The speakers identified a universal challenge in their movements: too often gender justice is viewed as a secondary struggle, less important than economic or political fights. A key task for socialist feminists is to meld economic, political, and social issues. Socialist feminists in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Chile have begun to do just that, infusing the movements with demands against oppression.

By Emma Wilde Botta

On Sunday January 26, 2020, socialist feminists from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Chile engaged in an informative and inspiring online dialogue about how the new global wave of uprisings have impacted and have been impacted by women.    Fatemeh Masjedi, Nadia Mahmoud, Sarah Kaddoura, and Juliana Rivas went over the contours of the uprisings, the vibrant role of women in revolt, the state of gender oppression in their respective countries, and challenges ahead.

Contours of the uprisings

The wave of revolts across Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Chile share common features. All are uprisings against the capitalist status quo whether neoliberal or statist. All are part of a dynamic revolutionary process that has seen ebbs and flows. The latest movements are the most significant in decades. Chile faces the largest protests since the end of the dictatorship. Iraq’s revolt is the most serious challenge to the government since the 2003 US invasion and occupation.

These uprisings are qualitatively different from earlier movements. The social composition of the protests have changed over time. The 2009 Green Movement in Iran was mostly driven by the urban middle class. However, the latest protests in each country have brought in a wide and diverse layer of popular support including women, unemployed youth, students, and poor workers. In Chile, the organized left has gained relatively strong influence in the movement.

Across countries, there has also been a notable shift from demands for reform to demands for radical transformation. The ruling classes have attempted to quell the tide with superficial changes, such as the resignation of prime ministers in Iraq and Lebanon. But the movements have been unsatisfied with simple reforms. They reject the entire sectarian political system and demand an new nonsectarian government that is not corrupt.

Lastly, all of the uprisings have been met by severe government repression. State violence has killed hundreds in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. The protests in Chile have been less lethal but over 350 people have suffered severe eye damage due to rubber bullets from the police.

Women protesters are often the first target of the counter revolution. Riot police in Chile have subjected women, feminine people, and girls to sexual violence. Within the first few days of the October revolution in Iraq, prominent leftist women were kidnapped and killed. In Iran, the number of women political prisoners is rapidly increasing, and detained women face physical and psychological torture.

Women in revolt

In each country, women have been essential to the movements, participating in large numbers and often playing a leading role. In Iraq, women have been visible in public political spaces in an unprecedented way. In the months before October, unemployed women with graduate degrees organized sit-ins to demand jobs, highlighting the rampant unemployment for all types of people. As Tahrir Square in Baghdad developed into a center of the movement, women joined and contributed in myriad ways such as organizing sit-ins to raise awareness about women’s issues, providing literacy classes, creating radical art, treating injured protesters, and coordinating the feeding of thousands of people. Women also stood side by side with men to confront riot police to protect the square.

Women in Lebanon have been even more active on the frontlines of the uprising. As Sarah explained, “Lebanon has so few women in parliament. But if you look at the movement organizing against the government, it’s mostly led by women.” New grassroots groups and networks are emerging outside of traditional political spaces such as parties and NGOs.

In Lebanon and Chile, the movements have benefited from the a strong tradition of feminist organizing that prepared women and non birnary people to lead in struggle. The blossoming of feminist organizing after Lebanon’s 2015 uprising helped move feminist chants and demands from the fringes to the mainstream. The current movement in Chile has been strengthened by the legacy of the abortion rights struggle. Many women became politically active through the popular assemblies of the pro-abortion movement. Young women students initiated the fair evasion strike that sparked the latest uprising. Chilean feminists also created the incredible anthem “A Rapist in Your Way,” which has been performed by feminists in streets all over the world.

Across the countries, there are also women who are not joining the protests. Some do not agree politically with the protests. However, many others want to participate in the movement but face social, economic, and legal barriers. Many women can not leave their caregiving jobs. Women who work for a wage are unable to risk losing their job and income. Participation is also difficult for women in vulnerable immigration situations, such as Afghan women in Iran and Palestinian and Syrian refugees and migrants in Lebanon.

Nadia explained that many women in Iraq are prohibited from joining the protests by their male relatives who are conservative and/or are worried about the women’s safety. Confined to the private sphere, these women have found creative ways to participate via social media. Others have used the freedom of going to school as an opportunity to skip class and go to the squares to join demonstrators. .

Gender oppression

Women and non binary people have been drawn to these revolts for myriad, diverse reasons. Undoubtedly, many are driven by the awful social and economic conditions they face. Gender oppression is so deeply embedded in capitalist society and manifests in obvious and subtle ways, such as rigid gender roles, lack of economic opportunity, and violence.

Iraq and Iran are marked by high levels of femicide, child marriages, and forced marriages. Women experience high levels of domestic abuse and martial rape, which the law provides no protection from. Getting a divorce is very difficult. Nevertheless, in Iran, where women constitute 60% of college graduates, the divorce rate is high. In most of the Middle East, the majority of women are unemployed or work in the informal labor market and are under the control of their male relatives.

Though in Lebanon there is a progressive veneer, in reality, women’s rights and LGBT rights have remained largely unrealized. All laws related to marriage, divorce, polygomy, and interfaith marriage vary according to the sect that you were born into. Women can not pass citizenship on to their children.

Many of the issues faced by women in the Middle East are also present in Chile. Women and other non-male people are denied control over their bodies. Abortion remains illegal except in particular cases and sexual violence is common. A femicide law was passed nine years ago but only applies to women killed by a familial relation, leaving sex workers unprotected.

Challenges ahead 

The speakers identified a universal challenge in their movements: too often gender justice is viewed as a secondary struggle, less important than economic or political fights. A key task for socialist feminists is to meld economic, political, and social issues. Socialist feminists in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Chile have begun to do just that, infusing the movements with demands against oppression.

Male comrades are not immune to the sexist ideas of society. The speakers agreed that sexist attitudes and sexual abuse exist among leftist circles. Non-male comrades are often expected to do care work and logistical work. Often, they have to fight for their ideas to be heard and taken seriously.

The movements face the challenge of imperialism as well. In Iraq, the movement has to navigate a US-Iran proxy battles. In Iran, the virtual failure of the international left to extend solidarity to the uprising has left the Iranian people isolated. For example, efforts to pressure the Iranian regime to free political prisoners have received little support from the international left.

Internationalism is an indispensable value for our movements. The Chilean media often portrays the MENA region in simplistic terms – as a place of violence – without any reporting on the uprisings for democracy and against authoritarianism. This dialogue was a small but important step towards bringing socialist feminists into conversation across borders to learn from one another and build solidarity.

Protesters in Lebanon have been singing a chant that acknowledges the revolts across the world, naming each country. The speakers offered several other ideas for connecting the uprisings. Nadia offered the idea of shared slogans and demands on 8 March International Women’s Day. Fatemeh spoke about a campaign to put pressure on authorities to release political prisoners in Iran. People who live in the U.S. and Europe can put pressure on their government to stop supporting oppressive regimes.

The new global wave of revolt marks the welcome return of sustained, militant protests that seek to fundamentally transform society. As people from all walks of life pour into the streets, they realize they aren’t alone. Explaining the impact of the massive demonstrations in Chile, Juliana spoke about “the sensation of looking at the person walking next to you and being able to relate to that person.” The movements are tearing down the walls of alienation and fear that capitalism builds between people who actually have a lot in common with one another. As people start to believe in their own power to change society, we can expect women and all oppressed people to continue leading the way.

Emma Wilde Botta

February 7, 2020

If you wish to view the dialogue,  please click on this videolink: