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Iranian responses to the “Arab spring”: appropriation and contestation

Publication Date: 
February 29, 2012

While the Iranian government authorities attempted to appropriate the Arab spring, claiming it was a continuation of the Iranian revolution of 1979, the events revived popular longing for democratic change in Iran. Ziba Mir-Hosseini tells Deniz Kandiyoti that no movement for change in Iran can afford to ignore women’s aspiration for equality – a lesson that some of the successful elements in the Arab spring may yet have to learn.

Deniz Kandiyoti: The popular movements of the “Arab spring” posed numerous challenges for neighbouring regimes. Iran stood out with its concerted efforts to appropriate and re-brand these social movements as a continuation of the Iranian revolution of 1979. How do you evaluate these efforts and their effects?

Ziba Mir-Hosseini : The events of the Arab spring were received differently by the government authorities, on the one hand, and the Green movement and the people, on the other. This led to two separate narratives and responses.

From the very start the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and the government authorities called the unfolding events an Islamic resurgence, claiming that it was a continuation of the Iranian revolution of 1979. These overtures, however, were soon rejected by the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and by Ghannoushi, leader of the Nahda Islamic movement in Tunisia; they distanced themselves from the Iranian leadership, and made it clear that neither a Khomeini-style revolution, nor an Islamic state on the Iranian model, held any appeal for the Arab protesters whose priorities were dignity, democracy and justice. After the success of the popular movements and the overthrow of existing regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and then Libya, the official interpretation in Iran shifted from Islamic Revolution to Islamic Awakening , in a systematic attempt to appropriate these achievements for their vision of Islam.

At the popular level, the events in the Arab world inspired Iranians, and the youth especially, reviving memories of the protests that followed June 2009 presidential election – protests that began on 25 June with a silent demonstration in Tehran with the slogan ‘Where is my vote?’ and evolved into a dynamic and vibrant civil rights movement that came to be known as the Green Movement .  By the time of the Arab uprisings, regime forces had brutally suppressed Green protesters, and their voices and demands could be heard only in cyberspace, on blogs and opposition websites. Now online slogans started to change - Tunes tunest ma natunestim  (a pun: “Tunisia could, we couldn’t”). This was a moment of soul searching for the people. Why hadn’t they succeeded in their own protests? The leaders of the Green Movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, saw this as an opportunity to invite people to come out and celebrate the events and show solidarity with the Arab spring. They applied for official permission to hold a peaceful solidarity rally (the constitution allows for peaceful demonstrations so permission should not, in principle, be necessary) but it was denied. The day they chose for the demonstration was 14 February, only 3 days after the anniversary of the Iranian revolution, which the government uses as an occasion for displaying public support for the Supreme Leader and the vitality of the ‘Islamic Revolution’. What happened on 14 February took both the government and the leaders of the Green movement by surprise. Given the high levels of repression and brutality, few thought that people would dare to come out. But they did, in large numbers.  A protester with a green headband managed to climb a giant crane to hang Mousavi’s and Karroubi’s pictures .

It was a replay of the street presence of the Green Movement and showed that it was still alive. By the afternoon the government reacted with a crackdown that recalled earlier scenes of police brutality, with teargas, violent assaults on unarmed people, and arrests. Two days later, deputies close to the Supreme Leader staged a protest in parliament and demanded the execution of Mousavi and Karroubi, hinting at links with “foreign powers”. Mousavi and Karroubi were placed under house arrest, where they still remain incommunicado, and a new wave of arrests began. This clearly showed how much the authorities still feared the potential of the Green Movement, and disproved their claims that the movement was dead.  The government’s line had been two-fold; first ,they claimed they had convinced the supporters of Mousavi and Karroubi (among whom there were reportedly even members of the revolutionary guard) of the error of their ways; and secondly that young people would remain passive and that they had no interest in politics. The 14 February 2011 protest proved them wrong.

DK: So despite all the efforts by the government they were ultimately unsuccessful in legitimising their position and actions.

ZMH: Yes. The nail in the coffin of the official discourse came with developments in Syria. The blatant double standard of the government became very clear. As the atrocities against civilians increased and it became clear that the Assad regime was receiving Iranian funding, how could the government uphold an expansion of popular democracy that stops at the door of Syria? The official line was that the Syrian protesters were US-backed, and Iran was supporting Assad’s regime as the only one in the region that stood up to the US and defended Palestine. But government media were instructed not to mention Syria. At first it was only reformist papers and websites that criticized the official position. But by August conservative media were increasingly joining them, and in the winter both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei were calling on the Syrian regime to show restraint.

DK: How do you evaluate the trajectory of the democratic movement in Iran?

ZMH: What we are now seeing is a dynamic, vibrant and innovative civil rights movement that has a long history and speaks to the aspirations of Iranian society since the beginning of the 20th century. The project, which started in 1906 with the constitutional revolution and continued with Mossadegh between 1951 and 1953 (when it came to an abrupt end when he was deposed by a CIA–backed coup), and the Iranian revolution of 1979,all expressed popular democratic aspirations. Democracy, rule of law, an independent judiciary and national sovereignty were the threads running through these demands. However, these aspirations were frustrated , either as a result of external interventions or because of internal tensions between religion and secularism and between absolutism and democracy.

The fraudulent elections of June 2009 marked a turning point , when the regime was caught breaking many of its own taboos.  It became clear during the election campaigns that Iranians of both genders, all classes and all parts of the country had rejected or at least were questioning many of the gender codes and sexual taboos firmly enforced by the Islamic Republic over the past 30 years.  One of president Ahmadinejad’s first acts after his first election in 2005 was the countrywide Social Morality Plan (tarh-e amniyat-eejtema’i), which aimed to reinforce the rigid codes of dress and comportment for women that had prevailed in the 1980s. This certainly suggested that the government thought they were losing their grip. But it was too late; the act did not intimidate women but united them, and women’s groups and activists came together to overcome the opposition between ‘Islamic’ and ‘secular’ feminism that had plagued the politics of gender in Iran since the 1979 Revolution.

The main evidence for this is how women managed to make their demand for legal equality a central issue in the 2009 presidential election. In April 2009, 42 women’s groups and 700 individuals, including both secular feminists and religious women from the reformist parties, came together to form a coalition called the Women’s Convergence. Without supporting any individual candidate, the coalition posed pointed questions to the field. They raised two specific demands: first, the ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and second, the revision of the four articles of the Iranian constitution that enshrine gender discrimination. Using the press and new media, they put the candidates on the spot. This helped to establish that no democratic platform could be credible without taking account of women’s demands for equality. All the presidential candidates – apart from Ahmadinejad – responded to women’s demands. The renowned filmmaker Rakhshan Bani Etemad filmed women’s activists , secular and religious, articulating their demands, then filmed herself showing them to the presidential candidates and asking what they were going to do about them.  The candidates had to prove that they supported these demands and had concrete plans to meet them. This is something that Arab women’s rights activists are still struggling to achieve in the aftermath of the Arab spring, where the women’s rights platforms do not always appear as integral to the struggle for democracy as they do in Iran.

Another novelty was the appearance of Zahra Rahnavard at the side of  - and even holding hands with -  her husband, the leading reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. This was the first time that a woman – who openly supported women’s rights and human rights – appeared as an equal partner alongside her husband. This changed the tone of the campaign, and in fact raised the level of debate. After the post-election crackdown began, Rahnavard became even more outspoken , and ranked with her husband and Karroubi as the leaders of the opposition.

In my view, what makes the new democratic movement in Iran so different is the very public presence of women, and their open challenge to the strict Shari‘a-based attempts by the ruling clerics after 1979 to banish women and love from public space. Central to the ‘islamization’ policies of the post-revolutionary regime were the imposition of hijab, the introduction of gender segregation, the censorship of films (banning love from the screen) and the revival of severe penalties for sexual ‘offences’. There are intimate links between democracy and sexuality, and the closing of democratic space begins by making women and sexuality taboo subjects.

In This Dead-End ”, a beautiful poem by Ahmad Shamlou from July 1979, captured this patriarchal taboo on love; it begins:

They smell your mouth

To find out if you have told someone: I love you!

They smell your heart!

Such a strange time it is, my darling

And they punish Love

At the thoroughfares

By flogging

We must hide our love in the dark

But love has now been rehabilitated, even among those Islamists who made the revolution. In the clampdown following the 2009 election, numerous young journalists and activists were jailed, as well as prominent reformists who had been key figures in the 1980s and 1990s. Their wives started a campaign of putting love letters to them online. This was first done by the younger women, and later taken up by the older women – and men. What makes these often very affecting letters especially significant is that many of the writers were women from religious backgrounds who now did not hesitate to write publicly of their physical longing for their men, and to question the justice of the system that imprisoned them. Three decades of the repressive politicisation of women and sexuality had backfired .

DK: Shirin Ebadi claimed that men in Iran have finally understood that the fight for democracy and for women’s rights are two sides of the same coin. Is this claim justified?

ZMH: I agree with this view since young men in Iran have also come to experience discrimination under the Islamic republic. They have witnessed how one group with power and privileges came to abuse that power. The patriarchal regime bolstered by the state disempowered young men who could feel a sense of kinship or solidarity with women.

DK: Does this give you grounds for optimism concerning the prospects for a democratic future for Iran?

ZMH: There are many grounds for hope. Now the divide between secular and religious democrats has been bridged, and the battle lines are clearly drawn between democracy and despotism (in whatever form the latter presents itself). The experience of years of the Islamic republic has led to the paradoxical result of “secularisation from below” and a demand for secularising the concept of law in Islam. People no longer talk about shari‘a but about fiqh (jurisprudence), the human – and fallible – act of discerning law from the sacred sources. The activists have rescued love from Shamlou’s ‘Dead End’. The present younger generation know that democracy and patriarchy are incompatible. No movement for change in Iran can now afford to ignore women’s aspiration for equality – a lesson that some at least of the successful elements in the Arab spring may have yet to learn.