Informal Activism and New Subjectivity in Authoritarian Settings: Iran’s “New Activists”

By Paola Rivetti | Lecturer in Politics of the Middle East & North Africa and International Relations - Dublin City University | Sep 8, 2016
Informal Activism and New Subjectivity in Authoritarian Settings: Iran’s “New Activists”

This essay is part of a series that examines the genesis, evolution, mobilization tools and processes, impacts and limitations of informal civil society in political transitions, that is, loose groupings of like-minded individuals—those that are unofficial, unregistered, or unregulated—in the MENA and Southeast Asia. Read more ...


 

When I meet Sepideh in one of the new coffee shops in downtown Tehran, I am transfixed by her account of her life and political activism, as well as by her courage and resilience.[1]  Sepideh, who spent a year in prison after the contested 2009 presidential election, describes the story of her deeply personal, extremely active political engagement—from being part of a political party to engaging in various activities in the field of women’s rights.

Sepideh is not the only activist who has experienced hard times in Iran, nor has Sepideh alone “transited” from what she calls “activism in formal organizations” to “individual activism.” “We have lots of single activists,” echoes Sahar, who is part of Bidarzani, a feminist collectif that originated from the One Million Signature campaign after it fractured into several smaller groups.[2] “Bidarzani is a group, but we all have several individual and personal commitments beyond it,” continues Sahar. Another activist, Fariba, describes how activists’ participation has changed in feminist circles: “we are working hard to reunite Tehran-based feminist groups in a forum, but it is difficult to find people joining it as representatives of the groups we invite […] sometimes, it is problematic for activists to say that they are part of a group, it seems [like] something bad [while before] it was important to be part of a group, even fashionable.”

The arc of these two women’s self-described experiences as activists mirrors that of the larger Iranian activist community. Indeed, over the years, and for a variety of reasons, informal activism in Iran has been growing. This essay discusses the circumstances that preceded and led to the rise of informal activism in Iran and the implications of this phenomenon.  

Background

The scope of activism and the opportunities for mobilization in Iran have been determined not only by obvious authoritarian constraints but also by the legacy of the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). During the revolution, traditional venues of political activism, such as university campuses, became sites of struggle between revolutionary groups, notably leftists and Islamists. The post-revolutionary Islamization of the whole education system put an end to the competition, while the Iran-Iraq war allowed for a ‘state of exception’ that strengthened the regime’s structure of authority.

Following the Iran-Iraq conflict, the Iranian regime relaxed its grip on society and politics. As a consequence, diverse political views entered the public sphere.

Following the Iran-Iraq conflict, the Iranian regime relaxed its grip on society and politics. As a consequence, diverse political views entered the public sphere. Jame-ye Rouhaniyat-e Mobarez (Association of Combatant Clergy)—the country’s only political organization—split, giving birth to Majma-e Rohaniyoun-e Mobarez (Association of Assertive Clerics) and the distinction between the Islamic "left" and "right." Extant political groups were taken over by a new generation. Universities were the key to such transformations. The number of university students, and of females in particular, dramatically increased from 140,000 in 1977-1978 to 1,150,000 in 1999,[3] introducing new ideas about politics into society. At the same time, prominent intellectuals, academics, and politicians reassessed their previous values and positions, leading them to revise their thinking about the nature of the Islamic Republic. Abbas Abdi, Mohsen Kadivar, Abdolkarim Soroush, and Hashem Aghajari, among the others, veered towards democratizing the system and introducing political pluralism.

In the early 2000s, with the support of the then-reformist government led by Mohammad Khatami, a large number of non-governmental organizations (N.G.O.s) were established. In addition, diverse frames for mobilization emerged in the discourse about activism. Beyond demanding a more democratic system, tolerant of diversity, activists mobilized around ethnic diversity as well as women and prisoners’ rights—new topics, as the war had flattened all diverse identities to reinforce national unity, heavily securitizing the public sphere. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election as President of Iran in 2005, however, ushered in a period of repression, compelling activists to reorganize. While some activists continued to work in N.G.O.s, others organized around campaigns and loose networks. The Green Movement and the 2009-2010 uprisings benefitted from the legacy of such informal activist networks, which crucially joined the campaigns of Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.[4] In fact, activists viewed the election as an opportunity to mobilize.

The 2009-2010 Green Movement displayed great ideological diversity but failed to capture the state.

However, the mobilization did not lead to the consolidation of a reformist power center. As a result, activists were neither equipped to make inroads into institutional politics nor able to avoid violent repression. Put simply, the 2009-2010 movement expanded its composition and demands beyond support for Mousavi and Karroubi—displaying great ideological diversity—but failed to “capture the state.”[5] A., a journalist-activist, argued that “[t]he color green does not represent a unitary social order […] it is a theoretical dispersion that lasted a limited time […] so I am not sure [it] was very important. It is an historical event […] and the best we can do is to learn from it and turn it into something else.”[6] This excerpt reflects the rhizomatic nature of the movement, reinforced by this activist's call for the establishment of a new political platform to facilitate open-ended mobilization and change.

This discussion of the transformation of Iranian activism identifies three simultaneous trajectories for these movements. The first is the post-war diversification of activism, with new groups, distinctive mentalities, and ideological orientations mushrooming. The second trajectory is the informalization of activism and its subsequent individualization. Diversification caused the diffusion of views critical of the regime. This increased the regime’s inclination towards repression and securitization, propelling the younger generation to rely on informal networks, spawning a more fragmented, individualized type of activism. The last trajectory is the weakening of the infrastructures of activism but also, at the same time, the strengthening of their resilience. While informal networks are easier to disband, they are also less visible and have a greater likelihood of survival than structured organizations, which can be outlawed with little effort. Informal activism therefore offers little protection and support in case of arrest, but provides activists with room to maneuver, go underground, engage, or disengage from campaigns and groups, increasing their resilience and ability to survive times of repression.[7]

Post-2009 Activism and Resilience

After the repression of the 2009-2010 protest movement, many activists went underground. Furthermore, those who were part of structured groups, such as reformist political parties that supported either Mousavi or Karroubi, relied on informal and/or underground tactics to survive and remain active. Ahmad, who roamed between a formal political party (outlawed in 2010) and the electoral committees of both Mousavi and Karroubi, explains the process of “going underground”:

I was the secretary of the student branch [of the Mosharekat Front in Shiraz] […] In 2009, I became a member of the Setad-e 88 […] I did not want to work in a single headquarters, and then I worked for both Karroubi and Mousavi.[8]

Question: How could you be part of two committees?

Reply: Well, we all knew each other, and that was not a problem. After the election […] I was active in some underground groups in Shiraz [...] that had no name [...] We […] knew each other and shared the same ideas. […] We organized some demonstrations, and some sit-ins [tahasson].”[9]

Informal activism may be a choice not only because of repression but also because of disillusionment with the possibility of working within the system. Amir, who was an active member of the now-illegal reformist Mojaheddin-e Enqelab party for twelve years, argues that:

After the election [...] the whole structure was lost. [But] Even if the Mojaheddin had not been dissolved, myself and those who thought like me would never continue cooperation with the party. Because I, and many of my friends, arrived at this conclusion, that the whole system was sick and rotten and that it was not enough to act through [...] elections.[10]

Repression and disillusionment have prompted activists to “go online.” This is the case of Leila who, reflecting on her own activism, says that “I mostly work online […] security concerns are too [heavy for me] to ignore them. I saw too many of my friends arrested.” The changing broader structure also forced activists to revise their repertoire of action, and since the mid-2000s, single-issue campaigns entered the field of activism along with more traditional forms of mobilization. An important example is the One Million Signatures campaign, established in 2006, or the most recent petition, “Change the Male-Dominated Face of the Parliament,” which was supported and created mainly by individuals rather than groups.[11] “This was a crucial difference,” argues Sepideh.

The individualization of activism has brought about a new type of activist in Iran.

The individualization of activism has brought about a new type of activist in Iran. Activists in Tehran describe a new relational dynamic among fellow activists regarding leadership, for instance. While recalling being side-lined in the decision-making process by older leaders when they were young, they refrain from assuming a position of leadership today. As argued by Fariba, “I think I am equal to younger activists. I have more experience, but we are equal [...] we learnt from the mistakes of past generations and we are not going to repeat them.”

The “new activist” is also bearer of a strong subjectivity and self-awareness. Anoush, who was part of the Setad-e 88 of Tehran, advances a strong view about his role in the 2009-2010 mobilizations and voices a bold self-confidence, characterized by a sense of autonomy from both regime-sanctioned political platforms and the green movement’s elite:

There was a sort of army fighting against the regime. This army had generals, for example Moussavi, Karroubi, the Mosharekat Front and others. Then, you had officers [afsar] - us. And then soldiers, who were the people, ordinary people. Two months after the election, the generals were jailed or arrested, but the army was still at war. So, they [the security forces and conservatives in power] realized that the army, even with no generals, was working and that the struggle was ongoing. […] They realised afsar were even more important than generals, because afsar had the contacts with the people who took to the streets. Some of us [afsar] were already in politics, we had social capital we could build on… we were intellectually independent … we were in such a position that we could lead the movement and make decisions when the generals were jailed and not accessible anymore.

Question: What was your relation with the generals?

Reply: We had two types of contact. One was direct contacts […] Another way was that […] we read newspapers and we were able to analyse and comment on the events and make decisions. So even when the generals were arrested, we were able to lead the people in their place.”[12]

This testimony confirms the primacy of informal activism with respect to the way in which people activate and mobilize politically after the state’s authoritarian intervention. Anoush’s self-perception emerges in contrast to the elite of the Green Movement or “the generals.” He expresses a strong agency in subverting the hierarchy of the army he talks about. He provides further evidence that grassroots activism led the protest movement when the repression was underway and Karroubi and Mousavi were arrested. This strengthened the autonomy of grassroots activists from the elite.

Conclusion

In times of repression, informal networks are useful to keep activism alive, as they offer a way for activists to organize. Although their activities might be of a lesser scope, evidence points to a strengthening of the resilience of activists and of their dissent. In conclusion, it seems that authoritarian constraints allow for autonomous activism and subjectivity to flourish while emptying the regime-sanctioned political infrastructures of meaning. While this may not bring about broad or abrupt political change, it is an unexpected outcome of authoritarian interventions that might have longer-term consequences.


[1] All names are fictional. All interviews were conducted during the summer of 2016 in Tehran, unless otherwise indicated.

[2] The genesis of the Million Signatures Campaign was the unprecedented demonstration against gender inequality held by over 600 male and female activists at Tehran University on June 12, 2005. Exactly one year later, activists organized another demonstration in Tehran's Haft-e Tir Square and distributed a pamphlet on “The Effects of Laws on Women’s Lives.” Beginning in August 2006, organizers launched a signature petition aimed at gathering support from all across the country; Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, Iranian Women’s One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality: The Inside Story (Washington, D.C.: Women’s Learning Partnership, 2010), 5; "Bidarzani," accessed August 15, 2016, http://bidarzani.com/.

[3]  Ali Akbar Mahdi, “The Student Movement in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Journal of Iranian Research and Analysis 15, 2 (1999): 11.

[4] I use this expression, although very few activists in Iran do. In fact, when they want to refer to the protest movement of 2009-2010, the majority uses the expression “1388 election” (entekhabat-e 88); Fariba Delkhah, “The Political Economy of the Green Movement: Contestation and Political Mobilization in Iran,” in Negin Nabavi, Ed., Iran: From Theocracy to the Green Movement (New York: Palgrave, 2012): 17-38; Navid Pourmokhtari, “Understanding Iran’s Green Movement as a ‘Movement of Movements,’” Sociology of Islam 2, 3-4 (2014): 144-177.

[5] Shabnam Holliday and Paola Rivetti, “Divided We Stand? The Heterogeneous Political Identities of Iran’s 2009-2010 Uprisings,” in S.J. Holliday and P. Leech, Eds., Political Identities and Popular Uprisings in the Middle East (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016): 17-35.

[6] Interview, male, 27, December 2011, Niğde.

[7] Informal networks have a double function, as they facilitate both demobilization and mobilization. Pascal Menoret and Marie Duboc demonstrate how informality is conducive to forms of disengagement and facilitates the reorientation of activism. This is a crucial function of informal activism, as activists may need to disappear or renegotiate their commitment.

[8] The name of Mousavi’s electoral committee, which originally formed to support Khatami’s candidacy. For an account of the activities of the committee, see Arash Ghafouri, “Setad 88-Iran’s greatest campaign in support of Mir Hossein Moussavi,” in M. Michaelsen, Ed., Election Fallout. Iran’s Exiled Journalists on Their Struggle for Democratic Change (Berlin: Verlag Hans Schiller, 2009): 50-64.

[9] Interview, male subject, 32 years of age, June 2013, Kayseri.

[10] Ibid.

[11] "Women for Parliament," accessed July 25, 2016, http://www.women4parliament.org/.

[12] Interview, male subject, 32 years of age, June 2012, Istanbul.