For many people in the western world, Facebook is a platform to share and connect with friends and family. But for Muslim women across Iran, it has become a vital tool to challenge the status quo.
Ph.D. student Marziyeh Ebrahimi and Associate Professor Ramon Salaverria from the University of Navarra conducted a qualitative research study investigating the virtual identities of Muslim women in Iran on Facebook. What they uncovered were some interesting findings regarding the importance of Facebook as a platform to discuss Iran’s complex political and cultural landscape. The internet identities of Iranian women differ between how they present themselves offline and these differences rail against the current social norms and cultural taboos. Unlike other Muslim countries where Islamic laws for women are sometimes more strictly adhered to, Muslim Iranian women are rebelling in order to engage in communications that in real life would not be permitted.
Ebrahimi and Salaverria identify Facebook as a place where they can be free from the traditions of Iranian governmental culture. Ruled under Islamic law, which only permits a very limited range of interpersonal communication, Facebook offers a place of respite. An example of this is the frequency of profile pictures that feature Iranian women without the hijab, conveying a complete disregard of fear for one’s reputation. They are unconcerned with the consequences of their online behaviours that may emanate into real life scenarios such as workplaces or organisations that they belong to. However, despite showing themselves without the hijab, there is little to no sexual content displayed on their Facebook accounts. This puts the argument that their behaviour is being presented for the male gaze to rest and, instead, suggests an argument for cyberfeminism in a society that restricts the actions of its women.
According to the Iranian Statistics Center (2014), dating to 2012, the number of men entering university was significantly lower than the number of women. This presents a situation where, despite their position in Iranian society, there are a considerable amount of educated Iranian women whose political and intellectual views are becoming increasingly important to the future of Iran. They use Facebook as a key tool to discuss, debate and share political views and their motivations for using it are aligned with an inherent desire to express opinions about Iran’s sociopolitical issues. Facebook is the space where Iranian women feel free of gender-related constraints and a place to start and experiment with ways to change Iran’s offline society.
It is important to understand that although Iran is a Muslim country, Persian culture contrasts heavily with the governmental, Islamic culture that currently rules. The Islamisation of Iranian culture post-revolution has highly affected the social position of women and, consequently, they have found in the digital sphere a place to push back against social norms. Educated, resourceful, and now equipped with the digital platforms to advance their agendas — it will be hard to ignore Iranian women, hijab or not.