Women’s Protests in Iran and the Relationship between Social Media and Activism

Women recorded holding her hijab aloft in protest in December 2017, via video on BBC.

On International Women’s Day this year, three women were arrested in Iran. They were protesting the laws that make it compulsory to wear a hijab at all times by taking theirs off in a Tehran subway. The women were subsequently arrested by local authorities and taken into custody. They were sentenced with a combined 55 years in prison, 16 years each to a mother, Monireh, and her daughter, Yasaman, and 23 years to their associate Mojgan. They were charged with inciting prostitution. This case joins an upward trend of women’s rights protestors in the country, that does not seem to be slowing down.

The laws date back to 1979 when a revolution overturned the monarchy and installed an Islamic Republican government. Since then, all women, including non-citizens, have been subject to the law. The attorneys assigned to these women report that they were not allowed to represent their clients during the indictment or trial. This event is happening at the same time as reports of sham-trials and violent judges are being heard. The question arises of whether the individual human rights of these women are being respected. If we are to follow the reports from Amnesty International it becomes clear that they are not.

2017 saw social media erupt in support for 31-year-old, Vida Movahed, or the ‘Girl of Enghelab Street’, who was arrested for ‘un-veiling’ on a central Tehran street. It was discovered that she did so in support of a wider campaign named ‘white-Wednesdays’, her case went on to inspire a slew of similar protests.

The Iranian government has been undoubtedly clear on its position, citing their laws as keeping women in their ‘traditional roles’ and repeatedly blaming western culture for leading their women ‘astray’. According to Radiofarda, controversial judge, Mohammed Moqisseh, reportedly said‘I will make you suffer’ during the trial of the three convicted women.

International human rights organisations face a unique dilemma. Do they support the cause itself or the individual’s right to protest? The context in which these laws exist is not clear cut when similar laws were scrapped during ‘westernisation’ efforts by Shah Reza Pahlavi, rampant discrimination took hold and the headdress grew to become a symbol of the lower classes.

The hijab has been described by many as an oppressive headdress, but it does not have to be that way. Instead, it has been argued by Masih Alinejad, In an interview with the Independent, Alinejad commented on the rise of these protests, and their relationship with social media. She said, “the women in these videos are braver and angrier than before”, noting an escalation in the level of tensions between the state and the protesters. She brings up an interesting issue, and arguably one that will play an important role in future dialogues. Unlike ever before, these protesters and human-rights movements have access to social media and can therefore access vast swathes of the global population. The plight of people fighting against oppression worldwide can be broadcasted in real-time into the pockets of individuals across the world.

Movements like ‘White Wednesdays’, started by an activist based in Britain and the U.S., can take hold in nations like Iran and cause real disruption. How this plays into global human-rights movements is up for debate. The increased pool of supporters may dilute an already crowded stage and have the untoward effect of hindering nuanced and sensitive work that is already taking place. Social media raises awareness and allows for the spread of ideas and messages to a wider audience. As time moves forward, we may see it have a marked impact on human-rights struggles. However, when facing deeply entrenched legal corruption and real-world forces, is the utilisation of social media as a tool more of a superficial gesture and less of a meaningful push back?

In the case of Iran, if the words and actions of the political class are anything to go by, change may be far beyond the horizon. The question is, what is the nature of the change that is needed and what methods will be used to achieve it?

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