The June 2009 uprising following Iran's presidential election sparked the immediate scattering of its women's rights leaders across the globe. Activists living in exile took their activities online to pursue on-the-ground projects, initiating online campaigns and raising feminist awareness. Seven years later, this transition to cyberspace has had innumerable consequences for Iran's feminist movement. This article examines five Iranian rights-based platforms—Bidarzani, Women's Watch, Feminism Everyday, My Stealthy Freedom, and ZananTV—and their use of social media to vocalize and extend women's rights advocacy. Given the flourishing of cyberfeminist projects, it is worth investigating both the methodologies employed and the unforeseen constraints and costs that have emerged. For instance, do these undertakings challenge women's political and economic status in Iran? Is their activism a new and unique form of feminism? This paper explores their move online, tracing the shifts in Iran's women's rights movement, its current challenges, and its potential vulnerabilities.
Many human rights defenders, lawyers, bloggers, and journalists who participated in antigovernment protests following Iran's 2009 presidential election have since found themselves spread across the globe, in the process of resettling while Iran's domestic security apparatus discourages them from returning to their homeland. Many are facing difficult living conditions and enduring long processing times to secure asylum status; others are searching frantically for long-term work abroad while their security status at home remains uncertain.1 Though the reasons for staying outside Iran are multiple and complex, a unifying sentiment among this motley group is the urgency to remain relevant and connected to—while not physically present in—Iran's civil society campaigns. Consequently, “on the ground” activism has been replaced by a heavy social media presence and online initiatives tackling women's rights, international nuclear energy talks, and upcoming votes on parliamentary bills, to name but a few issues. Intended for Iranian audiences, these programs are promoted through social media and instant messaging services. Iranian feminist activists in exile have been particularly active in the social media domain and often host webinars, issue public reports, and produce, as one example, their own “e-broadcasting platforms” in Persian and English, drawing parallels between domestic and transnational gender and civil rights–related issues.
Given the flourishing of online feminist activity over the past seven years, it is worth investigating both the methodologies employed and the unforeseen constraints and costs that have subsequently emerged. If women's rights activists of the Iranian diaspora must rely on online and transnational networks to provide a platform for their causes, what impact does this have for civil society measures in Iran? Is the cyberfeminism they currently espouse a new and unique form of feminism? Or does it follow the same approach as mainstream liberal feminism, albeit assisted by digital tools such as Facebook, Telegram, and Twitter? Does it raise questions about the women's movement's credibility and longevity? How do state authorities assess and respond to cyberfeminism? Do recent attempts to define cyberfeminism involve misappropriations of feminist theory and objectives, and if yes, how so?
In order to tackle these questions, we survey some of the main organizations and campaigns working to promote gender equality and feminist awareness for Iranians and Persian-speaking communities, focusing on five feminist activist organizations and campaigns, two of which operate in Iran and the remainder in exile: Bidarzani, Women's Watch, Feminism Everyday, My Stealthy Freedom, and ZananTV. The “power and potential of the online communities” formed by feminist advocates post-2009 have yet to receive scholarly attention or even collective recognition; here, their projects will be taken to task, along with the bit and big players whose decisions and ideological convictions weigh considerably on their force and efficacy.2
Martha McCaughey and Michael Ayers's groundbreaking Cyberactivism: Online Activism in Theory and Practice (2003) provides critical lenses through which to analyze these five prominent online media websites and platforms. Wary of the increasing commercialization of the Internet, McCaughey and Ayers collaborated with other scholars to explore diverse efforts seeking progressive political change on the Internet, which they call “cyberactivism.”3 They reason that activists’ incorporation of the Internet into their repertoires has “changed substantially what counts as activism, what counts as community, collective identity, democratic space, and political strategy,” challenging perceptions of how cyberspace is used.4
This article seeks to explore the individual repertoires of the aforementioned groups, identifying their strategies for information production and dissemination; grasping the complex relationships among the key women's movement actors involved; and analyzing the virtual representation of feminist issues for the purposes of facilitating social change on the ground. It contends that the medium of cyberfeminism as it is expressed in Iran does not neatly conform to Euro-American feminist theories on cybertechnology, which will be elaborated later; cyberfeminism of the Iranian variety does not comment on technology's role in creating gender hierarchies in Iranian society, nor does it encourage women to engage with new media technologies to dismantle gender inequalities. In many respects, the Internet is viewed as a gender-neutral space and platform upon which feminist messages can be broadcast with less government surveillance and interference than in “real” (not digital) spaces. Many Iranian feminists emphasize the positive and empowering aspects of this new technology for conveying feminist ideas and raising gender awareness. Cyberspace, and the digital tools used to access it, offer a wide public forum for women's activists to broadcast rights-based campaigns originating from and for Iran. As a key example, for many Iranian women, the medium of cyberfeminism not only allows access and engagement with domestic and transnational debates on gender equality issues and anti-discriminatory legislation, but also provides a space in which to narrate personal stories and exchange views on taboo-laden subjects such as sexuality, divorce, questioning hejab, and religious teachings.
Before proceeding, several crucial points on contextualizing the term “cyberfeminism”: Those who participate in the digital discourses described above actively employ “cyberfeminism” (while speaking Persian) and thus produce a discourse about cyberfeminism that runs in parallel to, as well as engages with, scholarly discourses on social media and cyberfeminism. By looking closely at organizations that do just that, we can read productively the theoretical claims made by scholars about this “space”—both expanding our understanding of its power and challenging some of the claims made that do not seem to emerge within its practical instantiation. Further, by detailing the particular strategies and campaigns of each of these organizations, this article intends primarily to illuminate the multiplicity that might fall under the umbrella of cyberfeminism in Iran in a way that has not yet been properly done. In other words, we cannot understand the full import of this new mode of feminist activism without a fuller picture of the ways in which this activism actually exists in the world. Thus analysis sits next to description, both being key contributions that this article puts forth.
Moreover, cyberfeminism as deployed in the Iranian context enables women's activists in exile to exercise their agentive potential by maintaining a presence and relevance in domestic debates on gender equality and feminism, continuing conversations with a spectrum of Iranian women who use their mobile phones as both communication devices and information hubs. Furthermore, their exilic status increases their access to a variety of feminist discourses from across the globe as well as to uncensored information about other perspectives and forms of advocacy, which cyberfeminist organizations disseminate from spaces of exile back toward Iran. Thus these (dis)located activists provide a means for engagement with new ideas and feminist practices, and diversify Iranian feminist discourse.
Cyberfeminist space is a space of not just diversification, but visibility. Through recent debates publicized through social media campaigns against compulsory hejab and child marriage (two immediate examples), both domestic and international scrutiny of Iran's state policies and religious teachings vis-à-vis gender and public morality have increased, placing additional pressure on government officials to modify their course. Yet the cyberfeminist landscape for Iranian women's organizations and activists is still a cacophonic field. The “democracy” of the space enables new voices to emerge, typically coming from younger generations and/or non–women's activist backgrounds. While this seems to augur well, it also gives a platform to voices less versed in feminist theory or not knowledgeable about the domestic history of feminist practices in Iran. Thus at times the cyberfeminism of Iranian activists serves to elide the history of notable social, civil, and political gains made by pioneers within the country's century-long women's movement to improve the status of women during the Pahlavi, Khomeini, and Khamenei regimes. In some ways, it can be argued that theirs is a version of cyberfeminism that seldom reflects upon arguments and strategies that their predecessors took part in and/or found meaningful—a foreclosure of historical engagement that might signify the “dark side” of cyberfeminism.
In what follows, the discussion centers on the emergence of the term “cyberfeminism” across the globe and its unique definition and application in the Iranian context. It then segues into a brief overview of the Iranian women's movement and its deliberate shift into online feminist publishing and activism in the early 2000s, during the reformist years of the Mohammad Khatami administration in Iran; this was followed by the rise of online and social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter at the height of the political turmoil surrounding the 2009 presidential election. Next, the article corrals cyberfeminist activity to the “sites” of five recently formed online groups and platforms working primarily in the domain of improving gender awareness among Iranian women. It investigates how each group “establishes, nurtures, and maintains its [national and] regional networks of trusted contacts,”5 incorporating online interviews conducted in early 2016 with some of these organizations’ founders and members. They were asked to comment on the mission, infrastructure, sociopolitical challenges, and feminist orientations—if any—of their organizations. Subsequently, for each case study issues of access, training, and (mis)representation of feminist issues are considered. Their website content, activities on social media, and any other digital platforms they employ to reach their audiences were observed and analyzed. Media reports and interviews in which they took part are also considered in framing their promotional and feminist strategies.
As the article weaves through each organization's biography, it underscores a similarly applied method of promoting personal experience narratives to enable online community members located in different sites to reach out to one another as well as to initiate and sustain public discussion about the personal impact of official morality campaigns on Iranian women.
CYBERFEMINIST AND DIGITAL MEDIA INTERVENTIONS: AN OVERVIEW
It was in the early 1990s when the term “cyberfeminism” came into circulation among a disparate group of feminist theorists, artists, and science and technology enthusiasts at different sites across the globe. The Australian-based media art collective known as VNS Matrix is credited as one of the first to use the term, around the same time the British cultural theorist Sadie Plant was coining it in England, in her writings on the feminizing influence of technology.6 In 1994, Plant employed the concept to “describe the work of feminists interested in theorizing, critiquing, and exploiting the Internet, cyberspace, and new-media technologies in general.”7 For others, like Jessie Daniels, cyberfeminism has led to “an array of new expression of feminist practices.”8 According to Jenny Sunden, cyberfeminism's many faces are emblematic of the wide range of feminist practices it naturally includes: “from high theory to political techno-art, science-fiction writing, game design and activism.”9 The domain of activism is this article's point of departure. Especially among activist circles from Third World contexts, cyberfeminism has been praised for opening up “spaces for a dialogue apparently that accommodates the use of Western technologies in ways that are sometimes counter to mainstream visions of technology.”10 Radhika Gajjala expounds, “What all cyberfeminists share is the belief that women should take control of and appropriate the use of cybertechnologies in an attempt to empower ourselves. Cyberfeminists seek to use internet technologies and to create spaces online that are empowering to women.”11
Social media has been particularly useful for self-empowerment and producing and disseminating feminist discourse to broader female audiences, from young American girls to Kurdish women researchers. Jessalynn Keller argues that young (American) female bloggers employ digital media production for writing feminist history and making feminism visible within popular culture.12 Her arguments resonate with how blogging has functioned for many young Iranian feminists since the beginning of the 2000s, a topic discussed in a later section. Anna Piela observes, “Websites and blogs are extensively used by Muslim women across the world to express their views, explode myths and stereotypes, and oppose dominant discourses which are aimed at controlling them.”13 Shahrzad Mojab, for instance, writing on cyberfeminist activities among Kurdish women, notes that “cyberspace seems to offer an ideal sanctuary” for Kurdish activists and researchers spread across the globe, who seek to foster feminist consciousness through “promoting the theories and practices of feminism among the women of Kurdistan and the diaspora.”14 Through engagement with the Kurdish network, Kurdish women are notified of women's studies conferences and kept abreast of different community and institutional activities and forums, which according to the author contribute to “the production of feminist knowledge on topics such as women and nationalism, violence, war, ethnicity, global market economy and state.”15
A similar trend toward advancing feminist causes through forging online networks among communities separated by political circumstance and geographic distance has been evident among women's activists in Iran. In an interview with Women's eNews, Iranian women's activist Parvin Ardalan explained: “Every print magazine for women we had was closed. So we created a new world for ourselves in cyberspace…. Women in Iran are calling for freedom and equality. We want to show the world that we are not alone.”16 Using social media “as a news tool … women in Iran are calling for freedom and equality.”17 Social media in particular enables individuals to share their stories with others, “whether that information is public, as with most Twitter accounts, or semi-public, as it is on Facebook and its local competitors.”18 Increased Internet access and social media technologies have enabled more Iranian women to use online devices, expressing their feelings more openly while also challenging notions of patriarchy in the private sphere.19
Almost fifteen years have passed since the Canadian Iranian journalist Hossein Derakhshan established one of the very first weblogs in Persian, launching a blogging tidal wave by regular Iranians after posting online a how-to guide in Persian on setting up personal blogs.20 Since the reformist years of Mohammad Khatami and his Islamic Iran Participation Front (Hezb-e Mosharekat-e Iran-e Eslami), much has been written on Iran's blogging phenomenon as a new social platform for younger Iranians.21 But before the emergence of a blogosphere in Iran, a number of websites and portals were dedicated to the “dissemination of news and information related to gender issues and politics.”22 In the second decade of the Islamic Republic, a revival of secular feminist activity took place in response to Khatami's call for a more open political atmosphere. Exploring women's issues beyond the framework of religion and religious practice, secular feminists began to mobilize primarily international discourses, such as human rights legal mechanisms and conventions, to speak about and at times to define domestic women's rights issues.23 In this period, many women's secular-oriented nongovernmental organizations were established. Additionally, websites such as IranDokht, launched in 2002 outside Iran, offered regular news updates from some eighty contributors inside and outside the country.24 Soon to follow were the feminist online newsletters, blogs, and websites Bad Jens, Women in Iran, the Iranian Feminist Tribune, and Zanestan, along with dozens more that aimed to highlight women's issues and women's rights from more personal perspectives.
Many within the women's movement envisioned that Internet access and visibility would help strengthen ties with international women's rights organizations and networks. For a period of time, the aforementioned websites served as platforms from which Iranian women's social situation and activism were broadcast to an international audience. Although mainly accessed by a middle-class, younger demographic who came from urban areas in Iran, as the websites grew in capacity and readership, the informative reports they posted were soon used by international communities to learn more about women's status in Iran and by human rights organizations to monitor that status more closely. Additional pressure piled onto the Islamic Republic to observe human rights conventions and treaties to which it was signatory.
However, the heightened criticism from Euro-America only nourished government hostility toward these websites, the activists running them, and the private and nongovernmental organizations financially supporting them. Moreover, there was the lingering factor of exploitation by both media and international organizations, who perhaps sought to paint a more negative or stereotyped portrait of women's status in Iran than was called for. However, this publicity offered an opening for Iranian women's activists to create and expand their communication with transnational feminists working in regional and international networks. In the face of rising international visibility and momentum of Iran's women's rights activists and their struggle against gender discrimination and compulsory hejab—especially on the heels of the former judge and women's rights leader Shirin Ebadi receiving the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize—Iranian authorities accelerated their efforts to curtail the activities of women's rights advocates and cripple their organizational capacities. And two years later, with the inauguration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, came the dramatic suspension of the women's movement.
THE CONSOLIDATION OF
OSOULGARAEI, THE “CRIPPLING” OF THE WOMEN's MOVEMENT
As Ahmadinejad found support among the osoulgara-ha (principalists)—conservative regime loyalists proclaiming adherence to the principles and values of Islam and the Islamic Republic—officials launched a political offensive against both feminism and women's rights activists. Feminism was pilloried as a “Western plot” aiming to destroy Islamic principles, apparently the bedrock of Iranian society and the Islamic regime. Unlike his predecessor Khatami, Ahmadinejad took a harsh, even hostile approach toward feminist activities in general and women's NGOs in particular. By the end of his first term, almost all of the independent women's NGOs had been shut down.25 A 2012 Human Rights Watch report summarized this period:
Under Ahmadinejad's presidency, the attitude of the government shifted from the cautious encouragement of NGOs that had characterized the approach under Ahmadinejad's predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, to one of suspicion and open hostility. The government increasingly applied a “security framework” in its approach to NGOs, often accusing them of being “tools of foreign agendas.” Authorities also suppressed the work of activists by denying permits to NGOs to operate, often refusing to provide written explanations when rejecting applications, as required by Iranian law.26
Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection sparked mass protests around the country and, after the crackdown, much of the civil society movement began falling apart at the seams given the forced exile, imprisonment, and silencing of its leading activists.
New thorns in the government's side were online platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, which acted as communication lifelines for opposition protesters distributing and seeking information about demonstrations, international news coverage, and election updates. Though banned by the government, they were nevertheless accessible via virtual private networks (VPNs) and other anti-filter software applications. Thereafter access became much more difficult, and, crucially, officials began scouring Facebook accounts for any negative posts about the election and/or the regime's policies. They were concerned that ordinary Iranians would make use of these technologies, forming a cybercommunity that could develop and distribute uncensored information critical of the state. Seeking additional security and anonymity, Iranian netizens looked for new platforms to safely connect to one another and convey their personal and political messages without government censorship and/or reprisals. (The most recent and popular of these platforms is Telegram messenger, whose influence in promoting free speech and citizen journalism in Iran is discussed further in the article.)
Almost two years later, after growing suspicious of unmonitored interaction and sharing of information via social networking websites, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (Sepah-e Pasdaran) established a sophisticated cyberwarfare unit and shadow organization known as the Cyber Army, which operates as the state's offensive arm, “charged with attacking and bringing down any domestic website that engages in activities the authorities perceive as transgressive—as well as hacking and disrupting the websites of perceived foreign enemies.”27 Similar to legislators in Kuwait and Israel, among other countries, who have “denounced the Internet as a threat to local culture, morals, or religious sensibilities,” officials sought to stymie any activities that could potentially harm Iran's national security; even the clerical monthly Sobh called for a ban on the Internet.28 With an estimated staff of more than 2,400, comprised of “experts from among Basiji academics, university students, religious seminary students, and Basiji sisters (female Basiji militia members),” according to General Ali Fazli, the commander of Sepah, the Cyber Army works to hack, disable, and filter “enemy sites.”29 In defense of the unit and its activities, Chief of Police General Esmail Ahmadi-Moghaddam reasoned, “Social networks on the Internet brought a lot of harm to our country because of spreading rumors and allowing anti-state groups to help each other.”30 Granted an annual cybersecurity budget of more than $19.8 million,31 the Cyber army are tasked with extending state control into cyberspace, monitoring journalists, academics, and civil society activists. It has successfully hacked opposition stations and websites, most notably Voice of America, Amsterdam-based Radio Zamaneh, China's Baidu search engine, and (the recently defunct) Jaras, an Iranian opposition news site, as reported by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.32 According to a November 2014 report, Iranian judiciary officials and security forces have zeroed in on identifying and prosecuting online activists via a “variety of organizations, some of them official, some semi-official, and some that are almost completely opaque, facilitating a near complete lack of accountability.”33
CYBERFEMINISM: A THREAT TO IRAN's NATIONAL SECURITY?
The Iranian government's demonization of feminism is neither a new phenomenon nor an original state tactic.34 But unfettered access to social media that is promotive of feminist causes has recently been a cause of new concern for officials determined to protect national security interests and policies on public morality. Officially, cyberfeminism is viewed as a threat to Islamic culture, purportedly intending to destabilize and undermine the Iranian regime. Online lobbying for feminist ideas is treated as a menace to cultural norms, for its role in advancing a “Western plot” to destroy the regime.35 For instance, an Iranian website affiliated with the IRGC Intelligence Agency published an article in May 2013 accusing cyberfeminism of serving the “interests of the West.”36 The article concludes: “Another problem that women face in an information community is the misusage of their identity. Although cyberfeminists try to turn cyberspace to a gender-less environment, it eventually would lead to the commercial exploitation of women as it happened in industrialized societies.”37 Similarly, in 2015, the Islamic Coalition Party (Hezb-e Motalefey-e Islami), a hard-line conservative group supportive of the state, published an article highly critical of cyberfeminism. In “Reptile Move of Cyberfeminism in Social [Iranian] Media,” which is based on an interview with an “expert on media and culture,” cyberfeminism is introduced as a strategy that no longer suppresses women and promotes gender equality. However, the expert cited in the piece, Faezeh Zera'at Pisheh, contends that this new technology alters women's identity and devalues motherhood:
The main application of this form of [cyber]technology is to serve the media, [feed] their “soft power,” and confine the meaning of motherhood to that of raising a pet. It is at that moment when we witness the behaviors which are contrasting [with] our Islamic culture. Such improper manners, like mothering a pet, is based on Western culture that is devoid of character and identity; it is a culture that does not allow a woman to practice her right to be a mother of a child—yet she has the right to play the role of mother to a pet.38
A month later, posted on the very same website, another nameless author wrote: “Today, feminism is a doctrine that promotes moral corruption and promiscuity. Therefore, one should assess [feminism's] activities based on this factor. Promoting feminism should be understood as part of a larger project called ‘effacing-morality.’”39 The latter term was meant to flag the regime's fierce protection and enforcement of “public morality and chastity,”40 which were prominent features of its Islamization campaigns pursued in all sociopolitical and public sectors since the 1979 Revolution.
SOCIAL MEDIA: A FEMINIST TOOL KIT FOR THWARTING STATE IDEOLOGY
Despite all these attempts to disrupt their access to social media applications, many Iranian women, coming from a cross-section of households in big cities and small towns, interconnect using social media applications on their mobile phones. Internet-based messengers such as Telegram, Instagram, and WhatsApp have enabled easy access to information and news, much of which offers immediate counterpoints to state ideology and discourse. Telegram is worth further consideration given its popularity among Iranians. Launched “financially and ideologically” in August 2013 by the Russian technology businessmen Pavel and Nikolai Durov, it is a subscription-and-ad-free cloud-based messaging app focused on speed, security, and accessibility for all. In the words of its founders, “With Telegram, you can send messages, photos, videos and files of any type, as well as create groups for up to 5000 people or channels for broadcasting to unlimited audiences.”41
Given such protections and perks it is no wonder that Iranians have gravitated toward Telegram. Anyone with a smartphone can join a particular Telegram group (whose membership is capped at two hundred) and begin interacting with group members by sending messages, posting links, and virtually connecting to discuss a wide range of political, social, and, at times, personal matters. Unlike Twitter and Facebook, it is not filtered and has subsequently emerged as one of the leading social media services in Iran, attracting attention from conservative and reformist politicians, media, and the general public. Major publications inside and outside the country have created channels on Telegram, which are followed by thousands. Media outlets such as the BBC's Persian Service and Voice of America, and even ultraconservative news outlets such as Tasnim News and Fars News Agency that are aligned with the IRGC, have established their own Telegram channels to reach Iranian users. On October 7, 2015, the Iranian News Agency (IRNA) announced the launch of President Hassan Rouhani's official Telegram channel.42 In February 2016, the company announced that it had surpassed one hundred million active users globally, “who were delivering 15 billion messages daily.”43 Iranian security officials estimate that domestic Telegram users number as many as twenty million.44 As of this writing, Telegram can be easily downloaded and accessed on all mobile phones in Iran.
Although no official statistics on the number of active Iranian women users of Telegram presently exist, from personal observation of the Iranian feminist networks in which both authors participate, a considerable number of women's activists use it as a promotional tool for dispensing critical information and sharing news. For instance, the group that refers to itself as Women's Arena Activists (Fa'alan-e Hozeye Zanan) (rather than Women's Rights Activists [Fa'alan-e Hoghough-e Zanan], thus distinguishing itself from antigovernment feminist activists) has a diverse membership in terms of secular and religious backgrounds; primary members have some pro-reformist leanings. The mix of backgrounds has led to various confrontations on women's issues, especially in discussions on religion. Severe disagreements on women-related laws and policies have played out, with participants taking sides on the “patriarchal interpretation of religion” versus the notion that “religion is anyway patriarchal and should not be part of legislation.” This debate by itself would seldom take place in the press, for the mere act of criticizing religion, in the Iranian context, could be interpreted as engaging in antigovernment political activism—a criminal offense in the eyes of the state. For such reasons, the members of this group who are more vocally critical of religion and ideology either live abroad or use pseudonyms as a precautionary measure.
Telegram is but one of many social media networking tools that activists exploit to publicize their causes and connect with one another. It may be too soon to offer an assessment of its long-term impact on generating feminist consciousness among the Iranian public. Still, as a necessary medium for information sharing, it has contributed significantly to Iran's feminist movement—a second phase, so to speak, whereby women's rights leaders are able to recommence their activism in exile and maintain liaisons with the Iranian public. In the remaining sections of this article, we survey five women's rights organizations and platforms of the cyberfeminist terrain, inquiring about their methodologies, project objectives, feminist sources, language, and target audiences.
In what follows, My Stealthy Freedom (Azadi-ye Yavashaki Zanan dar Iran), ZananTV, Women's Watch (Didehban Zanan), Feminism Everyday (Feminism-e Roozmareh), and Bidarzani will be assessed and compared regarding how they navigate their complicated positions, both inside and outside of Iran, and how they present the current social, political, and economic status of women in Iran. As will be clear, there are profound differences in the activist repertoires they employ to challenge the Iranian government's gender policies. A crucial difference among them is the acknowledged sensitivity and restraint that organizations like Women's Watch and Bidarzani exhibit when discussing appropriate measures that would facilitate gender awareness in Iranian society. Those based in Iran prefer to keep the negotiation window with the government open, and hence pursue reform primarily through making suggestions on policy and legislation.
MY STEALTHY FREEDOM
Posted on the home page of My Stealthy Freedom (Azadi-ye Yavashaki Zanan dar Iran) is the statement: “The right for individual Iranian women to choose whether they want hijab.”45 Within the short span of a month, the accompanying Facebook page set up in May 2014 had transformed into an online campaign, garnering praise and disdain from Western periodicals and conservative Iranian clerics alike. (Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, announced that year that it was one of her favorite Facebook pages.)46 Founded and administered by the Iranian journalist and activist Masih Alinejad, now a resident of New York, it provides a space for Iranian women to post photos of themselves briefly removing their headscarves—an act that violates the government's Islamic dress code, which has been in place since the first years of the 1979 Revolution. The campaign describes itself as an “online social movement where Iranian women share photos of themselves without wearing the hijab.” In Alinejad's words, the project is not intended to demonize the headscarf itself, but to start a public conversation on a woman's right to choose whether or not to wear it.47 The site has accumulated 1,047,778 fans (as of October 2016), and features photos of Iranian women of all ages. The press attention has impelled members of the clergy to hit back, some accusing Alinejad of sending “corrupt messages” that provoke sin among young people, especially daughters.48 Alinejad has been called a “whore,” and there were even fabricated rumors of her having been gang raped in front of her son in an attempt to sully her reputation; she vigorously denied these claims.49 My Stealthy Freedom has no apparent political affiliation, yet clearly it aligns itself with critics of the regime and its policies on public morality and dress, among other issues. In a June 2016 post, the campaign issued a statement:
By sending their unveiled photos to the entire world, these Iranian women have been striving to change this oft-circulated misconception that the compulsory veil is part of Iranian culture. In fact, the compulsory veil has never been part of Iranian culture. This is merely a backward law imposed by the Islamic Republic, which has been trying to convince the entire world that the compulsory veil is part of Iranian culture. This distinction is very important.50
Alinejad's campaign has received as much support as it has criticism. Appearing in the online edition of the American high-fashion magazine Vogue, Alinejad is described as an “Iconoclast Inspiring Iranian Women to Remove Their Headscarves.”51 If her original intention was not to denigrate the veil but encourage open critique of compulsory hejab legislation, then this particular feature story title discredits her claim. The author even does a disservice to the historical lobbying against compulsory veiling, claiming that Alinejad has initiated “one of few open conversations about the veil, a sensitive subject even activists are hesitant to raise.”52 One need only conduct a perfunctory web search to easily find the names of Shirin Ebadi, Mehrangiz Kar, Shadi Sadr, Golshifteh Farahani, Marjane Satrapi, Fatemeh Sadeghi, and countless others who have consistently and openly questioned compulsory hejab inside and outside Iran. Alinejad's project, despite the ignorance of many Western-based media, is in fact a continuation of a decades-long, historical struggle among ordinary Iranian women and women's activists against mandatory veiling—but, as mentioned, this space has a tendency to elide this history.53
Alinejad has become a celebrity for many West-based women's rights activists and a mainstream media hungry for insider perspectives on contemporary Iran's social realities. Featured in the Independent, the New York Post, the Huffington Post, and the Guardian, among many other English-language publications, the My Stealthy Freedom project has become synonymous with its administrator.54 In brief, Alinejad, rather than her cause, holds the spotlight. Her personal experience as a young girl with curly hair who was forced to wear hejab and thus felt discomfort and indignation is widely reiterated by the press to illustrate the pitfalls and illiberal foundations of Iran's Islamic veil policy.
Moreover, there is some debate over the nature of the photographs and the comments on freedom, rights, and liberty that typically accompany them. Iranian women continue to send photos to Alinejad, yet there is something intriguing about their presentation. The photos are often highly stylized portraits of women temporarily freeing themselves from the source of their oppression. In many of the shots, the unveiled women are standing next to bodies of water, valleys, mountains, or public monuments, their arms uplifted and their scarves billowing in the wind—a staging that gives off a sense of the enormous risk supposedly associated with the act of publicly unveiling in Iranian society. On one hand, the action of unveiling and its documentation for public consumption are acts of civil disobedience, one that many eyes across the web will glance at and perhaps use to form an opinion about women's status in Iran. Yet beyond the voyeuristic responses, questions still remain about the limitations, efficacy, and impact of this kind of social media campaign. Are women being encouraged to challenge compulsory hejab using a particular emancipatory language, be it feminist, liberal, Islamic, and/or human rights, in order to compel fundamental policy changes in dress code? It seems that they are merely being asked to post a pivotal moment and then, as is typical of the swirling nature of social media, move on with their lives, not really putting in the real-world work involved in changing state policies.
Regardless of the praise and criticism that My Stealthy Freedom has thus far received, one cannot deny that in terms of global and media reach it is the most successful online campaign that Iranian civil society has experienced since the advent of cyberfeminism in Iran in the early 2000s. Much of this success is due to Alinejad's popular social media profile and the various television, print, and online appearances she made even prior to promoting her campaign among European and American audiences. Through the visibility of cyberspace, she has become a “go-to” media personality and bilingual expert who comments on controversial policies impacting Iranian women. Other online feminist groups, such as ZananTV, presently do not have such a degree of global media attention.
In October 2011, in the heart of New York's Zuccotti Park, located in the city's Financial District, at the time considered the epicenter of the US Occupy Wall Street protest movement against social and economic inequality, ZananTV (literally “WomenTV”) was spiritedly launched by founder and director Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh. To inaugurate the event, Abbasgholizadeh made a solo video marking the network's naissance as “an alternative, activist-driven media outlet for women's movement and pro-democracy advocates inside and outside Iran.”55 With bases in London and New York, the “independent, alternative TV channel” has proceeded to produce programming created by Iranian activists from Iran's civil society movements, endeavoring to be “the tribune for women and youth activists who are marginalized.”56 Much of Abbasgholizadeh's founding announcement is worth quoting, as it explicates the reason for the media mission and the communities it seeks to reach and impact:
ZananTV considers itself a successor to the sites of various, preceding women's movements. In particular, we follow in the steps of media outlets begun in recent years such as Zanan-e Iran [Women of Iran] and the [Iranian] Feminist Tribune, and then sites that followed those, including Change for Equality, Maydaan-e Zanan [Women's Arena], the School of Feminism, and Law for an Equal Family. Truly, these sites were platforms, environments in which various women's actions and reactions could be organized and generate dialogue. To that extent, these sites were able to greatly influence the Iranian Democratic movement.57
Historically situating the online channel as a successor to these sites and a member of Iran's women's movement, Abbasgholizadeh physically situated herself in the video among makeshift tents set up in the park as educational networking spaces. She envisioned ZananTV as “a visual extension of the women's movement” that could “create a space for the strengthening and enriching of ongoing debates and can incorporate existing exchanges as well as consolidate communication within and around pro-Democracy advocacy in various groups and active campaigns. We also seek to develop relationships between transnational action groups, such as the Occupy Wall Street movements in the US and Europe, and dynamic contemporary movements inside Iran.”58 As an Internet base and website focused on feminist programming, ZananTV endeavors to foster a virtual space akin to “physical, urban spaces” for pro-democracy activists to gather and hence provide a networking structure and/or institution to share ideas, generate dialogue, and form solidarities. In her own words, Abbasgholizadeh describes the platform as “an alternative, citizens’ media outlet” with special investigations and programs on women's issues, the human condition, and broader human rights and democracy issues—which according to her are “rarely found in the mainstream media.” Abbasgholizadeh summarizes: “ZananTV is its analysis of the margins.”59
Since its official launch almost three years ago, the English version of ZananTV's website has spotlighted art exhibitions and women's protests taking place around the world, including a 2015 photography show on the “relationship between the camera and women's bodies” (History Is Now: 7 Artists Take on Britain, held at London's Southbank Centre) as well as a women's rights demonstration honoring International Women's Day in London's Trafalgar Square. At the latter ZananTV showed footage of demonstrators taking part in drum circles and raising banners on behalf of Million Women Rise, an umbrella peace protest organization that includes causes from LGBT communities, Iranian mothers, and Kurdish women from Kobani, Turkey, among others.
For its Persian audience, the website (as of this writing) showcases a trailer of the 2013 recipient of the Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or, Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie d'Adèle—Chapitres 1 et 2, 2013), a coming-of-age drama directed by Abdellatif Kechiche about two young women who enter into an emotionally and sexually charged love affair in Paris. Accompanying the trailer is a ZananTV article on the depiction of homosexual romances, highlighting scenes of intimacy and sexuality between women and charting the film industry's gradual embrace of documenting and exploring same-sex issues. Other posts include interviews with the Iranian artist Parastou Forouhar and articles on state empowerment projects designed for Iranian women residing in villages and small towns, as well as a twenty-minute debate on feminism and religious intellectuals that originally broadcast on the cable satellite program Voice of America, featuring Abbasgholizadeh herself.
With close to fifty-nine thousand likes on Facebook (as of July 2016), ZananTV projects itself as a transnational platform bringing together a vast global network of artists, activists, scholars, and journalists into one virtual space, whereby at the click of a button, users can observe how their disparate locations and viewpoints merge to espouse local women's issues of global resonance.60 (March 8, 2016—International Women's Day—marked the launch of their Telegram channel. To date, it has 269 members.) Having no filter of government advisors or media censors, Iranians can presumably access discussions about feminist issues that are not typically fodder—handled, if and when so, as against the law and/or contrary to Islamic values—in state television programming and newspapers.
However, despite the range of programs and issues discussed, what seems blatantly obvious about how ZananTV is structured and presented is the looming guidance and directorship of Abbasgholizadeh throughout. Her recorded interviews are uploaded there; her articles are posted along with video clips of debates and presentations on Persian satellite television. In short, she features prominently on ZananTV, and in effect is the central figure in its production, programming, and outreach. Moreover, despite the tens of thousands of likes ZananTV has received on Facebook, from January 2016 until this writing (in March 2016), on average each post has received between ten to fifteen likes.
Abbasgholizadeh intended to turn ZananTV into an “alternative, citizens’ media outlet” with a transnational feminist orientation. While still highly critical of the Iranian government, she has also promoted anticapitalist and postcolonial feminism. Thus, this particular organization actively works to engage in what has been previously described as the “diversification” of feminist discourse in Iran. However, despite all of these efforts, ZananTV has not garnered much attention compared to other online feminist platforms, such as the Women's Watch Telegram channel.
Having 7,552 members, Women's Watch (Didehban Zanan), created and operating from Tehran, is one of the most popular women's rights channels on Telegram, broadcasting women-related news, articles, and photographs.61 Participants submit posts on diverse subjects, such as a story on the humble background of a female French Moroccan education minister, or photographs of the Iranian poetess Forugh Farrokhzad. Each day Women's Watch posts approximately fifty items, mostly espousing a feminist perspective. Its inaugural post on October 31, 2015, began with a provocative leading sentence: “78% of women in the country are inactive.”62 Originally published in a reformist-learning website, this article critiqued Iran's Sixth National Development Plan on women's economic and political participation, arguing that the government could not provide adequate opportunities for women's economic participation, thus breaking one of its promises to the people.
Women's Watch accelerated its information sharing a few months before Iran's parliamentary election of February 2016. Posts on reformist or pro-reformist female candidates were uploaded. The primary objective was to encourage women to participate and vote for the reformist candidates, especially female ones. It also vigorously promoted the motto “Women's 30% Proportion to Change Parliament's Masculine Look,” which advocates increasing parliamentary seats allotted to women by up to 30 percent.63
Unlike ZananTV and My Stealthy Freedom, Women's Watch challenges gender norms while working politically behind the government's red lines. The channel's administrators are careful to promote certain interpretations of women's rights that do not directly oppose the government's ideological and religious policies. Pointing out gender discrimination in Islamic texts is considered taboo, for instance. Instead, they focus on those contentious issues that are not subject to strict religious interpretation and hence can be addressed by appealing to rights granted in Iran's constitution, for instance a woman's right to attend men's sports matches (fig. 1) or her right to ride a bicycle in public space (fig. 2).
Though administrators of Women's Watch are careful not to violate domestic laws, various news posts and links shared on their page are not congruent with official state policy on women, dress, and gender relations. Many of the posted articles are demonstrably pro-feminist and criticize the government's discriminatory legislation on polygamy, compulsory hejab, and men's absolute right to divorce. For instance, figure 1 shows a rare phenomenon of female spectators who successfully snuck into a football match; women are officially banned from attending male sporting events at stadiums. Most of the posted messages are not generated by the administrators but gleaned from other online sources and social media, such as Instagram and other Telegram channels.
The Iranian Feminism Everyday (Feminism-e Roozmareh) is modeled after the US-based feminist media site Everyday Feminism. It calls itself “an educational platform for personal and social liberation” whose mission is “to help people dismantle everyday violence, discrimination, and marginalization through applied intersectional feminism and to create a world where self-determination and loving communities are social norms through compassionate activism.”64 Founded in Washington, DC, Feminism Everyday started with its own website and Facebook page; once Telegram's popularity soared, in September 2015 it launched a Telegram channel that as of October 2016 has more than 2,250 members.
Intending to inform audiences about gender and women's rights, it states its methodology and mission thus: “You will read about women and gender issues in a more simple language. Our aim is to address the concerns and question of the young generation; the generation that does not accept the values of traditional society and power division in the family; the generation that wishes to alter the current system.”65 Feminism Everyday excessively covers subjects considered taboo in Iranian society, such as a woman's right to enjoy sex, menstruation, virginity, sexual assaults, and marital rape. In order to raise awareness about these topics, administrators ask participants to share personal experiences—these make up the bulk of the site's content. On both its Facebook and Telegram pages, women's daily experiences—personal stories of gender inequality, legal discrimination, and physical and psychological violence—are featured.
Unlike Women's Watch, Feminism Everyday produces its own content; administrators and readers regularly contribute commentaries and stories, published in both Persian and English. Interestingly, although the majority of its audience are Persian speakers, many of the primary sources it uses are translations from English into Persian. Unlike My Stealthy Freedom and Women's Watch, Feminism Everyday's pedagogical aim centers on teaching core concepts of feminist and gender studies in simple, often comedic, language with the aid of pictures, animations, and videos. Figure 3 illustrates a typical post from its Telegram channel. The photograph is a rendition of the American wartime propaganda poster “We Can Do It,” which over the years has evolved into an iconic feminist image. In this portrayal, a woman flexes her arm surrounded by a G. D. Anderson quote, written in Persian: “Feminism is not about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It is about changing the way the world perceives that strength.”
Self-empowerment is just one of many topics promoted; other issues include women's sexual rights and their right to make decisions about their own bodies and health. For instance, as depicted in figure 4, a smiling Shirley Chisholm (the first African American woman to be elected to the US Congress) greets the observer; to her right, in Persian, her words are emphasized: “The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, ‘It's a girl.’” The appropriation of American images and feminist discourses might seem peculiar when appealing to an Iranian audience, but the choice of particular images that engage in both racial and gender politics seems to evince a high level of nuance and tact, as well as demonstrate the trafficking of feminist discourses between the Global North and South.
Unlike ZananTV and Bidarzani (which we will elaborate on in the following section), Feminism Everyday does not take a vigorous anticapitalist or transnational feminist approach. Based on its posts and contents, it is clear that the approach is a radical feminist one. Promoting feminist awareness through liberal slogans and notions, Feminism Everyday focuses on educating ordinary Iranian women about feminist rights, especially their right to control their bodies.
Among this motley group of cyberfeminist organizations, Bidarzani claims just 588 members, and thus stands out. Leftist in its political orientation, it began in the winter of 2010 as a Tehran-based women's rights collective that fought against a government-sponsored Family Protection Bill.66 Introduced by the Ahmadinejad administration, the bill intended to curtail Iranian women's rights, allowing Iranian men more freedom to practice their right of polygamy without proof of financial means or the first wife's consent.67 It also proposed taxing the alimony paid to women upon divorce in a one-time lump sum.68
In spring 2014, the group expanded its arena of activism, changing its name from the original To an Equal Family Law (Ta Khanevadeh-ye Barabar) to Bidarzani (literally “women's awakening”). They reasoned that the latter term “expresses our idea to awaken [create awareness in] our society regarding gender discrimination and women's issues.”69 Generally speaking, they raise awareness about gender equality, sexual health, and reproductive rights.70 Bidarzani, like many other Iranian feminist groups, considers cyberspace a central awareness-raising platform but does not ignore the traditional publication. According to cofounder and member Nikzad Zangeneh, in the last five years, Bidarzani has published and distributed more than one thousand pamphlets in different cities across Iran in order to reach communities that do not have access to the Internet.71
Zangeneh, who resides in Tehran, elaborated her understanding of feminism in an interview as “a struggle to shake dominant structures and rebuild a new system within which people's sex [and gender] is not a criterion to access and control sources and interests.” She contends that this feminist goal can only be achieved through “an organic relation with fighting other forms of oppression, such as class, race, religion, and sexual orientation, et cetera.” Aligning herself closely with Marxist and intersectional feminist thinking, she insists, “I believe patriarchy will not be overthrown unless we were defeating capitalism as well.”72
One can trace the Marxist feminist approach in the posts that Bidarzani shares on its online platforms (website, Facebook, Telegram). Topics such as women and the labor market in the United States, women and war, women refugees, and violence against women frequently appear on its web page.73 Zangeneh argues that “Telegram, Google+, and Facebook are cybertools that Bidarzani uses to publish its website content.”74 For her, using the Internet for the purposes of activism is unavoidable. Cyberspace is “not only a suitable platform for publishing feminist and women's news and articles, but also a means to collaborate, coordinate, and attract activists. Many individuals active in Iran's women's movement continue their ties and connections via the Internet and cyberspace.”75
Bidarzani, unlike Feminism Everyday, attempts to raise awareness via a leftist grassroots-based form of feminism. And Bidarzani's founders represent a younger generation of Iranian feminists in comparison to Alinejad and Abbasgholizadeh, who were exposed online to alternative feminist discourses during the early 2000s. These generational differences could explain the observable differences in coverage of subjects such as women's poverty, public health, and teaching feminism.
The expanding popularity of cybertechnology via portable communication devices has given regular Iranians new means by which to access data of their choosing, broadening their information sources as well as their analyses of news events. For feminist activists in particular, cybertechnology has facilitated the sustaining of ties that were potentially in limbo once exile became their reality. Opportunities for reconnection and maintaining a continuity of message—that the women's movement is an active interlocutor in Iran's civil society post-2009, for instance—have furthered activists’ attempts to hoist a proverbial loudspeaker announcing pivotal human rights cases and legislation to the Iranian public.
We can surely reflect on their present status and speculate on their future predicaments, but ascertaining the overall impact of these five very different cyberfeminist campaigns remains difficult. We can say with certainty that the severe pressure that led to the shutting down of feminist activist organizations within Iran was a temporary inconvenience; as soon as prominent Iranian women's activists and journalists such as Shadi Sadr, Masih Alinejad, Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, Shirin Ebadi, and others established residency abroad, they restarted their campaigns, refusing the silence imposed upon them. However, their former strategies of establishing NGOS and participating in international NGO meetings in order to foment revolutionary, grassroots social change quickly became antiquarian, whereas during the Khatami regime, these methods and goals seemed realizable. Today, Iranian feminists, wherever they reside, must rely on cyberspace to disseminate ideas that are controversial and unpopular in the eyes of the state.
The increase in smartphone usage and the invention of Telegram birthed a new media universe whereby no official statement on women's roles in Iranian society goes untested, unanalyzed, or unexposed. Women's rights and feminist content that is not complementary with Iranian official discourse has elevated feminist awareness, however cautiously, among Iranian women. It seems certain that the more Iranian women have access to the Internet and information websites via their mobile devices, the more they will link with the campaigns of women's activists who left Iran and those who remained. The preserved connections, albeit separated by physical distance and confined to the cyber-realm, have given ordinary Iranian women access to alternative feminisms. Transnational feminist ideas and movements, born out of Zuccotti Park and/or captured through Instagram and Telegram, force a different kind of discussion on the many modalities of feminism circulating throughout Iran, the greater Middle East, and the Global South.
Implicit within this discourse is the notion that cybertechnology is an emancipatory feminist medium for women of the Global South, offering a necessary means of combating patriarchy and ignorance when other avenues remain either closed or beyond their reach. Still under debate is whether online feminist activism can successfully take the place of on-the-ground networking and civil society capacity building. Does sharing a story online, even if done collectively and dispersed to a wide audience, generating fruitful discussion, exert the same impact as deliberating in person over legislation on marital relations or health care access?
That said, Bidarzani, Women's Watch, Feminism Everyday, My Stealthy Freedom, and ZananTV are presently in their very early stages of development and the realization of their missions. In many respects, the cleavages found among these five online platforms are to be expected. Each organization individually promotes its own versions of feminism, given the orientation, training, and experience of its founders, making the Iranian cyberfeminist landscape a rocky terrain of diverse feminisms, clashing approaches, and personality conflicts. Given the swiftness of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the frenetic manner in which online activist campaigns are conducted today, and the fact that user attention inevitably vacillates, the collective efforts of these five campaigns may result in what one critic has described as “lawn-chair activism.”76 Does raising feminist consciousness convince and subsequently provoke men and women to actually do the hard work of changing social conditions? Or is the incessant accumulation of virtual sound bites questioning compulsory hejab or insisting upon the election of reformist candidates, for instance, numbing the urgency for action?
In time, the answers to these questions may gradually reveal themselves. A more pressing matter is the detention of feminist scholars seeking only to conduct research on women's status in Iran. Recently, in June 2016, Homa Hoodfar, a Montreal-based anthropologist and retired university professor who has written extensively on Muslim women in Iran and Egypt, was arrested in Iran when she returned after an absence of many years. She was accused of “feminist activities and security crimes.”77 Upon her release in late September, reports emerged of how she had been swept up in an intimidating geopolitical game, whereby the Canadian and Iranian governments hurled not-so-veiled attacks at one another and jockeyed for bargaining power over her release while working to renew diplomatic ties.78 Amid the fracas, a researcher was being held as a scapegoat for the “crime of feminism,” according to Iranian officials, while cyberfeminism continued to expand beyond their reach.