Alberta (Special to Informed Comment) –
As a concept and analytical reference point for examining contentious politics, oppositional social movements are by and large a Western construct (Tilly, 1978). They are perhaps best understood, moreover, as parcels of collective action that present an “organized [and] sustained … challenge to existing authorities” (Tilly, 1984, p. 304). In the “politically open and technologically advanced Western societies” (Bayat, 2013, p. 20) in which they have emerged, they operate, more or less, as formal business-like enterprises, whose success is contingent upon resources, financial or otherwise, centralized leadership, a clearly defined division of labour, and a high degree of professionalization and strategic planning—all factors having to do with technical expertise and often referred to as “mobilizing structures”.
But what of those political settings where such mobilizing structures are non-existent, rudimentary, severely handicapped by authoritarian states, and /or where the political channels for effecting meaningful change are controlled by factions exercising a monopoly over the levers of power?
Home to several states where “mobilizing structures” can be ruled out, the Middle East can serve as an ideal laboratory for addressing this question. Moreover, while each of these states possesses distinctive structural/societal features and modes of governance, one can discern common approaches to dealing with oppositional movements that are bestunderstood as, what I call, the art of repression. The latter consists of shrewd calculations, refined skills and practical know how, macro/micro techniques and nuanced measures, an intuitive grasp of the psychology of fear, and paramilitary forces all at the ready to silence dissenting voices in the name of perpetuating the status quo.
When confronted by this art of repression, oppositional actors invariably turn to less dramatic and hence less risky forms of collective action, except in those cases where such action is grounded in the ordinary practices of life—what Nancy Fraser calls the “politics of everyday life” (1989, p. 18). The latter, which aims to contest and negate governmental rule, finds its ultimate manifestation in the everyday activism of diverse social strata, committed to bringing about social and political change and nowhere is this more evident than in Iran where women’s groups have played a leading role, as evinced by ubiquitous and everyday acts and modes of political contestation.
This paper traces the history of everyday public resistance on the part of women’s movements in Iran, and in particular their everyday modes of activism, that aimed to bring about social and political change during Mohammad Khatami’s second administration (2001-2005). In the absence of anything resembling a formal organizational structure or recognizable leadership, and denied the political rights, freedoms and opportunities available to oppositional groups operating in Western democratic polities— the right of assembly, the right to lobby and petition government, freedom of expression—Iranian women, it will be shown, engaged instead in the everyday politics of negation and subversion as an alternative avenue to winning sociopolitical rights, and by implication, bringing their counter-power tobearagainstthe authoritarian rule of the Islamic Republic, thus laying the foundation for a new style of political thinking bent on claiming civil rights.
The principal strategy for resisting, subverting and negating state power employed by Iranian women to win social and political rights will be examined here under the rubric of what I call presence-as-resistance, by which I mean an everyday mode of resistance, one public and therefore visible for all to see, on the part of subordinated and marginalized women that involved making their presence felt by performing in public spaces the everyday life practices—singing, performing music, engaging in sports, among others—normatively, and hence governmentally, reserved for the private sphere of the home. Presence-as-resistance, and the everyday life practices that were its life-blood, contributed in no small measure to instilling among women a sense of what I call everyday solidarity—a solidarity reinforced by an awareness of common interests and objectives that would lay the foundation for a counter-politics and foster a new consciousness that would impel them to fight for gender equality and civil rights.
Moreover, presence-as-resistance functioned based on two interrelated modalities. First, as a strategy of defiance, presence-as-resistance worked to de-subordinate the subordinated, in this case women, by transforming them into agents committed to contesting the established order by making their presence felt in public spaces, principally by conducting within the latter those everyday life practices normally reserved for the private sphere of the home. What amounted to a public discourse on the negation and subversion of official norms and codes was intended to undermine the efficacy of state power predicated on the government’s ability to marshal governmentalized bodies in public spaces, which for any government represented a top priority, and precisely because nothing is more crucial to the survival of the state than the ability to control the streets and other public domains.
Second, and at the same time, presence-as-resistance may and can embody a mode of visibility that communicates to the authorities in no uncertain terms that we are here, we are active, we are alive.This phenomenon is to be understood as a form of the corporeal presentation of collective actors bent on using public spaces to engage in acts normally reserved for the private sphere of the home, and for the express purpose of resisting and negating norms, codes and rules of conduct dictated by officialdom. In this way, presence-as-resistance is, for the disaffected, no mere mode of visibility; rather, it has the “consequential effect [of] mirror[ing], invert[ing], subvert[ing], [and] reproduce[ing] spaces of power and domination”—something possible only when enormous numbers of people engage in doing “similar, though contentious, things” (Bayat, 2013, p. 21). And as will be shown shortly, presence-as-resistance can create and/or make visible “an immense new field of possibility for resistance” (Nealon, 2008, pp. 107-108) by fostering among resisting, subjugated bodies a new awareness of their civic rights.
Presence-as-Resistance: Iranian Women and the Everyday Politics of Negation and Rejection
On May 23, 1997, Mohammad Khatami was elected fifth president of the Islamic Republic. With the advent of a new government bent on social and political reform, or islahat, a titanic struggle erupted between the supporters of the new president’s political faction, i.e., the reformists, and traditional conservatives— a political rivalry that to this date informs and divides Iranian politics. What emerged from this struggle wasthe so-called politics of everyday life, conducted by women and aimed at bringing about fundamental social and political change. In order to grasp the historical significance of this development, one need look no farther than the events that transpired in 2001.
During the course of that year, Iranian women began pressuring the Khatami administration to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), a United Nations initiative hailed by feminists as an international bill of rights for women. If adopted, CEDAW would have directly challenged a host of laws and practices that had long worked to marginalize and subordinate women. Following a press campaign by Iranian feminists aimed at pressuring the government to adopt CEDAW, the Khatami administration, in December 2001, drafted the requisite legislation and submitted it for ratification to a reformist-dominated parliament, the Majlis. However, immediately prior the final vote, the enabling bill was placed on hold owing, according to the then speaker of the Majlis Mehdi Karoubi, to concerns on the part of conservative clerics serving in the judiciary and elsewhere, regarding its compatibility with Shari’a law (Tohidi, 2006; Pourmokhtari, 2017). Under pressure from activists, reformist deputies demanded, over the course of the following two years, an official enquiry, but to no avail. Finally, in August 2003, the Islamic Republic’s Guardian Council, a body tasked to approving legislations, announced that CEDAW would not be ratified (Feminist News, 2013).
The rejection of CEDAW emboldened the conservative clerics and their supporters to mount a campaign aimed at discrediting women guilty of crossing what they referred to as red lines. Thus, for example, in the city of Rasht the Friday prayer leader, Zein-al Abedin Ghorbani, condemned all who “questioned religious authorities on … Shari’a;” he went on to warn “not to cross the red line, not to dismiss the Qur’an and Islam” (cited in Bayat, 2007, p. 79). At the same time, women among the conservatives, most notably Monireh Noubakhat and Marzieh Dastjerdi, motioned to have feminist debates in the press censored for “creat[ing] conflict between women and men” as well as undermining Shari’a and the fundamental principles of Islam (Bayat, 2007, p. 79).
This initiative was followed by a crackdown on the press and other print media aligned with feminists that, along with the failure to close legal loopholes allowing for gender discrimination, consigned women to the margins of social and political life. However, rather than a deterrent, this formal/institutional backlash only politicized women further, thusempowering them to pursue alternative strategies,embedded in everyday life practices, as strategies as well as modes of defiance directed at asserting their collective will to counterpower, and by implication, to bringing about social and political change.
Thus, no longer able to advance a reformist agenda through official channels, masses of disaffected women turned to an everyday, albeit unconventional, social mode of defiance. This was an everyday mode of resistance, public and therefore visible for all to see, on the part of the subordinated and marginalized, which involved making their presence felt by performing in public spacestheeveryday life practices normally, and hence governmentally, reserved for the private sphere of the home. It was this strategy that eroded the efficacy of the Islamic Republic’s governmental power, which was very much contingent on marshalling human bodies in public spaces. By way of operationalizing it, and in the absence of anything resembling a formal leadership or organizational structure, disparate movements of women transformed spatial domains— streets, squares, parks, alleyways, university campuses, classrooms, whatever was at hand—into venues where grievances might be aired and discursive interests and objectives communicated, demands made, subjectivities enabled, everyday solidarity fostered, and the social and political status quo contested, negated and subverted.
For their part, the authorities, though backed by a battery of laws and regulations for controlling public spaces, were loath to intervene to restore order, for to do so meant turning public spaces into virtual militarized zones, effectively curtailing the normal, everyday sequence of life (Bayat, 2013). That this brand of activism was infused with ordinary life practices further complicated, and made more unpalatable, state intervention.
Presence-as-resistance, and the everyday life practices that were its life-blood, assumed disparate forms. Thus, for example, women in unprecedented numbers entered the universities where they acquired specialized knowledge in a broad range of academic fields, in the process building solidarity with their peers, both male and female. This great influx into the halls of academe prompted the Majlis in 2007 to publish a report, which drew a comparison between the proportion of female students admitted to universities in the 1980s with that in the 2000s. The report concluded that this figure had risen from 32% in 1983 to 65% by 2007 (Amir-Ebrahimi, 2008). The dramatic increase in the presence of women on campuses had the effect of nurturing campus subcultures of educated women and youth whose members saw themselves as active agents working to undermine the political and social status quo. All this was, of course, an anathema for a conservative establishment that had set its sights on raising a generation of obedient and docile housewives, mothers, sisters and daughters.
Other like-minded women took up the arts or music, much to the consternation of a conservative establishment for whom such pursuits were tantamount to crossing yet another red line (Khabar Online, 2013). Conservatives were dismayed to discover so many women attending vocal/singing classes, while others studied traditional Persian musical instruments, such as the tombak, taar, ney and santoor, in addition to piano, guitar and other Western instruments, often taking advantage of public classes open to all.
Still others took up sports, in particular rowing and cycling, which necessarily took them out of the private sphere and into public spaces monopolized for the most part by men, in one stroke eliminating a formidable barrier to gender inequality (Rezaei, 2015; Peyghambarzadeh, 2016). Others simply appeared in the streets, making their presence felt by revealing heavily made up faces and/or wearing brightly coloured monteaus or diminutive hijabs from which spilled scandalous amounts of hair (Amir-Ebrahimi, 2006)—all an affront to the establishment’s brand of Islam. Consequently, by transgressing dominant norms, codes and rules, hundreds of thousands of women from diverse social strata transformed public spaces into domains of subversion, resistance and defiance.
The express purpose of these public displays—in and of themselves acts of empowerment, assertions of a collective will and expressions of everyday solidarity—lay in resisting, and by implication de-authenticating and de-moralizing, the state-sanctioned subordination and marginalization of women’s lives. The strategy employed to this end was one of exploiting ordinary life practices, thereby challenging the authorities in ways that could only be met by violently disrupting the tenor of daily life—something they were not prepared to do. As so often happens, this strategy of everyday life resistance would manifest itself in subsequent modes and forms of sociopolitical contestation, in this case in the seminal 2006 Women’s One Million Signature Campaign.
The 2006 Women’s One Million Signature Campaign: The Everyday Politics of Social Contestation
It was the everyday public acts of resistance and solidarity, grounded in ordinary life practices, that in the waning years of the Khatami administration inspired and empowered women to launch what came to be popularly known as the Women’s One Million Signature Campaign. One of the most seminal events of the post-revolutionary period, the later was initiated in August 2006. Its single objective laid in repealing family, civil, and criminal laws discriminating against women through petitioning the Majlis (Rezaei, 2015; Tahmasebi, 2012). The changes proposed would result in equal marital rights for women, including the right to divorce spouses; abolition of polygamy and temporary marriages; the right of women to pass on their nationality to their children; gender equality with respect to dieh, orcompensation for bodily injury or death; equal inheritance rights; the reformation of laws relating to honour killings, the objective being to increase their deterrent value; and equal weight given testimony provided by women in courts of law (Peyghambarzadeh, 2015; Rezaei, 2015).
Women’s One Million Signature Campaign was initially conceived by a group of 54 activists, including several distinguished journalists and feminists of all political stipes, e.g., secular, religious and otherwise, among them Shirin Ebadi, Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, Narges Mohammadi, Parvin Ardalan and Zhila Bani Yaqoub (Tavaana, 2016). In order to facilitate recruitment, the campaign sponsored workshops, initially in Tehran and later in most major Iranian cities, which quickly metamorphosed into loosely-coordinated cells, where canvassers and other workers could be trained as well as educated regarding women’s rights and the legal issues pertaining to them (Peyghambarzadeh, 2015; Rezaei, 2015). Many future activists, however, were recruited in public spaces and during the passing minutes of everyday life, i.e., while engaging with campaign workers or through friendship networks, comprised mainly of urban youth (Abdi, 2015).
What created among these disparate elements a sense of solidarity and willingness to engage in collective action directed against the status quo was their everyday experience of misrule and misconduct, a point articulated by Ali Abdi, a former campaign member, who opined what united women was the conviction “that the status quo [was] unjust with regard to women” and that “collecting signatures constituted a pragmatic way of addressing the discriminatory laws against [them].” It was this deep-rooted conviction that fostereda sense of everyday solidarity among the campaigners and fired them with a determination to engage in collective forms of activism of an everyday kind, i.e., by way of operationalizing presence-as-resistance as the principle strategy of resisting governmental power.
In this sense, presence-as-resistance represented a localized mode of everyday resistance whereby women could challenge, negate and subvert the prevailing gender codes, norms and taboos underwriting the status quo, by making themselves visible in public urban centers. For example, one tactic much favoured by the campaigners involved gathering in crowded public spaces—streets, parks, alleyways and subways—in groups numbering anywhere from three to a dozen and then engaging in discussions aimed at raising public awareness of patriarchal laws and their consequences, not only for women but for the whole of Iranian society (Peyghambarzadeh, 2015; Rezaei, 2015). They then encouraged their interlocutors to sign the petition. All this played out in the context of performing ordinary life practices, such as shopping, socializing, engaging in sports, picnicking with families or simply strolling along alleyways, streets, and boulevards (Peyghambarzadeh, 2015).
At the same time, as a strategy of defiance, presence-as-resistance laid the foundation for a counter-politics in public spaces by fostering among women a new consciousness that impelled them to fight for gender equality. In this sense, and once more, urban spacesbecame sites of contestation, wherein the campaigners performed certain negating strategies that entailed every day subversive acts. Thus, for example, in one especially popular skit, two activists, supposedly married to the same man, engaged in a heated argument, sometimes accompanied by mock fisticuffs, during which each revealed how a polygamous relationship had worked to undermine her rights, dignity and authenticity as a woman (Peyghambarzadeh, 2016; Rezaei, 2015). Performed in public domains, this became the campaign’s signature sketch (Abdi, 2015). So realistically staged were these performances that they drew large crowds, at which point other activists appeared on the scene and proceeded to engage the audience on the subject of legally sanctioned gender discrimination and the need for reform (Abdi, 2015). Theirs proved to be an easy sell as the performances so precisely mirrored the reality of everyday life for so many women making up the audiences.
For the campaigners, however, things reached a head inearly 2008 when the state security forces began a systematic crack down, banning meetings and workshops, arresting members and shutting down the campaign website (Peyghambarzadeh, 2015). By the end of 2008, “over 50 members ha[d] been arrested … while hundreds more … had [had] their passports revoked or … been barred from the education system,” thereby forcing the campaign underground and thus rendering it inoperable (Tavaana, 2016, para. 19).
Despite failing to garner the requisite number of signatures, the campaign may, according toFarhad Khosrokhavar, be viewed as “the most prominent feminist [initiative] in [post-revolutionary] Iran” (2012, p. 65), and precisely because it employed everyday life strategies that worked so “effectively [to] raise ordinary peoples’ awareness of women’s rights, promote the idea of societal equality, and publicize women’s demands,” such that the latter could no longer be ignored (Tavaana, 2016, para. 8). It did so specifically by “creat[ing] [an everyday public] discourse on women’s rights” to which the authorities had to respond (Tahmasebi, 2012, para. 10). That response came in the form of “the movement’s [sole] practical achievement” (Tavaana, 2016, para. 8): pressuring the Majlis to repeal, over the course of 2008, two patriarchal laws and replace them with gender-neutral legislation. Specifically, women were granted the right to inherit a husband’s property and to receive equal blood money in the event of an accident covered by an insurance company (Rezaei, 2015; Tavaana, 2016).
By adopting presence-as-resistance as both its principal strategy and mode of definance, moreover, the Women’s One Million Signature Campaign succeeded in challenging gender discrimination embedded in a legal system informed by a state-sanctioned patriarchy. And though it was to produce little in the way of practical gains for women, it, nonetheless, galvanized them into reinventing themselves by opening up a new dimension in their social lives, in the process empowering a generation of rights-bearing women committed to asserting themselves on the social and political scene as citizens determined to claim basic civil rights.
The foregoing discussion chronicled how, during the period 2001-2006, Iranian women challenged, defied and negated the state sponsored order by conducting everyday life practices in public spaces. What has been referred to here as presence-as-resistance worked to transform public spaces during this time into sites of discontent and contestation where the politics of everyday life collided head-on with the rules, regulations and norms of the dominant order. It was this everyday politics of resistance, enabled by an everyday solidarity binding together the disparate women groups, that fostered a determination to secure fundamental rights. For the authoritarian state to have turned a blind eye to presence-as-resistance and other expressions of opposition would have run the risk of losing its grip on power. This explains why the Islamic Republic drove the 2006 Women’s One Million Signature Campaign underground. Despite these apparent reverses, however, the hegemonic frame did in fact shift, if only minimally, as evinced, for example, by amendments to the marital law providing for greater gender equality. More important for the future, the Women’s One Million Signature Campaign would play a decisive role in developing a new social and political consciousness among Iranians, who increasingly came to see themselves as rights-bearing and politicized citizens determined to assert their collective will. In an authoritarian setting collective action of any kind on a mass scale constitutes a corporeal challenge to dominant attitudes, values, norms, knowledges and rules of state power and, by implication, to the status quo itself. It is, moreover, the expression of a collective will to contest power at a thousand points on the part of a people shaped by specific relations of marginalization and subordination. In such settings, resistance to processes of governance, thus, assumes the form of disparate and ubiquitous arts, technologies and tactics of contestation, that mirror not just the enabling aspect of state power, by which I mean its propensity to induce resistance, but the power and potential of the subjugated masses. This was particularly true in the case of women’s groups whose resistance to the status quo was bound up in ordinary life practices and unfolded in public spaces by means and strategies enabled by making their presence felt in public spaces.
List of Interviews
Peyghambarzadeh, Z. (2015). Interview with Zeynab Peyghambarzadeh, former student activist, former member of the One Million Signature Campaign.
Rezaei, S. (2015). Interview with Sabra Rezaei, former member of the One Million Signature Campaign.
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Amir-Ebrahimi, M. (2006). Conquering enclosed public spaces. Cities, 23(6), 1-7.
Amir-Ebrahimi, M. (2008). Transgression in narration: The lives of Iranian women in cyberspace. Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, 4(3), 89-118.
Bayat, A. (2007). Making Islam democratic: Social movements and the post-Islamist turn. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Bayat, A. (2013). Life as politics: How ordinary people change the Middle East. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Feminist News. (2013). CEDAW rejected in Iran. Retrieved from
Fraser, N. (1989). Unruly practices: Power, discourse and gender in contemporary social theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Khosrokhavar, F. (2012). The Green Movement in Iran: Democratization and secularization from below. In R. Jahanbegloo (Ed.). Civil society and democracy in Iran. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.
Nealon, J. (2008). Foucault beyond Foucault: Power and its intensifications. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Pourmokhtari, N. (2017). Protestation and mobilization in the Middle East and North Africa: A Foucauldian Model. Foucault Studies, 22, 177-207.
Tahmasebi, S. (2012). The One Million Signatures Campaign: An effort born on the streets. Amnesty International, Middle East and North Africa Regional Office. Retrieved from
Tavaana. (2016). One million signatures: The battle for gender equality in Iran. Retrieved from
Tilly, C. (1978). From mobilization to revolution. Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.
Tilly, C. (1984). Social movements and national politics. In C. Bright, & S. Harding. State- making and social Movements: Essays in history and theory (Eds.). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Tohidi, N. (2006). “Islamic feminism”: Negotiating patriarchy and modernity in Iran. In I. M. Abu-Rabi. The Blackwell companion to contemporary Islamic thought (Ed). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 624-643.
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