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Mediated Revolutions: Gender and Protest in Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq

Panel XI-6, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
In recent years movements of contestation have broken out in different parts of the Middle East, from Lebanon and Iraq to Turkey, Egypt, Afghanistan, and Iran, among other locations. Such protests reveal the failures of neoliberalism and transnational capital, the U.S. imperial projects, as well as the nation-states in responding to the legitimate demands of various groups of people, including women. They made visible the potentiality of significant social transformations, and have created a space of hope for some who seek gender, ethnic, environmental and economic justice, access to education, freedom, and political and socio-economic change. This panel seeks to focus on the way that gender and sexuality are central in the local and transnational politics leading to these protests, and the way that gendered subjects are produced as heroes, terrorists, martyrs, and revolutionaries. By delineating the differences in the context and the demands of the protesters in Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan while highlighting the relationships between them, the panel explores how these protests are mediated by NGOS, diasporas, multiple nationalisms, militarism, social media, geopolitics, and the local and global relations of power. How are gender and sexuality deployed as markers of protection and/or liberation of the nation in the struggle for a future that is yet to come? What forms of solidarity are possible when the biopolitical and necropolitical practices of multiple states, proxies, and the empire, along with the reductionist binaries of religious/secular and repression/freedom produce contradictory and unexpected alliances? How do women protesters navigate these binaries in their struggle for justice through resistance to and complicity with old and new hegemonies in times of protest and revolution?
Media Arts
  • Sima Shakhsari
    The Iranian protests in the aftermath of Mahsa Jina Amini’s death are the percolation of long-time grievances resulting from the unrealized promises of the post-revolutionary Iranian state whose anti-imperialist Islamic nationalism aspired to shed economic injustices, inequalities, and the political oppression of the Pahlavi regime. The ever-increasing economic and wealth gap between most of the population and the economic elites who only constitute a small fraction of it, the unequal distribution of resources and the impoverishment of the provinces where ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Arabs, and Baluch people live, and the suppression of dissent and social freedoms have been pent up over four decades. While many workers, women, students, and activists have organized around demands for social and economic justice through slogans such as “Woman, Life, Freedom,” “Bread, Work, Freedom,” and “Bread, Roof, Freedom,” the mainstream opposition media that enjoys the resources to circumvent the Iranian state’s interruption of the internet service during the protests have utilized social media to amplify voices that derail these demands by using sexists and homophobic slogans. These hyper-sexualized slogans that normalize rape and sodomy, not only target the clergy, the Iranian security forces, and the Supreme Leader, but also their wives, mothers, and sisters, as well as any voice that refuses to succumb to a binary logic of “with or against” the “regime.” Focusing on the social media, I analyze the way that the Manichean logic that makes any nuanced in-between position impossible through accusations of cooptation with the Iranian regime, reproduces misogynistic and homophobic discourses, while instrumentalizing women’s bodies and laying claim to the liberation of all Iranian women. By exploring the way that “woman, life, freedom” is re-signified in multiple territorializations and in the struggle for political power through the rampant use of social media, I show how those segments of the Iranian diaspora that are implicated in the biopolitical and necropolitical practices and the geopolitical interests of the empire, perpetuate Islamophobia and racial queering, while instrumentalizing women’s and queer freedom. Paradoxically, despite their absolutist claims of opposition to the Iranian state, many of these diasporic groups and individuals repeat the strategies of surveillance, intimidation, and shaming that are used by the conservative elements among the Iranian state.
  • 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.
  • Tahmina Sobat
    In early 2019, the United States officially resumed its direct negotiations with the Taliban to reach an agreement on a joint framework for a future peace deal in Afghanistan. Although debates continued over the size and duration of the US military presence in Afghanistan, and the inclusion of the Taliban in Afghanistan’s future government, what fell in and out of the headlines were the women’s presence, narratives, and decades of advocacy and achievements. From the onset of the U.S. peace negotiations with the Taliban, many Afghan women were not optimistic about these negotiations, warning that the “new” Taliban held the same discriminatory ideologies, albeit with more structured strategies towards women as the previous incarnation of the Taliban in the 1990s. Having this said, it’s also important to emphasize Afghan women’s opinions regarding how the US-appointed governments in Afghanistan after 2001 and the promises of democracy did not deliver social and economic justice to the people of Afghanistan. This is a fact that then was used by the Taliban to justify their fight and claims over Afghanistan. Dismissal of women’s voices in the US-led negotiations with the Taliban, the intra-Afghan peace talks, and the regional and international negotiations resulted in the Taliban’s regain of power on August 15, 2021. Despite initially promising a more moderate rule respecting rights for women and minorities, the Taliban have strictly implemented their interpretation of Sharia law since they seized power in Afghanistan. On December 20, 2022, the Taliban officially banned women from universities and deprived them of their right to employment at all levels, leading to widespread protests and contestation in Afghanistan and its diaspora. In this paper, I address Afghan women’s continued resistance and advocacy in a time when the Taliban’s restrictive and misogynistic rule intersects with projects of neoliberalism, militarism, and imperialism, emphasizing neoliberalism’s role in the logic of the post-2001 governments in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s complicity with it, despite their claims. What is at stake for the Afghan women protesters who are disillusioned with the “international community,” institutions of law, and human rights organizations? What are some possibilities and perils of transnational and “trans-communal” solidarities with Afghan women? How have these movements of contestation in different parts of the Middle East inspired each other and/or can come together to build these spaces of trans-communal solidarities?
  • The Revolution is Televised This paper interrogates the technologies of vision as constitutive of a discourse of revolution as a spectacle of events that have been eventualized through totalizing representational practices. While the revolt of the subjects against the unbearability of submission to authority is undeniable in the event of social uprisings and social revolts, homogenization appears when the event is eventualized and where the contradictions are resolved in the narrative, where the forces of homogenization succeed the forces of differentiation. In this context, nationalism and imperialism converge in their investment in a militarized gaze and the desire to contain conflicts and contradictions. While the subjects of recent street protests in Iran exceed modern politics of visibility and the mediatic and diasporic representation of a revolution to come, this paper interrogates the limits of televised revolutions that are taking place in spaces of political mobilization powerfully mediated, defined, and contained by the state apparatus, on the one hand, and imperialist diasporic and non-diasporic media on the other. The state-controlled media and the imperialist media mirror each other in claiming the bodies of women protesters, one accusing women’s protest of being engineered by imperialist forces and the other of a revolution to overthrow the Islamic Republic. I ask how to intervene in these dichotomized forms of representation to interrupt hegemonic narratives and create space for unfolding what is not necessarily open to the mediatic gaze. How to discuss women’s issues and engage with women’s various forms of resistance to cultural, political, and economic patriarchies without falling into the trap of religious or secular fundamentalists or imperialist and Islamic nationalist hegemonies in Iran and the diaspora? What are the limits of political mobilization in spaces powerfully defined and contained by hegemonic media within the national and transnational mediatic spaces?