Is Social Media Making a Difference for Women in Tehran?

Standing atop telecom boxes, waving their hijabs, Iranian women have been protesting the Islamic Republic’s nearly forty-year-old compulsory hijab law. After a photograph of Vida Movahed, bravely waving her hijab above her head on Tehran’s Engelab Street went viral, many more women have since joined the protest. Since the demonstrations have predominantly occurred on Engelab Street, the recent movement has been known as “The Girls of Revolution Street”, the English translation of engelab is revolution.

Moreover, the “My Stealthy Freedom” Twitter page, managed by Iranian journalist, Masih Alinejad, encourages women to wear white every Wednesday as another symbol of protest and use #WhiteWednesday to spread the message. As Iranian women’s rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh stated, “This is a civil-disobedience movement…the message is very clear and very specific—that women want to be able to choose if they wear hijab or not.”

After learning about the “Girls of Revolution Street” protest, I immediately thought about the themes present in the first two movies of this year’s film series “You Say You Want a Revolution”, Persepolis and The Social NetworkPersepolis, the screen adaptation of the auto-biographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, follows her journey into young adulthood against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution.  Unwilling to submit to the dictates of the authoritarian Islamic Republic, Satrapi rebels by holding hands with her boyfriend in public, purchasing Iron Maiden and Michael Jackson records, and freeing her hair from her hijab.  While these acts may seem trivial, Satrapi could have faced imprisonment and even death.  Following the viewing of The Social Network, a dramatized account of Facebook’s founding, Professor Negar Mottahedeh shared her insight into social media’s profound ability to connect both people and movements throughout the world.

Thinking about recent social media campaigns, such as #MeToo and now #NeverAgain, in response to the recent, tragic Florida high-school shooting, I wondered if social media has also played a role in popularizing and shaping the “Girls of Revolution Street” movement.  Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran stated, “[the current protest] is further propelled by a global moment of women’s rights activism.”  Thus far, almost thirty Iranian women have been arrested for protesting and charged with crimes such as “committing a sinful act”, “violating public prudency,” and “encouraging immorality or prostitution” that can “carry penalties of as much as a decade in prison.”  Outraged, thousands of people have tweeted, shared, and posted their concerns.  Recently, Tehran Police Chief General Brigadier Hossein Rahimi claimed, “those who do not observe the Islamic dress code will no longer be taken to detention centers, nor will judicial cases be filed against them.” I wondered if social media provoked this change in policy.   Will the platform social media provides for advocacy and activism prove to be critical in the push for women’s rights in Iran?