This paper analyzes the role of gender in recent Iranian mobilizations compared with events in Tunisia a decade earlier. In both Tunisia and Iran, the tragic death of a young person from a provincial region focused and enlarged widespread public frustration and anger over existing political, economic, and social conditions. In both cases, the gender of the protagonists played a role in triggering popular response. The very ordinariness of these young people, from areas on the margin usually ignored by the central government, helped make them iconic figures of popular identification, and sparked national movements that challenged the stability of the existing state. But the underlying gender politics of the two cases are almost mirror opposites. What difference do social conceptions of gender roles make in grassroots efforts to challenge an authoritarian state? How do popular protests position themselves in opposition to the (gender) ideologies of the state, and how does that shift possibilities of democratization? I explore these questions through an analysis of different popular conceptions of gendered citizenship, and the effects these different conceptions can have in shaping grassroots movements for political change.
In Tunisia in December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26 year old male street vendor in the provincial city of Sidi Bouzid, committed suicide by immolating himself in front of the town hall after he had been repeatedly accosted by a woman police officer. Tunisia since independence had been a formally secular state with a reputation as a regionally progressive promoter of women’s rights. Yet Bouazizi’s public humiliation was as much to his gender identity and general aspirations as a man as to his expectations as a citizen. His death sparked uprisings that brought down the Tunisian state and swept across the region, but the political after-effects have disappointed popular hopes. In September 2022, protests erupted across Iran after the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22 year old Kurdish-Iranian woman. Visiting Tehran with her brother, Amini was arrested by for improper hijab, although she was wearing clothing most Iranians would consider quite modest. Iran since the revolution has been an explicitly theocratic state with formal limits on women’s legal equality. Yet Amini’s arrest and death coalesced Iranian public understandings of (women’s) rights to participatory citizenship around the common slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom.”
These examples focus a comparative examination of the effect gendered conceptions of citizenship have on struggles for sustained democratization under authoritarianism.