faculty & experts
20 January 2023

Resurgence in Translation

Assistant Professor Umut Yildirim reflects on the protests occurring in Iran: how they are viewed through different lenses and how a more profound understanding of the people and their situation might be uncovered by thinking in a different way. 

The current uprising in Iran is thoroughly transnational, raising important questions about translation politics, beyond the tired binary of oppressed hijab-wearing Muslim victim versus liberate, white/white-identified Western saviour. The category of “Iranian women” in Euro-American discourses both reproduces an apolitical politics of the hijab that reifies Iran as an isolated location and castrates the many contested lives, political engagements, and dreamworlds of women living in Iran as agentive makers of politics. But when women in Iran support the Revolution, debate Islamic patriarchy and hijab, or support or challenge the colonial efforts of the Iranian state to suppress Kurdish voices and demands, they create a rich field of politics and debate. 

It is important to remember that the current Iranian regime colonially erases the power and presence of Kurdish women of all generations, whose drive and desire for liberation may not totally coincide with that of upper-class Persian women living in Tehran. It is worth noting that the slogan adopted by dissenting Iranians today – “Woman, Life, Freedom” – originated in the liberation struggle of Kurdish women organised around the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The problem with categories such as “Iranian women” is not only that this figure has historically been imagined in the “West” as oppressed and thus appreciable only when it rebels to political Islam, but also that it has been used to produce Iranian difference as an ontological dysfunction in need of rectification via “Free World” correctives.  

These translations of Iranian politics into Western binaries have been vitalised by a humanitarian redemption politics that hermeneutically seals off its obsession with women’s oppression in a chimerical Muslim world from backyard Western instances of religious fundamentalism, as when, after 50 years, Roe v Wade is overturned. This is not to argue that feminists who are obsessed as Masih Alinejad is with throwing off the hijab are not equally critical of the roll-back of access to abortion. This is to argue that such binary translations situating Iran as a generic facsimile of a unified and politically dangerous Muslim world with an Orientalising twist erase the varied factors that shaped it: transnational, intersecting, and contested colonial-imperial histories that give breath to various registers of religious fundamentalism in Iran and beyond; herstories that question, critique, and repudiate all forms of political violence against “Women, Lives, and Freedoms” in the plural. 

How to think, not just on, but through Iran? How can Iran be turned into a location-based but location-unbound analytic?*  Celebrating so-called revolutions in countries we have little knowledge of – spoken in colonial and minoritarian languages we don’t speak about, challenges to deep-rooted spiritual, legal, and doctrinal traditions we have no knowledge of, in contested and insistent scenes of public debate and political action we barely recognise – only results in a projection of what we fear most: suppression of our own liberties and tacit consent to the suppression of the liberties of those living beyond our comfort zones. This “Iran as analytic” gestures towards a critical understating of contemporary workings of the coloniality of power as they are effected today through a transnational world order. The political strategies and aesthetics of such an Iran as analytic might be considered a transnational form of convergence that brings the incommensurability of our geopolitical, racialised, gendered, sexual and classed experiences and coalitions more centrally to our feminist politics and resurgent power and dreams. 

Here I take my cue from Loubna Qutami’s proposal to turn Palestine into an analytic that illustrates the coloniality of power as well as sedimented and contested journeys of transnational movement building (2014). Qutami, Loubna. “Rethinking the Single Story: BDS, Transnational Cross Movement Building and the Palestine Analytic,” Social Text, Periscope dossier special issue: Circuits of Influence: US, Israel, Palestine, published June 17, 2014 ; accessed January 08, 2023,