Undertones: Iran's powerful narratives about religion and rebellion

Illustration by the Civic Media Observatory

This story is part of Undertones, Global Voices’ Civic Media Observatory‘s newsletter. Subscribe to Undertones.

“It’s a basic human right to be able to feel the wind in your hair,” Nafisak, who now lives outside of Iran, tells us over a Zoom call. “I felt the wind in my hair for the first time here, and it brought tears to my eyes,” she adds. Nafisak is a pseudonym of our Iranian researcher, who must remain anonymous for security reasons.

She started working with the Civic Media Observatory after protests erupted in Iran in September, following Mahsa Amini’s death in police custody. Amini had been arrested by Iran’s morality police for allegedly violating the country’s mandatory headscarf (hijab) law by wearing it incorrectly. Images of women — showcasing their rage, grief, and courage — went viral. The country was shaken as thousands of individuals, including women, girls, and men, took to the streets to advocate for women’s right to choose how to dress. The protests quickly evolved to give voice to general distress about the regime’s authoritarianism.

Today, the threat of lethal violence has dampened street demonstrations; at least 488 people, including 64 minors, were killed by state forces. But people continue to dissent online. “In fact, people are getting even angrier with the regime,” Nafisak says. Now, they are seeking a total regime overhaul.

For context, all popular social media and messaging platforms such as Meta’s apps (Instagram, Facebook and Whatsapp), Telegram, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, and even LinkedIn and Skype, are blocked in Iran. Iranian leaders are promoting “made in Iran” social media alternatives with little success. In the meantime, Iranians, including government mouthpieces, still use international social media with VPNs. The most popular apps are Instagram and WhatsApp.

On the dissenters’ side

“Regime change is the only option left to the Iranian people”

Unlike previous protests, more and more Iranian citizens are questioning Iran’s 1979 revolution and the regime as a whole. This has led Iranians to switch from referring to the unrest as a “protest” to a “revolution”.

“In the 2022 protests, most people believe they must not stop until the regime is entirely overthrown. They believe any ‘reform’ promised now is just another manipulation tactic to distract western media's attention from Iran,” Nafisak wrote in our database.

This is a departure from previous narratives. “Before, people would think that the mullahs are bad, but if they go, something worse might happen,” she says. “Mullahs” are Muslim religious clerics, and in Iran, they run the political scene.

Today, many believe nothing can be worse than a regime that allowed the killing of so many youths and children. This translates into deep mistrust. Even if the mullahs decide to abolish the morality police or make the hijab optional (which many think will not happen anyway), it might not be enough.

An example of how this narrative spreads online: “The regime's disinformation won't work this time

Where it is shared: Telegram channel

Author: Masih Alinejad, a prominent Iranian journalist and long-time women's rights activist currently living in the United States

Content: Alinejad shared her interview with U.S. media outlet ABC TV

Argument: She states that a New York Times article covering the alleged abolishment of the morality police is disinformation. She mentions that regime change is the ultimate goal of the protesters.

Subtext: The regime has a long history of covering up its crimes through disinformation. She calls this movement a “revolution”, not a protest. Her choice of language is loaded with meaning — nothing less than a total overhaul will do.

Civic Impact: +2, because this item spreads awareness about disinformation tactics and how they are sanitized by mainstream Western media outlets, and also because the author calls the movement a “revolution”.

See this item’s complete analysis here.

Related narratives:
The Islamic Republic will never actually do away with compulsory hijab
Western media and politicians should not allow themselves to be manipulated by the regime's lobbyists and apologists

On the regime’s side

“Hijab must be compulsory and hijab rules should be enforced more strongly”

In 1979, Iranians led by Ayatollah Khomeini revolted against the country’s monarchy and installed the Islamic Republic of Iran. Today, many argue that religious figures took advantage of the power vacuum in the wake of the revolution, made the hijab mandatory, and asserted their power through religious narratives. In short, mullahs have installed an authoritarian theocracy instead of limiting themselves to spiritually advising elected leaders as they had promised.

Today, most of the government’s political arguments have a strong religious underpinning. For example, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khameini is the heir of Mahdi, an extremely important messianic figure in Twelver Shia Islam, the largest branch of Shia Islam. Therefore, any act deemed immoral or sinful — such as “immodest” women wearing improper hijabs at the helm — bear the responsibility of delaying Mahdi’s resurrection. According to this ideology, even droughts and earthquakes stem from women’s immodesty.

“Anything anyone does under this government can directly affect the timing of doomsday,” Nafisak says about the beliefs governing the religious leaders. “Even having only one badly worn hijab will directly hurt Mahdi’s heart and delay the apocalypse.”

Khameini is considered God’s direct messenger. For Nafisak, “religious narratives are exactly why the regime hasn’t been overthrown yet. Religion has always been a big part of Iranian society. It’s much harder to fight with God than with a politician.”

An example of how this narrative spreads online: “Making hijab optional will end up in nudity

Where is it shared: Instagram

Author: anonymous

Content: the author shared a comedic video of a famous internet personality, Seyyed Kazem Roohbakhsh, making fun of feminists.

Argument: Kazem says that if the law on mandatory hijab is lifted, there will be more promiscuity in the country, which will lead to more rapes, abortions, and broken families, which is the case in Europe precisely because headscarves are not compulsory there. He concludes by saying that Mahdi is “observing us all” and that “he needs pure and modest men and women as his soldiers on the doomsday.”

Subtext: Kazem makes fun of Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, who spoke against compulsory hijab and is the daughter of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former powerful politician. She has previously been arrested and is a target of conservative supporters of the regime.

Civic impact score: -2, because it spreads and incites extremely sexist and homophobic comments. It disseminates false data and promotes insults to women’s rights advocates.

See this item’s complete analysis here. I particularly recommend reading Nafisak’s deep reading on it.

Related narratives:
The Islamic Republic is the only legitimate government and must be protected by all means necessary
The regime must not give in to the protestors’ demands

Have a listen

The song ‘Baraye’ (translated to “for”) became the anthem of Iran’s revolt. Shervin Hajipour uploaded ‘Baraye’ on September 29; in the song, he highlights Iranian protest tweets. It received the Grammy for Best Song for Social Change in February. Hajipour is currently being prosecuted by Iranian authorities.

“Both people in Iran and in the diaspora play this song and sing it. Sometimes, people in Iran would play it loudly in their houses or cars as a subtle way of protest,” Nafisak says. See more analysis on this item here. It includes a lot of subtextual analysis.

This newsletter is the first piece published by the Community CMO, a new project at the Civic Media Observatory that uses the same methodology of narrative analysis in collaboration with our wider community. If you want to learn more or be a part of it, consider pitching us an investigation idea. Our next open training will happen this Friday, March 24, online. You can register here.
Editor's correction: Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani spoke against compulsory hijab, but cannot be considered a “prominent voice for women's rights” as previously written. We have changed the wording in the story.

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