Mobilization(s) and Me

By Valentine M. Moghadam

When Mobilization was launched in 1996, I had just returned to the U.S. and academia after six years with the United Nations University’s WIDER Institute, as the sole non-economist and only sociologist working on international development. My years at UNU/WIDER had given me the space and time to engage in solo and collaborative research on new forms of social movements – not “new social movements” per se, but rather the growing trend of Islamist movements and its opposite, the growing worldwide movement of women’s rights and feminist advocacy. I had always been engaged in research (and activism) on Iran, but the UNU/WIDER years had enabled me to conduct research in North African countries, among others, which resulted – many years later – in a co-authored piece in Mobilization, entitled “Political Opportunities and Strategic Choices: Comparing Feminist Campaigns in Morocco and Iran”(vol. 15, no. 3, Sept. 2010, pp. 267-88).

In that article, Elham Gheytanchi and I asked why family law reform had taken place in Morocco but not in Iran, given that both were authoritarian Muslim-majority countries with patriarchal laws on women and the family. To address our question, we analyzed the political opportunity structure in each country as well as the collective action strategies and frames of each country’s feminist movement. We found that Morocco’s 1998 political opening and new government – which included left-wing cabinet members – had created an enabling environment conducive to legal and policy reform. Morocco’s feminist organizations found important allies in that new government and the progressive political parties. They were also able to craft cultural frames in ways that resonated within the broader public. In contrast, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad closed what had been a political opening under the previous reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, and he branded feminism an alien ideology and threat to national security. Unlike Moroccan feminists’ ability to engage in institutional politics and carry out lobbying and advocacy openly, Iranian feminists could only turn to extra-institutional forms of activism, which were met by repression. The political opportunity structure in Iran was very different from that of Morocco, with implications for the strategic choices available to the feminist activists, and of course for the outcomes. The Green Protests against Ahmadinejad’s second term as president (“Where is my vote?”) broke out as our article was in production; they too were eventually repressed.

Speaking of opportunities, the submission of our paper to Mobilization enabled my co-author and me to tighten our argument after receiving cogent peer-review comments, and I remain grateful to editor Hank Johnston for his own comments and encouragement. (That is not the only reason I continue to assign his book, States and Social Movements, in my graduate sociology class, Gender and Social Movements.)  I had been reading Mobilization for some time, and while I always learned from the many contributions on movement dynamics in the United States and Europe, it seemed to me that the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) was relatively under-represented. This now has changed, as the Arab Spring generated an enormous outpouring of studies. Our article on family law reform and feminist movements in Iran and Morocco appeared on the eve of the Arab Spring protests, and that changed everything (the protests did, not necessarily our paper!). Mobilization has now published a large number of articles on Middle East social movements, including the December 2012 special issueon the Arab Spring revolts.

Throughout the years, Mobilizationhas published works that contribute to theory-building, methodological sophistication, cross-regional knowledge, and elucidation of key contemporary issues, such as the global justice movement, the World Social Forum, and other forms of transnational advocacy and activism. Some of the recent articles on right-wing populisms are especially apt, given the proliferation of such movements, political parties, and governments in the Global North and Global South alike. In my own recent work on the subject, I have returned to the collaborative research I coordinated in the early 1990s, which produced outstanding studies of gendered right-wing movements across different cultural and religious contexts, including Rebecca Klatch’s study of the Christian Right in the U.S.; Madeleine Tress on the Gush Emunim in Israel; Sucheta Mazumdar on the RSS in India; and essays on Islamist movements in Tunisia by Alya Baffoun, in Algeria by Cherifa Bouatta and Doria Cherifati-Merabtine, and in Turkey by Binnaz Toprak.[1] What began as religious fundamentalist movements in the 1980s and early 1990s morphed into right-wing – and often right-wing populist (RWP) – movements, parties, and governments in the new century.

In many cases, those right-wing religious movements emerged in the wake of the wreckage of the Left and as a reaction to feminism. In due course, and across the MENA region, the adverse effects of economic policies of privatization and liberalization created opportunities for the right-wing religious movements’ political recruitment, growth, and electoral victories. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey’s Refah and AKP engaged in the sort of grassroots mobilizing, institutional entryism, and cultural work that Gramsci would call a “war of position”, which eventually helped them win political power (although, in Egypt’s case, for only a short period after the Arab Spring uprisings and before the military coup of July 2013). Islamist parties are in political power in many of the MENA countries. But even where they are not, governments seem unable to produce, much less implement, a coherent strategy for democratic development. Reasons are complicated and involve both internal and external factors and forces, but the results have been the same – the emergence of a new wave of street protests across countries, including Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Morocco. Such protests are hardly unique to the MENA region, however, as they also are found in France, Chile, Colombia, and Hong Kong. The capitalist world-system is in transition, with morbid symptoms in evidence but with opportunities for collective agency as well. Mobilizations are here to stay, as is Mobilization itself.


[1]The papers appear in V. M. Moghadam (ed.), Identity Politics and Women: Cultural Reassertions and Feminisms in International Perspective (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994.)  See also Valentine M. Moghadam, Globalization and Social Movements: The Populist Challenge and Democratic Alternatives (rowman & Littlefield, 2020).


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