Authoritarianism and Bodily Autonomy: The case of Iran

Looking at the Iranian revolution, this article explores the links between bodily autonomy and authoritarianism from a feminist perspective.

The unprecedented protests in Iran are on-going for nearly three months now despite the regime’s brutal crack-down, the imposition of the death sentence against political prisoners and a death toll of an estimated 458 protestors, including 63 minors (at the time of writing).

Sparked by the killing of Mahsa Jina Amini who was arrested and beaten by the infamous morality police for not covering her hair “properly”, the burning of headscarves and the cutting of hair have become rallying gestures in the Iranian protests. But these gestures have much greater symbolism than the simple opposition of the mandatory Hijab or the brutality of the morality police. It symbolizes the broad-based opposition of an oppressive regime that has denied women of bodily autonomy and Iranians of freedom of choice without prosecution. Cutting across regions, classes, ethnic and religious groups, the inclusive movement in Iran demands freedom for all and fundamental political change.

Connecting the issue of bodily autonomy with regime change makes these women-led protests feminist and distinguishes the current revolutionary protests from previous ones that focused on “single issues” like economic relief or electoral reform. So, how has the quest for bodily autonomy been able to unite different groups with different grievances? And how exactly does it relate to the demand for regime change?

Bodily Autonomy as a Core Feminist Demand

Being autonomous over one’s own body relates to agency, choice, dignity and freedom. This has been at the core of feminist movements across the world which have questioned the reasons behind the regulation of and control over women’s bodies by men, the state, and other oppressive systems, and demanded an end to that control.

Often, the term “bodily autonomy” is associated with sexual liberties and contraceptives, but it goes beyond that. It encompasses the rejection of physical violence and abuse, control over movement and dress, and the overall control over one’s life and future.

Authoritarianism and Patriarchy Go Hand-in-Hand

Understanding power-dynamics and eradicating power-imbalances is a main feminist strategy through which activists aim to achieve gender and social justice. Only when understanding where power lies and how it works, can change be achieved. To transform societies into more just and equal ones, power has to be shifted and redistributed.

Authoritarian regimes instrumentalize the regulation and control over women’s bodies to exert totalitarian rule. They do so through extensively regulating women’s bodies and/or extending some level of control over women to men. While being oppressed in authoritarian regimes themselves, men, thereby, are not left entirely powerless. They are allowed to rule over their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters, decide how they dress, where and when they can go out and with whom to meet or not. Mona Eltahawy calls this "the alliance of State and the Street" where oppressed men are given minimal power to exercise misogynistic and patriarchal practices within authoritarian states and are asked in turn to respect and obey state-power.

By controlling who gets to deny women freedom over their bodies, movement and sexuality, authoritarianism is, therefore, intrinsically linked to patriarchy. Data shows the more authoritarian a regime is, the larger the gender gap is within a state. The Gender Inequality Index (GII) and the Democracy Index for instance show that countries with high inequality between men and women also tend to rank very low on the democracy index and vice versa. Equally, anti-democratic far-right movements, both in the US and in Europe, are always anti-feminist, anti-women and homophobic.

Feminist Demands that Unite a Movement

Women protestors demanding bodily autonomy in Iran have kickstarted a movement across gender, class, religion and ethnicity. This is because it has become clear to many Iranians that the denial of women’s freedom over their bodies lies at the heart of the oppression of the Iranian regime.

By losing control over the dress-code and “morality of women”, the Islamic republic and clerical establishment have been shaken at their core. This made the protests relatable for many different groups who suffered from power-imbalances as well as those that slightly benefited from them - like young men and boys. They realized that the crumbs of power given to them by the state do not make them free, equal allies to the regime in any way.

My Body, My Choice – Women Life Freedom

The feminist call of “my body, my choice” and what became the Iranian revolution’s slogan “women life freedom” with its origin in the all-female fighting units of the Kurdish socialist movement (jin jiyan azadi) are two sides of the same coin. There is no authoritarianism without patriarchy. And in turn, there is no freedom without bodily autonomy.

It is vital for women, men and non-binary folk from all backgrounds and groups to support one another in any anti-authoritarian/anti-patriarchal struggle. Only then can they begin to truly challenge the systems that have denied them of their basic rights and liberties.

Lydia Both is Project Director at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s regional project on Political Feminism and Gender in the MENA-region.

Farah Daibes is a Senior Program Manager at Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Political Feminism project in the MENA-region.

We extend our feminist solidarity with the courageous Iranian people demanding their freedom and with women all over the world fighting to gain control over their bodies!

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.


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