Another Possible Casualty in Iran: Feminism

Iran is in the midst of powerful and lethal unrest. The past few months have seen some of the largest protests since the Iranian revolution of 1979, news of which had exploded onto the international media scene in almost unprecedented ways. Internally, the groundswell of a social movement in opposition to the regime began growing to a tsunami like tidal wave.

But before this movement could begin to unseat the regime, the U.S. escalated external pressure by the killing of Iran’s most powerful military leader, Qassem Suleimani, at the direction of President Trump. In addition to being perceived as an act of war, this move on the part of the U.S. government also had the effect of lending more power to members of the regime who now seek to unify the country in opposition to a common enemy: the Great Satan. 

Now, escalating tensions have not only put the lives of millions of people in the Middle East at risk, they are also quashing one of the greatest hopes for peaceful social change. Peaceful resistance to the regime has been growing since the 1980’s led by feminists—many of whom have come of age after the revolution of 1979. But instead of working with feminists and young people organizing for change over the past several decades, U.S. foreign policy has been fixated on either engaging with or engaging in violence against members of the regime. 

As a result of this latest act of terror initiated by the U.S., feminist groups—including those working on women’s rights as well as human rights—are now facing a larger threat than ever before. This threatens to undo a decades long feminist struggle.

An Iranian protester at the End Male Violence Against Women rally at Trafalgar Square in 2010. (Garry Knight / Creative Commons)

Women have long been at the forefront of pushing for social change in Iran. From women’s frontline participation in the Constitutional (Mashrouteh) Revolution in 1905-1911, to women’s support of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in the early 1950s, to women’s emphatic castigation of Iran’s Shah which led to the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

But in the years following the revolution of 1979 a new generation has come of age. Since the late 1990s, young women and men have been actively organizing through overtly feminist frameworks. Multiple Iranian feminisms have been gaining strength and prominence in post-revolutionary Iran, and today, these feminists have started coming together in solidarity. What the movements—ranging from Islamic feminists to secular feminists, to young people active in what they called a ‘sexual revolution’ (enqelab-i-jensi in Persian)—have in common are what many feminists around the world share. Namely: a push for equality, resistance to oppression and a staunch belief in the notion that marginalization anywhere is marginalization everywhere. 

Between 2000 and 2008 I spent extensive periods in Iran conducting research with young people engaged in the sexual revolution. Tired of a regime that operationalizes its power through a fabric of morality exercised tyrannically on the bodies of women, young people—men and women alike—had been resisting the regime by trying to chip away at the fabric of morality undergirding the regime’s power. For these young people, mobilizing a sexual revolution is a feminist act.

Shoreh is an unmarried woman from Tehran who has had what she calls “friends” (doost in Farsi can be used to refer to friends or boyfriends/girlfriends depending on the context of the conversation) since she was 15. She, like many of her friends, does not believe in many of the values underpinning the Iranian religious government, and seeks to voice her disapproval through sexual and social behaviors that attack the fabric of morality through which the Islamic regime seeks to maintain power. 

Shoreh and her friends believe that their bodies have become a social and political battleground as Iranian authorities regulate their dress, outward appearance and social and sexual behaviors both before and after marriage. In turn, they are responding by using their bodies to rebel. However, for many women, this has many consequences—and it is these consequences that make everyday behavior, such as the punishable offense of wearing red lipstick, politicized.

“Wearing lipstick or holding hands with my boyfriend as I walk down the street is a political act,” Laudan, a feminist blogger from Mashad, explains. “And believe it or not, we see it as a feminist act because my red lipstick challenges this oppressive regime. It’s me using my personal choices that are political, and using the politics of sex to change politics.”

In 2009 many of the same young people who were active in the sexual revolution spilled into the streets in the thousands to protest the re-election of President Ahmadinejad. This was the beginning of the Green Movement, a civil rights type movement that took the country, and the world, by storm. Feminist women were at the forefront of the Green Movement calling for transparency, equity and justice as they took to the streets in green attire. 

Many activists in Iran believe—and I agree—that the Green Movement was a missed opportunity for members of the U.S. government to strongly support a resistance that could have led to positive change. While Iranian feminists tried to engage their American counterparts, the success was limited as the U.S. preferred a more “hands off” approach that involved then President Barack Obama indicating his public support but not taking additional steps.

In the years before and after the Green Movement, feminist women have continued to use their bodies to make political statements. In 2006, they began the One Million Signatures campaign to collect signatures in support of reforms of laws that would allow women equal rights. Since 2000, they have demonstrated their resistance by sliding the mandatory headscarf further and further back—earning this movement the nickname “the millimeter revolution”. In 2014 a social media campaign with the hashtag #MyStealthyFreedom spread rapidly featuring images of Iranian women photographing themselves in public without their hejab. In 2018 public protests of mandatory veiling swept the nation with women standing publicly without headscarves in protest.

These feminist movements have provided the necessary flames to brew a stew of resistance across the country. In late 2017 and early 2018 Iranians of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds—including those who were secular as well as religious—poured into the streets in the millions to protest the government. The triggering cause was a rise in gas prices, but the demands echoed those of the feminists who were pushing for equality, accountability and transparency.

In the past few months, these protests have seen a major resurgence. Iranians publicly decry the regime for falling short on its promises. At the surface, the protests seem to once again (in a repeat of 2017) be about gas prices and unemployment. And what is distinctive about this wave is that it appears to be led by Iranians in counties where there is limited voting or votes are often cast for a moderate candidate. But to understand how important this moment is, we must look at the roots. The protesters today are demanding what the feminists have been calling for in protests since the early 2000s. 

“We [feminists] have been calling for the regime to address unemployment, inequality and repression for two decades,” says Maryam, a prominent feminist activist based in Tehran. Today, their message seems to have spread far and wide. Iranians who would not consider themselves as feminists, reformists, or progressives are in the streets resisting a regime that they believe is not representative of what they believe should be Iranian values. Values that align with feminist values. And they are pushing a message long articulated by Iranian feminists.

If we want to see the branches of these protests flourish, we must acknowledge the roots. Erasing the history of Iranian feminism from the present historical moment of protest challenges the future of change in Iran.  And this latest act of war can now count the feminist movement among its growing list of potential casualties. 


Pardis Mahdavi, PhD, is director of Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation. She is the former acting dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and previously served as professor and chair of anthropology, director of the Pacific Basin Institute and Dean of Women at Pomona College. She has authored five books, one edited volume and numerous journal and news articles and been a fellow at the Social Sciences Research Council, the American Council on Learned Societies, Google Ideas and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.