In October 2019, Iraq witnessed heated passions leading to the Tishreen Revolution and its spring of collective consciousness. Iraqis went to the streets to fight for their rights, will, and agency—all denied since the 2003 invasion. Some have criticized the Tishreen Movement for not having a central leadership, claiming this structural “flaw” has allowed state- and non-state forces to crush it. In this presentation, I combine two of my works (published and in the pipeline) to discuss how the Tishreen movement’s lack of central leadership has made it resilient through its “living symbols”—empowered women dissenters.
Instead of centring itself around a leader, the movement has been guided by both personal and inanimate symbolism. Safa al-Sarray, Reham Yacoub, and Sarah Taleb were “living” symbols after their assassinations. Inanimate symbols like the Tuktuk and tear gas canisters have been significant in protestors’ artistic expression, while symbolic public spaces like the Turkish Restaurant, Habbouby Square, and Tahrir Monument were places of collectivist action. Beyond those spaces, digital activism has been rooted in heavy symbolism and centred on women’s mobilization, fuelling momentum. Mobilization against the patriarchy took two paths, targeting it as male hegemony and as a socio-political system of oppression. I cite bell hooks' Feminist Theory as well as structural and cultural theories of emotion in social movements to account for micro and macro sociologies in the struggle against patriarchal power structures. I also discuss how the Internet digitizes the correlation between, and symbolism in, both anti-patriarchy movements. Symbolic interactionism views symbolism as a dynamic social phenomenon reconfigured over time and interaction, not an autonomous linguistic or semiotic system. The drama of mass protests and grassroots mobilization will be the metaphor for this theoretical framework.
Symbols possess a triple structure: they simultaneously mean something, evaluate, and persuade (Hałas, 2002). In collective action, symbolism is a genuine ‘social force’ (ibid) which invites us to explore the social powers that affect people. Understanding the symbolism in and of the social processes of protest and mobilization in Iraq helps us realize why symbolism helps maintain a longer-lasting movement. Discussing this within the intersection of men's struggle against oppressive systems with women's and girls' struggle against institutionalized misogyny offers a comprehensive understanding of power relations and gender dynamics in Iraq.
Hałas, E. (2002). Symbolism and Social Phenomena: Toward the Integration of Past and Current Theoretical Approaches. European Journal of Social Theory, 5(3), 351–366. https://doi.org/10.1177/136843102760513947