“In our country, it is the law that rapes us”

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.

Masih Alinejad/Washington Post Courtesy Photo
Masih Alinejad/Washington Post Courtesy Photo

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.


Unveiling on Facebook

In the years since the Arab Spring protests across the Middle East and the Iranian Green Movement, scholars, writers and pundits of all shapes and sizes have been questioning the real impact of social media in creating lasting change. “Slacktivism” is a term we often hear in conjunction with such analyses, referring to the lazy activism taken up mostly by outsiders who do little to contribute to the issue at hand. I, myself, have been guilty of it. When the Green Movement was in full force in the summer of 2009, I watched the news powerlessly from thousands of miles away. Like many Iranian-Americans, the most I could do was change my Facebook profile picture to an image of the popular slogan, “Where is my vote?”

Researchers have found that social media tends to play a minimal role even inside the countries where such movements are taking place. In Iran, for example, most of the tweets about the Green Revolution actually came from outside the country. Iranians had limited access to social media during the Green Movement, as the government had blocked Twitter and Facebook.

FACEBOOK/آزادی های یواشکی زنان در

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a cynical and much-cited essay for The New Yorker in which he downplays the influence of social media as a tool for activism. “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties,” he writes, and “weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.” 

Yes, Gladwell is correct in his argument that a Facebook user’s decision to change his or her profile picture pales in comparison to the high-risk actions of civil rights protesters in the 1960s. But he ignores cases in which social media has been an outlet for free expression, in stark defiance against oppressive governments that would prefer their citizens silenced.

Case in point: “The Great Unveiling” movement, as Vocativ calls it. Women throughout Iran have been posting to Facebook photos of themselves in which they are (gasp!) de-veiled. It may seem tame and light-hearted on the surface, but we’d be wrong to ignore the bravery of these women and the inherent activism in this. In a country that actively monitors and enforces a strict dress code for women, this is a direct challenge. The movement’s founder has faced criticism from Iranian conservatives but, besides banning Facebook, the government can do little to stop it (in fact, even a ban would be ineffectual in the long-term, as most Iranians can get around them).

I’d say it’s time for a reassessment, Gladwell. This one’s a definite win for social media.