Iran erupts in feminist protest

Why are Iranians in the streets, how is it being framed in international media, and how are people outside the country boosting the signal?

Iran erupts in feminist protest

Dear friends,

The young woman, her back to the camera, brings her hands to her head and ties her blonde hair back. It appears she is about to join protestors being harassed by police on a scene already globally marked by citizen fury: mass marches, fires in the street, cut hair, burned hijabs, and banners with messages urging justice filling social media and major mastheads.

The video went viral, recognised as a potent symbol of Iranian women’s defiance: no head covering, glasses fixed to her face, hair pulled neatly away, ready to fight. This was earlier last week, with news spreading on the weekend that she was a 23-year-old woman who was then shot dead by security forces. The story has been confirmed, then unconfirmed; its very movement through the networks a testament to the potentials of solidarity and the desperate need for clear perception on what’s happening in Iran right now:

According to AFP, what we do know is that at least 76 people have been killed in protest in the last two weeks, a figure provided by the Norway-based NGO Iran Human Rights — more women, some men, children and young people are appearing among that number in unverified reports on social media. Without the oversight and information feeds afforded by the internet, the real number is likely much higher. The protests in Iran are being supported throughout the world.

To begin to comprehend, we need “to start with the beginning of the regime,” Soma Rostami told me this weekend over WhatsApp, referring to the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 which installed the current theocratic government.

Rostami is a spokesperson for Hengaw, a Kurdish human rights organisation that monitors violence and abuse throughout Kurdistan. She says it’s been 44 years of “heavy pressure on women,” with the peak of protest registered in the last ten years.

Iranian authorities, acting for the repressive state with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei at its head, “oppress women in different ways,” explains Rostami, saying that women are forced to wear the hijab and wear modest clothing and follow whatever rules the authorities decree.

“They violently deal with women. Their behaviour and laws have hurt all women in Iran for years. So now [they are protesting to do against the law] to say we don’t like it, we don’t follow it, we don’t want it.”

Right now, adds Rostami, “the protests are also in support of Mahsa Amini and her family, the last young woman killed by the morality police of Iran.”

A 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini died in police custody on 16 September after being detained by the morality police for dressing incorrectly.

The protests are well supported by men throughout the country, too, says Rostami:

“Women are in the front line of the demonstration, but we clearly see men's support in photos and videos.”

”The support of men, which has extended to all of the cities, is really important and valuable.”

Violence for protesters, double violence for Kurdish women

Emphasizing the dangers of protest in Iran, Rostami notes that “anybody protesting for anything; any request or demand is unacceptable to the government.”

It is a dangerous situation right now for all protesters as “they [Iranian authorities] are treating protesters in the worst way,” while Kurdish women “face double violence.”

This is evident in the targeting of Kurdish women by the justice system. Mahsa Amini died at the hands of police; further:

Zainab Jalal is the only woman in Iran who has a life imprisonment sentence. Zahra Mohammadi was arrested only for her activities like teaching the Kurdish language, which is her mother tongue.”

Rostami also points out Mojgan Kavousi, who was in prison for two years, and recently released from prison:

“In the last few days, she was arrested again without even participating in the protest.”

Boosting the signal: international frames and institutional responsibility

Rostami says international media attention has been very effective: “the hashtags [e.g .#MahsaAmini, #Mahsa_Amini, #IranProtests2022] have worked perfectly.”

“The voice of Iranian people and especially Kurdish people is being heard by people around the world.”

Rostami wants international institutions to take note, saying the danger to ordinary citizens of Iran currently highlighted through global media “is not new.”

“We’ve experienced it before. Many times, such as in 2018," and in [November] 2019, “when 1,500 people were killed, according to Reuters.”

“The international community knows this, but they didn't do any real action about this yet.”

“They have to to do something. They have to force the government to stop it, to stop the crime. They are killing people.”

As Muslim, African, Arab and Asian writers, activists and advocates for gender justice point out to us on the regular: these moments in the Islamic or ‘non-western’ world are important ones in which white, western feminism and the ‘unlikely’ allies it seems to find at moments like this to pause for breath before going full Hillary on main. The New Yorker’s recent profile of activist Masih Alinejad (who also regularly highlights the problems with western feminist activism ‘on’ or ‘for’ Iran) has been accused of falling exactly into the trap of ‘imperial feminism’ due to connections to the Trump administration:

For Soma Rostami and others fighting to get word out, “the biggest problem… is the disruption of network connection,” with the Internet nearly completely cut off, “in almost all of the cities in Iran and especially in Kurdistan.”

There’s little specific news from many cities, she continued, just the horrific knowledge that “they’re just killing people, directly shooting people; doing everything just to stop the protest.”

People and networks to follow:


General resources on verifying social media reports that might be useful in boosting signals from Iran:

Thanks for your attention, readers, and do let me know if there’s any more word I might share as these important protests continue. I’m not super familiar with Iran but up for doing what I can with this medium to get independent news out, interrogate the international frames we tend to hear these stories through, and support a fight that matters.

- Ann.

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Jamie Larson