Shutting down the internet is another brutal blow against women by the Iranian regime

‘The killing of Mahsa Amini has sparked widespread anger.’ Police and protesters clash in Tehran following the death of Amini. Photograph: EPA
‘The killing of Mahsa Amini has sparked widespread anger.’ Police and protesters clash in Tehran following the death of Amini. Photograph: EPA

Woman, life, freedom. These are the words being used repeatedly in Iranian social media posts and carried on banners in the current demonstrations across the country. Three words that may have been a poetic combination in any other context, but not for the women who pay the price of their freedom with their lives. The death of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, after being detained by the morality police for her “improper hijab” has sparked widespread anger, leading to the deaths of at least 41 others.

The collective fury pouring out on to the streets is a result of decades of oppression against women in Iran. If George Floyd’s killing highlighted the structural racism prevalent in US society, and Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide in Tunisia paved the way for the arrival of an unforeseen Arab spring across the region, Amini’s death has led to the bursting open of 44 years of Iranian women’s struggle against unjust laws and lack of control over their bodies and sexuality.

The first demonstration against the compulsory hijab was held in 1979. Since then, despite constant attempts to suppress it, the women’s movement has persisted. Activists have seized the possibilities that digital technologies offer in recent years, with campaigns not only for changing laws and policies but also to bring to light more taboo issues such as the policing of the female body, domestic violence, violence in the workplace, sexual harassment and the Iranian #MeToo movement. This is why the regime has moved quickly to shut down internet access, blocking social media platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp.

However, the purpose of these shutdowns is not just to hinder mobilisation or to block the sharing of videos showing police brutality. In the past few years, the Iranian regime has been developing a sophisticated surveillance system that transcends conventional internet censorship measures. The national information network makes it possible to divide Iranian cyberspace into two parallel universes: a national network and a global one – which, to the average user, look strikingly similar. The national network, through which vital public services operate and which banks and businesses are strong-armed into using, is heavily pushed by the state through advertisements, is cheaper and faster – and is likely to be exposed to government surveillance. However, the global network could be cut at any minute by the state.

The government has been perfecting this system since the last uprising was brutally suppressed in 2019. Even more worryingly, these cyber-surveillance powers could now be combined with newly implemented digital identity cards, which will allow the regime to identify protesters within seconds through CCTV cameras installed across the country. These digital identity cards are now vital for accessing health services or booking national rail and air tickets – and the system’s biometric data banks can be easily used to find “troublemakers”, as they most probably have in identifying a woman protesting against compulsory hijab on a crowded bus, who has been arrested. It is no wonder that many protesters cover their faces and take down CCTV poles as their first move during demonstrations. Think of this when you see women who have stood eye to eye with the police and specialist counter-insurgency guards – and acknowledge their extraordinary courage.

An internet shutdown may not seem like an act of violence, but when bullets are fired at protesters and nobody is able to document it, brutality is able to flourish. Since the ratification of the new Islamic punitive law in 1993, police forces have been legally obliged to enforce hijab-wearing. Morality police patrols, which came into force in 2005, have quashed women’s rights in public spaces, and can lead to the arrest of anyone not deemed dressed appropriately. Woman are arrested, and transferred to the bureau against social corruption, where they are treated like criminals: their photos are taken and their personal information, including their psychological wellbeing, is recorded and archived. This hours-long, draconian procedure ends with coercing the women to cut up their “bad” clothes with scissors. Any repetition of such “crimes” is prosecuted in the courts. Anger is the natural outcome of such humiliating treatment, and one of the few outlets for this is online.

The My Stealthy Freedom campaign encouraged women to stroll the streets without hijab and share the videos on social media channels. One app, Gershad, used collective mapping to help women avoid morality police patrols. In 2017, the protester Vida Movahed climbed a telecoms box on the busy “Revolution” street in Tehran, put a white head scarf on top of a stick, and stood there in silence until she was arrested. The next week, the country was full of women standing silently on telecoms boxes, waving their headscarves and often being brutally taken down. The winter of 2017-18 marked the beginning of an independent movement of ordinary women literally standing their ground. The power of one image travelling across social media and messaging apps questioned all the injustice imposed on women for decades.

Despite western leaders’ reluctance to get involved in Iranian women’s struggle while entering more negotiations with Iran about a nuclear deal, some new developments, such as the US government’s easing sanctions on internet technologies, might be the beginning of the expansion of internet freedom in Iran. Meanwhile, profit-oriented big tech companies, such as Elon Musk’s Starlink, which provides satellite internet access and is set to be activated in Iran, use the opportunity to act as heroes. The stories spread without mention of the fact that such systems need special hardware, licences from the International Telecommunication Union and connection to international payments systems that Iranian banks are cut off from due to sanctions. Alleviating one harm should not pave the way to giving big tech companies a free hand in a country where there are no clear data protection or privacy regulations. Think about the controversies Facebook’s Free Basics programme caused in developing countries.

Neda Agha-Soltan’s face, covered with blood, became the icon of the Iranian people’s struggle in 2009. Today, Amini’s death has given momentum to Iranian women’s fight against discrimination, state control and patriarchy. It is access to information that allows social movements to thrive and injustices and brutality to be documented. The establishment of a free global internet should become an international priority: disconnection kills.

Azadeh Akbari is assistant professor in public administration and digital transformation at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

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