The Revolt in Iran Is Rallying Its Diverse Working Class

The Jina revolution in Iran has seen powerful solidarity between women demanding freedom, oil worker unions, and minorities. Far from the elite reformism of diaspora opposition leaders, the revolt in Iran expresses the radicalism of a diverse working class.

A group of women protest against wearing the veil, while spinning their veils in the air, outside the prime minister’s offices, July 6, 1980, Tehran, Iran. (Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images)

Protesting crowds, clapping and chanting azadi, azadi, azadi, surround a police car, pushing it until the vehicle tips over. A girl with a covered face, her hair in a tight ponytail, climbs on the car and holds up a black scarf she has set alight. Amid the flames, the garment turns red and disappears, as the crowd continues to chant the word for “freedom.”

In a statement on International Women’s Day, the Council for Organizing Contact Oil Workers’ Strikes wrote in solidarity with women burning their veils in cities all over Iran. They spoke of the unity of their cause: “we all know that for the regime, religion, gendered discrimination and violence, under the banner of the compulsory veil, are tools for the depredation and oppression of not only women, but also us workers and all the people who live in the vast country of Iran. Compulsory veiling must be dismantled — and we protest any form of discrimination and inequality.”

The Women, Life, Freedom revolution, ignited by the brutal state murder of Kurdish woman Jina (Mahsa) Amini last September, has been a political high point, bringing together a variety of popular struggles against the government. Also known as the Jina revolution, it has become the most remarkable challenge to the Islamic Republic since its formation in 1979. For the first time, the political demands of not only women, but the working class, ethnic and religious minority groups, and LGBTQ individuals have been made visible. This has also impacted the demands of the Left and the relations among the different movements of which it is composed.

The Women, Life, Freedom revolution has seen unprecedented acts of solidarity between different grassroots movements, of which the alliance between oil workers and women protesters is only one example. A historical expression of this solidarity came on February 14, when twenty independent Iranian-based trade unions and civil organizations issued a joint charter of demands.

The text expressed their desires for a new political system, created through the direct participation of communities who have been oppressed and marginalized not only by the current Islamic Republic but also by the monarchist governments that preceded it. The cosignatories ranged from significant labor movement forces — including the Council for Organizing Contact Oil Workers’ Strikes and the Haft Tappeh Sugar Factory Workers’ Union — to students’, teachers’, pensioners’, and women’s organizations.

Foregrounding pluralistic representations of the working class, the charter embodies a historical paradigm shift for the Iranian left. It expresses a new kind of left-wing politics that explicitly emphasizes the struggles not only of workers from a variety of industries, but also of women, LGBTQ individuals, and the ethnic and religious communities labeled “minorities” by state policy. It is a politics that also integrates the impact of the climate crisis and the government’s mismanagement of the country’s natural resources.

“The Female Speaker”

Flare towers spitting fire into the clear sky, the smell of oil penetrating the nose of every living being, and a sea of workers moving toward the oil company headquarters. May Day 1946 marked the beginning of contemporary labor politics in Iran. The recently established oil towns of Abadan and Khorramshahr in Khuzestan, in the south of the country, had seen the most widespread labor strikes since the beginning of the oil industry in 1909.

At first, the strikes aimed at economic concessions, namely better wages and housing for Bakhtiyari and Arab workers. But these concessions soon evolved into a demand for political rights, informed by the workers’ collective understanding that labor conditions could only truly improve once the colonial Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was broken up.

In between the sound of determined footsteps, “she” — forever documented in British colonial archives as a “female speaker” — climbs her way up to the entrance of the headquarters’ main building. Holding onto one of the monumental white pillars, I imagine her wearing a red scarf. The crowd falls quiet as she raises her scarf like a flag and waves it above the sea of workers all dressed in ultramarine. She calls for full nationalization: “because equal pay for equal work is only possible through the nationalization of the oil industry.”

The British colonial officer who documented this moment reflects on it in horror — not only because of the decolonial threat posed by the oil workers’ strikes, but the fact that she was a woman advocating for working-class struggles. Yet, despite the fear she struck into the hearts of those in power, she is largely absent from leftist narratives of the oil workers’ struggle against various forms of colonial and later state oppression. She is nameless in colonial accounts; she is relegated to the background even in the oil fiction that emerged from the region (a literary genre also referred to as the Southern School of Fiction, encompassing various novels and short stories set in the south of Iran, with narratives shaped by the specific characteristics of the south and the presence of the oil industry).

Her fate is rather typical of the political and social activism of women in contemporary Iran. This activism has been either completely neglected or historicized strictly in terms of upper-class women struggling in the imaginary, isolated domain of women’s rights, framed as completely separate from working-class struggles. In contrast, labor activism is predominantly represented by the singular masculine figure of the oil worker.

Indeed, the oil workers’ strikes that started in 1946 resulted in the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry and the eventual departure of all colonial forces in 1951. Oil workers’ strikes also contributed greatly to the success of other historical turning points such as the 1979 revolution, which explains the overrepresentation of the figure of the oil worker.

Through her presence at the May Day strikes of 1946, the figure of the nameless “female speaker” provokes the overrepresentation of the masculine oil worker and exposes how the divide between the political activism of women and workers has been challenged on the ground since the very birth of contemporary labor politics in Iran. However, the divide between what is framed as “women’s rights” versus “workers’ rights” can, to a certain extent, be seen in the activism of the different movements that have constituted the Iranian left since the 1979 revolution.

Movements on the Iranian Left

Following the creation of the Islamic Republic in 1979, hundreds of leftist political activists who had participated in the revolution against the Pahlavi monarchy were arrested, executed, and banned from working and studying by the Islamist factions who appropriated the revolution to their advantage. Subsequently, the creation and political participation of any organization or party that explicitly identified as “leftist” was banned by the Islamic Republic.

However, the criminalization of such activists did not begin with the creation of the Islamic Republic. The ban on left-wing political parties can be traced back to 1931, during the reign of the first Pahlavi monarchy. Throughout the Pahlavi reign, left-wing activism fluctuated between formally legal and illegal statuses. But the vilification of left-wing groups and workers’ organizations striving for working-class political rights has been continuous since the early period of the first Pahlavi monarchy, up to the present.

In the early twentieth century, left-wing activists were characterized as advocates of Russian imperialism and communist expansion. In the current Jina revolution, this demonization continues as monarchist, right-wing, and liberal factions of the opposition dismiss the activism of workers and other communities, calling them “separatists” and “communists.” These activists have even been labeled as “followers of Lenin,” even when communist and Marxist-Leninist ideologies are far from the realities of the leftist movements that have emerged on the ground since 1979.

Through the wave of executions of political prisoners through the 1980s and the end of the Iran-Iraq War, left-wing movements retreated. It was not until the 1990s when moderate and later reformist factions of the Islamic Republic took power that the political sphere slightly opened, leading to a resurgence of the local Iranian left.

Ever since, the Left has sustained its activities by means of different “movements” (jonbesh in Farsi), though these, too, have origins that can be traced back to the Pahlavi era, before the 1979 revolution. They encompass a variety of independent organizations of students, pensioners, women, or workers; they may not explicitly identify as left-wing or socialist, but foreground conventionally left-wing causes, such as the right to fair wages, free housing, education, and health care.

Despite these movements’ foregrounding of connected struggles, the solidarity between them had not hitherto come to the surface. Yet, the Jina revolution did not sprout overnight, either; rather, it was preceded by events such as the Deymah Uprising of 2017 and Bloody Aban (2019–2020). These, too, emerged from the working class, pointing to earlier examples of solidarity among different movements of the broader left.

Enghelab Street Girls

In 2017, mass working-class protests began in Mashhad, in the northeast of Iran, and soon spread all over the country. The protesters chanted slogans such as “reformists and hardliners, your time is over!” By denouncing the two major political wings of the Islamic Republic’s political superstructure, the protesting masses showed that they would not hold back from calling for its overthrow. The protesters displayed their collective understanding that better labor and living conditions can only be guaranteed through direct political participation, which is only possible by demolishing the entire Islamic Republic.

One day before the start of this so-called Deymah Uprising, a woman by the name of Vida Movahed climbed on a utility box in a crowded street in central Tehran called Enghelab, which in Farsi means revolution. Protesting against discriminatory laws that enable and justify violence against women, Vida took off her white headscarf and waved it above the sea of crowds passing by. She was arrested shortly after. But following in her footsteps, from December 2017 until March 2019, women all over Iran took to the highly surveilled public space, taking off and waving their headscarves as silent signs of anti-government protest. The girls took the enghelab to all corners of the country and were soon referred to as the Enghelab Street Girls.

They soon traded their white scarves for red ones, raising red flags to show their connection with the workers who had taken to the streets during the Deymah Uprising. Showing that their struggles are interconnected, the Enghelab Street Girls understood that neither workers’ rights nor the liberation of women and LGBTQ individuals can be realized under the current government. While many parts of the upper classes remained silent about the government’s brutalities, content with reform instead of regime change, the Enghelab Street Girls’ red scarves symbolized that they will not settle for anything less than revolution.

The Jina Revolution

The Enghelab Street Girls’ red scarves signify the women’s movement’s solidarity with the workers’ movement. We often see this union, but since the start of the Women, Life, Freedom revolution, expressions of solidarity among different movements reached new heights. Workers’ collectives, such as the Council for Organizing Contact Oil Workers’ Strikes and Haft Tappeh Sugar Factory Workers’ Union, were quick to show their solidarity with the women protesting on the streets. These unions also organized strikes not only in solidarity with fellow workers who had taken action in other industries and sectors, but also in support of the protests on the streets — protests that started in Jina’s hometown of Saqqez, Kurdistan.

Signs of solidarity among different communities participating in the Jina revolution have taken many forms: Farsi-speaking protesters chanting in Kurdish, protesters in Zahedan voicing their solidarity with their Kurdish brothers, and workers’ explicit references to the state’s gendered violence. Through such signs of solidarity, these communities and different movements communicate with each other, creating an ever-evolving revolutionary web that deviates from the masculine, oil-centered conceptualizations of activism.

There are surely reasons for the overrepresentation of oil workers as the only politically impactful part of the working class. It can be explained through historical examples of their strikes feeding or generating change on a national scale. Yet, the economic and political climate in which oil workers acquired their status as representatives of the broader working class differs greatly from the current context.

Indeed, while Iran’s economy is still highly oil-dependent, this is not eternal and unchanging. Rather, the redivision of the labor force, the wider neoliberalization of the Iranian economy since the 1990s, and foreign sanctions have resulted in the diversification of the national economy. This has meant a move away from the rentier, oil-based economy associated with the last years of the shah’s reign, and toward new forms of rent.

This neoliberal division of labor has itself been appropriated by the Islamic Republic to further exert power over the working class. In the oil industry for example, permanent workers are granted the status of employees (karmand in Farsi) of the national oil company — meaning that to be hired they need to go through a screening process that determines whether their beliefs align with those of the government or not. This also means that once the individual workers are employed, they are excluded from labor law and do not have the right to unionize or strike.

Here, the permanent workers are not only deprived of their political rights but separated from other parts of the workforce — namely, the contract workers and the reserve workforce. In this sense, the Islamic Republic’s use of the division of labor typical of the neoliberalized capitalist global economy, and the stratification of the workforce in order to increase surveillance, has changed the forms of labor activism. The direct sabotage of core oil infrastructure, which has historically brought great political changes, is no longer similarly possible. Today’s activism instead arises from multiple epicenters of a fragmented workforce and a diversified economy. It can be seen as a revolutionary web, rather than a sole figure that sabotages energy production.

Demands and Opposition

In the joint charter of basic demands, the authors acknowledge that the “transgressive protest” which developed into the Jina revolution “emerged from the fabric of [previous] widespread and progressive movements,” referring to the recent yet rich history of activism by the workers’ movement, the women’s movement, etc. They write,

Today, the flag of protest against structural injustice is carried by women, students of universities, primary schools, high schools, teachers, workers, justice-seekers, artists, LGBTQ+ individuals, writers, and the broader community of oppressed peoples in Iran. This flag is being raised from various corners of the country, from Kurdistan to Sistan and Baluchestan, and has obtained unprecedented international support. It is a protest against misogyny and gender-based discrimination, economic instability, the modern enslavement of the workforce, poverty, distress, class violence, and nationalist, centralist, and religious oppression. It is a revolution against any form of tyranny, whether it be under the pretext of religion or not; any form of tyranny that has been inflicted upon us, the majority of the people of Iran.

Laying bare the entanglements of economic instability, feminist struggles, and the government’s political oppression, this joint charter expresses a collective desire to reshape politics from below. Its aim to formulate grassroots revolutionary demands also runs counter to the approach of the “Iranian Oppositional Coalition.” Also created in light of the Jina revolution, this latter consists of North American and European-based Iranian elite figures who claim to represent their compatriots on the international stage. It does not include any left-wing representation, consisting entirely of members who hold either liberal and right-wing agendas or those who identify as “apolitical.”

Prior to the creation of the joint charter of demands, workers’ communities, Kurdish and Baloch communities, and Iran-based feminist activists had already published a number of statements declaring that the Iranian Oppositional Coalition and the figures who belong to it do not represent them. A banner, held by protesters in Zahedan (where most of the Baloch community lives) reads, “Reza Pahlavi is not our representative. We have our own political parties. Understand that.”

Reza Pahlavi, the son of Iran’s last shah (whose government was overthrown in 1979), is one of the members of the Iranian Oppositional Coalition who has declared himself the representative of the Iranian people. Other members of this coalition include Masih Alinejad, a liberal feminist who is associated with multiple right-wing politicians in Europe; Nazanin Boniadi, a British-Iranian actress; and Hamed Esmaeilion, a Canada-based dentist whose politics are not always clear but can mostly be defined as liberal.

The coalition issued its first joint message on January 1, 2023, which was met with criticism by Iranians inside the country, as well as in the diaspora. At the time of its creation, the coalition did not include representatives from any minority ethnic community in Iran. All representatives are ethnically Fars and from the upper classes. The coalition’s members as well as media outlets — such as Iran International and Manoto, affiliated with conservative and right-wing figures and governments — insist on foregrounding this group of celebrities as the only representatives of a single Iranian people. Criticism of the elitist character of the coalition’s members, their lack of engagement with labor and LGBTQ activism, and their focus on lobbying with Western powers is compounded by the reality that none of these figures are based inside Iran and, thus, cannot be familiar with the struggles on the ground.

Yet, this coalition remains overrepresented as the supposed voice for Iranians opposed to the government. The reason for that lies in the West’s lack of understanding of the complex makeup of the opposition, and the ongoing erasure of left-wing voices by diaspora Iranian media sources, as well as by the Islamic Republic’s own.

In contrast to this ineffectual elite body, the February 14 joint charter of demands consists of twelve principles, ranging from the prohibition of issuing or executing death verdicts to “the prohibition on the enforcement of patriarchal control.” Also included are demands for workers’ safety and for infrastructure allowing minority communities, such as Arab, Kurd, Baloch, and Lur peoples, to practice their languages and cultures — ones bloodily crushed by the Islamic Republic as well as by nationalist monarchists in the name of “centralization.”

Yet, while the charter does mention minority-language rights and explicitly refers to Kurdistan and Baluchestan — two regions on the front lines of the Jina revolution — it is remarkable that no Kurdish, Baluch, Arab, Azeri or any other ethnic-minority representation appears among the twenty independent unions and organizations that issued the joint charter.

Despite this limit, and the fact that the demands still need further concretization, this charter remains an unprecedented manifesto for a popular politics arising from the different corners of Iran.

These demands are core tenets from which the revolutionary web — the web that binds together all the red scarves and flags held by a variety of people over the course of the last centuries — can grow. This was the same unity that emerged when Jina’s mother chanted “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi, [woman, life, freedom]” at her daughter’s funeral in Saqqez, but had been simmering long before.

The Jina revolution is not feminist only because it was initiated by women denouncing the government’s gendered violence, but also because it moves away from the kind of political activism that depends on the leadership of one singular masculine figure, whether meaning the oil worker or the man in power. It is a feminist revolution against patriarchal political systems contingent upon the will of singular figures. It brings together multiple communities and movements in a web that embodies the diversity of today’s working class and its demands.