Solidarity not sanctions: The co-option of Iran's protests

Solidarity not sanctions: The co-option of Iran's protests
Yasmin Gholizadeh warns of opportunists who claim to be in solidarity with Iranians protesting, but are using the events to legitimise oppressive ideologies like transphobia, and to call on stifling sanctions and imperialist Western interventions.
5 min read
11 Oct, 2022
A demonstration in solidarity with Iranian women in The Hague, Netherlands. Protests have been organised in countries across Europe, the US and Canada. [GETTY]

The death of Jina Mahsa Amini whilst in police custody, sparked nationwide protests and strikes against mandatory veiling and state violence in Iran. In the face of the demonstrations that have lasted for over three weeks, there has been mounting repression, with security forces targeting Iranian youth and employing brutal violence particularly in Kurdish and Baloch regions.

Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” (Woman, Life, Freedom), an anti-colonial chant from the Kurdish Women’s Movement, is heard in street demonstrations and outside of universities across the country. The words are carried by those demanding justice for the killing of protestors, and tying the liberation of women to the necessity of radical socio-economic transformation.

The protests in Iran have received much international attention. Demonstrations took place throughout Europe, North America and Canada in solidarity with Iranian women. Political activists and abolitionists, such as Angela Davis, have also identified Kurdish and Iranian women as “the harbingers of hope for all that want an end to racial capitalism, misogyny, and economic repression”.

''Any platforming of “opportunist activists” that call for intervention in Iran, restricts the agency of Iranian and Kurdish women who have been resisting state violence, and underplays the historical trajectory of a contemporary feminist movement in Iran. US sanctions, alongside the Iranian government’s mismanagement, have impeded on the progression of the women’s movement, and deepened socio-economic inequalities.''

The transnational links being made, that compare the struggles for police abolition in the US to protests against state violence in Iran, signify the forging of solidarity networks that radically confront various manifestations of state violence, imperialism, patriarchy, and global capitalism.

International attention, however, has also reinvigorated interventionist and transphobic discourses.

Prominent UK-based TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), who have purported exclusionary conceptions of womanhood that facilitate violence against trans people, have claimed “solidarity” with Iranian women. Such tokenistic “solidarity” erases the struggle of LGBTQ+ communities in Iran that have also been targets of state violence and additionally, the emphasis multiple Iranian and Kurdish feminist collectives have placed on the liberation of queer people as inextricable to women’s liberation.

The appropriation of the political and intersectional struggle of 'Jin, Jiyan, Azadi' by TERFs stands against the efforts of queer activists in Iran who have been detained by the very security forces that have targeted Iranian and Kurdish women.

“Opportunist activists” have also made attempts to hijack protests in Iran to call for further sanctions and intervention.

An open letter written by Iranian political dissidents during the Trump administration condemned Iranian expats that claim to be “representatives” of the Iranian people, yet collaborate with US administrations to increase sanctions. The open letter signifies a pattern of opportunism that is still just as pervasive around the current protests, especially as popular media agencies have favoured presenting individuals that have called for intervention as “leaders” of the feminist movement in Iran.

A recent open letter by Iranian activists and academics cautioned against opportunist activists and for journalists to engage and give credit to ‘Iran’s grassroots, broad-based revolutionary feminist movement’.

Women’s grassroots resistance has historically been crucial to any transformative and revolutionary change in Iran. Women played a significant role in dismantling the Pahlavi dynasty and following the 1979 Revolution, protested the encroachment on their rights and for a post-revolutionary state that would not neglect their contributions.

For decades, Kurdish women have also challenged discrimination against Kurdish people in Iran, the erasure of their culture and identity, and called for the freedom of all Kurdish and Iranian political prisoners.

Any platforming of “opportunist activists” that call for intervention in Iran, therefore restricts the agency of Iranian and Kurdish women who have been resisting state violence, and underplays the historical trajectory of a contemporary feminist movement in Iran.

US sanctions, alongside the Iranian government’s mismanagement, have also impeded on the progression of the women’s movement, and deepened socio-economic inequalities. Until 2022, Iran was the most sanctioned country in the world. Reports have found that sanctions implemented by the US, the European Union, and the United Nations, have caused ‘unnecessary suffering to Iranian citizens afflicted with a range of diseases and medical conditions’. Furthermore, the restriction on the distribution of medical and pharmaceutical supplies disproportionately impacts women and vulnerable groups.

Assal Rad, a researcher at the National Iranian American council, has recognised that sanctions have helped facilitate ‘an atmosphere of greater security measures’ that has further weakened and repressed civil society organisations, including women’s rights groups. Whilst many US presidential administrations have claimed “solidarity” with Iranians, the sanctions put in place have crippled the economy and restricted the agency of Iranians to push for change on their own terms.

In line with previous imperial policy towards Iran, the US, UK, and Canada have recently imposed more sanctions on Iranian officials following the death of Amini, and many other international powers are also considering sanctions. Although American and Canadian officials have argued that sanctions are targeted to those connected to the Iranian government, it is concerning to consider what this may mean for those who work in the civil service and more generally, everyday people who have borne the brunt of sanctions for decades.

When calling for solidarity with Iranian protesters resisting state violence, we must therefore look towards simultaneously resisting the imperial structures that have disproportionately impacted the lives of women in Iran. Solidarity to Iranian and Kurdish women involves holding imperial powers and opportunists accountable for hijacking the protests to justify sanctions that have strangled a population.

Our international solidarity must be radical, opposed to all co-option, and remain rooted within the grassroots, across all borders; we cannot legitimise the very structures of sanctions and border legislation that have harmed Iranians for so long.

Jin, Jiyan, Azadi, is a call for transnational resistance. Instead of calling on international powers to intervene, we must defend the agency of Iranian and Kurdish women to imagine and fight for liberation on their own terms.

Yasmin Gholizadeh is a writer and organiser whose identity we are protecting for their security.

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