In recent weeks, the world’s media has quite rightly shone a light on something quite incredible happening in Iran. In an apparently spontaneous display of dissent, women have openly discarded the hijab head covering, which they have been obliged to wear in public since soon after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In a country where women are still banned from attending soccer matches – the BBC reported that 35 women were arrested for such an ‘offense’ this week – such defiance over the hijab is a brave act.
Dubbed the “Girls of Revolution Street”, the hijab protesters and their #WhiteWednesdays campaign has been widely covered in global media outlets. Reuters for example, published numerous images of protesters which had been uploaded to social media. And most of the reports also covered the predictably repressive response of the Iranian authorities. By their own admission, Iran’s police made 29 arrests. Meanwhile, the likes of the Guardian readily reported demeaning comments from Iranian officials who dismissed female protestors as having been “deceived” by nefarious outside influences.
However, this is the point at which many media outlets suffered a case of cognitive dissonance. They reported the protests. They even reported the Iranian government’s harsh reaction. But on the whole, they failed to take the next obvious step – To truly scrutinize the regime in Tehran, as it brazenly continues to repress women and belittle their struggle for equality and freedom.
Instead, too many media outlets opted to paint the hijab protests as part of an internal Iranian struggle, a domestic issue over which no judgement should be made. The New York Times claimed that the public dissent “illuminated the struggle between moderates like Mr [President] Rouhani, and conservative religious leaders.” The BBC commented that there is “genuine division on the issue.”
Quite simply, there was too much reluctance to criticize the Iranian government. Germany’s Deutsche Welle matter-of-factly stated that “Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has not addressed the headscarf protest as of yet.” Meanwhile, CNN even suggested that Rouhani had shown leniency, as his administration tended to fine, rather than imprison Iranian women driving with ‘improper’ head coverings.
Genuine analysis and scrutiny of Rouhani and his colleagues was left to a limited number of voices on the opinion pages. A Washington Post editorial condemned the “repressive apparatus” in Tehran. And in the Huffington Post, Leila Mouri provided clarity, stating “Now is the time to stop justifying mandatory hijab in the name of religion, nation, country, or culture. It is time to remind ourselves… that when it comes to women’s rights, there is no room for appeasement.”
Surely this is the standard that the “Girls of Revolution Street” deserve. Gender equality is clearly a fundamental of Western civilization. Failing to call out a clear case of gender repression merely hands the fundamentalists in Tehran a destructive free pass.