The Power of Women in Iran, Standing Up to the Morality Police

In Iran, morality police prosecute over 16,000 women per year for “violations” from wearing an improper hijab to walking with a male friend. A growing women’s rights movement uses the internet to fight back.

Two Iranian women in northern Tehran on Mar. 20, 2022. (Morteza Nikoubazl / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

I was 16 years old, on a trip to visit my family in Kerman, Iran, excited to see relatives and friends, when I was stopped and arrested by two morality guards. They plucked me off the street, loaded me into their car, and took me to the local station. 

My crime? I had my hair uncovered, showing it to their male gaze.

To this day, I remember the searing mix of emotions that is familiar to millions of Iranian women who are arrested every year for this “offense.” First there was fear and anxiety, then shame and desperation, and finally righteous anger.

After hours of humiliation and reprimands, I was forced to sign a confession and was released. The terms of my release: If I reoffended, my punishment would be 50 lashes administered in public to discourage similar “immoral” behavior among other women.

Three decades later, I live and work in California, far from the daily terror that Iranian clergymen and policymakers force upon Iranian women every single day to realize their vision of an Islamic family and society.

In their ideal, a woman is a perpetually silent, self-sacrificing mother and homemaker, relegated to cooking, cleaning, raising children (the more children, the better), and providing on-demand sexual services to her husband. And, naturally, her hair is dutifully hidden under a veil to be seen only by her husband.

But, as the internet opened Iran up to the world, I started watching with awe as Iranian women began actively resisting this male ideal of womanhood.

In a country where there is barely any freedom of speech or expression left, women are finding ways to take action and act on their righteous anger. The internet has become the instrument of their resistance.

Through social media, mobile apps, weblogs and websites, Iranian women are actively participating in public discourse and exercising their civil rights, mostly anonymously. Luckily for the growing women’s rights movement, the patriarchal and misogynistic government has not yet figured out how to completely censor and control the internet.

As the internet opened Iran up to the world, I started watching with awe as Iranian women began actively resisting this male ideal of womanhood.

Every day, I see Iranian women organizing, protesting and risking their lives.

For example, a movement of women is challenging existing laws that allow parents to marry off daughters as young as 9 years old. They are publicly sharing past generations’ heartbreaking stories of child abuse and demanding legal protections for children and changes in policy.

The resistance against the morality police has been made visible—and public—online. Social media movements like “My Stealthy Freedom,” “White Wednesdays” and similar online campaigns have had millions of Iranian women and men participate.

But women are not only using technology; women are now creating technology that allows them to protest, organize and empower other women.

Recognizing the untapped potential of the internet, the nonprofit I lead, United for Iran, began creating apps and other technology to champion and support human rights and civil liberties back home.

For example, to empower Iranian women’s rights activists organizing to protect women from sexual harassment in the workplace, we incubated Cheragh Academy, an educational platform and social media campaign that teaches Iranians how to recognize sexual harassment and safely challenge it.

To teach women about their legal rights and the few protections they do have in the Iranian court of law, we worked with women’s rights and LGBTQI+ activists to create Hamdam. This app demystifies complex Iranian laws, teaches women about marriage law and gives them legal tools to protect themselves, all under the guise of being a period tracker app.

The app was so popular among women that the Iranian clergymen needed to silence it. They recently launched a counter-app with the same name, Hamdam, but with a goal of advertising traditional Islamic marriage between men and women and increasing the Iranian natality rate.

Finally, my team at United for Iran worked with ASL19, an Iranian internet freedom nonprofit, to produce an app called Gershad to help millions of women who are harassed by the morality police every year.

Gershad is a crowdsourced mobile phone app with reporting features similar to Waze. Users can securely view and report to each other in real-time the location of the morality police checkpoints.

On average, the morality police prosecutes 18,000 people every year and 90 percent of them are women. “Violations” include wearing an improper hijab or walking with a male friend.

My experience in Kerman, and my team members’ nearly identical experiences in their own hometowns, inspired Gershad.

We realized that we live in an authoritarian country and cannot pass laws to remove the oppressive morality police. If we cannot legislate them out of their jobs, at least we can create an app to empower Iranians to avoid them. Maybe that way, the morality police would become obsolete. 

And with over 100,000 downloads of Gershad and over 1,700 hours of use so far, I believe that Iranian women and their allies will make that dream possible.

Today, when I look at my 16-year-old self, sitting alone and terrified in that station, I am proud to tell her: “My dear, you are not alone. You are part of a powerful and growing movement and we won’t stop until we change Iran for the better.”

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Firuzeh Mahmoudi is the executive director of United for Iran. She started United for Iran to improve human rights, support civil society, and increase civic engagement, primarily through technology. Previously, Mahmoudi worked at the U.N. and various NGOs focusing on supporting communities worldwide with advocating for environmental justice and health.