Gender and Development

The Girls of Revolution Street & the Challenges of Western Perception

The recent protests led by the women against the compulsory hijab in Iran have captured the interest of Western audiences and the media. Alexis Kroot analyzes how the depiction of Iranian and Muslim women in the west ignores their historical role in their emancipation, ultimately marginalizing their message.

BY: ALEXIS KROOT

In the waning days of 2017, Vida Movahed stood on a utility box on Enghelab Street, removed her white hijab and hung it on a tree branch. She did so in direct defiance of an Iranian law, which requires all women to cover their hair in public. Removing the hijab in Iran can lead to fines or arrest of up to two months, and in some cases, according to Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, severe beatings meted out by the authorities.

This act ignited varied responses ranging from crackdowns by the government, which included Movahed’s arrest and accusations that outside influences were deceiving women into removing their hijabs, threats of rape, and acid attacks on women who were participating, to calls of support from women and men throughout the country and the world. Before her name was even known, people were rallying in support of Movahed, and the hashtag #WhereIsShe was born, demanding her release from prison. Her actions have inspired others, but have resulted in more than 35 arrests of women since the protests began. They would come to be known as the ‘Girls of Revolution Street,’ in reference to Vida Movahed’s original protest on Enghelab Street, or Revolution Street in English.

Western perceptions tend to associate Muslim women and women in the Middle East with oppression and subordination. The image of Muslim and Middle Eastern women that developed in Western media is that of a woman wearing a hijab, which has seemed to capture the fascination of the Western world. This limited image of a Muslim woman assists in the perpetuation of stereotypes and creates a narrow lens through which women in the region, and in Muslim communities around the world are viewed. With this attention comes the risk of cooptation of the protests’ message. Amel al-Ariqi, writing for the Reuters Institute, notes how this image of Middle Eastern women has been leveraged by media organizations, in addition to governments. An example of which is the use of images of Afghan women in 2001, to gain support for the American invasion. Another example is the use of an image of a woman to portray suffering in mass media, in order to elicit sympathy from the viewer around an issue like poverty, without providing a platform for said woman to speak. The protests of hijabs invariably caught the interests of Western observers who tend to identify the veil as a symbol of what they perceive to be the backwardness of Islam and the region.

In addition to the danger of cooptation, comes an aspect of historical ignorance of women’s role in protests in the region, and in this case, specifically of Iranian women against laws surrounding the hijab. Shortly after the protests began, President Donald J. Trump tweeted “The ­people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt ­Iranian regime.” Not only does this erase the protests led by the Green Movement in 2009, but it also diminishes the work that Iranian women, who have been participating in it for almost 40 years since the 1979 imposition of compulsory hijab. This ignorance is widespread, perhaps pointing to a blind spot in Western media when it comes to the role of women activists in the Muslim world and throughout the region.

Reports on the protests tend to ignore the historical role Iranian women have had in demonstrations, and gloss over the complexity of hijab protests in Iran. It is difficult to find articles that mention the anger and defiance of Iranian women towards the forced unveiling under Reza Shah’s modernization push between 1936 and 1941, which forced women to sneak out at night wearing a hijab and risk prosecution and abuse. Western media also tends to frame the reign of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as a golden period for Iranian women without noting that “many intellectual women considered their political advances [under the Shah] to be bogus,” and would later take up arms against his regime. During this period, women were forced to organize to push back against Family Protection Laws in order to advance their rights. In fact, protest against compulsory hijab is not a new phenomenon in Iran. Since the first days of compulsory hijab, women have taken to the streets to voice their opposition to legal measures, which have been created to dictate how they are allowed to live their lives.

Over the years, Iranian women have evolved their tactics to push back against compulsory hijab, taking to online platforms with Facebook groups such as “My Stealthy Freedom” and “No to Compulsory Hijab” to share their message, not only with other women in Iran but with the world at large. Despite the arrest of Vida Movahed and many others since the protest began, women continue to risk their safety to protest compulsory hijab. In fact, it follows in a long tradition of Iranian women pushing back against the strictures of hijab laws, by showing more hair, or pairing it with fashionable clothing even though it risked censure from morality police.

Although many women have appeared to be in support of the protests, it is the image of a woman in chador, holding a white hijab aloft in solidarity, which indicates the possibility of larger support of the protest. This harkens back to the disagreement voiced by Islamic feminists against the law for compulsory hijab in 1979 when they pointed to Qur’anic text, which stated that “there is no compulsion in religion.” Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist and the creator of “My Stealthy Freedom,” notes that there are more pressing political issues for women in Iran than the hijab, but that it represents the state’s way of stamping authority. Removing the veil, as the protestors dubbed the “Girls of Revolution Street” have done, represents more than simply a protest against the compulsory hijab, but the strictures that the Iranian state have imposed on all its people.

But, treating these demonstrations as spontaneous, instead of evolving from a long history of protest by Iranian women removes the agency of women who have been consistently fighting for their rights. Women don’t need a savior, but instead deserve the respect of being treated as agents of their own lives, and their own emancipation. Zephie Begolo, a journalist writing on Iran, noted that after the 1979 Revolution women became the embodiment of cultural authenticity. By falling victim to stereotypes and historical ignorance, Western perspectives have imposed a role on these women in a different manner than the way in which the Iranian regime has tried to mold them.

Erasure of women’s role in activism may assist a certain narrative, but in the end, it is damaging and serves to undermine women’s role in their emancipation. Ignoring women’s agency forces them into the role of the “beautiful soul,” which wars are fought over; without thought to what they may actually desire. The images that the media uses can shape viewers’ perspectives, on a region, a culture, or on religion. By relying on narrow and stereotypical depictions of Muslim women, they are shaping a narrative where women are not participants in the struggle for their rights. If they are not viewed as participants in their own struggle, how likely is it that they will be included as participants in the structures meant to emancipate them?


Alexis Kroot is a Masters student at the University of Edinburgh, studying International Relations of the Middle East with Arabic. She currently serves as the Middle East and North Africa Regional Editor for the Leviathan Journal of Politics and International Relations on campus. In her role as Regional Editor she draws on her experience studying, living and travelling in the Middle East.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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