Woman, Life, Freedom : a misunderstood concept ?

We are now in the fifth month of the women-oriented movement “Woman, Life, Freedom” or the #Jina_Revolution (derived from the name of Jina “Mehsa” Amini). A movement that started in Kurdistan, then included the rest of Iran’s regions and spread to an extent that it attracted the attention of the people of the world. There has been a lot of global support for this movement, both from the people and from the media, from politicians and thinkers.

A kind of support that still continues thus far. The “Charlie Hebdo” magazine also published issues in support of this movement and published caricatures criticizing the oligarchy ruling class of Iranian clergy. But some of these cartoons were against the content and message of the women’s movement of Kurdistan and Iran, and therefore were criticized by some feminist activists, especially the feminists in Kurdistan.

Before addressing criticism towards Charlie Hebdo, I must spend some time to shed needed light on the Jina Movement itself and also explain the mechanism of how “power” functions in modern Iran. For without this short introduction, the critiques towards the Charlie Hebdo magazine could not be properly justified and explained.  

Control the women to control the people

The Jina Movement emphasizes the centrality of women in social change and development. As time passes, the discursive and epistemological nature of this movement deepens even further. But on the other hand, the patriarchal currents that still continue their activities with the same patrimonial reactionary thoughts, generate a serious effort to divert the movement and cut off its progressive and egalitarian features. Some of these currents have tried to reduce the effectiveness of the movement by creating reactionary slogans against the strategic slogan “Women, Life, Freedom” to weaken and even destroy its liberating and radical dimensions.

They only have a problem with the government system established in Iran, and they solely want to replace the current regime with another regime that will protect the interests of the new ruling class. In fact, they are not trying to change the current patriarchal, centrist, mononational and non-democratic social relations, but they just want to take control of power and government without any radical change in the social structure. The monarchists, pan-Iranists and religious fanatics such as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran are among these very groups. Although they do not have a significant following inside Iran, they have taken control of the media outside of Iran and have gained a much bigger voice than their actual weight. But the goal of the Jina Movement is far higher and greater than removing one group from power and replacing it with another group in their place.

In the meantime, it is very important to preserve the true core and nature of the movement, which is based on the complete equality of people on the basis of a women-centered movement. There are many reasons for basing the desire of social transformation on the axis of women, and I will limit myself to mention only two of previous-mentioned reasons :

  • As the French thinker Michel Foucault says, “power” always tries to dominate people’s bodies and applies and imposes its norms on the body through various physical and discursive means; because the control of the body has a direct relationship with the expansion of the sphere of “power”. Foucault sees power as something that is widespread in all relationships and areas of human life, where everything and everyone are in its constant motion[1]. Although, according to Foucault’s definition, power is not only defined in the definition of the government as the governing structure of the society, but without a doubt, government structures are among the most important factors that contribute to the power mechanisms that exercise control over the body. In Iran, even before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the monarchy had comprehensive programs to control the bodies of people, especially women, including the mandatory law of removing the hijab for women and wearing European-styled clothes and hats for men during the dictatorship of Reza Khan, the father of Mohammad Reza, whose government was overthrown in the 1979 revolution. The Islamic government of Iran also opted for the subjugation of the human body and especially women as one of the most fundamental pillars of its power expansion from the very beginning of its formation. This attempt was made through a religious Islamist reading in which women are considered to be a man’s property and honor, and men can dominate women and their bodies in any way they please. The imposition of the compulsory hijab law on the Iranian women’s society and the great effort to assimilate women, both in terms of clothing and in terms of worldview, were among the strategies of the new government to control women. In addition to using coercive and forceful power, they also tried to impose and institutionalize their religion-based laws on the society by using the mechanisms of the modern world such as the media and the education system.

  • On the other hand, the order governing the current world has been formed on the basis of patriarchy for thousands of years and still continues to exist. The main victim of this order has undoubtedly been “human equality“. Because it is based on the supremacy of the male over the female, and despite many legal reforms and social changes throughout history, mankind has still not been able to overcome the patriarchal-based structure. It is this that has led to the subjugation and deprivation of women from equal human rights throughout history, but this has not the only consequence. Institutionalization, postulation, and consequently taking human inequality for granted has exposed the entirety of human natural existence to face serious risks. This idea has made humans – it is clear that its means the male man who has dominated history – consider himself entitled to take any action to increase his power and pleasure. Granting authenticity to Added Value and Gross Domestic Product as a measure of economic development and adopting a Fordist economic approach – unlimited consumption for unlimited production – are one of the results of this inequality-seeking attitude by humans, which has now exposed the environment to destruction. Therefore, it can be said that no effort to overcome the super crisis facing humanity and save the planet will succeed unless it puts the principle of complete equality of human beings at the center of its discourse.

Currently, the social movement of Kurdistan and Iran with the light of knowledge shone on these facts, wants to destroy the current oppressive system and order and take steps towards the creation of a completely new world in accordance with the natural and fundamental human rights. Maybe this statement seems very idealistic, but we have no other way and we cannot save life except by fundamentally changing the way we live in the world.

In addition, the Jina Movement has the ability and capacity to establish such a radical action, because due to the fact that women have been the most oppressed class of human society, also have the greatest potential for human liberation. Insisting on women’s rights will put the movement on the right track of full human equality. All the great turning points in human history were initially considered idealistic and out of reach, so the radicalness of the goal does not mean that it is unachievable.

Furthermore, Iran’s former and current regimes have each tried to expand their power to the smallest layers of individual and social life in different ways. This practice, which was well ongoing in the period before the revolution of 1979, continued with more vigor and in a greater wave during the Islamic regime after the revolution. In current Iran, the process of controlling people has passed through the control of women’s bodies, and the government has tried to introduce women’s bodies as a taboo matter.

From the very beginning, Mullahs and the clergy described the previous government as an immoral and promiscuous regime that kept women away from their “chastity and virginity“. Therefore, they had to establish their rule by restoring their desired religious values to the society, and the most important part of this conquest came back to the issue of women. In fact, the change in the image and role of women in the new Iran became a manifestation of the power of the new regime.

Therefore, compulsory hijab was imposed on women’s heads and bodies, and their roles as household caretakers and mothers were strongly promoted and even sanctified. At first, a part of the women’s community resisted this anti-feminist trend, but they were not seriously supported by any of the political currents inside or outside of the state. The regime severely repressed them and constantly increased its misogynistic laws to even greater lengths.

With the passage of time and under the influence of the government’s ideological system, the society adapted itself to the values of the government for about two decades, and the social space became much more limited and difficult for women. In fact, it was not only the government that restricted and oppressed women, but the society did as well, which had a long history of patriarchy behind it, became a partner of the government in suppressing women. In such a way that in the public mentality of the people, women were a commodity belonging to men and any deviation of women from religious and male-oriented values were considered as an unforgivable crime. These developments intensified and deepened sexist schism and sexist literature and patriarchal behavior, and sexism thus expanded even more in the society. The situation was in such a state that matters pertaining to the issue of women, the opponents of the regime were not seriously different from the regime itself.

In Iran’s religiously-ingrained patriarchal system, the woman’s body became the epitome of vice and inferiority. Every negative thing and attribute is compared to a woman’s body, and a woman’s body is considered only if it fully conforms to the will of the government and the religiously-ingrained society.

A review of the Iran special issue of Charlie Hebdo

Nevertheless, since about two decades ago and as a result of social developments and women’s own struggles, this process in its social aspect slowed down to some extent and gradually the space for opposing the subjugation of women became more open. The women struggle ignited once again and this coincided with the gradual decline of the legitimacy belonging to the Islamic regime amongst its people. In the process of struggle, women correctly recognized that one of their main duties is to fight and reject sexism in all its forms, and they should not remain silent in front of any of the manifestations of sexist attitudes – be it action, speech, law or media representation, or let it pass by with a blind eye.

The experience of the 1979 revolution and its failure to achieve its goals has become a great experience for women. They have correctly understood that any neglect or tolerance towards issues related to women’s rights will lead to the reproduction of the old patriarchal order, and even if the current regime falls, we cannot have much hope for the institutionalization of human equality. This is why the radical part of the Iranian women’s movement made the fight against sexism one of its top priorities.

Thus, in the light of this very brief introduction, it should be considered if all the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo were consistent with the goals of the women’s movement of Iran and Kurdistan?

The cover of the January 4, 2023 issue of “Charlie Hebdo.”

Unfortunately, in some cartoons of this magazine, especially in the most famous of them, it shows the Mullahs and clergy going back into a woman’s stomach through her vagina, and this gives off an unsettling sexist viewpoint. In this caricature, the female body is once again represented as something inferior and low in status, as if the dictator Mullahs are only deserving to live in that low of a place. In another cartoon, Khamenei is shown with his clothes off and it is revealed that he has a female body. The “Tawar Collective”, which is one of the Kurdish feminist women’s collectives, wrote in this regard:

In one of the cartoons, mind you in France, which claims to defend women’s freedom and right to their bodies… Khamenei’s naked body is shown in the form of a woman’s body, which is stripped of its dignity and everyone sees her body (as if he has been dishonored) ). It is as if a woman’s body in itself is a source of shame and should not be seen. In fact, the apparently progressive Charlie Hebdoi directly repeats the Iranian government’s patriarchal discourse about the female body. In another cartoon, to convey the message of the fall of that regime, Mullahs are depicted returning to their mother’s vagina. In addition to the fact that the woman’s body was also targeted here, it was pretended that the European governments had no role in the establishment of this anti-feminist repressive government![2].

Cartoon by James, a UK-based cartoonist. JAMES

It can be safely said that the view of the designers and the editorial board of Charlie Hebdo magazine on the issue of women is still simplistic and lacks any kind of perspective and epistemological depth. They have reduced the support of the women’s movement of Kurdistan and Iran to a purely political support – that too in the everyday sense of politics. The reason for this issue should be sought in the lack or poverty of the epistemological foundation.

Understanding issues related to humanity requires pre-existing knowledge related to that issue, and in most cases this knowledge must be obtained from several branches of scientific approaches. Maybe they thought to themselves that in contrast to the mandatory hijab policy of the Iranian regime, a woman’s body should be shown without a hijab and naked, and we should not shy away from portraying female genitals. Even if we tolerantly accept this simplistic notion with the benefit of the doubt under the title of “de-tabooing the female body“, we still cannot ignore their lack of knowledge about the way it was represented. The meaning hidden behind the above-mentioned caricatures indicates the continuation of the sexualized look at the female body as a low and inferior thing.

Showing a naked woman alone cannot lead to the removal of taboos from the female body, but this work must be done in a non-sexist and positively contextual setting. It is questionable whether the people involved in Charlie Hebdo basically have any knowledge of the concept of sexism? If they have, then why have they reproduced the same attitude view?

Maybe their idea of a struggle is based on the logic of armed war; in war, whichever side has most and more effective weapons and ammunition will win. Does Charlie Hebdo think that with more and more blatant sexism, they can go to war against the sexism of the Mullahs and the clergy regime and win?! Don’t they really know that the logic of this struggle is very different from armed war and conflict, and repeating any sexist ideas or action will lead to the increase and reproduction of sexism in turn?

Such support for the women’s struggles of Kurdistan and Iran will not serve their movements best interests, but will in fact only strengthen the other anti-feminist authoritarian currents that are in opposition of the regime as well. The currents that, tomorrow after the fall of the Islamic Republic, will implement the plan to control human bodies and especially women’s bodies with complete authority, and thus the void cycle of the birth of a new dictatorship from the heart of the old dictatorship will continue. The Jina movement is still developing its discourse, because even some women and activists within the movement are still unable to recognize its true content and sometimes fall into the trap of conservative currents.

The progressive and radical composition of women activists in the Jina Movement have made a continuous and very challenging effort to institutionalize its basic concepts and to face the deviations and dangers ahead. We should not add to their problems under the title of “solidarity and support”, any kind of support for this movement first of all requires a complete understanding of its foundations and goals. This is not solely a protest movement against the status quo, but a radical social movement that wants to uproot the foundation of inequality and destroy the opportunity to reproduce oppression in newer forms. The Jina movement, which obviously has universal dimensions, is one of the great chances of mankind to understand the current multiple super-crises and find ways to deal with them.

Therefore, even when having daily comments and conversations about this movement, one should be very sensitive, because slipping and diverting from its foundations will lead to the reproduction of misogyny and the strengthening of the movement’s enemies and opponents.

The problem of the editors of Charlie Hebdo is not that they have a bad intention behind supporting this, but that they have no knowledge of the history of Kurdistan and Iran, and they have not understood the historical and philosophical roots of “Women, Life, Freedom” as they should. Furthermore, there is another universal problem, which is the weakening of philosophical and radical visions to change the human world. For several decades, the world order has been teaching us that there is no way to transition from the current order and that it is only within this order that it is possible to think about any change.

This limitation has caused humanity to no longer have big dreams and aspirations and to accept a set of incomplete hypotheses that are inconsistent with the principle of “human equality” as definitive and proven issues. For this reason, people often think about human phenomena with an incomplete mentality and stereotypical world view. Charlie Hebdo is one of the publications that has a high profile and has a significant impact on its audience, for this reason, the managers of this publication should first of all think more in-depth and sensitively about their subjects. Second of all, they should gradually strip themselves of the conservative covering and clichés and dare to think radically. Undoubtedly, the history of French thought can provide an opportunity for such a courageous act on their part!

Adnan Hassanpour

[1]. For information about this theory, go to:

Michel Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité, Paris, Gallimard, 1994 [1976]