BOOK: Life As Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East
AUTHOR: Asef Bayat
PUBLISHER: Stanford University Press
Asef Bayat is Professor of Sociology and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Illinois. He was Professor of Sociology and Middle Eastern Studies and held the Chair of Society and Culture of the Modern Middle East at Leiden University, The Netherlands. He is the author of Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn and Street Politics: Poor People’s Movements in Iran.
In his latest book, Life As Politics: How Ordinary People Change The Middle East, Bayat writes about the transformation in the politics and society of West Asia ushered in by the working class, migrants, the poor, students, youngsters and women in their daily activities, thereby challenging the might of the states in the region characterised by authoritarianism, patriarchy and surveillance. He raises questions on how to look at the notions of agency and change in West Asia today. According to the author, these acts are not extraordinary acts of defiance, but closely tied to the ordinary practices of everyday life.
The tactical retreat into the backstreets on the arrival of municipal authorities by mobile street vendors in Cairo or Istanbul, Muslim women’s defiance in their everyday life and Iranian youth reclaiming the spaces of socialisation and recreation, while making friends by “subversive accommodation”, are enlightening pointers. He writes how youngsters in North Tehran turn the highly mournful festival of Muharram into a realm of resistance. Socialise and get together: these are key strategies.
He writes, “The struggles of the actors against authorities are not about gaining but primarily about defending and furthering already-won gains.” He defines these acts as the “quite encroachment of the ordinary”, also found in James C Scott’s Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance,where, according to James Scott, resistance takes the form of foot-dragging, not complying, and other such tactics against brutal and authoritarian State power.
Bayat theorises the day to day ordinary acts of defiance by the people of West Asia as ‘non movements’. He defines non movements as, “collective actions of non-collective actors; they embody shared practices of large numbers of ordinary people whose fragmented but similar activities trigger much social change, even though these practices are rarely guided by an ideology or recognisable leaderships and organisations”.
Indeed, the conventional mode of social movements as in western societies might not succeed because of the repressive measures of the authoritarian/ patriarchal states where surveillance is high. He asks, “How do we account for women’s activism that may rarely deploy organisation and networking, mobilising strategies, street marches, picketing, strikes, or disruption, and yet, is able to extend their choices?”
Women became second-class citizens in Iran after the Iranian revolution of 1979. After the revolution, the Islamic regime forced veiling, invoked polygamy, gender segregation, surveillance, and revoked laws under the Shah which gave limited space and freedom to women. Post revolution, the Iranian women, “resisted these policies, not much by deliberate, organised campaigns, but largely through mundane daily practices in public domains, such as working, playing sports, studying, showing interest in arts and music, or running for political offices. Imposing themselves as public players, women managed to make significant shifts in gender dynamics, empowering themselves in education, employment and family law, while raising their self-esteem”.
By the sheer “art of presence” and “structural encroachment”, Iranian women, “reinstated equal education with men, curtailed polygamy, restricted men’s right to divorce, demonised religiously sanctioned temporary marriage, reformed the marriage contract, improved the employment status of women, brought back women as judges, debated child custody, and to some degree, changed gender attitudes in the family and in society”. Gradually, journals, films and books started espousing and asserting women’s rights. They debated several aspects of religion and gender and came up with progressive and alternative interpretations of religious texts in support of women’s freedom and identity.
Many scholars, including leading feminists, criticise the absence of organised political movements in West Asia. The debates emanating from this book can be of great help in defining and expanding the theories of resistance from a third world perspective which challenges the conventional modes of theorising resistance by western intellectuals.