As thousands of protesters filled the streets of Iran over the past six days to demonstrate against a floundering economy and government corruption, Iranian women have been catapulted into the spotlight.
Videos and photographs of the demonstrations spread quickly across social media, and one of the most widely shared was of a woman ripping off her headscarf and waving it on a stick—a move interpreted as a demonstration against the country’s strict religious rule. The image has become the de-facto symbol of the current protests, and many social media users have adopted it as their avatar.
But the image wasn’t taken during the protests that have rocked Iran for almost a week. Instead, it was a picture of a woman demonstrating against dress codes, hours before the current protests began. Masih Alinejad, an Iranian women’s rights activist, shared the image as part of a campaign against Iran’s strict dress codes for women.
Still, many U.S. news outlets declared that women are the face of the current protests, and conservative media outlets used the images to criticize American feminists for doing little to support feminist activists in Iran.
“Iranian women are not adorning pink knitted hats, or costumes resembling female genitalia. … No, these brave women are caught on videotape and in photographs for the world to see, and the women’s movements have yet to barely offer so much as a tweet or a Facebook post of support,” Fox News wrote.
In reality, however, Iran watchers say the role of women is being overstated, and that it is too early to pass judgment about what effect the protests or women's involvement in them will have.
“The protesters are mainly working-class young men, with some women scattered amongst them, but there is nothing approaching the gender balance we've seen in recent major protests, like 2009 or 1999. So if anything, this is the least feminine protest moment of recent times,” Azadeh Moaveni, an Iranian-American writer and author of the book Lipstick Jihad, told Newsweek.
“Iranian women are a favorite media fetish, so even though iconic images have been of women, this isn't a mixed revolt.”
To be sure, some women have taken to the streets to call for regime change over the past six days, and protesters in Iran have been filmed calling for the country’s religious hardliners to step down. Experts say their action is part of a long history of women’s activism in the country.
“Women have been at the forefront of pushing for change in Iran since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. In fact, the women's rights movements are the biggest thorns in the side of the regime,” Narges Bajoghli, an anthropologist who focuses on media production in post-revolutionary Iran, told Newsweek.
The viral images of women being shared over the past week have captured the world's attention, but women activists have been the focus of Iranian government repression for much longer.
"The women’s rights movement in Iran can trace its origins to the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, when women advocated for equal education rights," Gissou Nia, a human rights lawyer focused on Iran, told Newsweek. "Following the disputed June 2009 presidential elections in the country, there was a wholesale attempt by the Iranian authorities to dismantle the women’s rights movement, but peaceful protest has persisted."
Still, Nia noted that women only featured prominently in protest footage during the first few days of demonstrations, and that it would be erroneous to say women are leading the movement.
Meanwhile, Bajoghli argues that the involvement of foreign feminists would be detrimental to the efforts of Iranian women.
“Iranian women have decades of experience in organizing in Iran for change. It is when their movement has been politicized by western feminists, especially those tied to the right, that the situation becomes more dire for them on the ground,” Bajoghli told Newsweek.
“If it is perceived that American feminists, or any outside forces, are trying to tip the balance in favor of these grassroots movements, it gives the state a reason to crack down on them on suspicion of receiving outside help.”
Still, some American feminists have shown their support for Iran. Linda Sarsour, a Muslim American activist who was one of the main organizers of the women’s march last winter, posted a long message of support for Iran’s protesters on her Facebook page. Sarsour argues that it’s hypocritical of the right-leaning pundits to show concern for Iranian protesters when they supported a travel ban that keeps Iranian citizens from entering the U.S.
“The right-wing media have always been critical of feminists and women’s movements in the United States,” Sarsour told Newsweek. “It’s disgraceful that the right-wing media would use the plight of courageous Iranian women to further their own agenda.”
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