A Solution for a Freer Iran: Democratic Confederalism
By Rojin Mukriyan
Achieving freedom in Iran raises more questions than it answers. Is it possible to have self-determination without every ethnicity having a separate nation state? How serious are we about the liberation of national minorities and women? Could we overcome centralized domination by implementing the liberal notion of freedom understood as non-interference? Or does national and women’s liberation necessitate other ideas of political liberty like that of the republican notion of non-domination and the positive conception of liberty as self-determination?
Obviously, there are a variety of different models of governance available both theoretically and practically in the world. While Francis Fukuyama, at the end of the Cold War, claimed that Western liberal democracy is “the final form of human government,” this essay argues that a polity has a history and a character of its own, and therefore not all forms of government suit all different polities. In other words, before replicating a form of governance one needs to grasp the nature and constitution of a polity. Therefore, if one aims to solve the existing problems in Eastern Kurdistan / Rojhilat (northwest Iran) and the wider nation of Iran, we should first truly grasp and embrace the composition of Iranian society and its multitude of problems such as that of national minorities and systematic sexism.
The aim of this paper is to argue that a proposal based on both a republican notion of liberty as non-domination and positive conception of liberty as self-determination would give the achievement of women’s liberation and national self-determination in Iran their best chance. In other words, the best way to liberate women and free nations from domination is to implement democratic confederalism, as formulated by Abdullah Öcalan, the political theorist and imprisoned leader of the Kurdish freedom movement. To argue for this, I use the ongoing revolutionary movement of Jin, Jiyan, Azadî (Woman, Life, Freedom) in Rojhilat and Iran as a case study to show how democratic confederalism could both liberate women and be a solution to the treatment of national minorities throughout Iran.
Neither Monarchy nor Federalism
There is a basic consensus concerning the fact that Iranian women are leading a revolutionary movement under the banner of Jin, Jiyan, Azadî, which was triggered by the murder of Jîna Emînî, a Kurdish woman who was killed by the so-called Iranian “morality” police on September 14th, 2022. Despite this, the role of women and larger gender issues are often, intentionally or not, missing from the discussion about the possible future political structure of Iran. As the revolutionary movement in Iran and Rojhilat enters a new phase, discussions about the replacement of the Iranian regime have also developed. Proposals drift between constitutional monarchy, liberal democracy, and social democracy, with each usually proclaiming an intention to protect normal liberal basic rights. Some proposals on the social democratic side have considered a federal republic. The question for us is: would any of these proposals protect and achieve what the revolutionary movement of Jin, Jiyan, Azadî has actually been about? My basic claim is that these protests have been about women’s liberation and national self-determination. Therefore, which of these regime types would best achieve women’s liberation and national self-determination? My answer is essentially ‘none of the above,’ at least not entirely. Only a system based on democratic confederalism would fulfil the goals of this movement.
“I’m extending my hand, once again, for cooperation to all pro-democracy forces, including individuals, parties and groups, to support the Iranian national revolution on the basis of three minimum common principles: Iran’s territorial integrity, human rights-based secular democracy, and people’s right to determine the form of the [future] political system through a free vote.”
While Pahlavi avoids proposing a clear governing structure for any future Iran, in his recent interviews announcing his newly established political party called the “Party of Iran Novin,” he clearly favors a constitutional monarchy mixed with some elements of liberal democracy. For example, in an interview with Mano TV, he says that:
“Any democratic force that believes in democratic institutions and political transparency can be a part of the political coalition that we are demanding but they must believe that the territorial integrity of Iran is a red line. Anyone who does not believe in the unity of Iran’s territory cannot be a part of the political coalition and this is our clear message for all parties.”
The proponents of monarchy believe that a constitutional monarchical yet secular liberal form of governance could solve both national identity and gender issues. They believe that by guaranteeing equal citizen rights, based on human rights, to all individuals of a polity, they could solve these problems. It could be said that Pahlavi and his supporters offer a negative view of freedom as non-interference, a fairly classical liberal view. It entails that one is free if one is free from external impediments. However, it is hard to see how this individualistic notion of freedom would solve the national and gender problems of Iran. National identity has an essential relationship with the political identity of a group.
In other words, as Sandra Joireman argues in her work Nationalism and Political Identity, nationalism is always politicized nationalism. This is to say that the non-Persian national groups in Iran demand freedom in both positive and negative sense, to echo Isiah Berlin’s famous distinction. Positive freedom refers to the idea that one is free if one has the power and resources to act. Adopting a Rousseauian language, one is free if one could freely participate in the collective decision-making process based on their ‘general will’. Strictly speaking, freedom necessitates self-government and direct democracy. Moreover, guaranteeing citizen’s rights through the implementation of liberal notion of freedom would not overcome the problems of national domination, patriarchy, and gender inequality. It is often argued that liberalism even enhances patriarchy and domination. As with the practice of liberalism one merely exchanges one form of domination for another, but the domination itself remains.
Some opponents of constitutional monarchy have offered a more social democratic proposal. Included in their proposals have been considerations in favor of a new Iranian state based on the principles of a federal republic. A basic problem with these proposals is that they also share a liberal conception of political liberty as non-interference. Also, federalism itself cannot overcome the domination of national minorities, as it never guarantees the prevention of domination by the federal government itself. One example of this could be the federal government of Iraq and their attack on the Kurdish city of Kirkuk in 2017. Within any political entity that would truly embody national and women’s liberation, there would need to be both non-domination and self-determination. Peaceful co-existence necessitates ensuring national and individual rights for self-determination. Self-determination is necessary for achieving freedom, both in its individualistic and collective meaning, but a self cannot determine itself unless it is not dominated. Federal republics in themselves do not provide that. Moreover, a federal republic based on social democracy would not eliminate the problems of national domination, social hierarchy, misogyny, and patriarchy.
Iran as an Ethnic Mosaic
Perhaps these proposals have not grasped the real composition of the political geography of Iran. Perhaps they have not truly comprehended the roots of the problems in Iran. Hence, it might be fruitful to outline some facts about the composition of Iran. Since the establishment of the modern Iranian state in 1923, it has aimed to establish a unified Iranian national identity based on a monolithic Persian identity. It could be said that Iran has pursued a ‘state-led nationalism,’ borrowing the words of Charles Tilly. This identity building process was executed by implementing exclusionist, discriminative, and annihilationist policies against non-Persian nationalities. Such multifaceted oppression and domination of non-Persian nationalities, however, did not lead to the establishment of a shared Iranian national identity. For example, a recent survey conducted by Akbarzadeh et al. (2019) reveals the fact that Rojhilatî Kurds (who comprise over 10% of Iran’s population) put their Kurdish identity before their Iranian identity.
Moreover, the average ethnicity, linguistic, and religious fractionalization measures in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are 0.453, 0.330, and 0.346 respectively. Based on the research of Alesina et al. (2003), ethnic fractionalization in Iran in 1995 had a score of 0.6684, language fractionalization had a score of 0.7462, and the religious fractionalization measure was 0.1152. Therefore, it could be argued that Iran is the most diverse Middle Eastern country in terms of nationality and language. From this discussion, it could be argued that if Iran is anything it is a multi-national society, or one might even say an ethnic confederation. There are eight major national groups in Iran: Persian, Azeris, Kurds, Lors, Arabs, Baloch, Turkmen, Mazanis, and Gilaks. Each national group has its own language and territory in Iran. While we do not have accurate statistics on the precise spatial distribution and population of nations in Iran, most studies argue that the population of only Persian speakers is barely over 50 percent. However, not one linguistic grouping in Iran holds more than 20% of the territory. Language and cultural factors are the main defining features of nationality in Iran. In fact, like some European countries such as Luxemburg, Belgium, and Switzerland, language groups very closely match national groups. Territorially, each nationality is mostly settled in a demarcated region. The striking national diversity of Iran is thus unmistakable, which gives further reason to the claim that each nation should be allowed to determine its own political existence.
Freeing the Majority: Women
Like ethnic minorities, the women of Iran and Rojhilat have faced even more severe forms of systematic and legal domination and discrimination. The Iranian constitution denies basics rights for both women and minorities. It is a constitution that enhances and enforces patriarchy and discrimination, while denying women their basic freedoms. For instance, based on the Iranian constitution, the value of a woman is half that of a man. Along with these facts, we should add that Iranian women are some of the most educated in the world and especially the Middle East. Women constitute 60% of university students and graduates, and 70% of the secondary school students. The birth rate in Iran, however, is less than 1.71%, below replacement. At the same time, female participation in the formal labor market runs at only 14%. Also, in political terms, women compose only 5% of the seats of the Iranian parliament. These imbalances are clearly unacceptable and indicate that Iranian and Rojhilatî women not only suffer from patriarchy and lack of individual freedom, or liberal freedom understood as non-interference, but are dominated both by the state and the society.
Given all these facts, one could argue that Iran is a country with a multitude of problems. Now, to return to our question: what form of governance could overcome these problems? What kind of political structure would allow a peaceful co-existence of different identities? We have already seen how the liberal notion of liberty inherent to both the constitutional monarchist and social democratic proposals fail to achieve the sort of national and women’s liberation that the protests are about. However, there is a constitutional model that would provide maximal women’s liberation and national self-determination. This is the democratic confederalism proposed by the imprisoned Kurdish political philosopher Abdullah Öcalan. Democratic confederalism combines regional, ethnic, and national autonomy with direct democracy. It involves a network of non-hierarchical political self-administrations based on an inclusive ethical politics. It is a flexible, multi-cultural, anti-monopolistic, and consensus-oriented system. Jineologî (Science of Women)’, social ecology, and democratic autonomy are its three constituent pillars.
One possible argument here in favor of confederation instead of federation is that confederation secures a peaceful co-existence of different nationalities under a model that is both decentralized and at most semi-sovereign. Peaceful co-existence requires the acknowledgment of the existence of non-Persian nationalities in Iran as fully autonomous and self-determining. It necessitates the recognition of these nationalities as independent entities in which they would join an Iranian confederation only based on their own actual will, not as a result of desperation, force, or domination. This is how all these nations could live in harmony and peace together. As the national minorities enjoy a better degree of autonomy, they would be more willing to concede to a political multi-national union. Under confederation, each nation, considered as an independent entity that enjoys the right of self-determination, would decide for itself on just which issues and to what degree it would accept ceding authority to a broader entity. This would be a way to ensure that not any one nation could ever monopolize political power. It would distribute political power in a horizontal and vertical way among all the nations in Iran, not based on any measure like that of the proportion of the broader population.
But how does democratic confederalism overcome women’s domination? Based on any acceptable conception of domination, any distribution of power in a vertical or imbalanced way could led to domination. Democratic confederalism is an attempt to break from centralization and the representative system common to presently existing democratic states. It aims to overcome domination by offering a form of governance in which political power is distributed in a horizontal manner and so balances capacities among all members of society. Unlike contemporary liberal democracy, it strives to empower locals. It is organized at the local level through assemblies and councils, which then coordinate at a confederal level. The autonomous communes, as the smallest local units, are the main body of political decision-making. The higher autonomous self-administrative units exist to ensure that the decisions of different communes do not conflict. It is based on a bottom-up, grass-roots direct democracy, a democracy in which the people themselves, based on their immediate expression of will, decide for all the affairs of their lives. Theoretically, democratic autonomy essentially denotes the self-governance of communities and individuals who share a similar mindset through their own will. The people govern themselves and possess a highly revised notion of sovereign power or supreme authority in making legislative decisions. Only in this form of political order could women gain the requisite degree of both non-domination and self-determination to truly count as free.
A Democratic Confederation
How could democratic confederalism work in Iran? It could work well, so well it could even meet Pahlavi’s three conditions without any of the attendant conservatism and obvious domination that would inevitably follow from his favored regime type. Pahlavi’s three conditions are that any new Iranian regime would have to hold to the territorial integrity of Iran, would have to respect and protect basic human rights, and would have to hold free and fair elections. Pahlavi’s demand for sustaining Iran’s territorial integrity could be met. The present borders can be kept, but most major legislative questions are to be devolved to local communities. Local communities will mostly track national lines. The way local communities would make decisions would be through directly democratic means like referenda, councils, assemblies, and the like. At the multinational confederated state level, agreements can be made about sharing economic goals like free trade, military goals like common defense, and so on. There is no reason Iran as it presently geographically constituted would need to be immediately modified in order to accommodate democratic confederalism.
With respect to the other two conditions, it is difficult to see how a monarchical regime would do a better job at respecting and protecting human rights and guaranteeing free and fair elections than a directly democratic one. Democratic confederalism entails that any local community can legally protect itself with usual suite of liberal constitutional rights if it so wishes. And it can make it a condition of membership of confederation that all other units do the same between themselves. If any regime is going to protect individual and collective rights it is likely going to be the one that imbues each individual and community with maximal self-determination and thus non-domination. It is not for nothing that democratic confederalism is also often called ‘libertarian municipalism.’ And guaranteeing free and fair elections is an essential aspect of the very point and purpose of democratic confederalism. If a local community would like to risk a representative form of democracy for themselves, then of course nothing would prevent them from doing so. Rights and elections would never be more protected and freer, respectively, than in a democratic confederalist system.
Democratic confederalism is the best proposal for the most ethnically diverse country in the Middle East. It is also a potential solution for the most educated yet least represented/participatory (both economically and politically) female population in the Middle East. Subsequently, a democratically confederal Iran would be the most effective remedy for ending the domination of ethnic minorities and women, while granting them their self-determination. As a democratically confederal Iran would be the true fulfillment of the Jin, Jiyan, Azadî movement.
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- Saleh, A., and Worrall, J. (2015) ‘Between Darius and Khomeini: Exploring Iran’s National Identity,’ National Identities, 17(1), pp.73-97. ↑
- Akbarzadeh, S., Ahmed, Z.S., Laoutides, C., and Gourlay, W. (2019) ‘The Kurds in Iran: Balancing National and Ethnic Identity in a Securitised Environment’, Third World Quarterly, 40(6), pp.1145-1162. ↑
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- Alesina, A., Devleeschauwer, A., Easterly, W., Kurlat, S., and Wacziarg, R. (2003). ‘Fractionalization’. Journal of Economic growth, 8(2), pp.155–194. ↑
- Majbouri, M., and Fesharaki, S. (2019) ‘Iran’s Multi-Ethnic Mosaic: A 23-Year Prespective.’ Soc Indic Res, 145, pp. 831-859; Saleh, A., and Worrall, J. (2015) ‘Between Darius and Khomeini: Exploring Iran’s National Identity,’ National Identities, 17(1), pp.73-97; and Majbouri, M., and Fesharaki, S. (2019) ‘Iran’s Multi-Ethnic Mosaic: A 23-Year Prespective.’ Soc Indic Res, 145, pp. 831-859.↑
- Amanolahi, S. (2005) ‘A note on ethnicity and ethnic groups in Iran’. Iran & the Caucasus, 9(1), 37–41 ↑
- Amanolahi, S. (2005) ‘A note on ethnicity and ethnic groups in Iran’. Iran & the Caucasus, 9(1), 37–41 ↑