The Politics of Solidarity Movements
What are the implications of the expansion in the scale and speed of solidarity movements? In this essay, we reflect on the ethics of this expansion in relation to two political convulsions in the wake of police violence: first, the 2022 protests in Iran following the murder of Jina Mahsa Amini (referred to by some as an uprising), and second, the 2020 protests in the United States following the murder of George Floyd. Solidarity movements against inequalities and oppression in any form can provide valuable and meaningful support to those in need, and attempts to show solidarity are indeed praiseworthy. Yet, we consider it necessary to highlight shifts in discourse when such protests transcend a locality and achieve national and global resonance. Bearing in mind the political context in which these shifts occur and the interests of the political actors implicated, we open a dialogue between the two movements to trace why, how, and by whom this dilution happens. Here, we highlight the importance of solidarity movements adequately contextualising their support in a manner that retains their connection to the heart of the issue. We urge solidarity movements to be attentive to the original demands and terms of protests, to resist the impulse to be de-politicised or align with palatable, status-quoist rhetoric, and to acknowledge the inseparability of justice movements from their historical and political contexts.
Woman, Life, Freedom: Contextualising the 2022 Protests in Iran
The 2022 protests in Iran—identified by the central slogan of "Woman, Life, Freedom"—erupted following the death of Jina Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody in September, after she was detained for purportedly wearing her hijab improperly. While the numbers are uncertain, a report from Iran Human Rights shows that as of earlier this year, the regime’s response to these protests resulted in the killing of 516 protesters, the injury of several hundred, the detention of more than 19,200, and four executions.
Remarkably, these outcries not only gripped the nation, with protests erupting in all of Iran’s major cities and many small towns, but they also spread internationally. In the West, women from London to New York City chopped off locks of their hair to express solidarity. However, the angle adopted by some of these Western protests raises concerns. While participating in solidarity rallies in the West, we could not help but observe salient differences between the messages of these protests and those happening in Iran at the same time. For example, in Cambridge, where we both study and live, protests supporting Iranians were held at least three times a week. Several features of these protests stood out to us.
In Cambridge, we observed that most of the chants revolved around the slogan “My body, my choice”—a phrase usually invoked in the context of abortion and bodily autonomy by Western feminists. This choice of slogan was jarring. Iranian women’s outcries were concrete and specific, with oppositional slogans pointed against the regime, including “Free Iran,” “Woman, Life, Freedom,” “I am Jina Mahsa Amini,” “Kurdistan, the “fascist” graveyard,” “The streets are our tribune,” and “Iranian Lives Matter.” In contrast, many protestors in Cambridge, some of whom were members of the Iranian diaspora, said in our conversations with them that they were concerned about reaching a Western audience. They thus resorted to a language that was more universally recognisable in the Western context, and centred individual bodily choice. Of course, not all protests in the West abandoned or ignored slogans that were dominant in Iran. Nonetheless, many of them reshaped the message to reach a wider public, ignoring the complexity of the events in Iran.
This further leads us to consider how in Western countries, protests were safe and largely non-confrontational. In Iran, on the other hand, people were beaten, arrested, and killed. This difference becomes significant when we take into account the geopolitical contexts in which these protests are rooted, and the West’s imagination of the Iranian regime as an enemy. Are there any real stakes for Western protesters when their messaging is directly aligned with the political stance of their governments, as opposed to the protesters in Iran?
It is also important to ask how this discourse around Iranian protests in the West intersects with pre-existing orientalist discourse around Islam and the hijab. Over the last two decades, several European countries have enacted national laws prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols—in particular hijabs and burkas. Critics understand these hijab and burka bans to be embedded in these Western countries’ antipathy toward Islam and stereotypes about the hijab, rooted in colonial and post-colonial histories of Orientalism and Islamophobia. Examining the long history of racism behind hijab bans in France as well as the ideological barriers against Muslims, many scholarly works highlight how Muslim women are mobilised for broader political purposes. Situating the Iranian international rallies within the larger political and historical context of the West thus illustrates the danger when these protests inscribe the issue of women’s bodily freedom within a liberal framework that has historically been used to mobilise against Islam, serving the political interests of Western countries.
"It seems, then, that as a protest expands and intensifies, the ability to coalesce support for a cause passes from the initial protesters to other groups or institutions that, intentionally or not, take different (potentially well-meaning) paths and imbue new meaning and effects into the original message. The question remains: What kind of change will manifest when protest discourse is adopted in different contexts, and for whose benefit?"
Moreover, many of the Western protests ignored that Jina Mahsa Amini was not only an Iranian woman, but also a Kurdish woman. First, it is crucial to mention that there is a long history of the Kurdish movement and its slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” in relation to jinéologie, which determines the level of freedom in society at large based on the degree of women’s freedom. The slogan represents an intersectional understanding of oppression in the Kurdish context, asserting that everyone will be liberated only once the most oppressed group in society is liberated. That is, the slogan symbolises more than just freedom for women. Rather, it stands against global injustices such as colonisation and patriarchal capitalism in the Kurdish context and beyond.
In acknowledging that Jina Mahsa Amini was a Kurdish woman in Iran, we better understand that these protests are also about racial oppression and police brutality against marginalised groups in the country—perspectives that Western solidarity protests have flattened. What are the political consequences of glossing over such a defining catalyst of the Iranian uprising, and what happens when we ignore these local movements’ terms and contexts? What are the consequences for Iranian women and their movement-building? As we show in the next section, the failure to acknowledge the Kurdish identity and its demands—the failure to recognise that the Iranian uprising is also about the distribution of power, the censorship of the Kurdish liberation struggle, and the right of the Kurdish people to sovereign land—is a failure to see the parallels between the Iranian protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. Put differently, the failure to acknowledge this is to bury the parallel discriminatory and racial politics that killed both Jina Mahsa Amini and George Floyd.
The Aftermath of US Protests against the Murder of George Floyd
In the days following his death on 25 May 2020, George Floyd’s name and the video of his murder—which showed the 9 minutes and 29 seconds of his suffocation during an arrest involving four police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota—flooded social media in the US. His words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry for the reignition of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in the country. These protests transcended their locality, and provoked discourse amongst the American public and media that moved rapidly from criticising police brutality and state violence against Black people in the US, to more general discussions about the inequities the Black community continues to suffer. Since its initial formation in 2013, BLM has contended with attempts to shift the momentum of their protests and action into more controllable, easily debated spheres of public discussion. Over the last decade, BLM has cultivated the ability for simultaneous activism at the local level by intentionally crafting a dispersed but aligned leadership and taking various forms: #BlackLivesMatter on social media, the non-profit Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, Inc., splinter organisations like Campaign Zero, and localised organising of protests and lobbying. This advocacy approach has made it easier for individuals to join the movement while unintentionally allowing space for individuals within institutions to co-opt and rebrand BLM rhetoric through well-intentioned solidarity efforts.
The resurgence of BLM in 2020 triggered a sense of urgency that renewed public participation in discussions and demonstrations against excessive police brutality resulting in the deaths of Black people. Educational centres, non-profit organisations, corporations, religious institutions, and convenings of government officials all felt the need to either denounce or support BLM rhetoric. However, their focus moved quickly from BLM’s condemnation of police brutality and state violence against the Black community to other related issues. This included racism and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace and educational institutions (like schools and universities), boycotting companies that did not support BLM, supporting Black-owned businesses through sponsorships/partnerships, and national and local reparations for Black descendants of slavery. Their messaging addressed how “Black lives mattered” within their sectors, and they assimilated this language within their own institutional spheres. The 2020 adaptation of BLM rhetoric thus centred economic and workplace inclusion and uplift—a focus on Black well-being—rather than remaining steadfastly vocal about concrete changes to policing in the US to reduce instances of state-condoned violence within Black communities. In other words, it prioritised discussions of racial discrimination and economic disadvantage over the systemic racial subjugation of Black bodies to abuse and death with little consequence.
"...the failure to acknowledge the Kurdish identity and its demands—the failure to recognise that the Iranian uprising is also about the distribution of power, the censorship of the Kurdish liberation struggle, and the right of the Kurdish people to sovereign land—is a failure to see the parallels between the Iranian protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. Put differently, the failure to acknowledge this is to bury the parallel discriminatory and racial politics that killed both Jina Mahsa Amini and George Floyd."
Perhaps the fact that BLM protests oscillated between a majority of peaceful demonstrations and some instances of looting or property damage changed the tone and content of public discussion. While individuals could support BLM however they saw fit, institutions and corporations—which had a larger impact on media discourse—would not support these protests. Accordingly, the US media shifted their coverage of BLM to discuss the new initiatives and changing foci of institutions and companies, which effectively promoted the discourse of improving Black well-being over coverage of the BLM protests. Their efforts have remained the widespread, predominant discourse in the US in reference to BLM. Calls to “defund the police” and divert those funds to other public agencies have been decidedly drowned out, and the momentum of collective voices railing against systemic state violence inflicted on Black bodies has been eclipsed. Attempts to impact local, state, and national-level policing practices and training— while continuing slowly in a handful of cases—are no longer a pressing focus or part of everyday conversation.
Here, it is important to refer to Black scholarship about protest and collaborative work. Some scholarship, particularly the work of Afropessimists (see Park and Partridge), suggests that the change in the BLM protest discourse has the potential to devolve into a further erasure of attempts by Black communities to insist on their equal humanity and right to life over state violence (see Benjamin and Perez). Others counter by implying that the travelling of BLM-type rhetoric focused on Black well-being could flourish into the creation of a unique cross-coalition and multifocal collaboration (see Benjamin, Ransby, and Samuels & Olorunnipa), producing previously inconceivable solutions for improving Black lives and opportunities. Many BLM activists, and much Black scholarship, would agree that challenging inequity within the workplace in the US and creating greater economic opportunity and generational wealth is vital for improving the well-being of the Black community. However, the metamorphosis of the 2020 BLM discourse drained momentum from those addressing police brutality and state violence against Black people and Black bodies by decreasing public attention and urgency to change policing practice. Discussion about BLM today is distorted and ranges from frustration over lack of reparations, to growing conservative political organisation against what they call “critical race theory” in schools and the workplace, to the longevity of DEI initiatives, and beyond. Yet, for example, there is very little discussion of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act moving, for the third time, through US Congress for approval. It is unlikely that it will pass, which illustrates our ambivalence about “to what end” these efforts in solidarity with BLM occurred.
It seems, then, that as a protest expands and intensifies, the ability to coalesce support for a cause passes from the initial protesters to other groups or institutions that, intentionally or not, take different (potentially well-meaning) paths and imbue new meaning and effects into the original message. The question remains: What kind of change will manifest when protest discourse is adopted in different contexts, and for whose benefit?
Reflections on Solidarity Movements
In questioning the aim of cross-context solidarities when protest discourse is co-opted, ignored, or shifted, we do not oppose seeking congruences and points of identification among various sociopolitical contexts whereby different communities can learn from one another in, for example, their opposition to oppressive regimes. No doubt, the rallying of people around a common cause can ignite change. This is especially true when the messages of international campaigns echo those of local ones. For example, related local movements of various marginalised groups across the globe resonate with the 2020 protests against the murder of George Floyd and actively support BLM, while protesting their own situations. These include the 2020 BLM protests in the United Kingdom and the 2021 Palestinian protests of Israeli occupation using “Palestinian Lives Matter” as a rallying cry. Both instances harken back to the widespread, global adaptation of Black Power rhetoric by marginalised groups throughout the world from the 1960s onward. Likewise, the Black Panthers were hugely influenced by Communist, anti-colonial movements in the Global South. Marginalised communities across the world have organised internal, self-sufficient community projects, in the vein of the Black Power movement, to support the well-being of their people. The pervasive image of the raised fist, popularised by the Black Power movement, appears all over the world as a permanent reminder of persistent struggles against racism, marginalisation, and exclusion.
Protest discourse can remain an effective force for social and political change. The question remains how to best—or better—express solidarity with those who need it. Our view is that solidarity is a shared understanding of collective responsibility for the dismantling of oppressive structures and institutions through action and collaboration. Solidarity requires persistent action toward reconstruction and justice. Expressions of solidarity with protest movements should be attentive to the original oppositional messages, demands, and terms while resisting the impulse to be de-politicised or aligned with more acceptable status quo rhetoric. Solidarity also requires an acknowledgement of the inseparability of justice movements and protest discourse from their individual historical and political contexts. In the case of Iran, we must not lose sight of the terms of the original protest and their central demand—directed against the oppressive and misogynist political regime, in response to the murder of a Kurdish woman. Similarly, in the case of BLM, we need to remember the specific outcry against police and state violence against members of the Black community in the US. Solidarity necessitates directing energy and attention toward the original protestors and their demands. This is how we begin to initiate the changes, in solidarity, that we want to see.
Adaiah Hudgins-Lopez [2021, 2022] is a PhD Social Anthropology candidate at the University of Cambridge and a member of Trinity College.
Alaa Hajyahia  is a PhD Social Anthropology candidate at the University of Cambridge and a member of King’s College.