Feminist revolutions in Iran and Afghanistan hold lessons for the world

Women’s hair has become a powerful symbol of protest in Iran. Image from the struggle.
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The following piece is based on an educational presentation by Sarah Hall to a Radical Women meeting in October 2022. It has been updated for publication.

Iran’s 1979 revolution, which overthrew the hated, U.S.-installed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was led by women. Today, they are leading the country’s uprising against the theocratic dictatorship, which replaced it. Afghan women’s well-organised protest against Taliban rule also comes from decades of fearless resistance.

A striking commonality between these earth-shaking events is that no amount of state terror is denting their courage.

The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini (also known by her Kurdish name, Jina), on 16 September 2022, ignited Iran’s current revolt. The regime’s Morality Police had beaten her to death, shortly after arresting her for not wearing her hijab in a way they deemed “correct.”

The epitaph on Amini’s grave in Kurdish reads “Jina, dear! You will not die. Your name will turn into a symbol.” Protest spread rapidly throughout Iran and the world, and it is not relenting.

Facing beatings and death, Afghan women are defying armed retaliation by the state and its edicts forbidding them to work and seek an education. In September 2022 at least 52 people, mainly female students, were killed in a suicide bombing at a Kabul education centre. And in December, days after the Taliban officially banned women from university, the regime forbade them from working for national and international non-government agencies. Arrests, assaults and murders of those opposing the regime haven’t declined. It’s difficult to be sure of exact numbers, but as of December at least 458 people, including 63 children, were killed and more than 18,000 detained.

Women’s hair has become a powerful symbol of protest
in Iran. Image from the struggle.

Protesters’ bravery cannot be overstated. In one case, Ghazaleh Chalabi was shot dead by Iranian security forces while she was filming. Footage of her last moments shows her shouting, “Don’t be afraid, we are all together.” As is the case all over the world, any unity of the exploited and oppressed scares Iran’s rulers.

Afghan women also refuse to be silenced, despite the Taliban’s increasing brutality. Pepper spray, bullets, detention and torture are not stopping them. On 25 December, for example, protests defied the education ban. Slogans on placards said, “Education for All or for No one” and “Rise up, fellow countrymen, let’s take back women’s rights.”

These unfolding events brilliantly demonstrate women’s leadership – especially of young women — in opposing repression. Radical Women’s Manifesto addresses its historical source: “The exploitation of women has created a specially oppressed sex, whose potential for revolt and capacity for leadership are second to none.” This applies everywhere.

Solidarity crosses genders and borders. Iran’s women-led revolt is not exclusively female. All genders stand together, chanting “Women, Life, Freedom.” University students sit together to eat and sing protest songs in defiance of the segregation rules of the Islamic Republic. Workers in factories, education and oil and petrochemical industries strike in solidarity. Shopkeepers join them. In Afghan universities, young men walk out in solidarity with female students who have been denied access to education, and professors resign in protest.

Across the world, solidarity protests instantly spread. At Melbourne’s first mobilisation, thousands marched through the city, chanting Mahsa Amini’s name and “Women, Life, Freedom” — a feminist slogan from the Kurdish freedom movement adopted by the Iranian protesters. The energy on the night was infectious and inspiring. And the solidarity keeps building.

Global struggles, interconnected. The Iranian and Taliban regimes portray the uprisings as “foreign-sponsored.” But the Iranian people understand that their interests lie with the international working class, not with international capital. They understand that their struggles are interconnected. For this reason, the uprising is not a single-issue protest: It is not just about the compulsory hijab, but about the many facets of women’s oppression — such as gender segregation. It is about other oppressed groups — LGBTIQA+ people and Kurdish, Arab and Baluchi national minorities. It is about all the Iranian people — their right to freedom of religion, movement and expression. In Afghanistan, the current struggle centres on education, but it is a broader fight for justice and equality, captured in the slogan, “Education, Work and Freedom.”

Radical Women’s solidarity is based on understanding that the struggles of different oppressed groups are intertwined. The Radical Women Manifesto says, “We cannot isolate our struggle by creating a single-issue movement that ignores the multi-faceted reality of women’s oppression. All oppressed groups are fighting the same enemy, and we must build a movement that brings our separate struggles together. United we become strong.”

Here in Australia, successive governments have used xenophobia to turn working-class people, who are justifiably angry at the profit system, against each other. By exploiting this division, a far-right movement is attempting to grow. Neo-Nazis recently threatened an event for young queers at Melbourne’s Pride Centre (See editorial, Drag events targeted by far right: A tale of two responses). The possible return of the religious discrimination bill looms. Systemic racism against First Nations people does not abate. Nor does gendered violence. The struggle of women, trans and non-binary people for bodily autonomy and reproductive justice escalates in the wake of Roe v. Wade’s overturn in the United States.

The solution is solidarity and revolution. Protesters in Iran demand the regime’s overthrow, not incremental reforms. A popular slogan is: “This is no longer a protest, it’s the beginning of a revolution.” It answers the international mainstream media’s portrayal of the uprising as a protest, meant to conceal what is really going on. And by “revolution,” they don’t mean swapping one oppressive regime for another: “Down with the oppressor, be it Shah or the [Islamic Republic] leader.”

So how can we support the women of Iran and Afghanistan?

Another popular slogan of the Iranian revolt, directed at people around the world, is: “Be our voice.” The regime has repeatedly restricted information on the uprisings by shutting down internet access and other forms of communication. In Afghanistan the Taliban prevents journalists from filming and reporting their misogynist violence. Iranians are calling on people of other countries to demonstrate solidarity by disseminating information on the situation in Iran, speaking up, and amplifying Iranian resisters’ voices. Similarly, the Spontaneous Movement of Afghan Women demands that women’s rights organisations and activists declare their solidarity by standing with the women of Afghanistan.

We can learn so much from the courageous women leading this historic resistance. As socialist feminists, we must support and learn from them, and fight for revolution against our own patriarchal capitalists. Revolution, anywhere, will only succeed if it is international — because the oppressive profit system is global.

In the Freedom Socialist, Monica Hill recently stated, “Anti-capitalist politics and profound solidarity among the exploited are key to revolution, and women are central. Likewise, patriarchy cannot be defeated without routing class discrimination. Combating the profit-driven system cannot succeed without defeating male supremacy. Iran’s upsurge is a beacon to all activists.”

Sarah Hall is a member of Melbourne Radical Women