The greatest feminist struggle of the century is raging in Iran, but it’s barely made a ripple in the West
In a hazy home video of one day in the distant past, Masih Alinejad sits in her living room and sings a sombre song in Farsi to her brother Ali. He responds wryly and playfully with a headstand, spreading his legs to form a ‘Y’ shaped yoga pose. Masih then gets up and dances behind him, twirling her arms while she sings the last enchanting notes of the song. As she sings, her thick black hair rests elegantly on her shoulders. This may appear to be little more than a modest, endearing domestic picture to those of us used to living under certain liberal principles, most of which we consider to be non-negotiable. But as soon as Masih steps one foot outside, walking under the prying eyes of the Islamic Republic of Iran, this behaviour would ensure her freedom is forfeit. It could even be persuasively argued that, for all Iranian women, it is forfeit at the point of birth.
Among other draconian prohibitions, Iranian women are forbidden from singing solo, and most markedly, from exposing their hair in public. These prohibitions of her home are not the kind Masih is inclined to respect or accept; rather, it’s in her nature to disobey them. For this reason alone, Masih and Ali have not seen each other for 10 years, Ali is imprisoned in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison and Masih is unable to set foot in her home country, lest she face the horrifying prospect of the Republic’s vengeance.
‘My Stealthy Freedom,’ the resistance movement Masih created to protest the mandated hijab instilled by the Islamic Revolution of 1979, began from an accidental chain reaction: Masih posted a photo of herself running down a London street with her hair rippling in the wind. Hundreds of Iranian women then saw the photo and commented on how envious they were of her freedom to do so. Emboldened by their support, the next photo Masih took was in her native Iran, again with her hair flowing free; a furtive little step towards freedom. Now thousands of women have followed her lead, culminating in the ‘White Wednesdays’ campaign, in which women all over Iran take off their hijab in unison and share their photos online.
The Iranian government’s response has been emphatic, in both its endeavour and its cruelty. One protester named Mojgan Keshavarz chose to give out flowers, hugs and kisses on public transport with no hijab as her form of resistance. She has been sentenced to 23 years in prison. Another, Shaparak Shajarizadeh, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for taking off her white hijab, tying it to a stick and waving it in the air while standing on a telephone box. She has since fled Iran and is unlikely to ever return. Cases like these are widespread throughout the country, and the Republic’s stubbornness and brutality may even increase as protests grow in size: over 3 days in November thousands of civilians rose up together in wider anti-government protests. 1500 were slaughtered. This movement is regrettably putting Iranian women in great peril.
In our zeitgeist of #MeToo, The Women’s March and victorious court cases over equal pay, it could be expected that an insurgent new feminist uprising concerning one of the most basic human rights would be one of the hot topics of the day, like apartheid during the Civil Rights Movement. The colour of this era and this street fight for freedom could barely have aligned more aptly. Yet beyond some dispassionate reporting on the ebb and flow of events, few in the western media have offered their solidarity. Even most prominent feminist journalists and organisations have remained eerily silent. Opinion pieces on this issue are almost non-existent despite the plethora of feminist content produced and circulated online; none of the major feminist events in 2020 (though they are now likely to be cancelled) were set to address this subject; the recent Women of the World festival on the Southbank featured over 30 talks, yet the struggle faced by Iranian women was not seen as worthy of a minute of discussion. Masih experiences this in her daily life as a journalist, and has condemned the silence and inertia of the western media, claiming Iranian women are alone in this fight. The remaining pertinent question is not if this issue is being ignored, but why.
Despite what you might expect given the meaning of ‘liberal,’ Masih has felt most resistance and coldness from journalists in the liberal media, very few of whom have offered their endorsement. Her idea for why this may be is illuminating: “There seems to be an uncanny fear amongst liberals to lend us their support. Many of them are scared of being labelled as Islamophobic. In reality, there is nothing Islamophobic about asking for freedom of choice. This barrier of fear should be crossed and liberals should start to see us as their natural allies.” As Masih has always been very clear to state that she is not opposed to the hijab and has said she dreams of seeing women in both hijab and no hijab walking side by side down the streets of Iran, this behaviour of certain influential liberals seems not only cowardly and impertinent, but stupid. If they are not willing to support this cause, perhaps we ought to give them another name.
An immediate riposte could be the worn yet tenable argument that the distance of a story from those who may report on it is directly proportional to the coverage it receives. Among factors such as timeliness, conflict and consequence, the significance of distance to the reach and pull of a story is undeniable, as evidenced by the 2018 abortion referendum in Ireland which garnered widespread attention in the western media. But should this excuse hold up in our hyperconnected age of social media, increasing globalisation and cultural, societal mixing?
Never before has the fate of women in disparate countries been more inextricably linked. Without the rights of western women to compare to, Iranian women may not have been encouraged to protest so vigorously and fearlessly. Should we not be addressing this resistance movement with at least the same fervour as the behaviour of one predatory Hollywood mogul?
Distance is also, of course, no unbreakable barrier. The right story, given enough significance and relevance to the mood of the day, should rise above the clamour and chaos of local narratives and demand attention. This has only been intensified by recent advances in communication technology; our increased ability to feel the suffering and struggle of those on the other side of vast oceans is surely one of its greatest gifts. This is perhaps most profoundly embodied by the global protests against apartheid in South Africa. Vivid TV images of its brutal violence and suffering were key to galvanising millions across the planet, ensuring it became one of the defining struggles of the later decades of the 20th century. Upon a state visit to Washington following the end of apartheid, Nelson Mandela thanked the American people for their support: "You have no idea how your involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle in our country actually helped to facilitate the transformation."
This fact of how external support and solidarity can influence the outcome of a freedom fight itself is why the western media’s inertia in this case is so abhorrent and in need of redress. Iranian women may be valiantly battling the inequities of their birth with hope and resolve, but much uncertainty still surrounds whether their dreams will be realised, and without outside support their chances of success are greatly curtailed. This is not the first time Iranian women have protested en masse against the mandated hijab. A day after its introduction on March 8th 1979, hundreds of thousands of women with their hair flowing free took to the streets of Tehran, in a protest infused with solidarity, joy, humour and defiance. Unfortunately, this would become the last day that so many women would walk outside in Iran with their hair uncovered. It took just under 40 years for the birth of a renewed rebellion, and its spreading embers may soon be put out by the Republic’s pitiless will.
One can only hope that on this occasion this opportunity for freedom will be cherished and nurtured, and will not be lost to the whir of time. If the western media will wake up and rally to the cause, perhaps Iran may begin to feel the heat of outside pressure, and this movement may live on, growing with each year and each new inspired generation. Yet with such meagre global support and with such hateful theocrats determined to defeat them, a great fight still lies ahead. For now, it must sustain itself on the dreams of ordinary Iranian women, who merely hope to one day be granted the most basic liberties of expression, identity and individuality, and to no longer have to accept secondary status under the letter of the law.
Billy Campbell is a freelance journalist with a focus on the arts, culture, society and in-depth features. He is drawn to stories of the disenfranchised and the maligned, and is most inspired by those who use art and journalism to fight for freedom. His hero is Raif Badawi.