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.

What is surprising for many observers is the presence of youth and teenagers on the streets. This younger generation was previously thought to be very apolitical, self-centred, carefree and without ideals, unable or unwilling to take any political action and glued to the Internet and online games. What is your assessment of the presence of this generation in the streets?

Bayat: The large presence of young people in the streets of the uprising may be surprising, but it was not unexpected. Basically, youth and youth politics are very fluid and fluctuating. We may witness their astonishing activism and then see their despair, passivity and blase attitude at other times. But there is a logic behind this behaviour. In general, "youth affordance", that is, young people’s physical ability, agility and energy, future orientation and education, and their "structural irresponsibility" (unlike adults and parents) lend themselves to a distinct propensity for street politics and radical activism.

In the Tunisian revolution, more than 28% of young people (from 15 to 29 years old) participated in the uprising, which is extraordinary; usually between 1% and 8% of the population of a country take part in revolutions. But the subordinate position of young people in the power structure (at the top of which are usually elderly men) prevents them from effectively participating in decision-making, on the grounds that they are inexperienced and emotional and should follow their elders (young women especially suffer more from such treatment). This kind of patriarchal attitude makes the young feel despair, disillusioned and resentful of politicians and "politics", such that they move into their own world where they strive to create spaces for self-expression and self-empowerment, whether in artistic and technical creativity, in future-making, in breaking norms or in criminal pursuits. I discuss the modalities of youth politics, women’s politics and poor people’s politics in revolutionary times in my latest book, Revolutionary Life: The Everyday of the Arab Spring.

Femal protester in Iran holds up a sheet of paper bearing the words "Woman, Life, Freedom" in English and Farsi (photo: UGC)
“Woman, Life, Freedom”: this uprising, in which women play a central part 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 one message. This sets it apart from previous unrest. A paradigm shift in Iranian subjectivities has occurred, 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 the simple dignified existence they have been denied by a regime of elderly clerics

Note that, in the case of Iran, during a few presidential and parliamentary elections in the late 1990s and early 2000s in which there was some competition and hope for change, the young were exceedingly active. But when they felt the elections were rigged and there was no hope for change, they took refuge in their own world, in friendship groups, online and in their "non-movements" to realise their lifestyle and find a way to secure a transition to an adult future. Going online does not mean just playing games. They are exposed to the world, learn new skills and strategies of struggle, they learn new values ​​and knowledge, they learn what exists in the world and grow to understand how much they are deprived. And all of this makes these young people ever more alienated and separate from the lifeworld and the forbidding ideology of clerical rule. These days, this rift is so deep, it is as if the rulers and the youth (half of them female) live on different planets. So it is not surprising that the non-movement of youth and adolescents has now merged into a widespread political upheaval in which the young, thanks to "youth affordance", are playing a greater radicalising role.

But I must stress that, despite their stunning presence and performance in street politics, the extraordinary youth – and for that matter any other social group or class – on their own can never create a political breakthrough. The breakthrough comes only when ordinary people from diverse social groups – including women, men, the elderly, children, grandmothers, traditional or modern constituencies – become present in the streets and backstreets of the uprisings. Here, the "street" becomes the contentious space of the social mainstream calling for political transformation. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that it is often these very young women and men who initiate protests. They are the ones who inject new blood into the body of a movement in times of silence and despair, providing energy and new life for a movement to live and carry on.

Another key point in these protests is the remarkable presence of women. We know that the primary motive was the death of a young woman after being arrested by the so-called morality police or guidance patrol [Gasht-e Ershad]. The outstanding presence of women, which has drawn extensive international support, has led many to consider it a feminist movement. What is your assessment of the role and presence of women in these protests?

Bayat: As I mentioned earlier, the centrality of women as a "subject" and the "woman issue" as a focal point has broadly distinguished this upheaval from others. Although patriarchy remains a feature of many secular governments, religious rule [in Iran] has been extraordinarily patriarchal and misogynistic, both ideologically and structurally. So it is not surprising that women’s resistance and opposition began from the first days after the 1979 revolution. For decades, Iranian women continued their resistance in the practice of everyday life, deploying their "art of presence" in public and through their non-movements and quiet encroachment to push back against patriarchy and misogyny.* Whenever they have found an opportunity, they have tried to organise and build collective campaigns, but the regime could not even tolerate women activists holding meetings in their own homes.

Morality police and security forces have humiliated, threatened and arrested millions of women in the streets and in state institutions. According to a police report in 2006, during the eight months of the assault on "bad hijabis" [women wearing loose headscarves], 1.3 million women were stopped in the streets and given formal citations. The following year, during a three-day crackdown, more than 150,000 women were detained. Such assaults reminded Iranians of the images of the Israeli army humiliating Palestinians. But the resistance and the quiet encroachment or non-movement of Iranian women continued. In the process, they have established new norms in society and new realities on the ground, like public presence and the hijab as a matter of choice rather than compulsion. And now, that very non-movement, mediated through the murder of one of those women, Mahsa Amini, has given rise to an extraordinary political uprising in which women and their dignity, indeed human dignity at large, have gained a prominent place.

But this uprising is not merely about the "woman question". The encompassing character of this protest movement has gone beyond women. It has embraced many other deprived, rejected and oppressed social, religious and ethnic groups and classes. There is a feeling that the emancipation of women opens the way for the emancipation of all, including men and the deprived. In other words, the protesters now seem to share a common pain and an understanding of a greater good that unites all protesters. It seems that "Woman, Life, Freedom" represents that universal good.

The most important slogan heard these days is "Woman, Life, Freedom", which has resonated all over the world. Some consider it vague and general and believe it does not have a specific positive tone. But many call it a progressive slogan focused on the values ​​of life. What is your view on this slogan?

Bayat: Ambiguity and generality are paradoxes of most revolutionary movements. Because, on the one hand, ambiguity and generality ensure the unity and thus the power of a revolutionary movement; this is a condition for victory. On the other hand, precision, details and differences in interpretation and expectations disappear under such a general slogan, only to emerge after the victory. It is at this stage that conflicts of meanings and expectations and, consequently, political confrontations reach their peak. This is a dilemma that needs to be tackled.

For example, if democratic politics are to be established, perhaps a consensus may be reached through negotiations. This is a general observation. But in the case of Iran, we still do not know what the future of this uprising will be. It seems that there are currently some discussions underway about these issues, which can be useful if accompanied by goodwill. I think the slogan "Woman, Life, Freedom" has the capacity to embrace the aspirations of various deprived, dejected and oppressed constituencies in [Iranian] society. The centrality of women is associated with the old saying that "the freedom of a society is not possible without the freedom of its women". The relationship between women and life is undeniable when we consider that not only do women give birth to life but they also maintain it by doing two-thirds of the world’s work today. Finally, the universal feeling of “reclaiming life” in all its cultural, social, economic and political dimensions is at the heart of this slogan. And, of course, it is clear that "reclaiming life" can be realised only through undertaking serious structural transformation.

One of the characteristics of Iranian society is the accumulation of various neglected political, social, economic and cultural demands, which, at times like this, all flow together. Isn’t this multiplicity of demands worrisome? Doesn’t it move a social movement away from its primary goal?

Bayat: I don’t think so. In fact, the multitude of demands and expressions of hopes and dreams are markers of an episode of social struggles that seek structural transformation. No social group – workers, the poor, the middle class, women or youth – on its own can shift the balance of power between the dissenting public and the regime. Real political transformations have always been achieved through the coalition of different deprived, dejected and oppressed social groups and classes. Therefore, the question is not whether the accumulation of neglected political, social, economic and cultural demands will have negative impacts on the process of struggle. The question is how to articulate these neglected demands in the framework of a shared, comprehensive, simple and comprehensible claim with which those suffering constituencies can identify and with whose language they can speak.

This is the very expression of the overarching “greater good” that I pointed out earlier. On this basis, for example, the slogan "Woman, Life, Freedom" should be articulated in such a way that the various groups involved could feel and internalise its resonance, with the emphasis that the realisation of such a collective claim would require profound political, social and economic changes.

Some analysts worry that current developments will move in a direction that threatens integration and peace and the stability of the country. How likely do you think this is?

Bayat: I’m not quite sure how evidence-based these analyses are, or how serious such a risk is, but it must be addressed. In general, any powerful movement is under threat of abuse. Opportunists here and there or abroad try to use it for their own advantage, might claim themselves as its leaders, or express support for ulterior motives. Who really believes that a person like [former U.S. President] Donald Trump, let alone [Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, wants democracy in Iran? They themselves are serious threats to democracy in their own countries.

Fortunately, the movement of "Woman, Life, Freedom" seems to display enough capacity and political awareness to not pay attention to such political games and to continue its journey by relying on the power of the people. In fact, in recent years, Iran has not seen such a convergence of diverse groups, ethnicities and social classes; it feels like a new “Iran” has been born. Of course, there will also be those who would attribute the dissent and protests to foreign intrigues and conspiracies. Such claims are neither new nor specific to Iran. Mubarak and his supporters also attributed the Egyptian revolutionary movement to foreign conspiracy, Islamism and extremism, but the reality was quite different.

 

What is your assessment of the future of this movement? What scenarios or possibilities do you imagine?

Bayat: Predicting the future of this episode is very difficult because it depends on many factors. It depends on questions to which we don’t have answers. For example, we do not know to what extent the regime would resort to pervasive violence to quell street protests or strikes. If the regime’s strategy is to resort to sheer violence, how much moral outrage will follow among ordinary people and the operators of the system such as the security forces? What will be the positions of the traditional elites, religious leaders, ayatollahs or moderate politicians? Will these elites and men of religion respond to the call of conscience? We still don’t know what path the reformist camp and its leaders will take.

The tragedy of many reformists at this point is that they can neither deliver reforms (because they have been thrown out of power) nor engage in a revolutionary dynamic (because they feel they are by definition reformists, not revolutionaries). This sad state of paralysis has to do with their dogmatic, static and ahistorical approach to the concepts and strategies of sociopolitical change. It seems as if a reformist must remain a reformist until the end of his life and a revolutionary is destined to remain a revolutionary forever, regardless of what happens on the ground, on the political scene, where the fluid and complex reality requires appropriate, nondogmatic and creative ways of doing politics. More importantly, we do not know to what extent and when the allied social groups such as workers and teachers will exhibit wider solidarity actions with the uprising. In short, it is very difficult to foresee.

However, no matter what happens to this uprising, this movement at this very point has already made significant achievements. We are witnessing a crucial paradigm shift in the subjectivity of Iranians. In large and small cities, even in villages, among parents and young people, among ethnic groups and the lower and middle classes, a new "nation" seems to have been born – one that insists on reclaiming life and living with dignity. And it shouts it out in the streets of the uprising. Many things are unlikely to go back to the way they were before. Maybe this is the de facto end of the morality police, even if they don’t abolish it officially. New norms have imposed themselves on the reality of public life. Maybe the "optional hijab" is one of these norms.

What is your wish from this movement of social protests?

Bayat: My wish, perhaps like the wishes of millions of Iranians, is to see that these neglected demands of the diverse social groups and classes in this country are fulfilled, with the least cost to human lives and their material infrastructure and without any interference of foreign powers. The realisation of this desire depends, on the one hand, on the capacity and continuity of this movement and, on the other, on the conscience and judgment of the rulers. Maybe this is naive. Maybe this is impossible. But the truth is, as Max Weber suggested, that historical experience shows that we humans could not have achieved the "possible" without time and again thinking about the "impossible".

© News Lines Magazine 2022

Asef Bayat is an author and professor of sociology and Middle East studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

* Readers interested in learning more about such concepts as "the art of presence", "non-movements" and "quiet encroachment" may refer to Asef Bayat’s book "Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East" (2013).

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