By Leila Mouri

On October 22, a series of images from Iran appeared on social media depicting rallies in the cities of Tehran and Isfahan, where hundreds of people demonstrated against a recent wave of acid attacks on women. As seen in the video below, thousands of Isfahani citizens poured into the streets to demand an end to gender-based violence, chanting, “security, freedom, are the rights of Iranian women.” In Tehran, a group of women’s and civil rights advocates gathered in front of the Parliament calling for the elimination of misogynistic laws.

“Down with Religious Extremists”

During the last few weeks, a series of acid attacks targeting women on the streets of Isfahan has shocked the Iranian public. At least eight women have been targeted by attackers on motorbikes. One victim is reported to have died from the acid.

Many believe the incidents are religiously motivated, targeting women who do not observe the “proper hijab” of covering their head and dressing modestly as required by the Islamic government. “Down with religious extremists,” was one of the chants heard at last Wednesday’s rallies. Conservatives have fought back, arguing that the attacks are part of a plot to drum up opposition to the government.

The attacks coincide with a series of verbal assaults by Iranian conservative clerics and members of parliament against women they believe do not follow the government’s policies on hijab. In the midst of these attacks, Parliament ratified a bill that protects groups and individuals who “promote virtues and prevent vices” in the public sphere; that is, those who confront women whose appearance they see as “un-Islamic” or “western.”

Rare Footage from Iran

Since the Green Revolution–the popular uprising of 2009 against the result of Iran’s presidential election–human rights related videos from the country have been scarce. The government’s close surveillance of social media and arrests of activists and journalists has caused many to fear the repercussions of documenting civil society. This year, for instance, after the government caught notice of anIranian version of the viral “Happy,” music video meme, six of the young men and women who appeared dancing in the video were sentenced to jail and 91 lashes.

Due to this draconian response, many Iranians prefer not to be identified in videos or as video uploaders. Filmers take steps to protect the identity of activists, such as filming protests from behind. The Iranian government’s use of YouTube videos to identify activists of the Green Revolution is one reason WITNESS advocated for YouTube to develop a face blurring function that allows uploaders to anonymize the individuals in their video.

Iranians who dare take photos and videos of civil society face logistical hurdles as well. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have been banned since 2009. The use of VPN and anti-filters to circumvent the blockage is widespread, but slow internet makes it difficult for Iranians to upload videos. Instead, many share photos of events on Twitter or Facebook rather than videos.

But even internationally known journalists and activists are susceptible to repression, as evidenced by the reported arrest of Iranian photojournalist Arya Jafari after his images of last week’s rally in Isfahan had been distributed in news outlets around the world. We do not know who filmed or uploaded YouTube videos of the rallies such as the one above, and if those individuals remain free.

Still, despite the government’s attempts to block and censor information in and from Iran, footage of last Wednesday’s demonstrations are evidence of the country’s vibrant civil society and massive discontent regarding violence against women.

Still image above from video uploaded to YouTube Oct 22, 2014 at a protest against the acid attacks on women in Iran. 


Leila is a women’s rights activist and journalist, and is currently a WITNESS intern working on the Human Rights Channel. She studied Middle Eastern Studies at Columbia University with a focus on gender and sexuality. Reach her on twitter @femiran. 

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