Logo of IRGAC
Image of the article »Neoliberal Governance and the Feminist Revolution in Iran«

Neoliberal Governance and the Feminist Revolution in Iran

Theory & ResearchThe revolution in Iran can be framed as a feminist revolution also because of its form of resistance. The feminist performative/figurative dimension of the revolution, as an anonymous feminist writer and protester from Iran elaborates, is “the distinguishing feature” of the revolutionary movement that we are witnessing

On 13 September 2022, Jina (Mahsa) Amini, a young Kurdish woman, was detained in Tehran by the “hijab police” for wearing hijab “improperly” in public. While under arrest, she was severely beaten by the police officers. A few hours later, she was taken to a hospital in critical condition. She died a few days later as a result of police brutality.

“Don’t leave us alone”, Jina’s family asked people who attended her funeral. The call was answered in a large protest which took place following her burial in her hometown, Saqiz, where many women removed their veils in public and chanted: “Jin, Jiyan, Azadî” (Woman, Life, Freedom), a well-known Kurdish slogan. The day after the funeral, protests erupted across the country.

The recent ongoing wave of protests is by far the largest-ever mass protest in the history of Iran, and which had spread to every corner of the country and succeeded in reconnecting the diaspora with local movements. At its peak, around 164 cities inside Iran, along with many villages, were the scene of demonstrations of one kind or another. The revolutionary uprising was also the longest round of contentious politics in the history of the Islamic Republic, and the one that had created the biggest crisis for the regime. The revolutionary movement was also unique as many participants and observers mark it as a women-led or even a feminist revolution. 

A Feminist Revolution in the Making

The revolutionary momentum passed with outcomes yet to be fully understood, yet there are already strong indicators for (re)claiming this revolutionary momentum as a feminist one. 

First, the uprising was clearly about the feminist issue of policing feminized bodies[1]. The incident that sparked the revolutionary movement was the death of a young Kurdish woman in the hands of the forces appointed to impose the Islamic Republic’s compulsory hijab law. Since its inception, compulsory hijab has been the cornerstone of the Islamic Republic’s theocratic and authoritarian rule. Indeed, compulsory hijab has disciplined bodies and regulated social spaces. Thus, for some, it articulates the gender apartheid characteristic of social regulation in Iran (Afary and Anderson 2023; Kohan 2022).

Second, the main inspiring slogan of the revolutionary movement, “Jin, Jiyan, Azadî” is rooted in the transnational Kurdish women’s struggles for the liberation of women (and other oppressed groups) from the patriarchal regime of the nation-state (Rostampour 2022). The slogan celebrates the multiplicities and polyphonous voices of the suppressed subjects, mainly feminized bodies, and calls for the end of the exploitation of nature and life by the regime of nation-states.

Third, since the very beginning, feminized bodies were at the forefront of the protests. Undoubtedly, the most striking images of the first months of the revolutionary uprising belong to those anonymous feminized bodies, unveiled, standing on utility boxes, cars, or garbage cans, in the streets, waiving their scarves, and chanting “Woman, Life, Freedom” or “down with the Islamic Republic” and on some occasions dancing or burning their headscarves.

The concept of performativity as “that reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains” (Butler 1993, 2) might be elaborative to discuss these powerful unveiling performances as a feminist form of resistance. Butler primarily used this concept to explain how the gendered bodies have been constructed by doing and repetitively practicing certain roles and actions. Performative acts of the unveiling of the feminized bodies in the protests are in the same manner a constructing practice not only for deconstructing/undoing the gendered bodies but also for (re)producing and recalling an image, a narrative of political protests through the performative act of unveiling, conducted by feminized bodies since the mid-nineteenth century in Iran[2]. This recalling of the images and narratives of the past(s) is the repertoire of the resistance, which is defined as a process of bodily archiving. Because this repertoire regulates the present the same as it imposes a certain framing on the image/narrative of the past and the possible futures. In other words, bodily archiving redefines and reconnects the past, present, and future of feminist struggles. Is that not the meaning of revolutionary momentum? The momentum that radically changes the future imaginaries and perspectives of the present actions and the meaning of the past(s).

Thus, the revolutionary momentum in Iran can be framed as a feminist revolution also because of its form of resistance. The feminist performative/figurative dimension of the revolution, as an anonymous feminist writer and protester from Iran elaborates, was “the distinguishing feature” of the revolutionary movement that we were witnessing: 

These protests are not crowd-centered but situation-centered, not slogan-centered but figure-centered. Anybody, and I really mean anybody, “can” create an unbelievable, radical situation of resistance by themselves, such that it astonishes the viewer. (L 2022)

This figurative/performative and situation-centred form of protest was a rupture with the past. Quite different from the crowd-centred and leader-based revolution of 1979, and contrary to the demand-based Green Movement of 2009 embodied by the male reformist politicians, the recent revolutionary uprising is a radical movement, embodied not by politicians, not by men of power and privilege, but by the ordinary women, queer people, and other religious, national/ethnic, and economically marginalized groups, such as the Kurdish and Baluchi peoples, whose spontaneous (extra)ordinary acts of resistance on the streets turn them into figures of a feminist revolution in the making. 

Last but not least, I argue that the the revolutionary momentum was a feminist one due to its affective dimension. In the years preceding the current revolution, fear was the hallmark of the Islamic Republic’s affective governance (Talebi and Farvardin 2023). However, since the start of the revolution, the politics of fear had become increasingly dysfunctional. The fear of transgression and disobedience of the father, state, or (religious) leader; the fear of brutal suppression; the fear of the outbreak of civil war in the absence of the central power; the fear of uncertain futures in the post-Islamic Republic era; the fear of “Others”; and the fear of death — these had all been replaced by the politics of life, care, and solidarity with the others. It was the politics of solidarity and care that connected and empowered different peoples and struggles with different histories in the time of the revolution. The different expressions and expansions of this politics of solidarity and care are deeply rooted in the materialist philosophy and the political perspectives that transnational revolutionary feminism has long advocated.

The compulsory hijab is the cornerstone of the Islamic Republic in Iran. Feminized bodies were thus the first, followed by the Kurds and other marginalized peoples, to experience the vicious and systematic oppression of the regime in post-revolutionary Iran. Unsurprisingly, they were also the first to revolt against the oppression and the atrocities of the Islamic Republic. Nevertheless, it remains necessary to explain why and how the revolutionary movement took the whole country at this particular moment and not at any other point in the history of compulsory hijab under the Islamic Republic. Similarly, the struggles against the compulsory hijab alone are insufficient to explain how the revolutionary uprising crossed the boundaries of marginalities. Neither do they explain how, despite the growing efforts and actions of established political oppositions to claim leadership and advocacy, the revolution moved beyond the demand-based state-centred politics of the previous periods. 

By historical contextualization and focusing on the rise of neoliberal governance and its related gender/sexual politics in Iran, in the following I will elaborate on how, in the past decade of the Islamic Republic, feminized bodies have become the main subject and object of neoliberalization while at the same time creating new forms of agencies and collective resistance. This neoliberal subjugation, in this sense, is an addition to the gender discrimination imposed on women and LGBTQ people by the misogynist and heteronormative regulations of the Islamic Republic since its formation. Based on this account, it is possible to discuss how the ongoing revolutionary movement in Iran can inform our understanding of transnational feminist subjectivity and radical transformation.

Neoliberal Governance and Policing Feminized Bodies

The last decade of the Islamic Republic has been defined by harsh neoliberal policies and contentious politics. Simultaneously, there has been a shift towards what can be described as neoliberal familialism[3] in gender/sexual politics. 

The history of neoliberalization in Iran can be traced back to the economic reform of the 1990s, when “structural adjustment policies” were introduced. However, these policies have undergone significant changes in recent years and have gone beyond mere economic reform. The Islamic Republic has been facing increasing political discontent from various political forces since 2012, which has manifested itself in the form of several nationwide protests and strikes. These protests have often turned violent, with residents of several cities and marginalized provinces clashing with anti-riot forces. Many of the protesters have been from the “middle-class poor” (Bayat 2021; 2018) and those marginalized by the ethnic and economic centralism of the state. Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic has been grappling with the worst economic crisis since its establishment in 1979. The re-imposition of US sanctions has only added to the pressure, pushing Iran’s national economy to the brink of collapse.

Due to the harsh economic situation and increased political discontent, the government introduced a new economic plan called the “Resistance Economy”. However, this plan was a continuation of neoliberal policies and economic resilience strategies. These policies took advantage of the unstable political and economic conditions (Farvardin 2020). The objective of the new plan was to prepare the population for the changes that come with the intensification of neoliberalization and the resulting political discontent. The previous period saw neoliberal policies as a pragmatic and reversible adjustment policy. However, with time, neoliberalization not only restructured the economy but also introduced a new form of state governance.

The recent neoliberal governance of the Islamic Republic has been firmly grounded on family units, particularly on feminized bodies and their reproductive and economic practices, either in the form of unpaid care work or informal paid work. In this context, family units offer a very advantageous sphere for the economic and political agenda of neoliberalism. We know from feminist critiques of neoliberalism that neoliberalization promotes reliance on privatized and unpaid family labour (Bedford 2008) as a strategy to make deprived and impoverished people more resilient in a time of crisis and uncertainty (Farvardin 2020). Indeed, neoliberalism as a political rationality works through gendered constructions that effectively reassign care work to the private sphere because it unburdens the state from tasks of collective care (Cooper 2017). One can conclude that these new policies, besides their effects on the reproductive rights and the health of women, push feminized bodies further into their family spaces and informal and (un)paid care work (Farvardin 2020; 2021). 

Evidently, from 2011 to 2022 — the period of the imposition of neoliberal familialism[4] — the gender gap widened drastically in Iran. According to the Global Gender Gap Index (2022), Iran ranked 143 out of 146 countries in 2022, while it ranked 125 in 2011. Also, the rate of female participation in the labour market decreased significantly from its peak in 2005 (18.6 percent) to only 12.8 percent in 2022 (InfoDev 2022; Radiozamaneh 2022). Furthermore, more than half of the workers employed in the informal sector, comprising 31 percent of Iran’s economy (Pilehvar 2022), are female workers. 

The above-mentioned statistics demonstrate a local example of the global trend of defeminization of the formal labour market along with feminization of the informal market by pushing feminized bodies toward family-based work units. Thus, the neoliberal principles prevailing across the world have not only framed gender/sexual politics of the last decade but also made possible and advanced a specific form of neoliberalization in Iran, which imposes its rule, specifically on feminized bodies, through pronatalist familialism.

Conclusion: The Emergence of the Feminist Subject and the Politics of Care

The recent feminist revolutionary momentum has its roots in years of both collective and individual resistance by feminized bodies against oppression and gendered violence. The recent struggle has been directed not only towards mandatory hijab regulation and gendered segregation but also towards the exploitation of their (re)productive activities and the extraction of their vital resources by the state in order to overcome its all-encompassing crisis. Amidst the revolutionary movement, a new form of feminist political subjectivity emerged, centred around the politics of care. Neoliberal governance has been exploiting the informal labour and reproductivity of feminized bodies as resources. Yet, at the same time, these very bodies have also become providers of social reproduction needs and have generated counter-strategies for survival and resistance. They have (trans)formed spaces of hope and inspiration, encouraging mobilization against gender/sexual violence. 

In Iran, like many other places, we are witnessing the politicization of issues once considered marginal or only concerning minorities (Gago and Cavallero 2021). Compulsory hijab, femicide, marginalization, and the reproductive rights of feminized bodies are currently central to political debates and imaginations regarding a possible post-Islamic Republic era. These issues that were once considered insignificant have now become crucial areas of struggle for equality and the pursuit of a decent life. Hence, interconnecting marginalized spaces and imagining an alternative outside of the logic of the market and capitalism, marked by the care for the “others”, at the time of the revolutionary movement become a daily practice, both in local spaces of social reproduction and (cyber) spaces of emerging trans-local and (trans)national solidarity networks.

These (in)visible spaces of solidarity are the autonomous realms that enable the reproduction of life and resistance to oppression. These spaces are commonly referred to as “the commons” (Federici 2018; Aguilar et al. 2016) and are exemplified by extended family networks, neighbourhood initiatives, networks providing financial support for prisoners and striking workers, and women-led support groups during the COVID-19 outbreak in Iran. These spaces are built “on reciprocity, respect, mutuality, and responsibility” (Ticktin 2021, 920). They were formed by and provided the affective conditions of politics of care and the performance and visibility of feminist subjectivity, which (re)emerged recently on the streets of Iran.

The feminist subject, which negates the demand-based politics of the previous era in favour of embodied self-governing politics, has (re)emerged as a response to authoritarian neoliberal governance and its gendered subjectification. It regenerates and multiplies itself continuously in various geographies of neoliberal governmentality. Nonetheless, it performs differently, adopts varying rhetorics, and raises different claims according to the context and the hegemonic discourses. It is certain that the recent revolutionary movement and its feminist subject have redrawn the contours of political imaginations and radically changed the strategic fields of struggles in Iran. Yet, despite its unique features, the feminist revolutionary movement in Iran aligned with the transnational movements that fight against authoritarianism, neoliberalism, extractivism, and gender-based violence.

*The expanded version of this article has been submitted as a chapter for the edited volume, Anti-feminism and Political Homophobia in the Middle East and Europe (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming)



Afary, J., and K. B. Anderson (2022), “Woman, Life, Freedom: The Origins of the Uprising in Iran”, Dissent, 2 December, available at https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/women-life-freedom-iran-uprising-origins/. Last accessed on 26 March 2024.

Aguilar, R. G., L. Linsalata, and M. L. N. Trujillo (2016), “Producing the common and reproducing life: Keys towards rethinking the political”, Social Sciences for an Other Politics: Women Theorizing without Parachutes, edited by A. C. Dinerstein, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 79–92.

Bayat, A. (2018), “The Fire That Fueled the Iran Protests”, The Atlantic, 27 January, available at https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/01/iran-protest-mashaad-green-class-labor-economy/551690/. Last accessed on 26 March 2024. 

——— (2021), Revolutionary Life: The Everyday of the Arab Spring, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bedford, K. (2008), “Holding it Together in a Crisis: Family Strengthening and Embedding Neoliberalism”, IDS Bulletin, vol. 39, no. 6, pp. 60–66.

Butler, J. (1993), Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “sex”, New York: Psychology Press.

Cooper, M. (2017), Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Farvardin, F. (2020), “Reproductive Politics in Iran: State, Family, and Women’s Practices in Postrevolutionary Iran”, Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 41, no. 2, pp. 26–56.

——— (2021), The Birth of Neoliberal Family Politics: A History of Governmentalization of the State in Iran, doctoral thesis, Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany.

Federici, S. (2018), Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons, Binghamton, NY: PM Press.

Gago, V., and L. Cavallero (2021), A Feminist Reading of Debt, London: Pluto Press.

InfoDev (2022), “Female labor force participation rate in Iran from 1990 to 2021”, Statista, 6 December, available at https://www.statista.com/statistics/1350126/iran-female-labor-force-participation-rate/. Last accessed on 26 March 2024. 

Kohan, M. A. (2022), “Politics of the body in the ‘woman, life, freedom’ movement in Iran”, Psychotherapy & Politics International, vol. 20, no. 4, pp. 1–8. https://doi.org/10.24135/ppi.v20i4.06.

L (2022), “Figuring a Women’s Revolution: Bodies Interacting with their Images”, Jadliyya, 5 October, available at https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/44479/Figuring-a-Women%E2%80%99s-Revolution-Bodies-Interacting-with-their-Images. Last accessed on 26 March 2024. 

Pilehvar, A. A. (2022), “Investigating the Relationship Between Informal Economy and Competitiveness in Iran’s Metropolises”, Journal of Knowledge Economy, vol. 14, pp. 2515–38. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13132-022-00965-4.

Radiozamaneh (2022), “Pushing women out of the labour market”, 20 April, available at https://www.radiozamaneh.com/712222/. Last accessed on 26 March 2024. 

Rostampour, S. (2022), “Jin Jiyan Azadi means ‘it is the time’”, Radiozamaneh, 27 October, available at https://www.radiozamaneh.com/738295/. Last accessed on 26 March 2024. 

Talebi, N., and F. Farvardin (2023), “Care to revolt? Making sense of the feminist revolution in Iran”, Untold Mag, 12 April, available at https://untoldmag.org/care-to-revolt/. Last accessed on 26 March 2024. 

Ticktin, M. (2021), “Care and the commons”, Contemporary Political Theory, vol. 20, no. 4, pp. 916–21.

Woodly, D. et al. (2021), “The politics of care”, Contemporary Political Theory, vol. 20, no. 4, pp. 890–925.https://doi.org/10.1057/s41296-021-00515-8.


  1. 1

    I use feminized to refer to a form of subalternity and subjugated social position, imposed by gender/sexual and heteronormative oppression and violence over bodies, rather than a specific gender/sexual identity. Thus, one can be in a feminized position without identifying as a woman. In this context, a feminist subject is, in contrast, used to characterize the resistive and liberative performances and subjectivities of feminized bodies against the gendered violence imposed on them that are not necessarily articulated through referring to feminist discourses.

  2. 2

    I refer here to different historical instances of performative unveiling as a form of political protest against authority, for example: Tahirih Qurrat al-ʿAyn’s public unveiling at the conference of Badasht (1848), the collective unveiling of women in Tabriz in protest against the despotic rule of the Qajar dynasty and the famine (1895), and the recent unveiling movement of the “girls of Revolution Street” (2017–18).

  3. 3

    Neoliberal familialism in this context refers to a neoliberal gendered policing that establishes its agenda through valorizing and/or redefining heteronormative family values.

  4. 4

    As an example, in October 2021, a new comprehensive law, known as “Youthful Population and Protection of the Family”, was passed that further restricted access to prenatal testing and diagnosis, abortion, contraceptives, voluntary sterilization services, and related information. More importantly, according to the new law, the regulation of abortion is no longer a medical matter but exclusively a religious dictate. We also witnessed the imposition of further quotas in favour of men in the labour market and higher education.

Read more