Movements for Democracy and Recent Obstacles: The Case of Iran

Alireza Asgharzadeh

Speech at the Italian Parliament, Sponsored by UNPO, Rome, June 29, 2010

As such, I like to conclude this speech by highlighting the importance of the need for an open and transparent conversation: One which is not afraid of speaking truth to power; which boldly interrogates antiquated and degenerative notions of ‘Aryan race,’ monolingualism, monoculturalism, heteronormativity, racism, abelism, sexism and homophobia. This requires a crossing of boundaries, not only of race, gender, class and sexuality, but also of ways of thinking and acting.


Ladies and Gentlemen!

      Allow me to express my sincere gratitude and heartfelt thanks to all the organizers and sponsors of this important event, and also to each and everyone of you kind-hearted folks here. It is indeed an honour to be here today to discuss various issues facing Iran’s democratization processes.  

           I have been asked to briefly discuss the current state of democratic movements and tendencies in Iran vis-à-vis the Green Movement and to highlight some challenges as well as shortcomings of the Green Movement particularly in its relationship with other movements such as those of Iran’s non-Persian nationalities, women, workers, students, youth and so forth. Let me clarify from the outset that I speak to you as an Azeri-Turk who was born in Iran and lived there for 20 years, having gone through my primary education under the previous Pahlavi regime, and my secondary one under the current Islamic government.  Since 1987 I have called Canada my home. As an academic, author, and human rights activist, I have been vigorously observing political and social developments in Iran particularly since the 1978 popular revolution.

        In my recent book titled Iran and the Challenge of Diversity1 I have explored in greater detail major areas of exclusion and oppression in Iranian society and have highlighted their significance for resistance and their importance as potential sites of social movements. These include race/ethnicity, class, gender/sexuality, language, and religion, among others. Today I like to reemphasize the importance of these sites, to show their centrality for any viable major transformation in Iranian society, and also to underline some shortcoming and failures of the current Green Movement in properly acknowledging and integrating these sites of exclusion and resistance. I will start with the secularist movement.

Religion and Secularism

In current Iran the movement for secularism is one of the most important sites of resistance against the fundamentalism of the government in power. Secularism has become a site of resistance mainly as a reaction to Shi’ism and Khomeinism, a governing ideology that denies the individuals’ equal access to resources based on gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, and so forth. I like to emphasize that secularism in this context is not defined as anti-religionism but as having equal rights in practicing any religion, any form of spirituality, or no religion at all.

               Secularism can provide a democratic space where difference and diversity are acknowledged as basic features of contemporary societies. For instance, it is only in a secular space that students of different religious backgrounds and spiritual persuasions can be provided a safe environment where they can feel comfortable about their religious identity and their spirituality. Understood this way, secularism cannot be interpreted as anti-religionism or atheism. Rather, it is a praxis which does not favour any particular religious belief over others. According to this perspective, not only all religious communities should enjoy equal access to resources, but also the non-believers and those believing in different forms of spirituality should be provided opportunities equal with those of the dominant religious group. 

         Obviously, such promotion should not entail a romanticized approach to secularism, as secularism, in and of itself, cannot be equated with democracy and progressivism. Iran under the Pahlavis, Iraq under Saddam, Egypt under Nasser, and Indonesia under Suharto, to name but a few, were clearly secular, but neither democratic nor progressive. 2

Secularism, thus, need not mean hostility to religion in all its manifestations. Crimes and atrocities of unimaginable proportion have been committed historically in the name of both religion and secularism. While religion has caused much suffering through such infamous disasters as the inquisition, the crusades, and various religiously motivated sectarianisms, conflicts, and fundamentalism, secularism is also associated with such experiences as Nazism, Stalinism, etc.. As such, care must be taken so that secularism is not romanticized as an ideal that always stands for democracy, human rights, peace and progressivism.

Evidently, there is a secularist movement in contemporary Iranian society. The perimeters of this movement are defined in terms of diversity, pluralism, social justice and equal access to resources. Why a person of Baha’i faith should be denied equal access to educational and occupational opportunities because of her/his religion? Why a socialist teacher or university professor should be dismissed from their job because of their worldviews? Why a Sunni Muslim or a Jewish student should not have equal access to educational resources, such as a place of worship, curricular and extracurricular activities that a Shia student enjoys? Why women and sexual minorities should be discriminated against based on their gender and sexual orientation?

It is in response to these and other similarly concrete questions that many Iranians are turning to secularism as a viable alternative to religious fundamentalism. Unfortunately, however, many of the spokespersons for the current Green Movement have failed to grasp these defining principles behind Iranians’ secular movement: i.e., the principles of diversity, equity, equality, social justice, and inclusivity. Influential individuals such as Dr Abdol-Karim Soroush and Ayatollah Mohsen Kadivar who are associated with the Green Movement have misguided and erroneous understanding of secularism. These individuals’ definition of secularism does not include issues of social justice, diversity, multiculturalism and human rights. As a result, many secularist individuals and groups are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Green Movement and its leadership.

At the same time one must acknowledge that Iran’s secularist movement is not a singular, monolithic and unified entity but intersects with other markers of difference such as gender, race/ethnicity, language, age, and so forth.


In the Islamic Republic of Iran, gender is a most salient site of exclusion that has inevitably become a major site of resistance and empowerment. Shortly after the establishment of an Islamic government in Iran, the new rulers dismantled the ‘Family Protection Act;’ made veiling compulsory; reduced the minimum age for marriage from 18 to 13, and while maintaining polygamy, took away the automatic right for divorce of a wife on the grounds of her husband's remarriage.  "The law of the four wives is a very progressive law," asserted Ayatollah Khomeini,

and was written for the good of women, since there are more women than men.  More women are born than men and more men are killed in war than women.  A woman needs a man, so what can we do, since there are more women than men in the world?  Would you rather prefer that the excess number of women became whores, or that they married a man with other wives? 3    

            Based on the Islamic  ‘Law of Qisas’ or the ‘Bill of Retribution,’ the dieh or 'blood-money' to be paid for a female victim of murder is only half of that paid for a male victim. Under this Bill, women's testimony in court is only half the value of men's testimony. Since Islamic law requires two women to testify for every one man, a woman can, therefore, not participate in the legal profession.  Since a woman’s right to form judgment is not fully recognized, it is rarely possible for her to become a lawyer or a judge.  Since a woman's testimony alone does not carry any legal weight, proof of any kind of abuse, mistreatment and crime against her is almost impossible (see for example Articles 5, 6, 33, 46, 91, and 92 in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Penal Code).

 "The prisons of the Islamic regime," an Iranian writer has observed,

are full of women who have been subjected to the most degrading and inhumane forms of torture. Rape is one of the commonest, yet horrific, forms of torture.  The rape of virgin women before their execution is performed as a religious ritual in all Iranian jails, carried out in the belief that these women are not worthy of the divine place allocated to virgins by Islam and the prophet. 4 

Thus, a review of the past thirty years of Islamic rule indicates the absolute deterioration of women's human, legal, economic and socio-political rights in Iran.  The politics of sexual apartheid and forceful segregation have been vigorously implemented in all imaginable public places such as universities, schools, factories, beaches, restaurants, and even buses and trains.  Those who have dared to challenge the rigid fundamentalist regulations have been subjected to torture chambers, secret dungeons, fire squads, hangings, and stonings. 

Is it any wonder then, that we see women at the forefront of any progressive movement for gender equality, secularism, human rights and social justice? It is no secret that Iranian women have been staunch supporters of the current Green Movement. The spokespeople for the green Movement, however, have thus far failed to produce a transparent literature regarding the gross violations of the women’s rights in the Islamic republic and how such rights would be restored and respected should the Greens come to power. Similar to their lack of transparency regarding the secularist movement, their lack of transparency regarding gender inequality is alienating many progressive women from the Greens, in general, and their leadership in particular. Mr. Mir Hussein Mousavi, the presumed leader of the Green Movement, continues to cling to “charismatic leadership of Imam Khomeini” and a supposedly flawless, golden and just Khomeini era, failing to acknowledge that all of the violations of the rights of women took place in the golden era of “the Imam” and under his direct supervision.

Finally, we should also note that gender-based struggle intersects with other sites of oppression such as class, language, religion, and race/ethnicity. For instance, an Azerbaijani, Arab, Baluchi or a Kurdish woman does not experience oppression the same way as a Persian woman does. The non-Persian woman, in addition to being oppressed based on her gender, is also oppressed based on her language, culture and ethnic identity. While being victimized by a masculinist culture, the non-Persian woman has to additionally suffer the indignity of a banned language, a stigmatized ethnicity and a racialized community; whereas a Persian woman does not experience any form of language and ethnicity-based oppression.


Similar to gender, class is another site of exclusion-and hence of resistance- in the Islamic republic. Since its inception, the Islamic Republic has functioned based on cronyism and favouritism where employment and occupational opportunities are offered to those within the inner circle of the regime and those showing extreme forms of ideological affinity with Shi’ism and Khomeinism. As a result, in today’s Iran a super rich class of regime’s core elements and devotees are juxtaposed against an increasingly disenfranchised and pauperized majority.

          The widening gap between the rich and the poor is reinforced by an equally widening gap between the mainly Persian populated central regions of the country and the non-Persian margins—i.e., the regions of Baluchistan, Kurdistan, Turkmensahra, Azerbaijan and the Arab-populated areas of Kuzistan. Here, the intersections of class, poverty and regional inequality with race, ethnicity, language and religion are evident.

         Based on various estimations, the Iranian unemployment rate has increased by 5.1 percent since last year and may rise up to 23 percent by the end of this year. The youth and newly graduated students are most affected by this trend, the unemployment among whom is estimated to be over 20 percent. Among the unemployed, the educated and highly educated women suffer from the highest rate of unemployment. It has been maintained that Iran has the highest unemployment rate in the Middle East, while being number 17 in the world. In the capital city of Tehran alone, it is estimated that there are 800,000 unemployed individuals. 

        Like many Third world countries, in Iran the government is the biggest employer. A large number of Iranian workers are employed by the government, working for the ministry of education, health care, agriculture industry, oil industry, the military as well as ideological/repressive organs such as the Revolutionary Guards Corps, Jihad for Reconstruction, the Basij militia organization, among others. This being the case, it is not difficult to see the almost impossibility of workers’ unionization, solidarity and progressive activism while employed by an ideological government.  This, however, does not mean that the struggle for social and economic justice is absent among the workers; it is just highly disorganized and sporadic.

         For the workers and government employees it is very difficult to mobilize and to forge solidarity. And this is where the Green Movement could have taken the initiative to champion the cause of working people and the issues of impoverished regions. The Greens, however, have failed to do this. As a result, they have not been able to tap into the resources and creative energies of this vast population—i.e., the underemployed, the unemployed, seasonal workers and internal migrant labourers, those who come in their millions from the impoverished non-Persian regions of the country to work in Persian populated areas of the center.

          Clearly, any sensible analysis of class oppression and class struggle in Iranian society ought to take into account the intersections of class with race, ethnicity, language, and the place or region of birth. And this brings me to a brief discussion of ethnicity, race and language-based oppression in Iran.

Race/Ethnicity and Language

It is important to note that ethnic pluralism, difference and diversity have always been defining features of what is today called ‘Iran.’ Peoples of various ethnic origins, such as the ancestors of contemporary Azeri-Turks, Kurds, Baluchs, Turkmans, Arabs, Lurs, Gilaks, Mazandaranis, Persians and others have lived in Iran for centuries. The history of civilization in what is known today as Iran goes back over six-thousand years. The available archaeological/linguistic record indicates that from the very beginning the region was characterized with extreme forms of ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity.

          Up until 1925, the country had been run in accordance with what one may call a traditional confederative system within which all ethnic groups enjoyed the freedom to use and develop their languages, customs, cultures, and identities. With the beginning of the Pahlavi regime in 1925, the natural trend of ethnic and linguistic plurality was abruptly stopped, and a process of monoculturalism and monolingualism started, which continues to date. The aim of this process has been to present the language, history, culture, and identity of the Persian minority as the only authentic language, history, culture, and identity of all Iranians. Needless to say, Western notions of Aryanism, Orientalism and the Orientalist historiography of the region have contributed immensely to this process of misrepresentation and epistemic violence.  

               Notwithstanding that Orientalist historiography has equated Iran with Persia and Iranian with Persian, no single ethnic group has ever constituted a definite numerical majority in the country; neither historically nor currently. The continuous practice of Persian nationalistic ideology has prevented a social-scientific conduct of a country-wide national census in which questions of nationality, ethnicity, and more importantly language, are addressed. In spite of being one of the most ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse countries of the world, there are no academic departments in Iran’s universities and centers of higher learning to focus on ethnic/racial relations, multicultural studies, multi-lingualism and inter-cultural communications in the country. In fact, the former president Mohammad Khatami’s notion of ‘dialogue between civilizations’ has been repeatedly criticized by members of non-Persian communities, who have stated that, instead of initiating an international dialogue, Mr Khatami should have initiated a dialogue between and among Iran’s diverse ethnic groups.

           Thus, masquerading under such generic terms as Iran, Iranian-ness and Iranian nationalism, the dominant Persian nationalistic ideology has openly divided the country into two camps: the Persians and the non-Persian Others. The result has indeed been catastrophic, with devastating ramifications for human rights, democracy, pluralism and diversity in the country.

            Just a few months ago (on December 15, 2009) the Iranian minister of education, Mr. Hamidreza Haji-Babayi, revealed that 70% of Iranian students were bilingual. What this means is that Farsi/Persian is the natural mother tongue to only 30% of Iranian students. In other words, 70% of Iran’s population is non-Persian. Despite this fact, the Iranian government along with the majority of Persian intellectuals, scholars and even activists continue to disregard the country’s rich ethnic, racial and linguistic diversity. This total disregard to diversity, unfortunately, applies to the Green Movement as well. Except for some lip service on “respect for different tribes and ethnicities,” the discourse of the Greens contains no sensible mention of Iran’s multi-national, multi-cultural and multi-lingual character. Is it any wonder then, that the major non-Persian nationalities of the country have accompanied the Greens with a deafening silence? And why shouldn’t they? Why should an Azeri-Turk, a Kurd, a Turkmen, a Baluch or an Ahwazi Arab sacrifice his/her life so that one exclusionary and racist leadership, or regime for that matter, is replaced by another? If the Green Movement cannot transparently discuss such vital issues as federalism, multiculturalism and multilingualism now, what guarantees are there that they will do so after coming to power? 

Four General Areas of Oppression

In order to provide a fuller picture of various social movements and sites of resistance in Iran, it is necessary to have a fuller picture of social inequality in Iranian society. To this end, I like to underline four general areas of oppression that are central to any progressive analysis of human rights and social justice in an Iranian context:  1) class and gender-based oppression; 2) race/ethnicity/culture/religion and language-based oppression; 3) oppression based on sexual orientation, dis/ability, age, body-size and other markers of difference; 4) the matrix of domination and interlocking nature of systems of oppressions.. Understandably, each of these categories constitutes vast areas of knowledge, and lumping them together in this fashion may not seem appropriate. However, it is important to note that my purpose here is not to provide an ontological analysis pertaining to the nature and functioning of each category such as class or gender. My aim here is to show how and why these categories are taken up, or discarded as the case may be, in the dominant literature on social inequality in Iran, including the discourse of the Green Movement.  

         Seen this way, it makes a good sense to put class and gender together in that a discursive exploration of these sites of oppression does not pose what is perceived to be a danger to ‘Iran’s national security’ or ‘territorial integrity,’-- the two important conceptual yardsticks employed by ‘Persian nationalism’ in regulating the discourse on social justice and human rights in Iran. 

            Notwithstanding that the progressive and internationalist left in general has had its fair share of treatment to labelling such as ‘traitors’ and ‘foreigners,’ explorations of class exploitation and class based oppression have become much more relaxed and less risky in recent years, particularly after the cold war period. Class and gender, while constituting two significant sites of oppression and exclusion in contemporary Iran, are not seen as antagonistic to the practice of ‘Persian nationalism’ which has been at work in Iran since the early 1920s. The nationalist methodology guiding social-scientific analyses of Iran’s dominant intelligentsia and intellectuals does not view discussions of class and gender as fundamental challenges to imaginary constructs of ‘nation,’ homeland,’ the nation-state and its boundaries; whereas any discussion of Iran’s diverse nationalities and ethnic/cultural/linguistic communities are immediately perceived to be extremely risky to  the nation-state and hence inappropriate, unnecessary and taboo topics of exploration.

             Whereas class and gender-based oppression has received considerable attention particularly in recent years, oppression based on race/ethnicity and language not only has not received the deserved attention but still remains a taboo subject for many human rights activists, intellectuals and scholars. Despite the growing social and political activism on the part of ethnic/linguistic communities throughout Iran, the dominant literature continues to label the human rights activists of these communities as traitors, aliens, agents of Israel, the United States, and other foreign countries. 

           Meanwhile, exclusion and oppression based on sexual orientation, age, ability/disability and body-size are hardly (if ever) mentioned in literature on Iranian human rights issues. Perhaps, a main reason for this oversight could be in the ambivalence and mystification with which the body has been associated in traditional, conventional and dominant Iranian discourse. This dominant discourse has never been able to identify and articulate the body as the ultimate site not only of violations but also of rights and freedoms. In a sense, the current methodological nationalism has shifted the focus from the body and its ultimate rights to the nation-state and its nationalist discourse in such a way that any discussion of human rights has become conditional to issues around ‘national security and territorial integrity,’ the two essential principles whose perimeters are always defined by the dominant intelligentsia .

            Thus, the discourse of disability and its connection with human rights has never entered the lexicon of rights and freedoms in Iran. While there is at least a hundred-year history behind the shifting and changing nature of disability in North American and European contexts, disability in Iran is still used as a main source for stand-up comedians, satirical genre and entertainment of all sorts. A glaring case in point is the extremely popular comical episodes of “Samad Agha,” whose producer, Parviz sayyad, in an interview revealed that the entire show was based on “a young man in our neighbourhood with mental and physical disabilities.” 

             There has been a change of sorts in recent years regarding the topic of disability and the disabled in general, particularly since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The disabled veterans of the eight-year war with Iraq are held in highest of esteems and are regarded as ‘the living martyrs.’ This reverence for the veterans, however, does not originate from a modern understanding of the rights of the disabled. It is deeply rooted in nationalistic ideology and defined through methodological nationalism. Treatment of the war veterans with esteem and reverence does not translate into an articulation of disability within relations of power and domination. In fact, such treatment has created a hierarchy within the disabled community. As always, missing from this discourse are the voices of the disabled to articulate their own condition and to challenge notions of normalcy, ableism,  and the power-knowledge nexus.

          Regarding issues around sexuality and trans-sexuality, the Islamic government allocates funding for medical/surgical expenses of transgendered individuals whishing to undergo sex-change.  This act of presumed generosity, however, is not out of respect for individuals’ sexual rights and preferences. Quite to the contrary, this funding is provided to ‘cure’ the presumed ‘abnormalities,’ ‘malfunctioning,’ and ‘disease’ of certain bodies deemed curable by those in positions of power and privilege. Here too, missing are the voices of gays, lesbians, bisexual, transgendered and queer individuals and their respective communities to articulate their human rights vis-à-vis the dominant order of heteronormativity. 

            From physical and mental torture to various disciplinary measures, the Islamic regime exercises all forms of coercive mechanisms to police and discipline the body. It uses the body as the ultimate site of its violations. A clear manifestation of this is in the way the government defines even the size and shape of stones to be used in the punishment of stoning to death. According to Article 104 of the Islamic Republic’s Penal Code: “In stoning to death, the stones should not be so large that the person dies upon being hit by one or two of them, neither should they be so small that they cannot be called stone.” A peculiar characteristic of this kind of punishment is the extreme cruelty aiming to inflict maximum pain on the victim’s body. This kind of physical disciplining is coupled with other forms of normalizing mechanisms whose primary task is to shape the individual into what the government  refers to as ‘the ideal Islamic person.’

             In the Islamic Republic of Iran then, it is always the body which is the ultimate site of violations, exclusions and denials. It is the body which is denied access to resources, to rights and freedoms. When it comes to issues around sexuality, it is the sexual rights and desires of the body that are violated; when it comes to gender-based oppression, it is the body that is socially constructed and defined as gendered within relations of power and domination. And when it comes to language-based oppression, it is the language, the tongue and the means of communication of the body which is banned, mutilated and violated.

           The body, however, is not an abstraction; it is not devoid of a communal dimension and social existence; nor does it exist in vacuum and outside of society. It is subject to relations of power that characterize all social formations. The body, as the ultimate site of violations, cannot be studied outside a social context, outside relations of power and domination, i.e., a host of relationships which are multi-dimensional in nature with multiple bases of origination and methods of functioning.  This demands a holistic approach to understanding violations against the body, the rights of the body, and the rights of humans—human rights. It also demands an understanding of what is referred to as ‘matrix of domination.’

            Matrix of domination is an approach that takes into full account issues around transsectionality, intersectionality, and the interlocking nature of systems of oppression. These systems include sites such as race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, language, religion, geography, citizenship, and so forth. It is then imperative to acknowledge the intersecting and interlocking nature of systems of oppression to which the body maybe subjected. I take the position that issues around human rights can be understood more richly and comprehensively by highlighting the matrix of domination and by centering the standpoints of the marginalized and the subaltern. 

           Regrettably, this kind of holistic approach is missing from the analyses of many Iranian scholars and intellectuals. They study the phenomenon of class detached from race/ethnicity and gender; and they analyze gender without at the same discussing how gender can be raced and classed. Clearly a lack of attention to intersecting and interlocking nature of systems of oppression is a major shortcoming in the current discourse on social justice and various social movements. If we understand the need and necessity for solidarity, we should also understand the importance of addressing diversity not only of ethnicities and languages, but also of oppressions, marginalizations and exclusions—and of how these are linked to one another. 


Like any other environment plagued by methodological nationalism and, to use Spivak’s terminology, “national-fascism,’ in an Iranian context the need for free expression, dialogue and multi-logue cannot be overemphasized. As such, I like to conclude this speech by highlighting the importance of the need for an open and transparent conversation: One which is not afraid of speaking truth to power; which boldly interrogates antiquated and degenerative notions of ‘Aryan race,’ monolingualism, monoculturalism, heteronormativity, racism, abelism, sexism and homophobia. This requires a crossing of boundaries, not only of race, gender, class and sexuality, but also of ways of thinking and acting. This conversation should aim to replace nationalist/fascistic methodologies with contemporary understandings of human rights and freedoms. As social scientists, intellectuals, researchers and activists, we need to utilize the insights of a host of contemporary theories, methods and conceptual tools that the world is now using: anticolonial theory, postcoloniality, subalternity, critical pedagogy, studies in Orientalism, gay/lesbian/queer studies, critical disability studies, feminism and feminist theory, anti-racism discourse and praxis, theories of multicultural, multilingual, and inclusive education, critical white studies and notions of white privilege, among others. Needless to say, Iranian Diaspora and diasporic intellectuals can and should take the lead in generating this conversation and bringing it to the attention of larger and broader audiences.




1)         Asgharzadeh, A. (2007). Iran and the Challenge of Diversity: Aryanist Racism, Islamic

            Fundamentalism, and Democratic Struggles. New York: Palgrave   Macmillan.

2)         See also: Asgharzadeh, A. (2008). “Secular Humanism and Education: Reimagining Democratic Possibilities in a Middle Eastern Context.” In Carr, P.R. and D.E. Lund (Eds.). Doing  Democracy: Striving for Political Literacy and Social Justice. (pp. 177-194). New York: Peter Lang.

3)         Sanasarian, E. (1983). The Women's rights movement in Iran: Mutiny, appeasement,

             and repression from 1900 to Khomeini (p. 134). New York: Prager Publishers.

4)         Hendessi, M. (1990). Armed angels: Women in Iran (p.16). London: Zed Books.