How Social Media Fuels the Iranian Protests

Iran has seen major waves of resistance in the form of protests in 1999, 2009, 2017, 2019 and 2021; what separates the 2022 protests from protests before? All preceding protests reveal an underlying legitimacy crisis for the regime where the population have called for regime change. These protests share common themes of widespread dissatisfaction with the regime and its exclusionary policies towards women and other minority groups. However, the protests sparked by Amini’s death have transcended sectarian and ethnic differences, and the role of social media has differentiated the 2022 protests in terms of reach. Amini’s death has sparked global outrage across the country with individuals in adjacent countries and the West demonstrating support for Iranian protests by burning their hijabs and cutting their hair. The impact of social media has meant that protestors have been able to share videos of severe uses of force by the Iranian police and protests in real-time using the hashtag #Mahsa_Amini

The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini has sparked protests against the current regime in Iran throughout all 31 provinces in the country and across the world. Amini’s death followed after being arrested for protesting the compulsory headscarf rules, resulting in her death. The Iranian police claim her death was a result of heart issues, however, public opinion rejects these claims as eyewitnesses have come forward with allegations that Amini was severely beaten by police officers almost immediately after her arrest. The police tried to dispel these allegations with reportedly heavily edited CCTV footage showing Amini holding her head and subsequently fainting whilst in police custody – this has sparked further outrage across the country. Several factors have been attributed to the protests in Iran, and scholars and journalists have highlighted the general dissolution of Khamenei’s regime, the contention of Islamic law, and women’s rights. Social media, albeit underappreciated, is a major factor driving the current wave of Iranian protests and is essential to comprehending both their effectiveness and the broad indignation over Amini’s death.

The outrage sparked by Amini’s death is far-reaching and pervasive. Cities like Mashhad and Qom, previously considered loyal to the regime, are protesting against the state. Despite state-sanctioned restrictions on the internet and apps such as WhatsApp and Instagram, the videos of protests and police killings have dispensed the spirit of resistance to areas that have previously been key strongholds of the regime in terms of public opinion and therefore upholding the regime’s legitimacy. The impacts of social media on the protests in Iran are pertinent, it plays a major role in unearthing even the quietest feelings of dissatisfaction and animosity towards Khamenei’s regime. The government’s internet censorship highlights the critical role that social media has played in the Iran demonstrations. The attempt to contain public fury and the dissemination of information online are two examples of how social media has helped the protests endure.

Similar to the major waves of resistance in previous years, the 2022 protests have been highly decentralised, there is no central leader or organisation that drives the resistance against the current regime. Similar to the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and the United Kingdom when social media circulated videos of the public shooting of George Floyd, social media incentivises individuals in Iran to protest online and organise resistance on the ground.   Iran’s “George Floyd moment” might be summed up by saying that Mahsa Amini’s passing served as both the impetus and fuel for the public’s active forms of resistance to the government. Iran has gotten support from all around the world as a result, much like the BLM movement, which benefited greatly from social media. Iran was thus kicked out of the United Nations (UN) Women’s Rights Council, and the UN also sanctioned Iran’s Morality Police based on allegations of human rights abuses. 

Ultimately, many elements contribute to the Iran protests. Mahsa Amini’s death was the catalyst that started a continuing global movement against Iran’s current regime. Scholars and journalists alike have drawn attention to the role of women’s rights and debates on Islamic law, but social media has been a key component that helps to facilitate the impact of all grievances. Understanding social media’s significance is essential for comprehending the ongoing Iranian demonstrations since it reveals how a decentralised movement has spread throughout the globe. Social media is still a vital tool for winning over other nations’ and international organisations’ support.

It’s the fact that…

Sign at Women’s March 2019, Kuala Lumpur.

Taken from

It’s the fact that…

It’s the fact that growing up I was repeatedly told “Don’t talk to strange men”, “Don’t walk home alone at night”, “Don’t take the same road from and to school”, “Don’t leave your drink out of your sight when you are out”, “Don’t walk alone with your headphones on” “Don’t…”, “Don’t…”, “Don’t…”

It’s the fact that when I do walk alone I always overthink it. I am always afraid, I see everyone as a threat. I think of all the possible escape routes or the ninja moves I’ll use to defend myself, I call my friends, I share my location, I put my keys around my fingers, I wear my trainers so I can run, I hide my hair under my hoodie, I cross the road so I won’t be catcalled, I am doing my best to be invisible.

It’s the fact that I have to do all this in the first place. Why do I have to do all this? Why?

It’s the fact that I can’t enjoy walking alone, especially at night, because I drown in anxiety, my heart beats out of my chest louder than the footsteps behind me. My palms sweat and my mouth dries.

It’s the fact that I have to feel like this in the first place. Why do I have to feel like this? Why?

It’s the fact that I know there is an invisible fear lurking around the corner, just a thread away from becoming a reality.

It’s the fact that if my fear leaves its corner I will be blamed for it. “What were you wearing?”, “How much did you drink?”, “Why were you walking alone?” … “Oh honey, it happens all the time.”

It’s the fact that society always tells me how to dress, how much I am allowed to drink, how and where to walk, how to behave in public, how to have fun…how to exist.

It’s the fact that just like that my freedom is being taken away from me.

It’s the fact that I sometimes wonder if I could ever be free. Am I free? Is any woman ever, really free?

It’s the fact that I feel defeated.

And I am sick of it…

How Feminist is the United Nation’s Women, Peace, and Security Agenda?

In this article, SOAS postgraduate Ruth Artiles Valero focuses on the state-centricity that characterises the United Nations’ Women, Peace and Security Agenda’s foundational pillars. It explains how and why an adherence to state-centricity and an authentically feminist approach to international relations, are most likely mutually exclusive.

One could well argue that the UN’s ‘gender mainstreaming’ goal has been shrunk in such a way that it no longer deserves the “feminist” label, and this would not be an understatement. Curiously, it is this very label the one which has enabled an all-too-simplistic championship of Resolution 1325, having been described as ‘one of the most inspired decisions’ of the Security Council and as a genuine commitment to women’s participation, global gender equality, and an advancement of international peace and justice. It culminated in a call for the inclusion of a gender perspective in peace building processes, expressing the need to draw attention to the specific protection needs of women and girls in conflict. However, the gap between the ambitions laid out by the WPSA and contemporary, global realities, are very significant. 

In late 2000, some of the enabling factors influencing the drafting of resolution 1325 in the Security Council included the large international attention received by the sexual violence in the Yugoslav wars of secession, the intense horror experienced by women during the eastern DRC conflict, and the surge of women’s peace movements in West Africa in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, the WPSA’s attention to sexual violence, and rape in particular, created links between ‘women’ and ‘security’ which were not precisely accurate, nor helpful.

Rape as a weapon of war – a method “cheaper than bullets” with which to terrorise and even eradicate populations and national identities –  is  the subject around which the WPSA has focused most. As Carol Cohn (2008) noted, “the redefinition of rape as a war crime, rather than a ‘natural’, ‘inevitable’ ‘boys-will-be-boys’ inherent aspect of war, [will create] some deterrent effect”. This is an important first step when it comes to accomplishing “negative peace”, defined primarily by the absence of conflict or violent acts. However, it remains off-limits within the WPSA to address the intersections of, say, gender and ethnicity or sexual orientation, as well as the gender regime that makes a physical, sexual attack on a woman a blow against the “honour” of men and the community they both belong to (to name just one of the various possible impacts).

So long as these subjects are considered “off-limits”, how likely is it really that rape will stop being used as a weapon? How genuinely feminist are these measures? A feminist approach is grouped in the broader category of theoretical reflectivism because it involves theorising beyond state-centric understandings of war and looks instead at how international politics affects and is reciprocally affected by masculinities and femininities. In addition, the core concepts which are employed in the field (war, peace, security, nations) are themselves gendered, seeking to problematize the very politics of knowledge construction. 

The focus on rape as a weapon of war has created new hierarchies and forms of exclusion. The process of equating a threat to women’s bodies as a threat to national security has demonstrated that the ultimate concern is national securitisation and not the elimination of sexual violence per se. For instance, the WPSA framework explicitly states that individual forms of sexual aggression are not sufficiently threatening or socially destabilising as they do not fit in the “weapon of war” paradigm. Curiously enough, a study by Peterman et al., (2011) showed that even in eastern Congo, the majority of sexual violence during times of conflict was perpetrated by average, non-combatant civilians and within marriages. Moreover, there is a myriad of forms of violence experienced by vulnerable women constantly that go beyond the “sexual assault” category. Examples include physical, financial, emotional, verbal, psychological, digital, cultural, and spiritual (or religious) abuse. 

With this considered, it is apparent that a clear emphasis has been placed in state security over the feminist goal of equality and justice, giving way to a process which is ultimately obscuring and over-simplifying the violent structures that lie beneath the current world order. In the end, there is an uninterrupted continuation of a dynamic in which neither the perpetrator nor the victim gets the chance to ‘speak’, despite the fact that the securitised subject has been broadened. With WPSA having been created as a response to the movements carried out by women at the grassroots, it is concerning that such few UN national action plans (as of 2014, only about a third) specify civil society in their drafting. Thus, the WPSA has mostly empowered technocrats and gender experts when it comes to designing, implementing, evaluating and measuring public policies, rather than women at the bottom.

In introducing gender inclusion simply as an ad-on to the status quo system of peacebuilding, rather than truly reinventing it through a feminist lens, the WPSA continues to make use of the master-narrative of top-down strategic studies which decontextualizes issues of war and violence. For instance, the inability to acknowledge the pronounced asymmetry between Israelis and Palestinians resulted in measures put in place by Resolution 1325 never yielding tangible results in the conflict. In other contexts, the WPSA may actually become an obstacle to achieving gender justice and security especially when laid out next to Western examples. In applying homogenised notions of norms which would make an impact in liberal, Western, democratic nations (such as mere inclusion of women in decision-making processes), the WPSA is further contributing to silencing the real struggles which are faced by women worldwide, as engrained power relations, context-specific norms, and meaning systems are left unscrutinised. 

In regards to women, the WPSA has focused on the themes of women as natural peace-makers, positioning women as genuinely interested in the long-term or future, women’s participation as likely to make peacekeeping more effective, women as less corruptible than men, and women as crucial to economic prosperity. It is debatable how feminist this stereotyped consideration is. Clearly women, like men, do not fall under a homogenous block, especially when taking into account groups of men, women, and individuals from different cultural backgrounds. Not only does this not provide us with a real picture of who women and other vulnerable communities are and what they do, but can bring about very serious, counterproductive consequences. For instance, the immutable-looking labels which the WPSA has attached to the concept of “women”, means that alternative femininities (such as queer, dynamic or postcolonial femininities) can easily be excluded (again) when failing to embody and/or enact this construct. The overly-simplistic narrative has fetishized rather than solved these pressing issues. 

The simplification of this situation has also facilitated its commodification. Used in everyday language, the idea that in contexts of war women are unanimously vulnerable because of their susceptibility to acts of sexual violence, has been normalised. This is worrying. The moral, ‘humanitarian’ imperatives for the safety and equality of women and men, which have emanated from this logic, have also been used as justification for (counterproductive) Western intervention in war zones. Moreover, numerous reports have even indicated that within the aid world, agencies go as far as to compete with one another for primacy in “conflict-related sexual violence” as an issue-area. This is reflected through behaviours known as “victim appropriation”, and is also appreciated in situations where information is purposely withheld  from other agencies/coordinating bodies. 

Feminism is a genuinely useful political and analytical tool because it contemplates social and power dynamics which happen on deeper levels. However, all this shows the many problems which arise when we decide to label measures as “feminist” when they are not. It can therefore  be determined that meaningful outcomes in the field of feminism are unlikely unless international institutions are seriously reinvented. Authentically feminist accomplishments and state centric conceptualisations of ‘security’ are mutually exclusive.

Image Credit: Bernd Untiedt, GNU Free Documentation License 1.2