Social media and the fight for women’s rights in Iran

29 Jun 2015

Dr Nina Ansary, writer, Jewels of Allah, speaking at Inspirefest 2015 in Dublin

Amid the consistent reports of gender discrimination in overtly Islamic states, we rarely hear of women’s pursuit for equality. Dr Nina Ansary explains, though, how tech-savvy Iranians are bypassing state restrictions and using social media to fight back.

Iran is a country that always draws the eye. The modern-day state is so far removed from its historical peak that you can’t help but be enthralled.

For the uninitiated, Iran, in its previous guises, was home to one of the world’s greatest-ever empires, housed the first-ever charter for human rights, created the Zoroastrianism religion and personified scientific advancement for centuries.

The rise of the Roman Empire came around the time of Persia’s demise and the region as a whole spent many years in decline.

Admittedly, Europe’s own grim Middle Ages came at a time of renewed advancements in the Middle East, but today’s global politics and economics are dominated by the world’s shift toward capitalism, started by the British Empire and driven across the line by the now-superpower that is the US.

In 1979, now 36 years ago, the Khomeini revolution overthrew the US-backed Pahlavi monarchy in Iran; society in the country was strictly Islamicised and women, as a result, were marginalised.

Here we are, somewhere…

And here we are. Although ‘here’ is always relative, and in this case perhaps a little surprising.

In Iran, for example, female literacy outstrips that of men. In 1925, just 1pc of Iranian society as a whole could read, fast forward to 1979 and 35pc of women could read. That figure is now at 80pc, a phenomenal turnaround.

Ansary explains that the 1979 revolution, while evidently of an Islamic ethos, failed to do away with the education system that preceded it – an education system that was powered by US educational organisations. This can be the genesis for women’s rights in Iran.

“The educational model in Iran was erected by the Pahlavi monarchy,” she explains, largely discussing the years between the mid-1920s and the late ’70s.

Ansary herself was born in Tehran, leaving Iran just before the revolution, earning a BA in sociology from Barnard College and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Columbia University in the US since.

‘This western structure was never fully eradicated by the Khomeini regime, despite the fact they undertook a cultural revolution to Islamicise the nation’

“The proper route for that would have been to revert to traditional religious schools. Instead [following the Khomeini revolution] they elected, for unknown reasons, to keep this infrastructure, while superficially Islamicising it.”

These “unknown reasons” meant that women, so restricted in other areas of society, could get a leg up in education.

“In a patriarchal society that discriminates against women through their gender, education has become an empowering medium to circumvent many of the barricades that are irrationally erected by the current regime,” explains Ansary.

“It’s about empowerment. Look at Malala Yousafzai, and her quest to get an education. Education has been an empowering medium for women in Iran.”

Where there’s internet, there’s a way

And with this education, women’s rights movements have been able to capitalise on modern technological advancements to further their cause.

Social media is a tool that, when harnessed, can be immensely powerful. In a country where this power could undermine the political system, restrictions are always put in place.

We see it in states across all continents, amid all systems, and Iran is no different. However, neither is hacking. Where there’s internet, there’s a way.

“The internet is an effective medium – especially for women rights activists in Iran – to have their voices heard on the outside,” says Ansary.

‘Even though the regime tries to silence this movement, social media has been an effective medium for disseminating information’

How capable are Iranians at bypassing state controls? Well, according to Ansary, very.

“Iranians are very savvy. They have proxy servers that bypass these blockages. That’s prevalent, absolutely.”

A series of Iranian accomplishments

However, it’s not all about struggle, there is also success. Significant, global success.

For example, there is a whole group of Iranian women scientists winning international awards. Female film directors, too, are gaining recognition.

“Iran is debilitated by this regime, but it doesn’t mean [Iranians] are debilitated as human beings,” says Ansary, who is confident that Iranians can recapture some of their state’s former glories.

Last year, Maryam Mirzakhani became the first women ever to win the Fields Medal, the top honour in mathematics. Paris Sabeti, meanwhile, is one of the world’s leading computational biologists. As Ansary speaks, the list goes on, and inspires her that others will follow.

‘Thousands of years ago we had the first human rights charter, we created Zoroastrianism, women were equal and even ruled’

“Iran was so advanced at one point — I am very hopeful that we can capture the remnants.”

Updated at 10.15am on 30 June 2015 to include video of Dr Ansary’s Inspirefest keynote address.

Dr Nina Ansary was a speaker at Inspirefest 2015. She has also authored a book called ‘JEWELS OF ALLAH: The Untold Story of Women in Iran’.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic