Back in 1979, all women in Iran were required by law to cover their hair, arms, and legs in public.

The Ayatollah Khomeini had just assumed power as the Supreme Leader of the newly formed Islamic Republic — and more than 100,000 women, along with their male allies, weren’t happy about the new rule. They took to the streets of Tehran to protest the compulsory decree.

Now, nearly 40 years later, their fight continues.


On Dec. 27, a video of an Iranian woman protesting the mandatory dress code went viral. Dubbed “the girl of Enghelab street,” stood on top of a pillar box in Tehran’s busiest street, took off her white headscarf, tied it to a stick, and waved it back and forth as cars passed by.

Original illustration by Ashely Lukashevsky.

The woman’s protest became a part of the “White Wednesday” initiative.  

The campaign, launched last summer by Iranian activist Masih Alinejad, challenges Iran's rule by asking women to publicly wave white headscarves, the color of the campaign, while bare-headed.

According to Iranian social media accounts, six women have taken part so far. Two protesters were arrested for participating, including the woman in the Dec. 27 viral video, who was later released from custody.

This online campaign has also generated a lot of media attention. This might be because typical protests against compulsory hijab over the last decade were often confined to social media.‌

This time, the protests are taking place in the "real world" — with real-world consequences and messy debates.

To some, these are brave acts of resistance because women in Iran can face hefty fines or imprisonment for failure to comply with its mandatory dress code. To others, it’s a lot more complicated.

I talked to nine Iranian women — some still in Iran — about their thoughts on the White Wednesday campaign and compulsory hijab to get their unfiltered thoughts about how they’re being portrayed in media.

1. Masih Alinejad, 41, founder of #WhiteWednesdays and #MyStealthyFreedom

‌‌

زن که باشی کم کم یاد می گیری هر طور که باشی و بپوشی جمعی فقط تو را با نگاه جنسی تحقیر می کنند. دو راه را بیشتر نداری، زا...

Posted by Masih Alinejad on Saturday, June 24, 2017

"Iranian culture isn’t as simple [or] black and white as Westerners see. It’s a mixed culture of many minorities, religious and [irreligious] people. Hijab is not our so-called ‘culture.’ It’s a part of a culture that also dances and doesn’t practice any religion [...] 40 years ago, Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians, Bahai and Jewish believers, and men and women co-existed and had respect for people’s individuals choices in life."

"We are not fighting against a piece of cloth. We are fighting for our dignity."

"[White Wednesday] is peaceful civil disobedience and thanks to to social media, Iranian women now have a hub to find each other to organize and give support. What Iranian women are doing now is no different than what the women’s suffrage movement was in any other country in the world."

2. Misha Zand, 38, consultant and freelance writer

Image by Misha Zand

"I have difficulties assessing the scope of [these] veiled protests. At this point, it seems to be a bigger issue in the foreign media and social media than in Tehran’s streets. For instance, Radio Free Europe actually wrote: 'At least three more women ditched their head scarves again on January 30' and called the piece 'Uncovered "Girl From Enghelab Street" Picks Up Steam In Iran,' which to me is problematic. Three women is not a 'protest picking up steam.' And, I am not sure what these types of reporting are good for."

"Earlier today, I tried to read all the posts attached to the Persian hashtag and most of them were in English. Few of them were in Persian. We need more facts to conclude that this campaign is picking up in Iran."

3. Zahra Kiani, 33, lives in Esfahan

‌Image by Zahra Kiani‌

"Women's rights are an issue everywhere in the world and in Iran to a larger extent and certainly all social movements need to incorporate women’s rights in them. But my sense is that this kind of protest against mandatory [hijab] at this stage is somewhat misguided."

"I think restrictions on [hijab] is something that is going to be laxed in the next couple of years because of the high social and international pressures, just like it has gradually been laxed over the last 30 years. Even Saudi Arabia has now removed some of the obvious restrictions on women’s activities that have been in international spotlight, such as driving and going to stadiums, but do women really have better rights in Saudi Arabia now? I don’t think so."

4. Atoosa Moinzadeh, 24, journalist

🎶everyday I'm with my 🌱team🌱🎶

A post shared by Atoosa Moinzadeh (@atoosamoinzadeh) on

"It should be noted that these these women are truly putting their bodies on the line. These women are fighting for their autonomy and that shouldn't be diminished at all. However, the media needs to make sure to contextualize this against the broader history of women's issues in Iran, and sadly, that has not been the case historically with western protest coverage. If history has shown us, miniskirts and mod haircuts don’t symbolize freedom, if you look back to the way that people in rural areas were suffering under the Shah and the human rights abuses he committed under his authoritarian regime. This narrative evokes a type of whitewashing of the women's movement in Iran. It’s also important to note that the mandatory hijab is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what women and other marginalized identities are fighting for there."

5. Khadija*, 26, playwright and activist

*This source requested anonymity and is not pictured.

"It is against Islam to force women to wear the hijab because women should wear it for the sake of Allah and not for the sake of the police. A woman’s intention is not there if she is forced to wear it. It goes against Prophet Muhammad’s Hadith. Also, the Iranian government is not merciful, so is it even Islamic? After all, God is the 'Most Merciful' and 'Most Compassionate.'"

6. Sara S.G., 30, graduate student

‌Image via Sara S.G.‌

"The issue of women's rights like everywhere else is first and foremost cultural — and secondly legal. In Iran, the legal obstacles are larger than many other places, but they are not the entire story. On the cultural front, there has been a lot of improvements in the past 40 years. Since the [1979 Islamic] revolution, the overall culture has definitely improved."

"This change needs to be recognized. In western media, Iran is often portrayed as a static society and Iranian state as an absolute dictatorship, which then justifies the narrative that women need the West to liberate them from 'the evil mullahs.'"

"It's what we heard so much about Afghanistan, but what did the U.S. bring to Afghan women other than a never-ending war? This narrative undermines the agency of Iranian women and Iranian people generally."

7. Soraya Sebghati, 23, musician

‌Image via Soraya Sebghati‌

"I think for Iranian women, the White Wednesday movement is a really positive thing. Covering ones' hairline and body and (not) wearing makeup should be a choice for people to have; it shouldn't be forced on an entire country. It absolutely spreads dangerous ideas about femininity, sexuality, and shame."

"However, the neoliberal perspective on the hijab and the Middle East in general upsets me. We shouldn't strive to eliminate the hijab altogether — in my opinion, that's an issue that only Muslim people should discuss. As a person who isn't religious at all, I believe it's important to respect those who wear religious headcoverings of their own accord."

"You should have the full reign to choose between a bikini and a burkini, as long as it's your choice."

8. Anna Bas, 39, architect

‌Image via Anna Bas.

"I would like for the media to amplify the voices of millions of Iranian women. All these women face punishment for their objection to compulsory hijab. They are so brave."

"If there’s one thing I want Americans to understand, it’s this: Women in my country are not vulnerable victims. We are fighting for our basic rights, but we just need support and for our voices to be heard."

While it’s important to highlight their efforts, there’s a tendency for Western media to turn photos of rebellious Iranian women into a not-entirely accurate reflection of a dark regime.

For example, resurfaced photos of bare-headed Iranian women in the 1960s donning miniskirts — like in Business Insider and the Daily Mail — are often fetishized and used to symbolize a democratic and free Iran.  

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But in reality, at the time, Iran was ruled by an authoritarian regime since 1941 under Shah Reza Pahlavi that clamped down on dissent and suppressed political freedoms to appease the western governments that backed it. For instance, when Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh nationalized Iran’s oil supply, to the dismay of the U.K. and the U.S., the 1953 Western-backed coup's motive for attempting to overthrow the democratically elected leader was to strengthen Pahlavi's monarchial power.

Pahlavi was ousted during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. And ever since Ayatollah Khomeini assumed power, western media capitalized on his implementation of the Islamic dress code for women. As tensions between the U.S. and Iran continue to fester, photos of women in long black cloaks, or chadors, were often used as anti-Iran propaganda.

As the national media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting pointed out, one of the most popular examples is this stock photo of an Iranian woman in a chador walking by an anti-American mural. That particular stock photo has resurfaced everywhere as the featured image for numerous articles — often having nothing to do with Iranian women — for The New York Times, CNN, Washington Post, and The Atlantic among many others.

In news headlines, book titles, and events pertaining to Iran, the phrase “Iran Unveiled” is ubiquitous. Seriously. Just look here, here, here, and here.

How can we productively support Iranian women challenging oppressive laws — without exploiting their imagery? Amplify their voices here and abroad.

If you appreciated getting the points of view of these Iranian women, it’s time to support them. You can do this by signing petitions that favor freedom of choice, signal boosting their commentary on social media, and supporting Iranian artists who use their craft as a form of empowerment and resistance.

But the first step is simply listening.

It should be noted that, according to Insider Gov, a public website documenting government contracts, White Wednesday campaign leader Masih Alinejad received more than $230,000 in the last three years from the U.S. State Department for her commentary and anti-compulsory hijab activism in Iran.

UPDATE 2/2/2018: A person previously mentioned in this story has been removed.

Leah Menzies/TikTok

Leah Menzies had no idea her deceased mother was her boyfriend's kindergarten teacher.

When you start dating the love of your life, you want to share it with the people closest to you. Sadly, 18-year-old Leah Menzies couldn't do that. Her mother died when she was 7, so she would never have the chance to meet the young woman's boyfriend, Thomas McLeodd. But by a twist of fate, it turns out Thomas had already met Leah's mom when he was just 3 years old. Leah's mom was Thomas' kindergarten teacher.

The couple, who have been dating for seven months, made this realization during a visit to McCleodd's house. When Menzies went to meet his family for the first time, his mom (in true mom fashion) insisted on showing her a picture of him making a goofy face. When they brought out the picture, McLeodd recognized the face of his teacher as that of his girlfriend's mother.

Menzies posted about the realization moment on TikTok. "Me thinking my mum (who died when I was 7) will never meet my future boyfriend," she wrote on the video. The video shows her and McLeodd together, then flashes to the kindergarten class picture.

“He opens this album and then suddenly, he’s like, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God — over and over again,” Menzies told TODAY. “I couldn’t figure out why he was being so dramatic.”

Obviously, Menzies is taking great comfort in knowing that even though her mother is no longer here, they can still maintain a connection. I know how important it was for me to have my mom accept my partner, and there would definitely be something missing if she wasn't here to share in my joy. It's also really incredible to know that Menzies' mother had a hand in making McLeodd the person he is today, even if it was only a small part.

@speccylee

Found out through this photo in his photo album. A moment straight out of a movie 🥲

♬ iris - 🫶

“It’s incredible that that she knew him," Menzies said. "What gets me is that she was standing with my future boyfriend and she had no idea.”

Since he was only 3, McLeodd has no actual memory of Menzies' mother. But his own mother remembers her as “kind and really gentle.”

The TikTok has understandably gone viral and the comments are so sweet and positive.

"No the chills I got omggg."

"This is the cutest thing I have watched."

"It’s as if she remembered some significance about him and sent him to you. Love fate 😍✨"

In the caption of the video, she said that discovering the connection between her boyfriend and her mom was "straight out of a movie." And if you're into romantic comedies, you're definitely nodding along right now.

Menzies and McLeodd made a follow-up TikTok to address everyone's positive response to their initial video and it's just as sweet. The young couple sits together and addresses some of the questions they noticed pop up. People were confused that they kept saying McLeodd was in kindergarten but only 3 years old when he was in Menzies' mother's class. The couple is Australian and Menzies explained that it's the equivalent of American preschool.

They also clarified that although they went to high school together and kind of knew of the other's existence, they didn't really get to know each other until they started dating seven months ago. So no, they truly had no idea that her mother was his teacher. Menzies revealed that she "didn't actually know that my mum taught at kindergarten."

"I just knew she was a teacher," she explained.

She made him act out his reaction to seeing the photo, saying he was "speechless," and when she looked at the photo she started crying. McLeodd recognized her mother because of the pictures Menzies keeps in her room. Cue the "awws," because this is so cute, I'm kvelling.

Photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash

Actions speak far louder than words.

It never fails. After a tragic mass shooting, social media is filled with posts offering thoughts and prayers. Politicians give long-winded speeches on the chamber floor or at press conferences asking Americans to do the thing they’ve been repeatedly trained to do after tragedy: offer heartfelt thoughts and prayers. When no real solution or plan of action is put forth to stop these senseless incidents from occurring so frequently in a country that considers itself a world leader, one has to wonder when we will be honest with ourselves about that very intangible automatic phrase.

Comedian Anthony Jeselnik brilliantly summed up what "thoughts and prayers" truly mean. In a 1.5-minute clip, Jeselnik talks about victims' priorities being that of survival and not wondering if they’re trending at that moment. The crowd laughs as he mimics the actions of well-meaning social media users offering thoughts and prayers after another mass shooting. He goes on to explain how the act of performatively offering thoughts and prayers to victims and their families really pulls the focus onto the author of the social media post and away from the event. In the short clip he expertly expresses how being performative on social media doesn’t typically equate to action that will help victims or enact long-term change.

Of course, this isn’t to say that thoughts and prayers aren’t welcomed or shouldn’t be shared. According to Rabbi Jack Moline "prayer without action is just noise." In a world where mass shootings are so common that a video clip from 2015 is still relevant, it's clear that more than thoughts and prayers are needed. It's important to examine what you’re doing outside of offering thoughts and prayers on social media. In another several years, hopefully this video clip won’t be as relevant, but at this rate it’s hard to see it any differently.

Moricz was banned from speaking up about LGBTQ topics. He found a brilliant workaround.

Senior class president Zander Moricz was given a fair warning: If he used his graduation speech to criticize the “Don’t Say Gay” law, then his microphone would be shut off immediately.

Moricz had been receiving a lot of attention for his LGBTQ activism prior to the ceremony. Moricz, an openly gay student at Pine View School for the Gifted in Florida, also organized student walkouts in protest and is the youngest public plaintiff in the state suing over the law formally known as the Parental Rights in Education law, which prohibits the discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3.

Though well beyond third grade, Moricz nevertheless was also banned from speaking up about the law, gender or sexuality. The 18-year-old tweeted, “I am the first openly-gay Class President in my school’s history–this censorship seems to show that they want me to be the last.”

However, during his speech, Moricz still delivered a powerful message about identity. Even if he did have to use a clever metaphor to do it.

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