The Desperate Effort to Silence Iranian Feminists

09.22.2022 by Shaghayegh Norouzi and Samaneh Savadi- Editor’s note: Protests have raging across Iran over the last week after the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman in the custody of the Islamic Republic’s morality police due to her defiance against the strict dress code. The country’s desperate effort to silence Iranian feminists has taken the form of violent responses and crackdowns of both in-person demonstrations and online activism.

Unbelievable footage from Amol in northern Iran: people in their hundreds pushing back the riot police and state security forces #MahsaAmini #مهساامینی

    — Fazel Hawramy (@FazelHawramy) September 21, 2022

On Thursday morning in New York, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was set to interview with CNN’s chief international anchor Christiane Amanpour at the United Nations General Assembly, but it was canceled at the last minute after Amanpour declined to wear a headscarf.

Below, two notable Iranian activists detail the online harassment and violence they and other activists have faced for speaking out against gendered norms and in defense of human rights.

Mornings are not easy for an Iranian feminist abroad. Most days, we wake up to harsh news coming from home: Another NGO is suspended, another friend is arrested, another bloody crackdown on a legitimate protest.

May 12 was one such morning. We both woke up to something that seemed exciting at first but turned out to be an extraordinary challenge to our work: tens of thousands of new followers, but all fake followers and bots intent on harassing us.

In a matter of hours, we were under attack and overwhelmed. It wasn’t just us; more than 20 Iranian feminist pages on Instagram that are based abroad and around 30 pages inside Iran were attacked simultaneously.

We did not know who was attacking us or why. Our first reaction was to change our pages from activist to private while feeling disappointed and angry. Later we discovered that we had lost all of our social media insights because we had temporarily switched to private.

This overnight, coordinated takedown happened soon after Firuzeh Mahmoudi, executive director of United for Iran, wrote this in Ms. magazine:

    “Through social media, mobile apps, weblogs and websites, Iranian women are actively participating in public discourse and exercising their civil rights, mostly anonymously. Luckily for the growing women’s rights movement, the patriarchal and misogynistic government has not yet figured out how to completely censor and control the internet.”

Unfortunately, it seems that the Islamic Republic of Iran has found a way to censor and control us over the internet.

Their plan is twofold:

    Overwhelm feminists abroad with fake followers, hundreds of private messages, slurs and bullying so that we cannot do our job of advocating online and defending our sisters inside Iran.

    Target feminist activists inside Iran, interrogate, arrest and imprison them with impunity.

People participate in a protest against Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi outside of the United Nations on Sept. 21, 2022 in New York City. Protests have broke out over the death of 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody for allegedly violating the country’s hijab rules. Amini’s death has sparked protests across Iran and other countries. (Stephanie Keith / Getty Images)

I, Samaneh Savadi, manage Cheragh Academy, a sexual harassment prevention platform focused on educating women, men and small businesses inside Iran about workplace sexual harassment. The safe space I tried to make for myself and other women became a nightmare overnight. Is this a brand new strategy of the Islamic Republic of Iran to silence women’s rights activists? Or is it the work of anti-feminist groups? There are so many groups who want to silence us.

In Iran, patriarchy doesn’t hesitate to call us feminists destroyers of families and infidels spreading dangerous Western ideas harmful to Islamic values and religion. But, the villain they are making us out to be has nothing to do with our work: small but powerful steps toward a society where all women and men are equal regardless of their gender, sexuality or gender identity.

But there is a big difference between a country like Iran and the United States. In Iran, there is no safe way to protest, advocate for one’s civil rights or change public policy. The Islamic Republic does its best to destroy any shred of activism. In recent months, simply working with child laborers or women who live with addiction or advocating against workplace sexual harassment was seen as an act against the safety of society, a crime punishable by years in prison.

Women inside the country are brave. They fight back every day despite the Islamic Republic of Iran’s determination to terrorize them, ignore them, or humiliate them using the violent morality police. For us feminists living outside of Iran, the internet has been a safe place to work, reflecting the voice of those suffering in a country that treats its women as second-class citizens.

Now, when the whole world is focused on the war in Ukraine, COVID and inflation, here in the margins of the Internet, our voices have been silenced because of a series of attacks that are still ignored by Meta. Instagram simply doesn’t believe having up to 80 percent of your followers as bots is a cyberattack, even though a significant portion of our engagement is exclusively on social media. 

Weeks later, after excellent research by Qurium on @me_too_movement_iran, where I, Shaghayegh Norouzi, am a volunteer admin, we knew that followers had been openly purchased from Facebook profiles in Pakistan and India. It took Meta weeks to accept our request to remove these fake followers sellers from Facebook. It took those sellers a few hours to return to Facebook using the same emails and phone numbers.

Our only way to say no to these attacks is through the media and hours spent manually deleting fake followers from our accounts daily. Media coverage helps, as WIRED wrote: “Despite alerting Meta months ago, Iranian women’s rights groups say tens of thousands of fake accounts continue to bombard them on Instagram.”

Yes, there is not a flag on the top of this bullying campaign, but we believe the Islamic Republic of Iran orchestrated this desperate effort to silence Iranian feminists. And no, we are not keeping quiet just because they want us to shut up.

They forced us to leave our country and now are trying to force us to leave our online community. Still, in the face of the constant bullying by the Islamic Republic of Iran, we’ve found each other again, we’ve moved closer to other activists, we’ve acted more forcefully to fight back against ignorance and bullying, and we’ve learned so much.

In Farsi, we say: در نومیدی بسی امید است، پایان شب سیه ، سپید است. “Don’t give into despair. A bright morning always follows a dark night.” We believe in that. We are near the end but not for the Iranian feminists, but the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Until then, we work, and we fight until we see the light for us, for you, and everyone else. We will build our Iran again.

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