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Iran’s Uprisings for “Women, Life, Freedom”: Overdetermination, Crisis, and the Lineages of Revolt

February 2023


On the 16th of September 2022, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman by the name of Mahsa Jina Amini died while in the custody of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Guidance Patrol (Gasht-e ershad), better known to EuroAmerican readers as the “Morality Police”. Pictures of the young woman’s limp and lifeless body spread like wildfire across the internet and social media. Unlike previous high-profile deaths in custody, Amini’s death sparked widespread protests beginning in her hometown of Saqqez in Kurdistan, Iran, rapidly spreading to Tehran and its environs, and with varying tempos encompassing huge swathes of the country. Women protesting for their basic human and civil rights is hardly novel to contemporary Iran. However, women’s visible role at the forefront of national protests and their enactment of a panoply of courageous acts of civil resistance in direct confrontation with the Islamic Republic’s security forces, left much of the world mesmerised, at least for a time. According to one data-driven analysis, between 16 September and 11 November, at least 1,158 of 1,265 protests were led by women (Wintour, 2022). These repertoires of contention included in violation of the law of the land, the defiant removal of the headscarf in public, both individually and collectively, the cutting of one’s hair, the public burning of headscarves, the chanting of anti-government slogans, the destruction of symbols of state power such as

photographs of Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei, the founder and incumbent Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, respectively, the torching of the offices of Friday Prayer leaders, knocking turbans off the heads of unsuspecting clerics, the attack and incineration of the erstwhile home turned museum of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, graffiti and propaganda to the end, if only temporarily, of appropriating public space, among others.

For a brief time, the world was turned upside down, as school children defied teachers and ran officials out of their schools, crowds of young men and women chased down the police, and people took control of their streets and local neighbourhoods. The overflowing youthful exuberance of the protestors also immediately caught the spectator’s eye, as high-ranking security personnel reported the average age of protestors arrested was a mere Forthcoming in 2 fifteen years old (Barkhat News, 1401). The cascading series of protests were composed of what Asef Bayat has called “social nonmovements” (Bayat, 2017, p. 106), emerging through a variety of online, interpersonal and informal networks, as well as more established social movements of various political and ideological persuasions, coalescing around the core slogan of “Women, Life, Freedom”. The provenance of this electrifying slogan resided in the charismatic writings of the imprisoned former leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Abdullah Öcalan, and the militant theorising, activism and organizing of Kurdish feminists in the Kurdish-dominated People’s

Defence Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) in north-eastern Syria. Following Jina’s tragic death, “Jin, jiyan, azadi” (Women, life, freedom), resounded across Kurdish-majority cities and its Persian translation, zan, zendegi, azadi, rapidly spread to tens of cities and towns throughout Iran. The broad orientation and ethos of the uprising, moreover, had a distinctly this-worldly character, centring women’s rights and bodily autonomy, the right

to human dignity, the desire for a “normal” life and wish to openly experience joy and mundane everyday pleasures without threat of sanction or reproach from the forbidding and puritanical Islamist state (Moaddel, 2015).

Despite coming to symbolise the movement and constitute its political and normative core, many other slogans proliferated and echoed across the country. Several continued to centre gender and the oppression of women in forthright and unambiguous ways: “We are all Mahsa, come on and fight!”, “You are lewd, you are dissolute, I am a free woman!”, and “Cannons, tanks and guns won’t work anymore, tell my mother that she doesn’t have a

daughter!” Other prominent slogans harboured distinct valences, some of which frontally called for an end to dictatorship or called for unity in the face of the state’s efforts to sow division along ethno-sectarian lines. These included “Death to the dictator!”, “Death to Khamenei!”, “Death to the Oppressor, whether it be Shah or Leader!”, “This year is the year of blood, Seyyed Ali [Khamenei] is overthrown!”, “From Zahedan to Tehran, Isacrifice myself for Iran!”, “Kurdistan, the graveyard of fascists!”, “Islamic Republic, we don’t want!”, “Bread,

labour, freedom, council government (hokumat-e showra’i)!”, “Referendum, referendum, this is the chant of the people!”, and “Cannon, tank, rocket, mullahs get lost!” The variety of slogans and the social classes and constituencies which mobilised around them clearly speak to the systemic nature of the indictment and refusal of the structures and apparatuses of oppression and exploitation which perpetuate structural violence against women,

ethnic minorities, and the working classes under the Islamic Republic.

In this article I provide an interpretive-theoretical framework through which to understand the manifold crises which generated the conditions for these historic uprisings. I argue that the Islamist social order and authoritarian neoliberal regime which govern Iran are confronted by the accumulation of at least four systemic contradictions. These include 1) the crisis of gendered social control and social reproduction 2) the crisis of the nation-state, specifically as a dominative Persian and Shi’i-centric, centralising and homogenising force 3) the crisis of “religious democracy” and the defeat of the Reform movement, and finally 4) the crisis of authoritarian neoliberalism and the Islamic Republic’s political economy of predation. The article will discuss each one of these crises, albeit schematically, and show how at specific points and junctures different crises overdetermine others. I contend that the uprisings, which have varied in intensity and breadth during this period, represent a “unity of a conjuncture”

in which these manifold contradictions come together to confront the Islamic Republic as a major challenge to its stability, legitimacy, and conditions of reproduction as both a political system and social order (Althusser et al., 2015, p. 463). The intention is not to definitively proclaim whether we have in fact already witnessed a “revolution”, but rather delineate the uprisings’ distinct lineages in multiple systemic social, economic, political, and ideological contradictions; contradictions and crises, which if left unaddressed will almost certainly generate the conditions for further generalised crises in the months and years to come. Indeed, one likely outcome, at least in the short term, is the prolongation of sustained conditions of crisis, while emergent social forces struggle to cohere or build up the necessary social power to realise their revolutionary aspirations in the face of entrenched

and recalcitrant repressive, ideological, political and socio-economic state apparatuses.

This article, furthermore, aims to synthesize and bring together several different literatures which have often been siloed off from one another and rarely speak to each another in the scholarship on contemporary Iranian politics and society. This “Great Refusal” and multi-faceted social struggle advanced on several fronts no longer affords us such a luxury and compels scholars to bring the scholarship on women and gender, ethno-national and

religious minorities, democracy and authoritarianism, class and political economy, together into a more comprehensive and systematic analysis. Rather than the initiative of any one scholar or research program, it has been concrete social and political struggles where people “reject the rules of the game that is rigged against them” (Marcuse, 1969, p. 5), which have necessitated this conjoining and critical intersection of disparate and siloed fields

of scholarly research. Finally, it is hoped that such an analysis will not only adumbrate the lineages of this conjunctural crisis, but throw into stark relief the challenges, obstacles, and hard limits that this hitherto fragmented and disorganized movement of civil resistance must confront in its desire and ambition to dislodge a regime configured in the mould of the Islamic Republic (Levitsky and Way, 2022, chap. 6).

Overdetermination, Contradiction, and Conjunctural Analysis

Louis Althusser in his classic 1962 essay, “Contradiction and Overdetermination”, helps us to think through how a given social formation might experience manifold contradictions; contradictions which destabilise and hinder the aforesaid formation’s ability to produce and reproduce itself economically, politically and ideologically.

Althusser’s critique upbraided notions of “simple contradiction” and “expressive totality” and rejected what he held to be the malign vestiges of Hegel’s thought in the early Marx. Specifically, he was taking aim at the idea that all social contradictions were merely epiphenomenal or pale reflections of the basic contradiction between capital and labour or the forces of production and relations of production. Althusser sought not only to demonstrate Marx’s own break with the Hegelian dialectic but also show how Marxist theory could avoid the pitfalls of economism and technological determinism (Althusser, 2005, p. 106). Rather than see the contradiction between capital and labour as mechanically reflected in the superstructure, Althusser furnished a new conception which sought to understand “the relation between determinant instances in the structure-superstructure complex which

constitutes the essence of any social formation” (Althusser, 2005, p. 110). Drawing on Engels’ correspondence, Althusser argued that the forms of the superstructure, encompassing the state, law, culture, education and muchelse besides enjoy both specificity and autonomy within a given mode of production. As he says, “the economic dialectic is never active in the pure state; in History, these instances, the superstructures, etc. – are never seen to step respectfully aside when their work is done or, when the Time comes, as his pure phenomena, to scatter before His Majesty the Economy as he strikes along the royal road of the Dialectic. From the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the ‘last instance’ never comes” (Althusser, 2005, p. 112). Building on this theoretical legacy, Stuart Hall insisted on understanding social formations as an “ensemble of relations”, possessing a complex unity characterised by “determining” and “dominant” instances (Hall, 2021, p.

69). In moments of revolutionary rupture, we observe an accumulation of various contradictions peculiar to different economic and political structures and practices. Systemic crisis and revolutionary rupture must therefore be understood as overdetermined and the coming together of multiple contradictions, rather than simply determined by any single contradiction. Each level or practice is understood to be part of “a complex, structured

whole, structured in dominance” by capitalist social relations, while enjoying relative autonomy. It is in this respect that Hall, following Althusser, speaks of “structural” rather than “sequential” causality (Hall, 2021, p. 86). In understanding “the necessary complexity of the social formation of advancing capitalism and of relations between its different levels”, the analyst must uncover “the functions which, specifically, the superstructures “perform” in

relation either to the maintenance and reproduction, or the retardation of the development, of capitalist social relations” (Hall, 2021, p. 75). Thus, any analysis that aims to understand the conditions under which a social and political system produces and reproduces itself must take eminently seriously the capital-labour relation, as well as grapple with the relations and apparatuses of the state and civil society, ideological forms and their corresponding

forms of social consciousness (Hall, 2021, p. 82). As Hall convincingly argues the contradictions traversing a social formation cannot exist outside of class relations and class struggle, but this is not tantamount to assuming that theprinciple contradiction between capital and labour generates all others (Hall, 2022). Althusser himself held a

comparable position when he attested to the central importance of “the concrete analysis of the concrete situation”, where class struggle remained a defining feature of life under capitalism (Althusser, 2020, p. 1).

“Conjunctural crises”, for Hall, were never solely economic or economically determined “in the last instance”.

Such crises “arise when a number of contradictions at work in different key practices and sites come together – or ‘conjoin’ – in the same moment and political space” (Hall, 2017, p. 317). In such moments, we observe a “condensation of contradictions, each with its own specificity and periodisation” (Hall, 2019, p. 197). It is my contention that the uprising in Iran amounts to just such a crisis even though it is still not clear what new settlement and condensation of social forces will ultimately emerge in this latest mobilisation of mass discontent and civil resistance. The struggles of women in the face of oppressive laws, gendered governmentality and exploitative regimes of social reproduction, ethno-national and religious minorities rejection of the accumulated effects of structural violence, economic underdevelopment, and systemic discrimination, and the urban and rural working poor’s revolt against deteriorating conditions and intensified rates of exploitation, co-constitute one another in historically determinate and specific ways requiring further interrogation and unpacking (Bannerji, 2015, p. 113).


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