Women’s rights issues have always been a political issue from Reza Shah’s unveiling act in 1936 banning women from wearing the veil, to Khomeini’s veiling act in 1983 enforcing the veil on women. Iranian women’s bodies continue to be a site of contestation by different political voices. Social media is an important tool for women’s rights activists to highlight some of the issues facing Iranian women. It also constitutes a new ground upon which different voices battle for power and visibility.
Two notable causes around which social media is helping mobilise women are the campaign against the compulsory hijab, and Iran’s #MeToo movement. So how does social media, where different voices battle for visibility, shape the discourse on Iranian women’s rights? Why are these causes notable online, and what are the dynamics of these social media campaigns?
Which Hashtags and why?
In Iran, international social media platforms are blocked but over 60 million active Internet users circumvent the filters and gain access daily with Virtual Private Networks (VPN). Nonetheless, being vocal online against restrictive laws such as the compulsory hijab and socio-economic inequalities faced by women leaves them at risk of imprisonment.
Hashtags are a good place to start when exploring digital activism. Functioning as ‘hypertext’ linking different texts written at different times, hashtags as a form of transmission, are unique to the online environment and can be considered as a form of digital archiving of texts, images, and videos across social media platforms. One of the first major examples of hashtag activism within Iranian women’s rights activism was from Masih Alinejad, a former parliamentary journalist inside Iran. After the green movement uprisings in 2009, when she along with many others fled the country for security reasons, she created the hashtag #MyStealthyFreedom as a critique of the compulsory hijab.
After initial success with this form of activism, she went on to create the #WhiteWednesdays and the #MyCameraIsMyWeapon campaigns. These hashtags amplified the voices and images of women challenging the discriminatory law against women’s dress in an increasingly securitised online space. Many women were forced to hide their faces in order not to be identified and subsequently arrested, the sad fate of some of the protestors.
With over six million followers on her Twitter and Instagram accounts combined, Alinejad’s tech-savvy approach to capturing movements in short hashtags has gained her a significant audience that has continued to grow over the past decade.
Her large online presence is much indebted to the fact that content is sent to her in the form of videos and photos from protesters of the compulsory hijab within Iran. This raises an interesting, albeit problematic, question about her ‘armchair activism’ as she is posting from a space of relative safety. A controversial figure of the Iranian women’s rights movement, she nevertheless has a large audience and that assures Iranian women who send her footage from inside the country that their voices will be heard by many.