More than 60% of Iran’s 80 million people are younger than 30, according to CIA World Factbook statistics. And although Facebook and Twitter are technically banned in Iran, most young people know how to bypass censorship by using virtual private networks. There’s also the potential for a large audience; 60% of Iranians use the internet, according to the Washington-based Freedom House 2018 study on internet freedoms in Iran.
In January 2018, another Iranian woman became the subject of a social media campaign named #Where_Is_She after images of her removing her white head scarf and tying it on the end of a stick in Tehran’s crowded Enghelab Square went viral, prompting concerns over her safety and whereabouts.
Her act motivated other women to also remove their head scarves in public. During that time Iran was rattled by the biggest anti-government protests in nearly a decade.
Thousands of Iranians, including women alongside men, demonstrated in cities across Iran to protest high unemployment rates, a crumbling economy and the failure of President Hassan Rouhani’s administration to carry out his promise of relaxing social and political restrictions.
Dozens of women who removed their head scarves were arrested.
Women’s activists said that the fast dissemination of news on social media about Khodayari and the woman who removed her white head scarf highlights how young Iranians are increasingly using the internet as an outlet to express their frustrations and that it has proved to be a helpful alternative to protests when it comes to pressing for change.
“Social media have been heaven for the younger generation. Over the last five years I’ve been seeing a new generation of women fight for their rights by using social media,” said the founder of the Open Stadiums campaign.
Even as women’s rights diminished greatly in the years after the 1979 revolution, women’s activists say significant gains in literacy and education over the last 30 years have helped raise women’s expectations about their role in society. History has also played a role in framing the women’s movement; since the early 20th century, Iran’s leaders have politicized and sought control over women in order to consolidate power, albeit in different ways.
In 1936, the pro-Western Persian monarch Reza Shah Pahlavi created a law that banned women from wearing head scarves — an act that many pious women saw as repressive — and outlawed segregation of the sexes in public places in an attempt to to mirror popular ideas of modernity.
When his son, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, returned to power after the U.S.- and British-backed coup of 1953 ousted democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, he followed in his father’s footsteps by pursuing a series of reforms known as the White Revolution in a bid to retain control and legitimacy.
Restrictions on women intensified after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. But this time, the slightest reminder of the West was shunned. Under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s rule, women were forced to cover their hair and they also lost the right to file for divorce and were required to wear loose-fitting clothes. Alcohol was banned as well as music and dancing in public places.
For some women’s activists in Iran, such drastic changes in laws have helped shape their goals. Mahjoub Marzie Rasooli, a 40-year-old women’s rights activist, said the difference in laws concerning head scarves between her generation and her mother’s has shown her the importance of fighting for the right of women to choose whether they want to cover their hair in public.
“We must be free to choose whether we want to follow Islamic code of dress or not,” Rasooli said.
Back in the streets of Tehran, in the days after Khodayari’s death, people gathered for a candlelight vigil outside the courthouse where she had set herself on fire. Her favorite team also held a moment of silence before its practice session.
“Step by step, trench by trench, women activists are advancing toward their goals,” Rasooli said.