What We Are Saying is Freedom, Not the Veil
Today in Iran we are seeing a party-less revolution led by women, without any leaders. The struggle unfolded rapidly through the growing refusal of women to abide by the mandate to wear the hijab. The contemporary movement appears to harken back to the pause immediately following the revolution of 1979, in which Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran and made the veil mandatory, thereby shaping the tactics of feminist resistance to the Islamic Republic. Responding to Khomeini’s injunction almost immediately, the women’s movement erupted in the streets of Tehran, on March 8, 1979—the first International Women’s Day since the revolution had deposed Reza Shah and overturned the Pahlavi state.
As is the case today, the women’s movement that formed in opposition to the initial mandate in 1979 was arguably not about the veil, at least not ultimately. Women’s movements in Iran which oppose the mandatory hijab are fighting against authoritarian control over Iranian people’s autonomy, especially that of women, who are disproportionately oppressed. Although mass refusal of the veil appears to be an act of subversion aimed at the patriarchy as such, in Iran the gesture is aimed at patriarchal power specific to the Islamic Republic that emerged after the revolution of 1979 and still continues—if perhaps only a short while longer—to reign supreme.
For a brief period in the course of the 1979 revolution and in its aftermath, another historical trajectory could have unfolded for Iranians that would not have led us to the present moment. But a separate way out was soon eclipsed by counter-revolution, war, and economic crisis that trapped Iran within a single morbid and unrelenting timeline. As Shahla Talebi remarks of the swift transition from a revolutionary Iran to the counter-revolutionary Islamic regime:
In the blink of an eye, everything changed. The euphoric revolutionary mode was soon replaced by the suffocating air of political suppression … Not even a year into the inception of the new regime, Iraq, supported by the United States, invaded Iran and instigated eight years of bloody war between the two countries. The war allowed the new regime to justify the massive crushing of what it saw as its opponents within the country. Hundreds of arrests and executions occurred daily … by 1984, almost all the opposition organizations were crushed, and most of their affiliates who did not flee the country were either killed or jailed.1
According to the young Iranian feminists with whom I have spoken, mass unveiling is a decisive weapon directed against the Islamic regime in particular. Regardless of its myriad connotations throughout the globe, or the host of connotations the veil may have for women within Iran itself, today Iranian women are refusing the veil for one unequivocal reason: to abolish the Islamic Republic.2
Meanwhile the imagery coming from Iran depicts an ongoing revolution of everyday life. Stripping off rusari in public, teenagers mob their schoolmasters like thugs; grown women butcher their hair on television; boys play at bopping the caps off ambling mullahs; and the children dance like ecstatic witches around a burning pyre of fabric. For me, what makes these scenes truly sublime is the notion that ordinary people are simultaneously breaking more laws than you can calculate. Contrary to common sense, people are not engaging in crime because they believe it is justified in the process of reforming laws they deem unfair (such as the mandatory veil). It is when lawbreaking has reached a critical mass—beginning with women’s unveiling—that the Law has lost its authority and legitimacy.
From day one of the mandatory veil in Iran, the hijab took on significance beyond the generic inscription of “patriarchy.” The mandate to veil was, from its initial injunction, symbolic of a recent imposition of the clerical elite, who claimed the revolution for the Islamic Republic—that is, in spite of Iranian women and the legacy of their historic struggle. While it is true that most women protesting the mandate in 1979 opposed the injunction on other grounds than those offered in partisan newspapers, what the archive no doubt confirms is that the relations underlying the mandatory veil are specific to Iranians, in as much as they were (and are) considered generally unfair. The veil specifies the negation of women’s freedom after 1979, that is, the freedom they fought for and won—before what they were fighting for was repurposed as an “Islamic Revolution.”
The specific history of veiling and unveiling in modern Iran is of course long and complicated. Since the early nineteenth century, “the European woman and the radically different Iranian/Islamic woman became constituted as terrains ‘of political and cultural contestations,’ and as ‘important metaphor[s] for demarcating the self and the other.’” The Islamicist counter-modernist discourse saw modern transformations as symbolizing “the loss of Islamic identity of the female (and of the community), through the absence of her Islamic marker, her veil.”3 Later, in the 1930s, a government mandate against the veil reconfigured the Islamic signifier, denaturalizing the mark of “traditional” femininity through the contrivance of care-free womanhood, finally inscribing “the natural, modern woman” as a reinforced, feminine second-nature. In their article, “Veiled Discourse-Unveiled Bodies,” Afsaneh Najmabadi recalls their mother’s story: “After Reza Shah had decreed the compulsory unveiling of women in public (January 1936), she and other women would walk to work facing the walls for several days, avoiding the male gaze.” She emphasized “the momentariness of this ambivalence by narrating how once used to the unveiling, so many possibilities in public life opened up to women … it was an experience at once disciplinary yet significantly emancipatory.”4
Sedimentary layers of historical significance build upon the metaphor of “the modern”. One is quasi-Islamic, the other is quasi-liberal; both are dictating Iranian womanhood in spite of women’s own desires. Today, the historical chain of signifiers is punctuated by the “Post-Islamic” period: a paradoxical, discursive break from Islamism at the conclusion of the (Khomeini-led) post-revolutionary revival. While post-Islam frames a particular version of Islamist politics, the “Post-Islamist” turn in the post-Khomeini era exemplifies “remarkable social trends, political perspectives, and religious thought,” including “a general shift in attitudes and strategies of Islamist militants;” that is, in the Muslim World, “a trend which eventually came to embody the reform movement.”5 “Post-Islamism” has a particular structure of feeling with an underlying ambivalence. After all, appropriating charismatic authority after Khomeini could not but fail, opening up “Islamic” authority to parody. We see this sort of “Post-Islamic” performative in both women’s compliance with the mandatory veil as well as the “silent encroachment” of their performative failure: the “bad hijabi.”
Today we are witnessing a transformation within the metaphoric significance of the Post-Islamic performative in veiling. Ripping off the veil exposes the emptiness of that signifier. Behind the Post-Islamic feminine signifier is a void of authenticity, much less a national identity rooted in the real Islamic community. It signifies nothing more than a technology of domination. Today, the veil and women’s own unveiling signify another unknown future, after the Post-Islamic. At the very least it will lead somewhere else. And this somewhere else may not be recognizable according to the old images of revolution, led by charismatic charlatans.
Asef Bayat applies their concept of the “nonmovement” to Iranian women’s activism in a work entitled Life As Politics: They trace the conditions for the emergence of a leaderless revolution to decades of seemingly invisible accumulation of tendencies to resistance in everyday life. “The women’s movement,” leading us up to the present, “perplexed many observes, and activists themselves” because “this nonmovement lacked known leaders identified as ‘feminists’ to mobilize the mass of ordinary women.” Moreover, for many political commentators, “women’s sporadic activism represented the existence of not a social movement but a ‘social problem,’” while of course “phrasing ‘movement’ in qualified terms” that do not include: “silent;” “decentralized;” or “leaderlessness.”6 Nevertheless, after years of drawing battle lines in the minute corners of everyday life and in the tiniest interstices of time and place, women in Iran have succeeded on an individual scale to perform a feminine style of protest, scaling back the boundaries of repression with every millimeter of browline.
These mundane doings had perhaps little resemblance to extraordinary acts of defiance, but rather were closely tied to the ordinary practices of everyday life. Yet they were bound to lead to significant social, ideological, and legal imperatives. Not only did such practices challenge the prevailing assumptions about women’s roles. The intended or unintended consequences of these disparate but widespread individual practices were bound to question the fundamentals of legal and moral codes.7
Today, as an ongoing act of social subversion, mass unveiling estranges and provokes the repressive apparatus reliant upon appearances of popular consent and allegiance. The hijab can thus be re-weaponized through the organized refusal of women to display such a powerful signifier.
Ironically, the revolution in Iran in 1979, contrary to revisionist history, neither had a party nor was led by a charismatic leader on the ground. Perhaps there was another possible trajectory, but plans were complicated by disputed designs for the future of Iran in the aftermath of revolution. Over the course of six months, the revolutionary movement became a cult following who backed Khomeini and, most importantly, this cultism transpired within the context of the hostage debacle that cannot be separated from his ascendancy. Khomeini and the Islamic Republic might be understood as having been shaped on both sides of the Imperialist/Anti-Imperialist divide, through a constitutive battle over the custody of the former Shah. On the one hand, there was a militant desire for retribution amongst Iranians; on the other, Kissinger and Rockefeller—as well as a handful of other powerful Americans—wished to display cold-war era alliances both to economic liberalism and the treatment of its loyal co-conspirators, such as the Shah. As a result a notorious standoff that began as a simple student occupation of the US embassy escalated into a so-called “crisis” lasting well over a year, resulting in the economic sanctioning of the Islamic Republic for an eternity.
Six months prior, on International Women’s Day in 1979, thousands of women had gathered at the University of Tehran to voice their outrage at the new mandate. Women took their protest to the streets, where students were joined by women from various feminized workplaces throughout the city, such as nurses and flight attendants. Together they joined in yelling chants that clarified the cause of feminist alarm: “Neither the veil, nor abuse, independence, freedom … Men and Women both gave martyrs, both must be free.”8 When interviewed about the precise meaning of these words, women at the protest exclaimed, “Did women not give martyrs? … What we are saying is freedom, not the veil,” “Because that is what we fought for.”9
This discerning rebuke was no match for the arbiters of ideology who mis-interpellated Iranian women in bad faith. After all, it was not only Khomeini who betrayed the women and their struggle. Western bourgeois feminists muffled the voices of third-world women with their Anglo-American solidarity efforts.10 Meanwhile Iranian men condemned the self-determination of their sisters, in paranoiac denunciations meant to expel Western-Imperialist phantasms.
According to a historian of revolutionary utopianism in Iran, on that International Women’s Day women and their representation “underwent a dialectical inversion in the pages of partisan media, from the initial paradox as subjects of history”—respondents to a revolutionary betrayal—into the “objects of representation,” testifying from the remoteness of an archive the objective memory of the historically repressed.11 The revolution today reverts to this moment and re-subjectivates the buried antagonists of a forgotten struggle. Therefore an historic women’s movement may be re-remembered as the precursor of today's rebellion, as a potential source of guidance for the otherwise leaderless revolution. Like the partisan newspaper, Ayandegan, which defied the odds of censorship by recording women’s testimony for posterity—before it was erased in the white pages of history—we must bear witness to its imminent revival despite the dearth of reportage and commentary we find today. 12
Today, the revolution continues a struggle that began in 1979. Through a similarly leaderless dialectic of subjectivation and representation, today’s struggle transforms itself not by means of a party but by way of a dialectic of recognition between women and their own empowered reflection—as affinity groups forming through social media networks—as parties without organs. In a form that is adequate to the content of the struggle, as much as it is a concern of strategic necessity, command of the movement cannot be centralized. The dialectic between the crowd and its representation is constantly mediated; bodies emerge as the figure of subjects, in a montage of historic events, only to dissolve by means of mimetic self-destruction, as they reemerge in the streets in a new transfiguration of bodies and subjectivities, witnessed again in their reflection and surpassed in real time.
As participant “L” explains in their recent reflection, “Is the Uprising in Iran a Feminist Revolution?” they hope to articulate “an intuition born of experiencing a gap: A gap between viewing photos and videos of protests online, and presence in the street … [as] an effort to explicate the short-circuit that courses in the opening these two domains—virtual space and the reality of the street—in this historic moment.”13 In captivating prose, they write:
This is not a transformation of the self into an ideal body, but the creation of a new figure of resistance each time and in every single body. While the body has been aroused by and takes inspiration from previous figures whose images it has seen in virtual space, it creates a new figure and reciprocally inspires future figures…This figure has released women from captivity in the body and its historic subjugation, and has made the body flourish in its wake. 14
Like “L,” Iranian feminists seek to repurpose the signifier, to overturn the name of the Father, and disrupt His symbolic order. With respect to the pseudonym “L,” the author claims, “This naming not only keeps me secure from the threats of government forces, but frees me in my idea of love, the very moment that names have become symbols [a reference to Mahsa Amini’s name, and the oft-repeated call, nearly impossible to translate, that ‘Your name has become a symbol’].” Like the veil, the name has become a symbol—a floating signifier—pried from the symbolic matrix.
As Luce Irigaray suggests in her essay entitled, “Women on the Market,” there is an intimate connection between patriarchy, commodity exchange, political leadership, and the significance of naming:
Commodities … as the elementary form of capitalist wealth can thus be understood as an interpretation of the status of women in so-called patriarchal societies. The organization of such societies, and the operation of the symbolic system on which this organization is based–a symbolic system whose instrument and representative is the proper name: the name of the father, the name of God–contain in nuclear form … the standardization of women according to proper names that determine their equivalences; a tendency to accumulate wealth, that is, a tendency for the representatives of the most “proper” names–the leaders–to capitalize more women than the other; a progression of the social work of the symbolic toward greater and greater abstraction.15
Judging from those I’ve spoken to, Iranians are dying for an end to the form of life lived under the Islamic regime. The future they seek is beyond the Islamic Republic, or nothing. However, it is difficult to imagine a future; contemporary consciousness—although extremely radical and even queer—is shaped by a world without a structural future. As a result, it will be difficult to contrive a futurism that extends the revolution into a revolutionary beyond—beyond the authoritarian regime and beyond capitalism. What will happen next? Without a party, without a leader, without a state, without an economy, and without a future, does the movement have a vision of one? Will it succeed without one? We all hope so.…16
- Shahla Talebi, “Who is Behind the Name? A Story of Violence, Loss, and Melancholic Survival in Post-Revolutionary Iran,” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Winter 2011) pg. 49-50
- I attended and spoke at a teach-in held at the University of Rhode Island on November 15, 2022 at Harge Forum, MCSS where Iranian PhD students—that is, women from Iran--spoke about the precise meaning and tactics of the current revolution. The dozen or so women from Iran were unanimous in their assessment of the goal of the movement: the end of the regime. I learned that my own assessment, which was, as usual, economic and historical-materialist, was no doubt “absolutely true”; however, I was cautioned to avoid confusing the numerous causes of the revolution with the political struggle itself. According to one feminist, Iranians are resilient and can survive economic constraints, but they have decided not to survive another day under the Islamic Republic. Personal note: I have been persuaded of the truth in the Althusserian adage that class antagonism is overdetermined except “in the last instance” by the economic base. I thank these women for their informed and prudent advice.
- Afsaneh Najmabadi, “Veiled Discourse-Unveiled Bodies,” Feminist Studies19: 3, “Who’s East? Whose East?” (Autumn, 1993): 487-488. Also cited from Najmabadi, Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, “Imagining Western Women: Occidentalism and Euro-Eroticism,” Radical America 24 (July-September 1990): 74.
- Afsaneh Najmabadi, “Veiled Discourse-Unveiled Bodies”: 513.
- Asef Bayat, Life is Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010): 242-243.
- Asef Bayat, Life is Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East: 108
- Asef Bayat, Life is Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East: 17
- Ayandegan, March 13, 1979; Naveed Mansoori, “A Mirror for the Crowds: The Mediated Terrain of Political Leadership in Post-Revolutionary Iran” Unpublished: 12-13.
- Ayandegan March 9, 1979; Naveed Mansoori, “A Mirror for the Crowds: The Mediated Terrain of Political Leadership in Post-Revolutionary Iran” Unpublished:11. This is taken from two interviews of women who were remarking on the meaning of their chant. First is a student from Marjan high school and the second is a woman who refused to give her name.
- See Kate Millet and Sophie Keir, Going to Iran. (General Publishing, 1982.)
- In the early 1970s The Pahlavi state attempted to make an official centralized culture of the spectacle called "National Iranian Radio and Television (NIRT) which in February 1979 was seized by revolutionaries and then became a medium for the Islamic Republic's Revolution and Khomeini's spectacle of charisma. On the day before International Women's Day, March 7, 1979, Khomeini announced that the veil was mandatory and they had television personality Maryam Riazi don the hijab for the first time on "Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting” (IRIB) Khomeini's vision of the state-run radio and television, aka "Voice and Vision of Iran."(Mansoori: 5-6). In light of the domination of the Islamic propaganda machine, Ayandegon, managed by staying "objective" to become the partisan voice of the opposition.That didn't last long after the publication of the March 8 protest of course, and so on March 10, Khomeini's people organized to silence the daily because it was clearly creating a dialectic between representation and oppositional activity, And after the state media apparatus was officially taken over by Khomeini's propaganda machine, liberal newspapers such as Ayandegon, became de facto partisan organs, eventually denounced as deviations from "the unity of the word," and declared "unreadable" by Khomeini, thus sealing their fate. By August, its office and presses were expropriated by the Islamic propaganda machine which gutted it of content, leaving its front and back matter intact but filling the rest with spooky "white pages" that had no content whatsoever, but were "printed" without words (Mansoori: 2022).
- Authored by “L”, who explains: From, “Is the uprising in Iran a Feminist Revolution?” trans. Alireza Diistdar. http://www. jadaliyya.com/Print/44479
- Luce Irigaray, “Women on the Market,” This Sex Which Is Not One. (Cornell University Press, 1985).
- Thanks to Jaleh Mansoor for editing and invaluable support; thanks to Naveed Mansoori for his translations and research; thanks to Paul Mattick in general for being.