Issue #145 Inflection Points of a Pluralist Feminist Revolution

Inflection Points of a Pluralist Feminist Revolution


Iranian students take off their compulsory Hijab in a classroom, holding a sign which reads “Woman Life Freedom,” 2022. 

Issue #145
May 2024

A year has passed since the start of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement. One wonders whether the movement is over. Or does it live on? Given the “modesty and hijab” bill passed by the Council of Guardians (September 2023) and the intensification of legal strictures around the hijab, what is the future of the movement at a glance? What does it want from, and what impact does it have on, Iranian society?

Qualities particular to a feminist movement are what enable the Jina [Mahsa Amini] movement to endure despite the roadblocks, finding a way through the slightest cracks and crevices in the current situation. Everyday renewed and in the trenches, consisting of small and yet decisive acts of protest by countless nameless supporters who are many and consistently multiplying, this truly is, in the words of Claude Lefort, a “pluralist revolution.”1 This revolution springs from many places and seeks diverse ends. It does not uphold one kind of life as the best, right kind of life. No “one” person bears responsibility for its future, nor is it meant to reach “one” ideal destination.

It now appears that we will only discover the impact of this pluralist revolution when we shatter certain preconceptions of what constitutes a revolution. Prevailing theories understand revolution in terms of sovereignty. To stage a revolution is to overthrow those in power and reshape society into an agreeable, unified form. This view intimates that there is a kind of power “vacuum” in society that revolutionary forces must fill. But distancing the movement from this definition and instead tracing it to pluralist feminist revolutions clarifies the force of its impact. A revolution that persists in the face of these obstacles will, over time, leave its mark on Iranian society.

1. The Child of the Revolution Does Not Need a Midwife

In Marxist-Leninist terms, the child of the revolution is birthed by the vanguard. That is, the revolutionaries must midwife history. The revolution bears witness to the end point of a revolutionary process that we aim to reach. A moment of “rupture” in the current order is meant to occur, and in the power vacuum that opens up in that moment of rupture, the vanguard takes power to transform social relations and establish revolutionary society. This common view takes a distinct approach to revolutionary time. The revolution “will occur” in the future and the moment of rupture “will arrive.” The future becomes intertwined with “founding,” and at the revolution’s founding moment, popular or working class rule will make itself apparent. The oppressed will of the people or of the working class crystallizes into “one” single, unique collective will and seizes the founding moment as its own. Disrupting the legal order is what makes establishing the revolution possible.

In a pluralist feminist revolution, the child of the revolution is simply born. There is no need for a midwife. History has done the work. There is no power vacuum for the revolution to fill. The revolution has already found its agents along the way. The time for this revolution is not the future. One might say that the perfect founding moment for the revolution has yet to “arrive”— the moment, if it indeed exists, to call for “sovereignty.” But the pluralist feminist revolution has no predetermined relationship to—in fact, does not waste energy on—sovereignty. The time for this revolution is akin to a future in the past, a time that has begun but has not concluded, and is now “picked back up” somewhere in the past. Its potentials roam free. Its capacities awaken. Its dreams come to life.

2. The Revolution Puts Down Its Load

Since the start of the movement, various opposition groups have put great burdens on the shoulders of this pluralist revolution. The most significant was the burden of changing the entire system—to the point that imagining the revolution became entangled with establishing new rule, a wholly new legal order. Those who so burdened this revolution seeded its belly with perhaps the biggest regrets and are themselves now enduring the worst hopelessness. A pluralist revolution is not supposed to make everything possible. Aside from being incompatible with the pluralist nature of the feminist revolution, such a maximalist view of revolution heeds a sovereign view of revolution. Only a view from the perspective of sovereignty would proclaim that either all has been won and conquered, or all lost and the field surrendered. As we observed earlier, this sovereign-centered, maximalist view holds a future-oriented understanding of the revolution; it does not believe that revolution can emerge amidst currently existing forces.

When a revolution releases the charge to destroy the entire system, it courts gradual, resistive change over one-time, authoritarian change. In the pluralist feminist revolution, there is no homogenous plural called “they” that refers to the enemies of the revolution. What’s more, rather than drawing an impenetrable red line between us and “them” to distinguish friend from foe, the pluralist feminist revolution strives to instill the revolution in “them” as well, to expose the lack of a heterogenous collective. It contemplates the strategies for that kind of revolution. Such a revolution wants to move beyond red lines to seek fresh spaces considered implausible—or better said, unthinkable—to penetrate. Hence pluralism replaces doublethink and the revolution thinks about collective freedom. That is its horizon, no matter how many roadblocks materialize in practice.

3. The Revolution Bids Goodbye to Infallibility

Whether knowingly or not, every sovereign revolution is associated with a kind of teleology. The voice of the people is the voice of God, and popular sovereignty serves as a surrogate for the king’s absolute sovereignty qua the shadow of God. Indeed the history of sovereignty runs alongside the history of divine law. The revolution is thus permitted to perform any act, and moreover, the revolutionary act within itself buffs and cleans the edge of every action. Insomuch as the sovereign revolution is seemingly then meant to act as surrogate for the unjust, unfree order, any function deriving therefrom has the power to call itself just and liberating. Any struggle against injustice and unfreedom lends it the semblance of saintliness. The revolution thus figures itself the determining standard for differentiating truth from untruth, purity from impurity, right from wrong. This self-referentiality is extremely dangerous. It closes the door to critiques of the revolution and draws a halo of infallibility and saintliness around its players.

On Keshavarz Boulevard in Tehran, people protest against Jina’s [Mahsa Amini] killing, 2022. License: CC BY-SA 4.0.

According to Judith Butler, feminism will continue to move forward only if it accepts that it can make mistakes.2 Fallibility thus figures as a formative quality of any progressive movement. A non-sovereign movement that does not seek to fill power vacuums accepts when, how, and how much it has erred and will err. In this case self-referentiality founders, and instead, an attitude towards erring that is at once normative and more or less intersubjective takes its place. The fallibility of a movement takes away its purifying mechanism and reduces its destructive tendency. In a revolutionary movement that has internalized its own infallibility, no act is legitimized internally or according to self-determined criteria. And that’s crucial in the midst of change. When the most important metric of an act’s proximity to violence—that is, existing law—has proven untrustworthy, it follows that the issue of violence is altogether forgotten and any act becomes permissible. But the revolutionary movement takes seriously an action’s normativity and the possibility of assessing whether that action is right or wrong intersubjectively, while simultaneously delegitimizing the existing law; it does not claim that there is no way to reliably assess the violence of an act in the absence of law. Delineating a justice that is restorative and transferrable and addresses other related issues, the revolutionary movement strives to value the intersubjectivity of how justice is established, and to keep a liberating and just mode of normative action alive.

4. The Revolution Commits to Life in All Its Contradictions

“Life” is one of three principles in the slogan “Women, Life, Freedom.” But what does it mean to desire life in all its contradictions? When a movement concerns itself with life, it associates itself with the quotidian whether it wants to or not. Indeed, life does not solely amount to its exceptional moments—moments that are meant to determine the value of existence, whether socially or politically. Life instead has another dimension that is wholly unexceptional, tied to ordinary, non-singular moments. These ordinary, non-singular moments are not only undervalued by political thought, but moreover, are also subject to various kinds of manipulation by existing powers that aim to normalize the status quo and weaken the revolutionary movement. In recent months, many have tried to figure life in terms of extraordinary moments by normalizing resistance and describing it in a particular way, and in opposition to the government’s censuring of such normalizing. But the reality is that when “life” is recognized as significant, one can no longer say “yay” to the extraordinary and singular moments and “nay” to the ordinary and non-singular.

The various sites of a pluralist revolution can be found in the ordinary and unexceptional moments of life. In contrast to a sovereign revolution of the state that only recognizes exceptional time and that seeks to create its own founding moment from the moment of rupture, a pluralist revolution officially recognizes unexceptional, quotidian time as well. It seeks to create change from within the continuum of the quotidian and out of the ordinary liberatory actions that take place in various sites and arenas of activity. Such a revolution engages not with perceived power vacuums but with a pluralism of powers in a pluralism of sites in order to fight for a life that is less hierarchical, more equal, and freer.

This contradictory life lends a hand to the various fronts of the revolution and considers nothing expendable. To condemn normalizing conditions is to remain in the language of a sovereign revolution; but a pluralist feminist revolution does not view normalized affairs with unforgiving eyes, seeing them as a sin that delays the “revolution.” Instead, it considers them a prized opportunity to bring about more profound change, aiming to empower ordinary, daily being as the ideal of a free and equal life.

5. The Revolution Establishes the Right to Resist

The Jina movement has no defined, predetermined goal. Could anyone say, for example, that the Jina movement’s primary goal is simply to challenge the norms around female attire? It doesn’t seem to be so. Though the revolution may lay down its excess burden, it nevertheless pursues various goals. The feminist ideal of free, equal existence progresses by struggling against a range of macho constructs that take many forms in the family, at school, around friends, at the factory, at the bakery, etc., etc., and thus require as many revolutionary ends. One might say that what all these ends have in common is the right to resist, or rather, ingraining the habit of resistance.

Whether in the state or elsewhere, when machismo and patriarchy refuse to withdraw, persisting and insisting on rights becomes doubly important. What is considered the most obvious face of the revolutionary movement, resisting the mandatory hijab, means nothing if not to fortify rights. In fact it could be said that the pluralist revolutionary movement struggles for rights predicated on the social fabric and popular support. A right merely granted by the law is a fragile right. It is easily questioned and less substantively clad. But when a right that, through channels of resistance, has transformed custom itself and reaches the realm of law, it is more likely to endure. Resistance, and indeed, establishing the right to resistance, is a practice in the experience of holding rights, including the right to what is deemed freeing and equality-seeking. In a pluralist revolution, common sense, rather than concessionary law, is the guarantee of a right. In sum, there is more reason for hope that, in time, an earned right will not turn into an injustice or dissipate.


The five arguments above are an effort to more or less elucidate the ways a pluralist revolution, with its many goals and diverse motives, might be distinguished from a sovereign revolution that follows a straight path. Each argument could be further elaborated and more precisely refined. By way of conclusion, it can be stated that a pluralist revolution takes democracy more seriously than a sovereign revolution, such that it pursues democracy in figuring not only the state but also society, knowing that, consequently, social change will take place both more peacefully and enduringly.


Quoted in Benjamin Ask Popp-Madsen, “The Self-limiting Revolution and the Mixed Constitution of Socialist Democracy: Claude Lefort’s Vision of Council Democracy,” in Council Democracy: Towards a Democratic Socialist Politics (Routledge, 2018).


Butler, The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind (Verso, 2020).

Protests & Demonstrations, Revolution, Middle East, Iran
Return to Issue #145

Translated from the Farsi by ZQ.

Parva is a feminist and social researcher.


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