My Stealthy Freedom is an online movement that was commenced in 2014 by Masih Alinejad, an Iranian-born journalist and activist based in the United Kingdom and the United States. This movement started from a Facebook page My Stealthy Freedom where women from Iran post their photos without scarfs, and by the end of 2016 page has surpassed 1 million Facebook likes. Initiative has received wide international and national coverage, and has been both praised and criticized.
Women's dress-code in Iran
Contemporary women's online activism
In the contemporary Iranian society, social networking sites and blogs have become tools for peaceful demonstration, and My Stealthy Freedom is grouped along with various online movements, including conservative and dissident ones, starting shortly after the 2009 protests. Among the first of such Facebook groups was Mothers of Park Laleh (originally The Mourning Mothers of Iran), with the main purpose of finding the most efficient and culturally sensitive strategy to mobilize mothers whose children were victims of political repression. A group was inspired by similar movements in Argentina, Israel and Uruguay, its women's rights activists consisted of male and female activists in Iran, Europe and the United States, and were communicating in Persian via email list-serves. Beside dissident groups, second important umbrella of movements consist of traditionalist and conservative groups (including state-backed) that actively propagate their own version of the authentic Iranian Muslim women. For instance, the Basiji women (Sazman-e Basij Jame Iran) present themselves as a grassroots women's movement that is safeguarding the real identity of Iranian women, and their members with black chadors, fighting the "bad hijabs" on streets, are the role models in their official outlets. Some other conservative women's organizations declared that among the responsibilities of their members is challenging "those who have gone strayed by the West". Beside Iran, similar role of social networking has also been recorded in the Arab World.
Chronology of My Stealthy Freedom
Facebook page named Stealthy Freedom has been set up on 5 May 2014 and page is dedicated to posting images of women with hijab (scarf) removed. Many women have submitted their pictures without hijab, taken in various locations: parks, beaches, markets, streets, and elsewhere. Alinejad states that the campaign began rather simply:
Once I posted pictures of myself in London, free, without a scarf. I received messages from Iranian women saying: "Don't publish there pictures because we envy you." Soon after I published another picture of myself driving in my hometown in Iran, against without a scarf. And I said to Iranian women: "I bet you can do the same." Many of them started to send me their photos without hijab, so I created a page called "My Stealthy Freedom." (...) If I were in Iran this website wouldn't exist. From far away those voiceless women can express themselves for the first time in more then 30 years.— M. Alinejad
Alleged spontaneous start is disputed by some analysts who point out that campaign has been heavily promoted by Western mass media from the early beginning. In a few days, the page had received over 100,000 likes, in the early 2015 it jumped up to 760,000 followers, and by the end of 2016 it reached over 968,000 likes. A post on the official Facebook page states:
This page does not belong to any political group and the initiative reflects the concerns of Iranian women, who face legal and social restrictions. All of the photos and captions posted have been sent by women from all over Iran and this is a site dedicated to Iranian women inside the country who want to share "stealthily" taken photos without the veil.— M. Alinejad
In an interview with BBC in 2014, Alinejad insisted that women who have sent their photos are "not women activists, but just ordinary women talking from their hearts". Many of pictures were accompanied by short or long captions, some in a poetic language, and others are mischievous or defiant. Many captions have placed the emphasis on a "right to choose" or "freedom of choice". In January 2015, Alinejad also launched My Forbidden Song as part of My Stealthy Freedom campaign, and two months later she revived the Green movement slogan "You are all media". In her Facebook post she said:
Suggestion: Every women a media. A veiled woman appears on Iranian state television to say compulsory hijab is the demand of all women. You, every single one of you, can be a media, and if you agree, take a film of yourself as Iranian women, wherever in the world you are, and say in one minute, why you are against compulsory hijab, or describe what problems compulsory hijab has created for you.— M. Alinejad
My Stealthy Freedom has been described as extremely active and lively space, publishing each month around 35–50 new pieces of content which are shared by hundreds of people, and every post receives thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of likes, thus generating long strings of comments and lengthily conversation. In mid 2014, #MyStealthyFreedom became an internationally used hashtag on Facebook and Twitter, averaging one million shares per week. By the end of 2016, page has shared over 2,000 photos of Iranian women without the scarf. Since page has gained many international supporters, posts are published mostly in Persian with English and French translations. The campaign has been covered in the Western mainstream media mainly by ABC News, Bloomberg News, The Economist, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, Time and The Washington Post.
Related and rival initiatives
Following Alinejad's initiative, queers also opened a Facebook page, My Stealthy Homosexual Freedom, posting images with the inverted aesthetics of covered faces with rainbow flags or headless images. Iman Ganji, a doctoral student from Free University of Berlin, sees both pages as a result of general political transformation in mid-2010s, when a new middle-right government replaced the far-right one, and states that the struggle for the liberation of desire has long allied women's and queer movements together in Iran. In mid-2016, some Iranian men started Men in hijab campaign, expressing their thoughts as well as briefly wearing the hijab themselves. This Facebook page has received over 100,000 likes and is largest among rival initiatives, but it has been criticized by foreign commentators as a "laddish" for containing juvenile jokes, cartoons and videos. Among other smaller rivals is the Real Freedom of Iranian Women page, launched exactly a week after the My Stealthy Freedom, with a message celebrating the veil: "Beautiful Hijab, My Right, My Choice, My Life". Former page has received less than 10,000 likes and has also been criticized for insisting that Stealthy Freedom is part of a soft war against Iran, and also for trying to generate fear.
Sedigheh Karimi, researcher at the University of Melbourne, in 2014 argued that virtual environment like My Stealthy Freedom provides opportunities for independent representation and for introducing new identities:
Admittedly, in this traditionally male-dominated part of the world, women have gradually risen from being just mothers and housewives confined mainly to the private spheres of their families, to becoming influential players in public life. New media offer decent promises for women ability to construct their identities on their own in the public sphere. To give an instance, Facebook content indeed indicates information of self-presentation and personal documentation of everyday lives of users. Facebook acts as an archive of social relationships and provides a means of recording ongoing interactions. It is a way of archiving the self, storing biography and enhancing social memory. Thus, Facebook can offer a record of the texture of individuals’ daily lives or at least a view of life that users wish to portray.
To sum up, cyberspace represents a new glimpse of hope for many marginalized groups, including women. The interactive and open nature of this virtual environment gives those groups opportunities for independent representation of themselves, and a potential for introducing new identities.— S. Karimi
Karimi paraphrases some scholars who believe that Islamic culture and veil deconstruct women's self-identity and reconstruct and identity of obedience for them, and state that participants of the campaign are courageous women who have shocked the World since Facebook has approximately 1,3 billion users. Alison N. Novak from Temple University and Emad Khazraee from the University of Pennsylvania stressed importance of breaking boundaries of the state's internet censorship efforts:
The goal of My Stealthy Freedom is to mobilize public opinion regarding the issue of women's rights, hijab, and the female body. Particularly salient to the use of My Stealthy Freedom are the intersections of risk in protest through the use of Twitter and Facebook. Both social media platforms are illegal in Iran, requiring users to access illegal circumvention tools to get around the country’s firewall.— A. N. Novak & E. Khazraee
Gholam Khiabany, a senior lecturer in Media and Communications department at Goldsmiths, University of London, has praised Alinejad's campaign:
The Stealthy Freedom campaign has to be seen as a continuation of the challenges, concerns, and anxieties over hijab in Iran. This concern has been expressed, produced, and reproduced in different forms. Without a doubt, the Stealthy Freedom campaign has to be seen as an innovative and effective idea for highlighting the real concerns over compulsory hijab in particular, and women's personal freedom in general. The campaign also reveals the great potential of civil disobedience against 'moral' concerns of the Iranian state.— Gh. Khiabany
Victoria Tahmasebi-Birgani, an assistant professor of women and gender studies at the University of Toronto, also gave compliments:
Online campaigns such as MSF [My Stealthy Freedom] are enabling sites in which Iranian women can publicly talk about their everyday acts of defiance, even if this amounts to a simple image of unveiled hair, "inappropriate" laughter in a public space, or a picture of a palm with the gender equality sign written on it. Iranian women's active participation on online platforms empowers them to connect the intimate stories of their private lives, their excluded bodies, and their forbidden desires to the larger context of Iran's struggle for a more inclusive and gender-egalitarian future.— V. Tahmasebi-Birgani
Gi Yeon Koo, a cultural anthropologist from Seoul National University and the member of Institute of Cross-Cultural Studies, stated:
This online movement finds its value in that it has become a new platform for women to raise their voices in the public sphere. In contemporary Iranian society, the hijab is one of the most political devices as it transcends a mere Islamic garment and holds symbolic significance, representing one of the greatest political struggles between the reformists and the conservatives.— G. Y. Koo
As Iman Ganji, Koo also aligns the movement with social changes started since Hassan Rouhani assumed the presidency. In 2015 the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy gave Alinejad its women's rights award for "giving a voice to the voiceless and stirring the conscience of humanity to support the struggle of Iranian women for basic human rights, freedom and equality".
The most prevailing criticism against My Stealthy Freedom movement is that alleged "freedom of choice", offered by Alinejad, is not a universal choice but a Western one, itself defined by mandatory minimums and maximums. Her model is thus purely Eurocentric one and it ignores cultural relativism. Western researchers also agree that anti-scarf views are held by the minority of women, and considering Alinejad's campaign did not provoked any real response, some of them assert that campaign can not be described as a "social movement" at all. Since 2014 when Masih Alinejad founded the page, there has been no demonstration, protest or dissent against dress-code in the real world in Iran. Moreover, contrary to the reports by Western media that campaign would be a successful social movement and asserts by some other analysts that Facebook page would be a new platform in which Iranian women represent a new image of their identity, My Stealthy Freedom has also been seen as a well-suited example of slacktivism.
It is quite easy to take a picture without scarf while nobody can see what you are doing. So, Iranian women go to uncrowded places in uncrowded times; stealthily take some photos without scarves and put the hashtag of stealthy freedom under them, but who is going to see this demonstration against hijab? Not the government or approvers of the law, and not even a majority of ordinary people, but just Facebook users. Clearly, in the name of this page, as well as in the process of shooting the photos, there is no clue of protesting something in the real world or trying to make any kind of pressure in order to affect compulsory hijab law and restrictions of clothing freedom. It is just an easy stealthy performance by the page's users for the page's users.— S. Talebian
Sara Talebian, a sociologist at the University of Helsinki, analyzed 50 captions under the sampled photos and found out that many of photos are taken in a typical frame and with a similar form, and the captions are also written in the simplest manner and with similar arrangements, mostly written in a way in order to target emotional response from the readers. Many of them emphasized on the good feeling of being unveiled and self-enjoyment of the person who has appeared on the photo, but in most cases there is no considerable demand for a real social and political movement against dress-code, a serious call for any specific action in order to organize people for opposition, or for the necessity of law change. According to her analysis, there is no even a clue of an attempt to create an alternative narrative versus the notion of hijab that can entice religious people to support the freedom of clothing.
Talebian also denies several claims that My Stealthy Freedom has broken stereotypical images of Iranian women and opinions about hijab, or that it allows them to construct their identities against the impositions like normative behaviors, stressing that a long time before the foundation of Alinejad's campaign many Iranian women have been uploading their unveiled photos to their Facebook pages, so the image of an unveiled Iranian woman is not a weird unseen image, particularly among social media users. She also states it has been years that Iranian women are breaking stereotypical opinions and strict understanding of hijab on the streets by their divers types of clothing, different fashions, and colorful lousy scarfs, a long time before starting of this Facebook page. Thus, those who see these photos on My Stealthy Freedom page do not find anything more than what they have already seen on personal profiles and photos on Facebook.
Some outlets and rival pages claimed that campaign is "set up with the help of British intelligence organization MI6". Western analysts give contradictory claims about the response by Iranian officials; some asserting that state has used aggressive backlash and launched many counter-initiatives on the Internet, while others asserting Iran's government do not even care about the existence of such a Facebook page.
Both Iranian and Western scholarly analysts have pointed out that Alinejad uses Facebook page and its media attention as a platform for spreading misinformation. One of the main ways through which Alinejad seeks to secure international support is by emphasizing that "the hijab is not part of Iranian culture". However, this is inaccurate since hijab has been a normative dress-code and Islamic mandate since Safavid's centralization. Thus this statement is false, misleading and lacks historical reality, since it presents the hijab as something "foreign and Arabic", which is being "imposed on women from outside their culture". Both My Stealthy Freedom campaign and its media coverage show strong tendency toward Pahlavi regime's historical revisionism and staged narrative of "liberated women", therefore neglecting the full and complex historical reality of the hijab, and also repressive regime of the Shah and forced unveiling. Such tendencies have been noticed among participants themselves, as the Achaemenid ruins of Persepolis and the rock-cut tombs at Naqsh-e Rostam (as symbols of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's official national identity) became a popular backdrop for photographs, which is again contrary to the historical fact that in pre-Islamic and Achaemenid times veiling was also already practiced by urban middle-class women.
In early June 2014, Alinejad claimed that Iranian state television ran a false story reporting that she was in a drug-induced, hallucionatory state when she removed her clothing and was raped by three men in front of her son. In 2016, Alinejad has shared the article which claimed "Iranian students got 99 lashes for public indecency", despite the fact such punishment is actually non-existent. Alinejad also posted that women have been banned to ride bicycles in public and that sportswoman has been denied traveling aboard by her husband, but again both claims have been dismissed by Iranian media as legally unfounded, including personally by woman involved (Niloufar Ardalan). Alinejad also claimed that "women are extremely brave because they have posted their photographs on Facebook and they are in a way daring the authorities to arrest them" which is seen as exaggeration, because internet anonymity brings them under secure safety and despite Iranian government's strict surveillance, from 2014 no user or participant of My Stealthy Freedom page has faced any risk of arrest.
Eurocentrism and orientalism
Many analysts are emphasizing that Alinejad's activism and means of representation reiterates Orientalism, in which the women of Iran are primarily portrayed as victims and repositioned as the subaltern. According to them, the campaign of My Stealthy Freedom is fuelling Orientalist ideas, comes to be perpetuated, decontextualized and manipulated by Western media propaganda of Iranophobia and Islamophobia. Researchers state that although movement focuses primarily on state gendered violence, its message has been disturbed by challenges arising from the embedded normativity of conceptualizations of gender and sexualities in relation to Middle Eastern women in general and Iranian women in particular.
Alongside of specific praise for the movement, Khiabany also discuss about dangers of the campaign:
Yet, the campaign is not free from contradictions and limits. Let us briefly examine some of the limitations of these forms of digital activism. The first point worth highlighting is the mismatch between local context and concerns (internal) and the framing and reception of these concerns outside the geographical boundaries of the local (external). In contrast to the virtual and real attacks and threats against the Stealthy Freedom campaign by Iranian state officials, media, and supporters, the overwhelming feeling outside Iran has been one of support, solidarity and encouragement. Yet, the positive international coverage and support should not obscure number of contradictions and dilemmas. There is always a danger, as Zishad Lak reminds us, that the local struggle might be assimilated into something completely different. For her, the Stealthy Freedom campaign is one of those instances in which "local resistance risks being thrust into obscurity to be protected from colonial interpretations. What we should be wary of is the audience or the interlocutor that is implicit in the messages around which the actor organizes her actions. In every story published in mainstream British or American media, one comes across supporting statements encouraging Iranian women with phrases such as "Go Girls!", or simple describing participants in this campaign as "Beautiful, smart, confident, and happy" and welcoming them "to the 21st century".
The problem with such expressions of solidarity is not that the information provided about the lack of freedom in Iran is inaccurate but rather, as Haleh Anvari suggested in the New York Times, the Western fetish of and obsession with gazing at Iranian women has turned them into "Iran's Eiffel Tower or Big Ben). Such constructions of Muslim women as "cultural icons", as Leila Abu-Lughod has demonstrated, not only has been used to simplify the complex realities of the Middle Eastern societies but also have been used as an excuse for military interventions that are partly justified to "save" Muslim women. Since the 9/11 terrorist attack, these "cultural icons" have come to represent the dividing line between "us" and "them", modern and traditional, civilized and barbaric.
There are two additional points that need to be highlighted. First of all, as the international success of the Stealthy Freedom campaign shows us, new technologies do, indeed, break geographical boundaries and precipitate international sympathy and solidarity. However, these technologies are also born in specific historical societies and social relations. Time and space compression does not makes space irrelevant, and new technologies by themselves cannot bypass assumptions, prejudices, and stereotypes. The Stealthy Freedom Facebook campaign is not immune from such prejudices and stereotypes but also (whether by accident or design) reinforces them.— Gh. Khiabany
Khiabany further points out that since 1979 revolution Iranian women have used every opportunity to challenge those very 'moral' conceptions, including dress-code. Therefore, Masih Alinejad was wrong to suggest that the Stealthy Freedom website could not exist if she were in Iran, or to suggest that Iranian women can only express themselves "from far away", or that this is the first time in 30 years that Iranian women have done so. It is not for the first time, since the coming to power of the Islamic Republic, Iranian women have defied the state and have expressed themselves. As two additional major issues Khiabany sees lack of diversity inside the movement, with only recognized individual is Masih Alinejad herself, and another major problem is campaign's narrow focus on hijab rather than many other important issues. On the contrary, some analysts state Alinejad did address different important issues and My Stealthy Freedom served as unofficial news about the events related to women issues, however, her Facebook page did not meet the appropriate news standards, such as neutrality and recency, and always reflect negative perspectives about women’s right sphere in Iran.
Like Khiabany, Victoria Tahmasebi-Birgani summarized movement's issues in a comparable way:
Another equally important challenge is how women's liberation is defined, addressed, and presented by the MSF organizer, Alinejad. By presenting emancipation in and through a narrative of the liberalization of the body and personal risks (i.e., through the campaign's exclusive focus on the level of individual actions), online campaigns such as MSF actively participate in the production of modern disciplinary subjectivity. In other words, by exclusively focusing on a women's right to choose her own mode of dress, and on the individual act of unveiling, women's emancipation is perceived as something to be achieved through the processes of identitarian discourse within the liberal framework of individual rights. In this kind of political activity, the popular association between Western individual liberties and women's struggle for social justice is assumed and taken for granted, rather than opened up for feminist critical inquiry and debate. Therefore, at several levels, the MSF campaign naturalizes and sustains the binaries of East/West and Islam/secularism, thereby reproducing the time-worn figure of the oppressed veiled Muslim women (understood in contrast to the non-Muslim, secular, unveiled, and therefore "free" woman).
As Western media continue to represent Alinejad as the champion of Iranian women's attempts to join the "free world", it is very easy to read the campaign, Alinejad's mission, and her posts on the Facebook page, as pigeonholing religion as a set of illiberal, retrograde practices that suppress and victimize Iranian women (who, in turn, urgently need to be saved by Western liberalized ideas, if not by Western military intervention). In other words, MSF and its agenda can easily appear to be aligned with the colonial interest of the global North, and can be correspondingly dismissed as one more gendered production of colonial modernity, divorced from Iranian women's genuine, grassroots struggles for social justice.— V. Tahmasebi-Birgani
Iman Ganji also offers the similar view:
There are many critiques of these initiatives [My Stealthy Freedom and My Stealthy Homosexual Freedom] and some of these are no doubt valid. They can work as an image factory for the Westernized gaze, turning the resistance there to a desire for values, which are interpreted as "exclusively Western". They can work as tools for accumulating symbolic capital for certain individuals or activists, like the very journalist who opened this page and is always, on the other hand, praising the West, especially the United Kingdom, the country in which she lives in exile, for its freedom and respect for women's and queer rights. They may also displace the site of struggle from concrete situations into mere image production. One should not remain non-critical towards these initiatives, but one could extract the affirmative forces working "stealthy" behind all these images; the forces that may affect concrete situations not only in daily life, but also in yet-to-come future and new protest movements.— I. Ganji
Some analysts have described Alinejad's role within the campaign as similar to those of the authors of the second wave of diapsoric memoirs in 2000, which were primarily written by Pahlavi supporters and its privileged elite (like Azar Nafisi), strongly opposed to the Islamic Revolution. Her call upon tourists and political delegates encouraging them to join the campaign, frames the debate within the discourse of colonialism and imperialism. By arguing that compulsory hijab affects all women, the battle is elevated from a local issue to a global one; it is framed as a Western point of concern, which can be considered as a colonial gesture since it invokes an imperialist image of Iranian women as wholly victimized and the West as a savior. Alinejad addressed this issue of white savior in 2014, when she spoke at a Women in the World Summit in New York: "I don’t ask you to come and save [the] women of Iran, because they are brave and smart enough to be their [own] voice". However, on another occasion Alinejad stated something contradictory, calling for solidarity and asking Estonian Foreign Minister, Marina Kaljurand, who was visiting Iran on a trade and political delegation, to use her platform to address the issue:
We are pleading with you to bring up this subject during your conversations with the Iranian officials. Please ask them the following question: Can you hear the voices of dissent from Iranian women who do not want their freedom to be stealthy? Please do not respond by saying that one should not interfere in another country’s law, because if you came up with a law forbidding women to wear the hijab, Iran would be the first country to interfere with regards to this law.— M. Alinejad
In this case, Alinejad explicitly calls upon the Western politician to be involved in the debate of the hijab, or in other words, she makes contradictory statements that are marked with ambivalence regarding Iranian women's voices. Alinejad thus suggests that Iranian women do, in fact, need another voice in order to heard, and more specifically, a Western voice and form of representation. This aligns with Spivak's theory, which argues that "subaltern voices are not heard, and need another form of representation in order to be heard".