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.

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