The Girls of Revolution Street: Feminist Discourse on Iranian Social Media

Raz Zimmt takes a look at the way that social networking sites have been used to advance the status of women in Iran.
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The Girls of Revolution Street, from the Twitter page of Masih Alinejad

The Girls of Revolution Street, from the Twitter page of Masih Alinejad

In recent years, social media have become a central arena wherein Iranian women have conducted their struggle against discrimination of various types. Women’s issues have returned to the agenda with the outbreak of the hijab protests in January, which began with a defiant act by an Iranian young woman who removed her hijab and waved it in front of security forces. Her protest, which expanded to several major cities in Iran, again illustrates the potential of social media to raise public awareness of women’s rights, and their ability to exert pressure on the authorities to adapt to the social and cultural changes occurring in Iranian society.

The public protests that erupted in Iran at the end of December 2017 initially focused primarily on the economic and social distress of the weaker sectors of Iranian society. However, shortly thereafter, a young Iranian woman by the name of Vida Movahed stood bareheaded in front of policemen on Enghelab (Revolution) Street, as protest against the mandatory hijab imposed by the Islamic Republic. Movahed quickly became a role model for dozens of women who took to the streets in several major cities in Iran, mainly Tehran, and removed their hijabs. The women's protest was significantly strengthened when the pictures of bareheaded women were shared thousands of times in social media, under the label “The Girls of Revolution Street” (دختران_خیابان_انقلاب#). In several instances, men and religious women who expressed their opposition to the imposition of the hijab joined the protest, although they themselves were careful to dress according to the mandatory Islamic dress code. Movahed was arrested, and released a few weeks later.

The latest wave of protest marks another stage in the struggle against the imposition of the hijab, which in recent years has become one of the central issues in Iranian feminist discourse, especially on social media. In the summer of 2012, a group of Iranian students launched a Facebook campaign using the slogan: “Choosing hijab is a right of the Iranian Woman.” Thousands of users from Iran and abroad joined the campaign. In May 2014, the campaign against the mandatory hijab was renewed at the initiative of Iranian journalist-in-exile Masih Alinejad who launched a Facebook page called “Stealthy Freedom of Iranian Women.” She called on Iranian women to take pictures  of themselves without a hijab in the public sphere and to share them  online. The campaign was a great success, and thousands of women uploaded pictures showing themselves in public places with uncovered heads. In the past year, dozens of women took part in another campaign initiated by Alinejad, who called on women to express their opposition to enforced hijab by wearing a white one every Wednesday, while using the slogan “White Wednesday.”[1]

However, the struggle of Iranian women does not focus solely on the issue of hijab. In recent weeks, there has been a heated debate on social media over two additional issues related to the status of women. In December, Zahra Ayatollahi, the head of the Women's Social and Cultural Council, which is subordinate to the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution in Iran, created a stir by publishing an opinion piece in the hardline newspaper Kayhan. Her article dealt with proposed legislation drafted by the Women’s and Family Affairs Office of the Presidency,   which was recently submitted to the Majlis for approval. The bill would expand the enforcement mechanisms and increase punishment in cases of violence against women. Ayatollahi strongly criticized the bill and argued that the best way to protect women was to place their protection in the hands of male members of their families, instead of adopting what she called a “Western style” that might harm the family as an institution and the status of men, thereby leading to the erosion of traditional Islamic society.[2]

The article provoked strident reactions on social media, some disseminated using the hashtag “Women vs. Women,” and which also included demands to oust Ayatollahi from her post. Users claimed that her remarks reflect dark, extreme positions and encouraged violence against women. One user responded to the article by sharing pictures of a young woman from Mashhad who was severely abused by her husband (figure 5), in an attempt to refute the claim that family members would protect women from violence.[3] Amene Shirafkan, the parliamentary correspondent of the reformist newspaper Shargh, also attacked Ayatollahi and claimed that she is completely disconnected from the social reality in which she lives, and that she is not fit to serve as a manager in the public sector.[4] Several female reformist members of the Majlis joined the chorus of criticism. For example, Fatemeh Sa‘idi condemned Ayatollahi’s remarks and cited them as an instance of women who are sometimes responsible for violence against women.[5]

The other affair that agitated Iranian social media was sparked by a program broadcast on Iranian television, during which a marriage counselor suggested that women massage their husbands’ feet with milk and kiss them in order to improve their marriage. She outdid herself by stressing that this was necessary even in cases where the husband is addicted to drugs and beats his wife, because it will relieve his tension. A clip including a segment from the program quickly went viral on social media, and provoked reactions of anger and ridicule that forced the state broadcasting authority to issue an apology.[6]

The transformation of social media into a means for promoting women’s empowerment is reflected in several struggles being waged in recent years which focus on the status of women. These include the legal standing of women, their rights in marriage and divorce, their entry into football stadiums, their integration in management positions in the public and government sectors, and their representation in elected legislative bodies.[7] It is not surprising that these struggles are conducted online, because it provides women with an arena where they enjoy equality with men, and gives them access to society at large. Moreover, human rights and civil society activists consider online activity crucial for increasing public awareness of these issues. The official policy of the regime regarding women has not yet undergone any real change, although President Rouhani previously expressed on several occasions positions that would advance the status of women. At the same time, the impact of the public discourse is evident in the gradual improvement in the status of Iranian women, including their growing integration into local and national politics, the labor market, and institutions of higher education.


[1] For more information on the mandatory hijab, see Raz Zimmt, “The Stealthy Freedom of Iranian Women: Battle of the Hijab on SNS,” Beehive, vol. 2, no. 6, June 2014, ; and Raz Zimmt, “Iranian SNS users protest forced hijab to mark International Women’s Day,” Beehive, vol. 5, no. 3, March 2017.

[2] “Proposed Law ‘Protecting Women from Violence’ or Realizing Goal 5 of the 2030 Document,” Kayhan, December 24, 2017.

[3] @AzamRasti, Twitter, December 15, 2017. Last accessed March 8, 2018.

[4] @shirafkan82, Twitter, December 26, 2017. Last accessed March 8, 2018; @shirafkan82, Twitter, December 25, 2017. Last accessed March 8, 2018.

[5] @saeidiftm, Twitter, December 26, 2017. Last accessed March 8, 2018.

[6] The Broadcast Authority Apologizes,” ISNA, January 30, 2018, 

[7] For more information on these struggles, see Raz Zimmt, “Campaign to Increase the Representation of Women in the Iranian Majlis,” Beehive, vol. 3, no. 11, December 2015, .