🎭 Protests in Iran show how democratic change requires solidarity

To achieve systemic change, it is essential to connect self-transformations. By exploring the recent protests in Iran, Zohreh Khoban makes the case for social bonds created through solidarity

Being different, together

In his thought-provoking foundational blog post, Hans Asenbaum suggests that we need to transform ourselves to transform society. He argues that by recognising our own diversity and transformability, we can uncover paths towards systemic change.

Self-transformation certainly seems a promising route to initiating systemic change. I believe that by exploring our inner multiplicity, and performing alternative identities, we can indeed challenge the status quo.

But to achieve systemic change, we need social bonds and mutual support across identities and social groups. Without it, the alternative identities and ways of life, and their inherent political claims, risk becoming isolated and toothless.

The social bond of democracy

Strong social bonds may seem counterproductive from a democratic perspective. While (radical) democracy requires dissensus and continuous resistance to hierarchies, proponents of strengthening social bonds have often emphasised cohesion based on history, tradition, or a prevailing national culture or constitution.

But social bonds are not necessarily conservative and inhibitory. In my current work (in progress), I explore solidarity as a form of connectedness that can press individuals and groups together without obstructing social and political renewal.

Solidarity is a social bond motivated by a common cause or a common fate. The philosopher Rahel Jaeggi points out that we shouldn't equate solidarity with the shallower common interest of a coalition. Nor should we equate it with the unconditional dedication and subordination that often underlies loyalty. Instead, she argues, solidarity is a non-hierarchical relation. It is created and expressed by people who relate their situation to the situation of others by recognising their own fate in the fate of the other. I believe solidarity is democracy-promoting because it allows people to identify for themselves who 'they' are and what unites them. As Jaeggi argues,

There is no hidden essence of collective identity out of which solidarity will automatically arise

solidarity and indifference, Solidarity in Health and Social Care in Europe

At the same time, solidarity binds people in a way that has enormous potential to turn sparks of resistance into a fire, and bring about systemic change.

Woman, Life, Freedom

Last year’s protests in Iran were sparked by the death in custody of Jina Mahsa Amini. They are a perfect example of the disruptive potential of solidarity between identities and social groups. Of course, Iranian women were at the forefront of the protests. But the men who joined them recognised women’s fight for equality and freedom as their own. These men saw that the oppression of women puts limits on their own freedom.

Iranian men recognised women’s fight for freedom as their own. They saw that the oppression of women puts limits on their own freedom

The protests started in Saqqez, Jina’s Kurdish hometown. Yet, Arabs, Baloch, and Azeriz soon joined the Kurds in voicing outrage against the regime. Protesters in the capital and across Iran echoed their slogans. They were chanted by students, teachers, writers, artists, factory workers, LGBTQ+ individuals, and many more.

The most dominant slogan, Woman, Life, Freedom, emphasises the interconnection of oppressions, and is a call for solidarity. Originating from the Kurdish women’s movement, the slogan encapsulates the idea that the freedom of women is essential for the freedom of all society.

Given the current regime’s brutal repression and violence, systemic change in Iran might take some time. But more clearly than ever, the question is no longer if, but when.

Self-transformation plus solidarity

One of the main reasons I enjoy living in London is that people in the city perform identities that demonstrate alternative ways of being and living. Examples are identities expressed by ethnic minorities, for instance at the Notting Hill Carnival, and identities that challenge gender stereotypes and the nuclear family. People dare to be different in defiant and eye-opening ways, and that makes me want to dare to do so, too.

Self-transformation is powerful, especially when a group of people comes together to enact it. But if systemic change is the ultimate goal, self-transformation, understood as the act or process of transforming oneself, is not sufficient. We must also build social bonds across identities and differences – ideally by creating and acting in solidarity with different others.

Without solidarity, the political claims made by those performing alternative identities risk being isolated within those groups

Without solidarity, the political claims made by those performing alternative identities risk being isolated within those groups. The interdependencies and relations that connect us with others, and that could generate joint resistance, risk going unnoticed. This would limit the possibilities of societal transformation.

Solidarity in dark times

Building solidarity in times of vulnerability, individualism, and competitiveness is not easy. In this light, we might also want to consider other, perhaps shallower, or more strategic ways of joining forces. An example is a coalition that forms to achieve a certain goal, and which ends when it realises that goal. Nevertheless, I cannot imagine a more democratic and forceful social bond than the one that rests on the recognition of our own fate in the fate of different others. As the protests in Iran show, such bonds make us stronger and help us fight for more.

No.6 in a Loop series on 🎭 Democratic Transformations

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Zohreh Khoban
Zohreh Khoban
Senior Research Fellow, University of Southampton

Zohreh's research interests lie in the theory and practice of democracy.

More specifically, she draws on critical and feminist theories to study representation, knowledge, power, and solidarity in democratic processes and institutions.

Her most recently published research article is a feminist defence of randomly selected political assemblies.


She tweets @ZohrehKhoban

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