Asef Bayat on the Iran protests
"A movement to reclaim life"

For seven weeks, Iran has been rocked by protests not seen since the Islamic Republic’s inception. This interview with sociologist Asef Bayat, originally conducted in Persian, examines how this latest wave of unrest differs and asks what has changed in Iranian society

The English translation of this interview first appeared in New Lines Magazine, a global affairs magazine based in the United States.

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Dr Bayat, I take it you have been following what is going on inside Iran?

Bayat: Well, how can I not? Yes, I am following the events very closely, both as an Iranian who is very much concerned about the country’s current status and as someone who has been studying the sociopolitical development of Iran and the region as a whole. In fact, in these critical times, the eyes and hearts of millions of Iranians in the diaspora are directed toward Iran. It is as if a "new Iran" has been born – a "global Iran", a collective of diverse people separated by geography, but very much together in feelings, in concerns and in dreams.

In your view, how can we understand this wave of protests? Can we understand it in terms of a movement?

Bayat: Because things are still unfolding and fluid, it is difficult to give a definite answer. But it looks quite different from what we have seen before. This is something new. Just remember the Green Movement of 2009 – it was a powerful pro-democracy movement that wanted an accountable government. It was largely a movement of the urban modern middle class, though some other discontented people also supported it. Then, we had the uprising of 2017, where diverse social groups like unpaid workers, creditors, drought-stricken farmers and others rose up in protest simultaneously throughout the country, but each raised their own sectoral demands. The uprising of 2019 went further, in that different protesting groups, in particular, the poor and the middle-class poor, displayed a good degree of unity. Their central demands concerned economic and cost-of-living issues. The protesters, who came largely from the marginalised areas of the cities and the provinces, pursued quite radical tactics.

This current uprising has gone even further. It has brought together the urban middle class, the middle-class poor, slum dwellers and people with different ethnic identities – Kurds, Fars, Azeri Turks and Balochis – all under the message of “Woman, Life, Freedom”. Significantly, this is an uprising in which women play a central part. These features distinguish this uprising from the previous ones. It feels like a paradigm shift in Iranian subjectivities has occurred; this is reflected in the centrality of women and their dignity, which relates more broadly to human dignity. This is unprecedented. It is as though people are retrieving their ruined lives, perished youth, suppressed joy and a simple dignified existence they have been denied. This is a movement to reclaim life. People feel that normal life has been denied to them by a regime of elderly clerical men. These men, they feel, seem so separated from the people and yet they have colonised their lives.

Iranian sociologist Asef Bayat (photo: L. Brian Stauffer)
Viral content: this interview was originally published in Persian on 10 October by the Tehran daily Etemaad. Shortly after its publication, the Iranian authorities ordered the newspaper to take the interview down from its website. It had already gone viral in Iran and abroad, and several other outlets that had reposted it were likewise forced to unpublish it. We do not know what reasons, if any, the authorities gave for the ban; perhaps it was due to the analysis provided by Asef Bayat, a well-respected scholar of social movements and revolutions influential within Iran’s intellectual and political circles. Multiple websites inside Iran currently continue to carry the interview. The ban was first reported by the online Radio Farda. Over the following days, the interview was shared in tens of thousands of social media posts among Iranians worldwide

Reclaiming life is a powerful notion. Its depth is reflected in the celebrated poem of the Tunisian poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi that every Arab revolutionary knows by heart: "If one day, the people demand life, then destiny will have to respond". In this uprising, reclaiming life has become a universal claim. We see that, in terms of peoples’ subjectivity, a "collective pain" and a collective claim has been created – one that has brought diverse social groups to not only feel and share it, but also to act on it. With the emergence of the "people" – a super-collective in which differences of class, gender, ethnicity and religion temporarily disappear in favour of a greater good – the uprising seems to have moved into a kind of revolutionary episode.

You examine social movements and uprisings, especially in the Middle East. Have you come across any movement similar to what is happening in Iran right now?

Bayat: There are similarities between the current uprising in Iran and the uprisings of the Arab Spring, especially in terms of the initial spark and the beginning of street protests. Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia because of the oppression he suffered and the murder of Khaled Said as a result of police torture in Egypt ignited widespread uprisings in each respective country. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was removed from power within 28 days and Hosni Mubarak within 18 days after these uprisings. Bouazizi and Said embodied the oppression that many Tunisians and Egyptians had felt. Respect for human dignity is something that the Iranian protesters and those in Tunisia and Egypt share. But there are also significant differences.

In Iran, because of the attempts to colonise the everyday, the gap and conflict between most people and the clerical regime is far wider and deeper than in Tunisia or Egypt. Unlike Tunisia or Egypt, the everyday and even the private lives of people (especially women) in Iran have come under suffocating ideological and political surveillance. In fact, the only comparable system of surveillance to Iran is the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Even the tyrannical rulers in Saudi Arabia have begun to reform the Wahhabi system of controlling people’s public lives. But the key difference between the current uprising in Iran and those of the Arab countries is the recognition of women as a transformative "subject" and the "woman question" as a strategic focus of the struggle. The overarching call for “Woman, Life, Freedom” has made the current protest movement in Iran quite singular.

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