Four events centering around women have made headlines over the past month: Giorgia Meloni’s electoral victory in Italy, Queen Elizabeth II’s death and funeral, the release of the film The Woman King, and the widespread protests in Iran following the killing of Mahsa Amini by the country’s morality police. Taken together, these four stories highlight essential features of the political terrain.
With the left failing to offer an adequate response to the crisis of liberal democracy, the rise of new right-wing governments in Europe is not particularly surprising. But women’s central role in this movement has yet to receive the attention it deserves. Right-wing leaders like Meloni and Marine Le Pen in France are presenting themselves as stronger alternatives to traditional mainstream masculine technocrats. They embody both right-wing hardness and features usually associated with femininity, such as a focus on care and the family: fascism with a human face.
Now consider the televised spectacle of Elizabeth II’s funeral, which highlighted an interesting paradox: as the British state has fallen ever further from its former superpower status, the British royal family’s ability to inspire imperial reveries has only grown. We should not dismiss this as ideology masking actual power relations. Rather, monarchical fantasies are themselves a part of the process whereby power relations reproduce themselves.
Elizabeth II’s death reminded us of the modern distinction between reigning and ruling, with the former being confined only to ceremonial duties. The monarch is expected to radiate compassion, kindness, and patriotism, and to stay out of political conflicts. As such, monarchs represent not the transcendence of ideology but rather ideology in its purest form. For seven decades, Elizabeth II’s role was to serve as the face of state power. The coincidence of her death with Prime Minister Liz Truss’s rise to power may have been highly contingent, but it was also deeply symbolic of the shift from Queen to Woman King. In her new role, Truss has partly preempted the left by mixing energy subsidies with tax cuts for the rich. The massive protests in Iran have a world-historical significance, because they combine different struggles (against women’s oppression, religious oppression, and state terror) into an organic unity. Iran is not part of the developed West, and the protesters’ slogan “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” (“woman, life, freedom”) is not some mere offshoot of #MeToo or Western feminism. Though it has mobilized millions of ordinary women, it speaks to a much broader struggle, and it eschews the anti-masculine tendency that one often finds in Western feminism.
The Iranian men who are chanting “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” know that the struggle for women’s rights is also the struggle for their own freedom – that the oppression of women is merely the most visible manifestation of a larger system of state terror. Moreover, the events in Iran are something that still awaits us in the developed Western world, where the trends toward political violence, religious fundamentalism, and the oppression of women are accelerating.
We in the West have no right to treat Iran as a country that is desperately trying to catch up with us. Rather, it is we who must learn from Iranians if we are going to have any chance of confronting right-wing violence and oppression in the United States, Hungary, Poland, Russia, and many other countries. Whatever the immediate result of the protests, the crucial thing is to keep the movement alive, by organizing social networks that can continue to operate underground in the event that the forces of state oppression achieve a temporary victory.
It is not enough simply to express sympathy or solidarity with the Iranian protesters, as if they belong to some faraway exotic culture. All the relativist babble about cultural specificities and sensitivities is now meaningless. We can and should see the Iranian struggle as synonymous with our own. We don’t need female figureheads or Woman Kings; we need women who will mobilize us all for “woman, life, freedom,” and against hate, violence, and fundamentalism. - Slavoj Žižek is Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School.
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