Editors’ note: We are reprinting a speech by Somayeh Kargar that she gave in early August 2023 at the Afghanistan Women’s Studies Academy. Somayeh Kargar is a former political prisoner in Iran. She was arrested in October 2020 (just before the first anniversary of the November 2019 uprising). She was charged with establishing and running the Osyan1 Women's Collective and acting for the Communist Party of Iran (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist). Her co-defendants had included Nahid Taghavi, Mehran Raouf, and Bahareh Soleimani. She was in solitary confinement in Evin Prison for months and then transferred to Qarchak Prison. Her lawyers' vigorous defense of her, and proof that she could not physically tolerate imprisonment due to acute illness, led to her release and her case being closed. Her speech was translated and edited for publication by revcom.us volunteers.
One important reality which has brought us here today—a cross-section of women's activists—is the reality of the return of the Taliban to power. How will this affect the lives of the people of Afghanistan, and women in particular? The ramifications of the return of the Taliban are not just limited to Afghanistan. The growth and the spread of religious fundamentalism is occurring all over the world. The addition of a fundamentalist Islamic state, in addition to the Islamic Republic [of Iran], has widespread implications for the region and the world. The question is how to understand this problem and how to deal with it.
I will address two points on the topic of this panel that represent the predominant approach to this problem in the world today: first, “what are the implications of the term “marginalized,” and second, what are the underlying assumptions of an “alliance.”
1. Implications of the Word “Marginalized”
Let me start by saying that replacing accurate political words such as “oppressed” with words like “marginalized” has a specific political content. The term “marginalized” is not merely a word: it involves presuppositions that write off class interests. It is anti-Marxist, much like the rest of the convoluted innovations of post-modernism and post-structuralism. Also, it is an important tool in the hands of governments and liberal think tanks of the capitalist system.
For example, they talk about the “marginalization of women” instead of oppression of women, or about “marginalization of Black people” rather than the oppression of Black people. This formulation is an outgrowth of the theory that “the majority are at the margins” and a “minority is at the center.” Therefore, the problem is defined as the relegation of certain social groups—women, different sexual and gender orientations, oppressed national minorities—to the margins of the existing sociopolitical system. Therefore it concludes that the solution to this problem is for these social groups to move from the “margin” to the “center” [within the existing system]. Such an analysis is counter to reality, and the solutions derived from it are reformist and reactionary!
The fact of the matter is that the capitalist system, in its various forms, is dominant throughout the entire world. It produces and reproduces these social oppressions and class hierarchies because they are essential to [its functioning]. These oppressive social relations can never be ended within the framework of this system, because the source of the production and reproduction of these oppressions is the capitalist system itself! It is what connects the oppressed—by sexuality, gender, nationality, the exploited classes—to each other and to humanity as a whole and even to the devastation of [the environment]. It is the system of capitalism-imperialism in its various forms—a worldwide system dominated by countries like the United States, European countries, China and Russia—that inter-connects the whole world, including Iran and Afghanistan.
The ruling governments and the capitalist system in general, use a variety of mechanisms to produce and reproduce these oppressive social relations, as well as to prevent the revolt of the oppressed masses against their exploitation and oppression. The backbone of these governments is their repressive security and military forces. They also require an ideology that rationalizes oppression, to fully utilize these repressive forces. Eliminating the word “revolution” and replacing it with the notion of “transitional justice” is part of this! Transitional justice is an imperialist technique for effecting regime change, without overthrowing [the regime]. The U.S. implemented this in the Doha talks with the Taliban, and now they're testing it out on the Islamic Republic.
It is within such a framework that [pro-U.S. monarchist] Reza Pahlavi and part of the Iranian opposition are pushing forward transitional justice, and using it to reassure and gain the support of the Western imperialists. We experienced “transitional justice” in Iran when the Islamic Republic replaced the Shah, and we continue to live with what that set in motion. I stress that “regime change without overthrow” means that they will continue to make use of the existing reactionary forces. The Doha Talks with the Taliban was an application of such a “solution.” The reactionary NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]—hirelings and flunkies of imperialism—along with the Taliban and Ashraf Ghani's regime were all pushing for that “solution.” In fact, the NGO projects were little more than an auxiliary to the prosecution of the war and occupation in Afghanistan.
As I said, capitalism constantly uses very diverse mechanisms to produce and reproduce oppression. This includes turning some from among the oppressed into its servants and flunkies, in order to convince people that the system can be reformed. That is how this system is able to recruit social reformers and political brokers from among all sections of society.
Let's look at some examples. Everyone remembers the Doha Talks with the Taliban. Everyone has heard that the one of the biggest achievements of the Round Table Talks with the Taliban was the participation of some of these women servants of the system around the table with the Taliban. On the other hand, one of the most prevalent criticisms of these Talks was that not enough women were present, that they had only a token presence—as if the content could be decided by gender alone!
Another example: for two decades after the massacre and suppression of the revolutionaries in Iran, a number of secular men and women allied with the reformist wing of the regime, launched the “One Million Signatures Campaign” to take advantage of the so-called “powers” in provisions of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic. But the same secularists who enthusiastically championed this project were promoting the reactionary pragmatism of “situational feminism,” in order to win over young women who were prepared to rebel against the Islamic Republic and its compulsory hijab. “Situational feminism” simply means that when you are raped, if you aren’t stronger than your rapist, stop resisting and submit to the rape. They stopped young women from rebelling against the compulsory hijab and instead preached “organization from below” that encouraged “organizing religious rituals with a feminist flavor”—gatherings of women around a “votive meal” [to share their feelings].
The Islamic Republic, from top to bottom, works to mobilize people around backwardness and superstition. But at certain times, it needs to unite with these so-called seculars when their help is needed to achieve its objectives. In fact, along with their ongoing use of armed repression, they sometimes also need the “velvet glove” and “soft” tongue of the petty-bourgeoisie and the intellectuals who articulate their interests. Some men and women of Iranian descent in Western universities also teach this type of reactionary pragmatism as a “women’s innovation”!
Of course the actual explosive potential of women was on full display during the spectacular Jina uprising that upended many of the political and cultural norms in Iran. We all know about this, so I won’t elaborate further. On the other hand, this uprising has been full of bourgeois-democratic illusions. Probably many of you saw Sarina Esmailzadeh's short videos. Sarina was an early victim of the Jina uprising. She was killed by the Islamic Republic's mercenaries at the age of 16. In her video she talked about her dreams saying “I know that in the world, there's an Ethiopia and a Los Angeles, and because I am a perfectionist, I prefer Los Angeles."
One can talk and write for hours about her brief comment. Our young uprising-generation must come to understand that it was neither the people in Ethiopia nor the people in Los Angeles who arranged their lifestyle. It is this global capitalist system that causes these terrible divisions within and among different societies around the world. In Los Angeles, a wide-swath of people lead parasitic lives, and in Ethiopia the majority of people lead meager lives, if they don’t outright die. They are always affected by the devastating wars that arise due to competition among world powers. Our Sarinas need to know that the relative well-being of the majority of the people of Los Angeles is the result of child labor in Congolese cobalt mines and Bangladeshi textile factories, etc.
These are facts of our world that cannot simply be wished away. The dream of many young people in Iran that found expression in this uprising, is to achieve the “democracy and prosperity” that exists in Western countries. But what about those countries? The continuing existence of the capitalist system requires imperialism. And what these countries—the U.S. in particular—spread around the world is not democracy, but rather the political, economic, social and military framework needed to maintain the capitalist-imperialist system. Never in history and nowhere in the world has bourgeois democracy ever been able to eliminate the oppression of women, and other social oppressions. And today we are witnessing the intensification of the oppression of women in every corner of the world, even in the heart of the bourgeois democracies. We need to cast away illusions. Capitalism’s best-case scenario is the promise of formal equality side-by-side with actual economic and social inequality. This is one of the main characteristics of capitalism most often trumpeted by democratic intellectuals.
Let me give you a third example: Iraqi Kurdistan. In Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, NGOs have always been an important lever of U.S. imperialism to neutralize the revolutionary potential of movements of women, students, workers and oppressed nationalities, etc. When U.S. imperialists talk about “civil society," what they mean is the forces networked around NGOs. Their objective is to undermine social movements that are not only against the ruling governments in each country but also take a stand against the imperialist powers. Their other objective is to establish a social and political beachhead [for imperialism] in these societies.
After the fall of Saddam's regime in Iraq, the U.S. government repeatedly invited Iraqi women—Kurdish and non-Kurdish—to come to the U.S. so they could receive “democracy training.” One such [NGO] was the “American Enterprise Institute,” an extremely misogynistic, right-wing, racist organization that has cloned counterparts in Iraq and in Kurdistan. These projects help to create a new stratum of female intellectuals to serve as a social base for the U.S. imperialists. U.S. imperialism has a department for “democracy, civil rights and labor” that makes use of some extremely misogynist and conservative forces in countries under U.S. domination. They create NGOs that can induce people to replace their social struggles with “lobbying” in order to bring “the marginalized” into “the center.”
The role of NGOs was highly promoted during the 20 years of U.S. imperialist rule over Afghanistan. But they had virtually no effect on Afghan women’s understanding of emancipation and how to achieve it. Instead, what they did was to lower sights, and limit women to working within to the framework of the system. This kind of negative polarization continues, as can be seen in the kinds of struggle being waged against the Taliban, and especially in the struggle against the oppression of women.
This takes two prominent forms in the struggle for women’s right to education: seeking a solution within the framework of the existing system and begging the Taliban for concessions. Then, when conditions disintegrate, they adjust by lowering their sights, a method that can never lead to the realization of their demands. The second approach is to say that nothing can ever change without revolution which in practice translates to waiting passively for the arrival of that revolution-day—which incidentally will never come if today’s struggles are not linked to the cause of revolution, and waged on the basis of building a movement for revolution.
2. The Underlying Assumptions of Alliance
My second point is about “unity/alliance.” First, you have to ask for whom and for what? Clarifying the goal, or “for what purpose,” is very important. As I said in the example of the One Million Signatures Campaign, that alliance was never about going up against a regime that rests on the pillar of the compulsory hijab. Instead, they tried to prevent women from targeting the government of the Islamic Republic in their struggle for women's emancipation. From this and other examples, we can see that it is also possible to form reactionary women’s alliances.
So before making any alliance and/or calling for unity, we need to determine its content. Otherwise, the effort will be worthless and futile. No alliance can be discussed without clarifying the content of that alliance, its framework and its purpose. These are the ABCs of taking any step toward unity.
In fact, all of the preceding discussion about “marginalization” and “NGOs” and “civil society,” etc., proves that the content of alliance is a very crucial question. Even an alliance with a goal that is short of a revolution, one that focuses merely on resistance against oppression, must remain completely outside of the system’s existing framework and its corresponding way of thinking. Clarity on this approach to unity can make everything we do today serve to help building a movement for revolution.
Take the example of the Osyan (Rebellion) [collective of women from Iran and Afghanistan]. What's the content of our unity? Our alliance exists to organize a revolt against the male supremacist/patriarchal oppression that focused against the compulsory hijab in Iran. But our outlook in this struggle is not identity-based, because this oppression is linked to other oppressive social relations and even to the destruction of the environment. All of them are part of the fabric and functioning of the capitalist system.
We carry out this struggle within the framework of a struggle against the theocratic fascist regime of the Islamic Republic. We call out all forms of social injustice, devastating wars, and the destruction of the environment—and we stand with all the oppressed people of the world. Our method of struggle is to rely on ourselves, the people of Iran, and the people of the world; because humanity is entangled together, we consider people all over the world as our own people.
All that can emerge from the workings of the global imperialist system are conditions that are hostile and antagonistic to the interests of the vast majority of the world’s people. Having illusions about the friendship, or relying on the support, of any of the governments of the capitalist world—governments that are themselves guilty of creating this situation in the first place—is to turn our backs on the people of the world.
In Osyan, our alliance is not based on unity for revolution. This means that we don't have a strategy and a roadmap for revolution to overthrow the Islamic Republic and establish a Socialist Republic. This is simply an alliance to organize the resistance and struggle against the Islamic Republic around the faultline of the oppression of women along the lines described above.
At the same time, we know that the roots of this oppression cannot be pulled up from within this system. The framework we propose—namely opposition to imperialism and theocratic fundamentalism—is outside the framework of the system. My activism with other women in Osyan is based on this framework. But for myself as a revolutionary communist, this is not sufficient, because I know and I believe that in order to eradicate male supremacist/patriarchal oppression and other oppressive social relations, it will take a revolution. Activity within the framework of Osyan as a fighter for the liberation of humanity is insufficient [even as] I consider the activities of Osyan to be very important [in contributing] to the revolution.
Nonetheless, to make a revolution we need a party whose goal is revolution, that has a strategy for revolution, and that works for it in a planned and organized way. And by party, I don't just mean just an organization, but the necessary mobilization around its goal and roadmap.
To sum up: neither papering over its horrors nor self-improvement can change this terrible reality we confront. This fact demands an answer, and the answer is not related to which geography we operate in (inside or outside the borders of Iran and Afghanistan).
As leading forces on the scene, our task here is to make an important decision: Will we stay within the framework of the system, or will we, at long last, get out of it? Deciding to get out of the system is a crystallization of our understanding of the situation, a scientific understanding. An understanding of the roots of the problem and of today’s revolutionary situation, of the fact that revolution is necessary and possible, which must be taken to the masses, to the intellectuals, and to people in all walks of life.
Today, amidst the storm-tossed waves that have shredded the world order, this is a rare moment that opens the possibility of a revolution for the emancipation of humanity. That is our immediate—not long-term—task, because we do not have much time and we must move forward to organize a movement for revolution.