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Provocation as a tool for feminist activism: A case study of affect in blogosphere /Roja Bandari

Sunday 17 April 2011, by admin

Feminist School:What goes into using provocative writing as a tool for feminist activism? As an example, I study a piece written by Iranian lawyer and feminist activist Shadi Sadr that created a great deal of discussion among Iranian bloggers in the diaspora and some inside Iran. Because of Sadr’s prominence and reputation as a political figure and an authority on issues of women’s and human rights, and because of the provocative nature of her piece, the writing received a great deal of coverage in the virtual world and created passionate discussions on the web, and in turn found its way to satellite television channels that broadcast to Iran.

I explore anger as the dominant tone of the letter as well as the use of a language of exposure as a source of provocation and drama that I view as what led to the large attention received by the piece. I attempt to observe the affective world created through this letter in what Sara Ahmed calls “emotion as a form of cultural politics†(Ahmed 12) and the strategic foresight that could be considered in this kind of provocation as a political act.

I intentionally make the assumption that the piece was written with some larger goal in Shadi Sadr’s mind and not simply as a way to vent out anger without seeking a desired effect, even though we might not be able to exactly locate what the desired goal was.

It is also important that I situate myself as an Iranian woman who is active in the Iranian women’s rights movement. Although I consider the use of provocation an effective tactic at certain times, I don’t personally consider it my preferred form of activism, mainly because of my own discomfort with the lack of control that comes with the affective world created in such situations. I must also make known my own ambivalence about Sadr’s letter and my discomfort with a lot of what the letter seems to do in my opinion. With this in mind, I have attempted to look at this letter with as neutral of a lens as was possible for me, and question my own assumptions about the negative effects of the piece.

Background Information

In the past decade there has been a surge of women’s rights activism in Iran mainly focusing on legal discrimination. Men and women have collectively organized and formed coalitions in different campaigns, to change discriminatory laws, work against the Family Protection Bill, against stoning, against pressures on women’s rights activists, against gender cap in universities, for women’s right to enter soccer stadiums and most recently (in 2009) demanding that presidential candidates pay attention to needs of women, demanding the ratification CEDAW and revision of certain sections of the constitution.

One of the issues that every urban woman living in a large city in Iran deals with is the prevalence of street harassment. Harassment is usually perpetrated by a man and the target is most likely a woman; it extends from catcalling, to stalking and physical assault. Despite the prevalence of street harassment, there has been no collective activism on street harassment by women’s rights activists (possibly due to limitation of human resources).

Shadi Sadr is a well-known lawyer and activist who recently left Iran for Europe in the aftermath of her arrest while participating in protests against fraud in the Iranian presidential election of June 2009. Sadr has defended important cases in court and has worked as an activist in Iran for years. She has received great recognition by the international community for her work and activism.
Following a speech by Hojjatoleslam Sadighi, Tehran’s Friday prayer Imam, who declared that indecent women are the cause of earthquakes around the world*, there was a reaction among opposition activists inside and outside Iran. They ridiculed the hard-line pro-government clergy for his ignorance and anti-woman rhetoric. Shadi Sadr then wrote a piece about the reaction of intellectual men to the Imam’s speech, exposing the hypocrisy of those men who claim to be feminists and defenders of women’s rights and who ridiculed the hard-line Imam. Her writing describes women’s experience of pain and fear as subjects of street harassment, and her own anger and disgust at the role of all Iranian men in causing this pain and fear.

Women’s Anger

In an attempt to dissect anger in Sadr’s letter, it is important to be mindful of the historical ramifications of expressions of anger by feminists. Western feminists’ expression of anger has a history of not being received well. In Cultural Politics of Emotions, Ahmed explains this historical discomfort: “feminists who speak out against forms of violence are often dismissed as motivated by negative passion. [...] Historically the reading of feminism as a form of anger allows the dismissal of feminist claims even when the anger is a reasonable response to a social injustice†(Ahmed 177). It goes without saying that discomfort with the expressions of anger is not exclusively felt and expressed by men or non-feminists; feminists can show ambivalence and resistance to the expressions of anger by other feminists as well.

Yet I’d like to also add that in Iranian culture, expression of women’s anger, especially when it takes the form of deploring an injustice, carries a powerful symbolism. In Shia narrations of the war at Karbala, Zeynab, the granddaughter of prophet Muhammad and sister of the martyred Imam Hossein, famously began mourning and speaking out against the injustice and brutality of those who killed her family. Similar images carry through to the Iranian culture to this day. So although the silencing, dismissing, and trivializing of women’s voices and feminist grievances occurs in Iran as well, there is a possibility of (what is seen as legitimate) anger being expressed by women in certain occasions that can in fact be linked to powerful cultural and religious symbolisms.

Wound Fetishism

Like Ahmed suggests, being motivated by anger can take the form of wound fetishism -where an injury becomes an identity. Urban Iranian women have experienced street harassment to different degrees; some men have also been exposed to sexual assault or harassment in the public sphere. Yet the appropriation of the injury of sexual harassment as a beacon of truth that creates an image of purity and truth for all women, is exactly fetishizing the wound. It disregards the complexity of the population that experiences or perpetuates street harassment and serves only as a claim to fetishize the female half of the population as innocent victims and portrays the male half as a unified front of oppressors. Ahmed writes that in fetishizing, “women’s pain becomes an ‘immediate’ measure of truth, against which others must fail. […] The transformation of wound into an identity cuts the wound off from the complex histories of ‘being hurt’ or injured, histories which cannot be gathered together under a singular concept such as patriarchy.†(Ahmed 173)

Drama of Exposure

Maybe as a result of the drama-centric western media that has become prevalent in the global culture of public discourse, or maybe as a result of the history of foreign conspiracies in Iran, a main theme of Sadr’s piece is the exposing of men’s dishonest claims to feminism. Of course, it is legitimate and necessary to hold people who use the feminist label responsible to their claim and to critique attitudes that are contradictory to feminist claims. Yet it is also important to remember that no one person or group holds the pure truth about feminism and no one is free of contradiction.

More than threatening or violent, the men described in Sadr’s piece are superficial frauds posing as intellectuals, defenders of human rights, and enlightened women’s rights activists. They are portrayed as frivolous and inattentive, enjoying the benefits of being cared for by female family members and partners while carrying the -now trendy- label of feminist.

This accusation of dishonesty, at a time when many Iranians feel degraded by the deception and violence of Iran’s authorities, could be the main cause of the drama in our case study. Sadr might have struck a nerve by drawing parallels between Tehran’s Imam (a defender of the fraudulent presidential election) and all Iranian men. Sadr writes: “I don’t see a difference between [men who defend women’s rights] and [the Imam] Sadighi, except that he is more honest about who he is and what he says.â€

It is possible that Sadr has used this language of unmasking to create what Sedgewick calls the “drama of exposure.†Especially in the current socio-political atmosphere of Iran, the stealing of the presidential election by the hard-line president Ahmadinejad, the continuous lies perpetuated through the state-run media, and the constant exposing of financial and moral corruption of government authorities (including fake university degrees) has definitely made paranoia* an affect present in the atmosphere. Sedgwick writes that paranoia is mimetic, and maybe the practice of exposure and paranoia that have been in the space of Iranian political discourse is among the sticky affects that are recreated in the interactions among bodies.

Drawing boundaries

Ahmed writes, “emotions create the very effect of the surfaces and boundaries that allow us to distinguish an inside and an outside […]†(Ahmed 10). Thus, affect creates communities, and draws boundaries between bodies. Anger can separate and push against some bodies and bring other bodies together. In our case study, anger at street harassment brought victims of this act (those who have access to Sadr’s piece) together, the anger moved to their bodies and energized them into action. Sadr’s anger also drew boundaries between groups identified by her as men and women and clearly excluded men who experience street harassment. Her anger moved to these excluded bodies and set those bodies in motion to react. Furthermore, anger at the superficial claims to feminism by some men, especially those in opposition to the government, created a boundary between men and women in the opposition pro-democracy movement.

Furthermore, Sadr’s piece reinforced some boundaries that work to exclude and isolate feminist men by questioning their masculinity. Sadr writes, “it would not be an exaggeration to say that [catcalling] is a part of passage into adulthood for men in Iran. It is an experience without which an Iranian man does not become a man!†Sadr expresses contempt and condescension toward these men, adding, “yesterday’s pubescent boys, are today’s feminist men.†Her writing implies that if an Iranian man has not engaged in this behavior, he is not a man. Thus Sadr is defining what it means to be a man and who can call himself one.


Audre Lorde writes, “anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification…. anger is loaded with information and energy.†(Lorde 1984: 127) Several women whom I spoke with found the overall effect of Sadr’s piece to be positive. A few different factors lead to a surge of discussions about her piece and while many of those discussions revolved around logical fallacies or unfair generalizations about men and rebuttals to those accusations, a good portion of what was written were about experiences of street harassment. Discussion around this piece became one of the most widespread conversations (happening on the web) on gender-related issues after the election fraud of 2009. While experiences of street harassment were prevalent in Iran, the topic was not previously raised with this magnitude. I am also aware of an attempt by some bloggers to start a campaign against street harassment, directly resulting from these discussions, although the participants seem to be living outside Iran at the moment. If Sadr’s objective was to create a widespread discussion on street harassment among Iranian bloggers, then she definitely surpassed this goal. Could this be achieved without the use of such provocative language? Probably no. Was it necessary to create those boundaries and violent exclusions that were created? Probably no.

Can one Predict?

One line of inquiry is whether one can predict the affective world created through such provocative writing and gauge the actions that might result from the circulation of energies that are heightened or reduced in the interactions among affected bodies. Sara Ahmed writes, “The challenge for feminism is to accept that the conditions in which we speak are not of our making. It would mean recognizing that the reception of that act might sustain the conditions that compelled the act in the first place†(Ahmed 177). So it is possible that the utilization of provocative language by a visible feminist figure can work to the disadvantage of her or his goals. Despite the fact that it is not always simple to predict the response to such provocations the possible gains can sometimes be worth the risk.

In the case of Sadr’s letter, which itself was a response to men’s reaction to the Imam’s statements, a single stimulus caused magnitudes of affects in different bodies, created boundaries and worlds which in turn affected one another and evolved through time. In her study of the modeling industry, Wissinger describes work with affect as something “volatile and difficult to control†(Wissinger 238) Yet whole industries -such as the advertising industry- and a great number of political campaigns operate primarily by attempting to influence or predict affect.

Power, invisibility, access, and responsibility

Shadi Sadr is a prominent activist with great credibility and access to media. With the privilege of being heard and having a voice, comes the responsibility of paying attention to those who do not have access and to voices that get silenced with our speaking. What responsibility does one bear as a visible and powerful public figure? Who does one answer to? What considerations about timing and language need to be taken into account? How much does one consult her/his community of activists and who does one consult?

There are several aspects to the issue of access in our case study. Firstly, the piece was published on the web and thus the community that was affected by it are those who have access to technologies that serve as channels of affect in this case, namely, the internet. Later on, the conversation did carry through to non-virtual media such as satellite channels, which are mainly a one-way channel of broadcasting. Most of the men who are the target of Sadr’s anger (men identifying as intellectuals and feminists) do have access to the Internet and thus have the basic tools to read and respond. Other obstacles in access are conditions that stop someone with access to the Internet to be able to afford the time, or the energy to participate in this conversation. For example, those who work extended hours for sustenance in their lives, activists who are in jail in Iran, and those whose friends and family are arrested and must follow their cases do not have access to this conversation because they cannot afford the time and energy to participate.

In thinking about who becomes invisible, we can think of male victims of sexual harassment who are further silenced and made invisible by this piece. Furthermore, complexities and diversity of experiences of street harassment have become invisible and women’s role in perpetuating violence and silencing other victims has been erased.

Emotions such as anger can be expressed as violence, condescension, revenge, shaming, excluding, or silencing; on the other hand, they can leave an opening for hope, taking responsibility, energizing a community into action, and educating. It is important to take into account the choices involved in different expressions of emotions and the consideration of the ripple effect they will have on its audience.


Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Lorde, Audre. “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism†Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. NY: The Crossing Press, 1984.

Sadr, Shadi. “What is the Difference Between Imam’s of Tehran and Other Iranian Men?†June, 1, 2010 <http://www.mardomak.org/news/Shadi_...> .

Sedgwick, Eve. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Wissinger, Elizabeth. “Always On Display: Affective Production in the Modeling Industry.†The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Edited by Patricia Ticinteo Clough and Jean Halley. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

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