Iran (70% of population), there is no categorical separation between the lack of freedoms and the lack of economic security. They do in fact come from the same sourceand the feeling of suffocation that defines everyday life in Tehran sums up the deep dissatisfaction with everything from the cost of gasoline to the chronic pollution to the fear, harassment and surveillance under which people are forced to live. At the same time, making explicit links to economic issues and labor struggle is necessary for harnessing the power of strike action towards revolutionary ends, necessary for the unfinished business of the workers who resisted Khomeini’s dictates 32 years ago. Likewise, the ongoing work of Iranian feminists is essential in order to avoid the endless deferral of gender equality in the course of movements for democracy; that the activists I know are determined not to let this happen again speaks to their confidence in the revolutionary potential that exists in Iranian society today.
In conclusion, as Iranians attempt to seize the momentum of Tunisia and Egypt and the other uprisings across the region, they come up against all of the specificity of their local context: an oil economy run by a militarized state that has used neoliberalism to centralize power under one faction and co-opt the private sector; a regime still peddling in the rhetoric of a popular revolution which actually did redistribute some wealth and raise living standards for the majority of Iranians. It is not an easy thing for a regime to stay in power with neither popular domestic support nor the backing of a major foreign power. Every time they beat protestors and send young people to jail, the fear they spread is also full of loathing, dramatizing the corrosive lie at their corethat they express the will of God or of the majority of Iranian people. How Iranians will finally manage to banish them to the dustbin of history, as they have done with more than one tyrannical regime in their long history, will depend on their own creativity, initiative and determination. I do think there is an important role for some forms of regional and international solidarity, which I hope we can talk more about in the discussion.
Note: Feminist organizations in Iran, Egypt and several other countries organized women’s marches on March 8, International Women’s Day, under the banner, Women United for Future of Middle East.

Manijeh Nasrabadi