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Basic rights

Tamsin WalkerMay 30, 2014

First came the Facebook site dedicated to unveiled women, then the Cannes kiss, and finally the "Happy" YouTube video that ended in arrest. DW looks at the struggle for basic freedoms and gender equality inside Iran.

Iran women wearing headscarves
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

"Women's participation in society & economy should be seen as an opportunity, not threat. No Doubt," read a tweet by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on women’s day last month. In a televised interview to mark the same occasion, he reiterated the essence of the missive in speaking out for "equal opportunity, equal protection and equal social rights" for women.

But a Facebook campaign started by London-based Iranian journalist is indicative both in name and content of the reality being far from Rouhani’s stated aim. "Stealthy Freedom" began when Masih Alinejad posted an unveiled picture of herself on the social network platform, and invited her female compatriots to do the same.

The idea caught like wildfire and within days, tens of thousands of women had stepped outside the bounds of Islamic law which obliges them to keep their hair covered in public, and uploaded their own hijab-free photos to the site.

Such widespread enthusasim, says Ryan Mauro of the US-based Clarion Project, speaks for itself.

Screenshot My stealthy freedom Facebook
The Stealthy Freedom campaign has attracted hundreds of thousands of 'likes'Image: Facebook/My-stealthy-freedom

"If President Rouhani were a genuine moderate in favor of women’s rights, they would not be doing this, because they would have nothing to protest," he told DW. He says the term "gender equality" is relative in the hands of the Iranian leader.

"As the regime itself is based on Islamic Sharia, Rouhani doesn’t see it as contradictory to repress women, make them wear the head covering, and trample all of their freedom of speech."

Weighty campaign?

Mauro believes Alinejad’s campaign is making Tehran nervous. He cites the arrest of the young Iranians who danced on the now infamous "Happy" video as proof that the government lacks confidence in its own survival and is put on edge by grassroots movements.

"That is the essence of democratic revolution," he said. "A feeling of empowerment, the idea that they are on the right side of history and that they can succeed."

Yet leading Iranian women’s rights activist and writer, Mansoureh Shojaee, who has worked on many high-profile campaigns, including those protesting the forced hijab, is not convinced that "Stealthy Freedom" is serious enough to have a major impact.

"It is good, and I respect every single one of the women who joined in," she told DW. "But it doesn’t look at feminists who are against the forced hijab, yet want to keep wearing their own."

Screenshot "Happy" Iran Youtube
Because they're happy...Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

Shojaee, who is also active in the realm of cyber feminism, questions whether the campaign is a good example of such. "I wonder what would happen if it were attacked? Could the members stand to continue? Would they hold on?"

She believes it needs the support of experienced female activists to bring it out of its stealthy hiding and make it a more serious, enduring effort that really has the power to contribute to change.

No public kissing

The current controlling approach toward women was reflected at the recent Cannes film festival when the popular Iranian actress Leila Hatami was publicly reprimanded for kissing festival president Gilles Jacob on the cheek.

In a statement referring to the incident, Deputy Culture Minister Hossein Noushabadi said anyone attending international events should respect the "credibility and chastity of Iranians" in order to prevent the demonstration of a "bad image of Iranian women" to the world.

The actress issued an explanation and wrote a formal apology to her country’s cinema organization, but that has not stopped a group of female students from filing a formal complaint against her and calling for her to be subjected to flogging and sentenced to between one and 10 years in prison.

Actress Leila Hatami
Actress Leilah Hatami found herself at the center of a storm over a kiss on the cheek in CannesImage: Getty Images/Afp/Alberto Pizzoli

The incident speaks volumes. Volumes, which Ryan Mauro would like to see corrected. He considers it the obligation of the West to align with the Iranian people to exploit the groundswell of change that has existed among them for several years and ensure a smooth path toward genuine gender equality.

Shojaee agrees. "There are some disadvantages to Western involvement, such as security, but the advantages are more important," she said. "We are talking here about global sisterhood."