A seemingly harmless social media movement undertaken by women throughout Iran has generated some serious vitriol on the part of the Iranian government. I first wrote about the Facebook unveiling movement a month ago. Since then, Iranian hardliners have launched a vicious smear campaign, falsely claiming that the movement’s founder, London-based Masih Alinejad, was brutally raped by three men in front of her son. An Iranian TV commentator went so far as to call Alinejad “a whore who should not be elevated to the level of a heretic.”
The implication here is clear: Women who remove their veils are not only at risk of sexual assault, they deserve it.
When I first wrote about the Facebook unveiling movement, I argued that such social media activism is a remarkable and influential outlet for free expression, particularly in countries that limit civil rights. The unveiling activism is made all the more powerful because the Iranian government is limited in its ability to contain the movement. Indeed, Iran’s recent attempt at countering Alinejad’s campaign is desperate, bizarre, and emblematic of a government that, thanks especially to the defiance of its young people, has never managed to fully control its civilians.
It’s also familiar. Just a few weeks ago, government authorities arrested six Iranians who uploaded a YouTube video of themselves dancing to Pharrell’s song “Happy.” They were released days later, shortly after Iranian president Hassan Rouhani tweeted, “#Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviors caused by joy.” It certainly wasn’t the first time his administration delivered mixed messages via social media. Rouhani has stated that the Internet should be free and unfiltered, but has been careful not to stir up anger from conservative Islamic leadership. In fact, since his administration took over, the country experienced a noticeable increase in Internet censorship.
Incidents like these are a product of the unrelenting struggle between Iranian youth and the Islamic regime. More than 60 percent of Iranians are under the age of 30. This means that most Iranians have no memory of and no real attachment to the events that led to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. These young Iranians are progressive, educated and tech-savvy. And since the 2009 Iranian election protests, the perceived threat they pose to the Islamic establishment has clearly intensified.
Rouhani is obviously playing both sides. But his give and take leadership style is not likely to bring about real reforms. It seems the Iranian government can continue to act as it pleases, while its president drowns out their deeds with tweets.