Social Justice Activism and Democratization from Within

The proposed panel focuses on the transitional, and potentially path-breaking, nodal points in contemporary Iran’s social history and political life, with a particular focus on the recent social and political movements, intellectual debates, and cultural shifts in the country. Each paper in this panel examines distinct and far-reaching sociopolitical and intellectual trends that continue to reshape contemporary Iran, despite the country’s rulers. They address the implications and lessons of the grassroots movements as well as public debates in Iran for the larger geopolitical shifts in the country. The panel proposes a shifting discourses in the country —namely, the expansion of non-violent movements and civil disobedience, the widespread demand for economic justice that cuts across the religious-secular divide, increased labour union activism, centrality of women’s movement, and the use of the Internet and social networking platforms. Mojtaba Mahdavi starts the panel with problematizing the complex and dialectical relationship between Iran’s structural and agential factors and how these two parallel and interrelated courses of action help or hinder democratization in contemporary Iran. His paper highlights the micro and macro processes through which the “birth of democracy from within” can be understood. Siavash Saffari explores the relationship between Iran’s public religion and socio-economic life, focusing his analysis on the “intersection of public expressions of faith and the rising demands for social and economic justice” in Iran. Victoria Tahmasebi outlines Iranian women’s leadership role in creating multiple sites of virtual civil societies. She underscores the epistemic shift, in women’s online activism, from “one dimensional articulation of the socio-political, to a conjunctural approach wherein different forms of inequality are read as realities-events that emerge and evolve with one another.” Peyman Vahabzadeh’s paper engages with the activism of select groups of younger generation activists whose works enable a co- and cross-articulation of social justice and democratic life. He paper concludes that “these actors adhere to a plurality of subject positions, advocate multiplicity of approaches, and employ minority views.”

Personal Information (Panel Organizer)

Victoria Tahmasebi-Birgani
University of Toronto


Room 33
Wed, 2016-08-03 16:00 - 17:30


by Victoria Tahmasebi / University of Toronto

Despite Iranian regimes excessive filtering of the internet, censoring and arresting online activists and bloggers, and issuing harsh prison sentences for these individuals, Iranian women’s online activism continues to target the social, political, cultural and economic inequalities and environmental crisis. These activities have brought the political mobilizing force of cyberspace, as well as the role of women in these movements, sharply into focus. This paper will propose that Iranian women are leading the way in creating multiple sites of virtual, and highly mobile “civil society” where the electronic flow of ideas and information is shaping the radical democratic aspirations of Iranians in content, method, philosophy, and aesthetics of resistance.
My research on selected social networks, created by Iranian women’s organizations and activists indicates Iranian women appropriate these platforms to imagine new radical, yet non-violent forms of activism as well as to craft a range of social-networking strategies to attain a variety of goals. Employing feminist critical content analysis, this research argues that Iranian women are moving away from one dimensional articulation of the “socio-political,” and are instead adopting a conjunctural approach wherein different forms of inequality are read as “realities-events” that emerge and evolve with one another. Therefore, these virtual platforms have become transient civil societies offering the participants a chance to identify, highlight and examine the intersections of various patterns of inequalities and form virtual conversations around these issues.

by Mojtaba Mahdavi / University of Alberta

From the 1906 Constitutional Revolution to the 2009 pro-democracy Green Movement, modern Iran has been one of the pioneers of progressive political changes in the region. Nonetheless, Iran’s long quest for social justice and democracy has yet to succeed.

The quest for a grand theory of socio-political change has given way to more specific theories based on particular context. Iran’s distinctive historical legacy and socio-political settings will shape its path toward social justices and democracy. This paper historicizes and contextualizes such legacies and socio-political settings. The paper problematizes the complex and dialectical relationships between structural and agential factors and how they help or hinder democratization in contemporary Iran. It provides an operational definition of structure and agency by subdividing each into three levels of analysis. The structural factors are measured by the nature of the Iranian state (political level), Iran’s uneven development (socio-economic level), and the global structure of power (international level). The agential factors, both in democratic and anti-democratic forces, are examined in terms of the leadership capability (individual level), the organizational strength (institutional level), and the intellectual discourse (cultural/ideological level).

The findings suggest that Iran’s future prospects for democratization equally depend on the structural “causes” and the socio-political “causers”. Iran’s long quest for social justice and democracy is surrounded by a number of domestic and international obstacles: they include Iran’s oil-centered rentier state, uneven social development, and the structure of the hegemonic global realpolitik. Moreover, the paper examines the weakness of the leadership, well-organized civil society institutions, and inclusive and engaging political discourses. Nevertheless, the radical changes in social structures, the epistemic shift in Iran’s political culture, the rise of pots-Islamist trends, and the factional politics at the top of the political establishment may well contribute to the birth of democracy from within.

by Peyman Vahabzadeh / University of Victoria

In light of the Green Movement of 2009, and as Iran moves toward normalization of its relations with the West, the issues arising from the country’s chronic maldevelopment are increasingly intensified. At the moment, the possibility of unhindering the growth of civil society imposed by the state and resolving the unending labour issues in the country seem dim. The prospects of a deep and total socioeconomic crisis appear vividly, when such facts as staggering social inequalities and massive poverty are viewed in the context of an irremediable ecological collapse through permanent loss of water resources, deforestation, desertification, and air, water, and land pollutions. Iranian activists are cognizant of these processes. While for over a decade a rather naïve view that appealed to human rights and citizenship as key to democratization prevailed over the public discourse, in light of latest developments, there remains no doubt that if the country is to be saved, it has to take the path of social justice and democratization, the path taken by several Latin American countries, Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Rojava or closer to home, Tunisia and Turkey. In light of this trajectory, this paper will offer the engagement of select groups of younger generation activists whose works enable a co- and cross-articulation of social justice and democratic life. These actors adhere to a plurality of subject positions, advocate multiplicity of approaches, and employ minority views. Their views, largely unstudied, hold the key to a new understanding of collective action in Iran.

by Siavash Saffari / Columbia University

There exists an emerging body of scholarship on public religiosity in contemporary Iran, analyzing the phenomenon in relation to the 1979 revolution and post-revolutionary social and political developments. Much less examined is the relationship between public religion and socio-economic life, and the (existing as well as potential) intersection between the public expressions of faith and the rising demands for social and economic justice. To examine this relationship, it is constructive to distinguish between charity work and popular mobilization as two distinct strategies employed by faith-based groups for negotiating economic justice. The latter approach, adopted by a range of religiously-oriented leftist intellectuals and organizations throughout the 1970s proved to be effective in the course of the formation and rise of the revolutionary movement. The synthesis of public religiosity and egalitarian ideals played an important role in mobilizing the economically disenfranchised masses, and this mobilization, in turn, compelled the new revolutionary state to take measures for creating a more equitable society. Since the early 1990s, however, the Islamic Republic has gradually moved away from its early pro-poor commitments, as evidenced by the various steps taken under the governments of Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Ahmadinejad toward economic liberalization and deregulation. While this shift has created the need to attend once again to the issue of economic justice, we have witnessed a decline in economic justice-oriented mobilizational activities by religious groups in post-revolutionary Iran. To investigate the causes of this decline, my paper examines a variety of factors including the effective appropriation by Islamist forces of the pro-poor discourses of religious and secular left throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, the difficulty of using the mobilizational capacities of religion to challenge the apparatus of a religious state, and the proliferation of charity work and religiously-oriented charities in Iran since the mid- and late-1990s. The paper further argues that the continuation of economic liberalization policies under the government of Rohani, and the unsustainability of the charity approach for realizing economic justice, will inevitably necessitate a revival of the mobilizational approach. In conclusion, a case is made that by articulating a contextually grounded and culturally situated discourse of socio-political and socio-economic justice, a radical and reformed Shi’i liberation theology can serve a vital role in linking together economically-oriented collective actions (i.e. labor union activism, and protests against price hikes and workers layoffs) and activism for democracy, citizenship rights, and gender equality in Iran.