Issue #145 Jina, the Moment of No Return

Jina, the Moment of No Return


A scene from the Jina uprising, 2022.

Issue #145
May 2024

At 5 p.m. sharp we went towards the agreed-upon street. We’d been anxious since the day before, when the call for the protest was sent out to feminist groups and collectives. Will people come? Will the repressive forces of the state allow us to gather and protest?

As we reached the Hijab intersection,1 suddenly hope and excitement replaced all our fear and anxiety. Groups of young people had gathered and joined one another. All of a sudden, we were in a river of people that changed our destiny, and probably Iran’s destiny, forever. Jina’s name became our symbol and a feminine uprising began.

In this essay, I will first discuss an alternative approach to political acts. In contrast to conventional approaches based on “revolutionary consciousness,” this approach emphasizes emotions, politics, and the encounter. Then I will review the genealogy of post-1979 revolts in Iran and explicate the scope and boundaries of the Jina uprising. In so doing, I will compare the Jina movement to past movements in terms of the agency and geography of these uprisings. Finally, I will look at the organizational dimension of the Jina uprising to argue that it exemplified a new form of mobilization—spontaneous, self-generating, and decentered.

The Emotions and Politics of Encounter

Emotions are commonly perceived as inferior to consciousness. However, feminists have shown how emotions can precede consciousness and guide it. Emotion emerges from a problem or issue—when something becomes problematic for us, when we are hurt, when we are afraid, when we are exasperated, or when something erodes our soul like a cancer. We feel pain and suffering. Before we become “conscious” of it, we feel it with our flesh and blood. This feeling is the source of action. Each moment of suffering leaves a trace on our bodies. Traces of suffering, traces of pain, lead us to act. Contrary to the common belief that consciousness has a higher status than emotions, in fact consciousness is a derivative form of knowledge—a knowledge that forms only after emotions, in order to relieve the newly emerged pain.

It might well be said that what emerged from the European Enlightenment was the supremacy of mind and thought. As humankind saw itself as the center of the universe, we assumed that we had defeated the “ignorance” of the Middle Ages, tamed the destructive force of nature, and harnessed it through the power of intellect and reason. From Descartes’ “cogito” to Hegel’s “Geist,” philosophers emphasized mind over matter and thought over the body. The same vision dominated the tradition of critical thinking, and especially theories of social change. An emphasis on “raising consciousness” became one of the fundamental elements of revolutionary change. In Marx’s view, revolution required the “consciousness” of the proletariat, and Lenin called the political elite the generating force of the working class. This mind-oriented approach has become a dominant discourse, so that most people assume change requires a “conscious” society. It’s as if there’s an ignorant mass whose consciousness should be raised with the aid of cultural and educational programs so that society changes in the “long term.”

This tradition needs to be challenged. Taking the Jina movement as an example, I argue that what moved the Iranian population forward was not consciousness but emotions. As Sara Ahmed’s works suggests, the origin of any movement is emotions; the rapture of uprising sprouts in us when something frustrates us and we become sensitive to it. In contrast to consciousness, emotion is not something that can be transferred from the high echelons of the elite to the lower echelons of the masses. Instead, it permeates horizontally from heart to heart, from one vision to another, and from one body to the one next to it. In recent years, institutional and party politics have lost their popularity. Accordingly, the formally approved parties who do not have mass support have lost their ability to mobilize the population in critical transformative moments.

Graffiti during the uprising: “After Mahsa [Jina], everything hangs from a thread [of hair]”

One should examine the recent uprisings through the lens of the politics of encounter. To elucidate this politics, Andy Merrifield, inspired by Althusser, employs the allegory of parallel raindrops: raindrops fall parallel to each other until one drop swerves once, and only once, and collides with the drop next to it. From this swerving of the first drop, other drops collide, leading to a chain of encounters. These encounters create something new—a new order that is the foundation of collective and common action.2 What happened in the Jina movement belongs to the politics of encounter. Unlike movements whose formation is predicated on a predesigned plan and vertical organization, the Jina movement, like many other movements of the last decade, formed from the agglomeration of previously separate and detached bodies that suddenly seized the street for a few hours in a spontaneous arrangement. It was the encounter of these separate bodies at the Hijab intersection that, like a knot of new compositions and arrangements, generated unprecedented acts and new forms of coming together. This form of direct and informal action challenged the ordinary politics of the political elite.

The Emergence of a New Subjectivity

Concurrent with this shift from institutional politics to the politics of encounter, political subjectivity has transformed as well. This new subjectivity represents a dissolution of and detachment from dominant socioeconomic systems, and presents a form of independent and individual subjectivity. As Sari Hanafi has shown in his studies on political subjectivity after the Arab Spring, this subject is not a competitive, antisocial, neoliberal individual but one “that involves the constant negotiation of an actor with the existing social structure in order to realize a (partial) emancipation from it.”3 This new subjectivity enables political agents to carry out self-referential acts—agents who, despite recognizing social forces and pressures, resist disciplinary power.

Social networks and online activism facilitate the formation of this new subjectivity. The pervasive character of online social networks has made them the primary site for political organizing and analysis. Amplified by social networks (but not limited to them), the Jina movement temporarily succeeded in creating public spaces all around the country—spaces that were overtaken by groups of people, and that connected them to the history and memories of past revolutions and uprisings. A new political imaginary bloomed in their minds, suggesting that another way of life is possible.

The Specificity of the Jina Moment

We can trace the postrevolutionary uprisings in Iran back to the 1990s. With the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, the main aim of the government (known as the “Reconstruction Government”) was to implement the World Bank’s structural adjustment package. This ended up impoverishing the lower classes and widening inequality. A rise in consumer prices and staggering inflation paved the way for the first postrevolutionary uprisings. In the early nineties, scattered revolts often occurred in the slums of cities such as Tehran, Mashhad, Arak, and Qazvin. In Mashhad, in the Koo-ye Tollab area, the destruction of housing that was built without permits led the residents of impoverished slums to protest. Similar unrest broke out in Islamshahr when public transit fares were raised. In both cases there were violent clashes between protesters and the police and security forces. These uprisings were quickly suppressed and did not trigger unrest in city centers and major metropolises. The media and the public failed to pay attention to these protests, despite their violent and expansive character. It was as if, after the geographic erasure of these marginal classes, they had also been erased from the collective memory of the upper classes and city dwellers. These moments of lower-class unrest were known as “bread uprisings.”

The second major metropolitan uprising, which became known as the “Green movement,” happened a decade and a half later in response to the presidential election.4 In 2009, Iranians, especially in bigger cities like Tehran, Isfahan, Tabriz, and Shiraz, objected to the election results and for a few months occupied the streets. The protests were so massive that coverage of them dominated local and international media for months. However, the Green movement was different from all the previous protests in the early 1990s. It was organized mainly through official platforms that had been established by past “Reconstructionist” and “Reformist” governments. Communication was spearheaded by official reformist parties and groups, who had been mobilizing their supporters in the lead-up to the election. The pre-election campaign had created a network of active participants. The strong street presence of the reformist supporters before the election (for instance, in the “green [human] chain” from Rah Ahan Square to Tajrish square in Tehran5) led to the novel experience of masses of people in the streets. After the results were announced, this new network organized protests through its official channels and online social networks. The Green movement, shaped by the election climate, was thus organized conventionally, with the top (the political elite) organizing the bottom (the masses). While certain groups of people organized horizontally and spontaneously, the dominant organizational character of the Green movement was top-down, party-centered, and middle-class.

The year 2019 witnessed another form of political organization. The spontaneity of the 2019 protests was different from the mobilization and organization that took place around the 2009 election. This time, anger at increasing gas prices was the driving force of the protests. In two short days, people from numerous cities took to the streets. The class and geographic character of these protests was different from the “bread uprising,” when the marginalized poor revolted in city slums, and the Green movement, when the urban middle class protested against election tampering. In 2019 a new class emerged, characterized by Asef Bayat as the “urban middle poor.”6 Austerity measures over the preceding decade had pushed this group into poverty and out of urban centers to satellite cities. Along with the older areas of Tehran (such as Satarkhan and Haft Hoz), the movement was concentrated in small cities, city slums, urban outskirts, and satellite cities.

At the beginning of the 2019 protests, the Iranian government shut down the internet across the country for a week. So there was no way to communicate or organize through social networks or messaging apps. Local offline networks were activated instead. In smaller areas where most relationships are face-to-face and information spreads through word of mouth, street protests could be organized more spontaneously and with street smarts.

Three years later, after a long period of silence caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Jina movement took to the streets of Iran. The murder of a young Kurdish woman by the “morality police” during her visit to Tehran outraged Iranians. In less than a week, Iran witnessed its largest postrevolutionary urban uprising ever. The Jina movement gave birth to a new form of political organizing in Iran.

To start, a movement that initially seemed limited to the issue of the hijab transformed into an expression of decades of dissatisfaction and oppression. Unlike other forms of oppression and inequality, a death can transcend its cause. It can distill past moments of oppression and injustice. This feature of the Jina movement made it possible for anyone who had ever been the target of oppression or injustice to feel like they belonged to the movement.

If the “bread uprising” belonged to the proletariat, the Green movement to the middle class, and the 2017 and 2019 protests to the impoverished middle class, the Jina movement was different from all of these in terms of agency, geography, and organization. The feminist character of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement made this historical moment pregnant with many past historical moments: the middle class, the urban middle poor, and the proletariat all participated in the Jina movement. And while those earlier uprisings were each concentrated in a different type of place, the Jina movement upended all geographical division. From bigger cities to smaller ones, from wealthier neighborhoods to poorer ones, from satellite cities to capital cities, and from cities with Kurdish and Balouchi ethnicities to Farsi- and Turkish-speaking populations, all kinds of people joined the movement. As such, neither class nor local geography are sufficient frameworks for understanding it.

The historical moment of Jina was novel and unprecedented. As such, we can call it an “Aleph” moment, to borrow the title of a celebrated Jorge Luis Borges story. For Borges, Aleph is a place that contains every other place on earth, a place where “all places are—seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending.”7 An Aleph moment is transformative; it makes us different human beings. In the same vein, we can see the Jina movement as a space-time that distilled other space-times. The Jina movement contains the essences of all the previous protests. In Jina, everyone can see a reflection of the injustices they’ve suffered. Jina’s name lies at the intersection of all class, gender, ethnic, and religious discontent in Iran today.

The Jina movement was novel from another perspective too. While brutal and violent conflicts between protestors and security forces took place in the streets, gradual and persistent struggles occurred inside homes and in the private sphere among intimate relations. Revolutions cannot only happen in the squares and streets. Street protests, even if they last months, will end. They will inevitably quiet down, since people must go back to their ordinary lives. However, the political mobilization of the Jina movement spread to other spaces, to neighborhoods, to schools and universities, to workplaces and homes. The depth and expanse of the Jina movement differentiate it from previous movements, meriting the name “revolution.” The Jina revolution not only transformed the fabric of the city but also transformed the bodies of its subjects and their way of relating to their environment. The Jina movement sparked a revolutionary transformation of everyday life—a revolution not in the political character of the state, but in the meaning-making acts of ordinary people.

Jina uprising in Sanandaj, in the Kurdistan province of Iran.

In the Jina movement, we encountered a new woman who rethought herself and amplified her voice in her home and in the streets. This shift in subjectivity occurred as women saw themselves as part of the profound and public experience of struggling for change. Some of the most radical forms of resistance during the Jina revolution were enacted by ordinary women who resisted disciplinary methods and reimaged themselves and their environment. During the Jina movement, women created what Michelle Rosaldo calls “embodied thoughts”—the consciousness formed through the body and its feelings.8 This is the emotional force that leads the body to think and to create meaning. Emotions formed by challenging social norms are a kind of embodied thought. Examples include mothers who became political actors by grieving for the children they lost during the Jina movement. They politicized private and public spaces and everyday life itself. This politicization of private and everyday life during the movement crept into public life and is in the process of transforming it, creating a crisis for Iran’s tyrannical regime.

The Organization of the Movement

The Jina movement unleashed two parallel processes. On the one hand, repression and control of public space in recent years has limited the possibility of a new leader emerging. Any form of oppositional political organizing has been quickly shut down. Despite this repression—or perhaps because of it—we have seen the rise of urban “movements” of teachers, of students, of women. When these groups do not have enough resources to mobilize, more modest actions are undertaken by smaller and more diffuse groups, such as environmentalists, unions, pensioner associations, and justice groups.

On the other hand, social networks granted another characteristic to the protests: performance. Social networks channel protest to both the real world and the virtual world. Now protesters know that they should not only take to the streets but also control image production on social media. In the Jina movement they transformed moments of resistance against security forces into images that spread across the internet.9 The reciprocal coexistence of virtual and real spaces facilitated the organizing of the protests. The real world was reinforced by virtual encounters, and the virtual space by street protests. So we should understand the Woman, Life, Freedom revolution as a performative uprising, with street performances leading to the proliferation of protest images. In this sense, the Jina movement could not have been organized centrally and top down. On the contrary, we witnessed a new form of spontaneous, decentered, and self-generating organization that was characterized by the “street space.” Gradually and through their experience in the streets, people learned how to navigate this “field.” As Asef Bayat argued in the case of the Arab Spring, despite the advantages of horizontal and spontaneous organization it is difficult to sustain and solidify such movements.10 From the outset many people believed that victory for the Jina movement meant toppling the regime, but this was misguided. The movement was very young in its organizational form, although it has already provided many lessons for future protests. A new generation has overcome the dominant depoliticized discourse and has politicized urban space and everyday life—a generation of political subjects who do not accept top-down leadership and who conceive of themselves as agents of change. The song “Baraye …” by Shervin Hajipour expresses the structure of this uprising perfectly: a song written by no one and everyone, shaped by the participants in the movement, is finally vocalized by a little-known singer, overtaking public and virtual space. The Jina revolution, in its moment of conception and in its moment of proliferation, was a multitudinous “song” without an individual songwriter, and its reverberation transformed city spaces and homes.


Trans. note: this refers to an actual intersection in Tehran named “Hijab.”


Merrifield, The Politics of the Encounter: Urban Theory and Protest under Planetary Urbanization (University of Georgia Press, 2013), 55–56.


Hanafi, “The Arab Revolutions: The Emergence of a New Political Subjectivity,” Contemporary Arab Affairs 5, no. 2 (2012): 203.


Trans. note: Green was the campaign color of the major reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. He lost the dubious 2008 elections to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the major conservative candidate.


Trans. note: this is a distance covering over seventeen kilometers (about ten and a half miles), connecting two major squares in the city through a main avenue called Vali Asr.


Bayat, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Amsterdam University Press, 2010). 44.


Borges, The Aleph and Other Stories, 1933–1969 (E. P. Dutton, 1970), 10–11.


Rosaldo, “Toward an Anthropology of Self and Feeling,” in Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self, and Emotion, ed. R. A. Shweder and R. A. LeVine (Cambridge University Press, 1984).


Trans. note: for more on this, see L, “Women Reflected in their Own History,” e-flux Notes, October 14, 2022 .


Bayat, Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring (Stanford University Press, 2017).

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

Translated from the Farsi by Roozbeh Seyedi. Translation edited by Soori Parsa.

Aram is a feminist activist and researcher.


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