Globe, the Geneva Graduate Institute Review
28 March 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 hijab-wearing Muslim victim versus white/white-identified Western saviour. The category of “Iranian women” in these discourses both reproduces an apolitical politics of the hijab that reifies Iran as an isolated location and castrates the many engagements and dream worlds of women living in Iran as agentive makers of politics. But when women in Iran support the Revolution, debate Islamic patriarchy and hijab, or challenge the colonial efforts of the Iranian state to suppress Kurdish demands, they create a rich field of political debate. It is worth noting that the slogan adopted by dissenting Iranians today – “Woman, Life, Freedom” – originated in the liberation struggle of Kurdish women in 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 by default 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 binary translations of Iranian politics 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. Such binary translations that situate Iran as a facsimile of a unified 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 and repudiate all forms of political violence against “Women, Lives, and Freedoms” in the plural. 

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 legal and doctrinal traditions we have no knowledge of, in insistent scenes of public debate and political action we barely recognise – only results in a projection of what we fear most, the 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 transnational form of convergence that brings the incommensurability of our experiences and coalitions more centrally to our feminist politics and resurgent power and dreams

This article was published in Globe #31, the Institute Review.