Iran: Technology Used to Bolster Women’s Movement

Al Arabiya
Given the strict censorship the Islamic Republic government places on state television, print, and radio, Iranians are using nuanced techniques for spreading information.
Next time you find yourself stuck in the crowded subway cars of the Tehran metro system, turn on your Bluetooth. Not only will you find everything from political news to scandalous cartoons of President Ahmadinejad, love letters to pornography, but you will also be exposed to the burgeoning and increasingly techno-clever Iranian women’s rights movement.
Women’s rights defenders in Iran have long utilized technology for their activism. The Change for Equality ( and Women’s Field ( websites are updated daily with news, opinion pieces, and commentary on the status of women and women’s activism in Iran, often in multiple languages for both the domestic as well as international reader. Iran boasts one of the most prolific blogging networks in the world, with 60,000 routinely updated blogs featuring a rich and diverse mix of bloggers. Email and cell phone messaging are ubiquitous among the urban Iranian population, and SMS texting is currently the largest independent network for exchanging information in Iran.

Given the strict censorship the Islamic Republic government places on state television, print, and radio, Iranians are using nuanced techniques for spreading information, and the women’s movement is no exception. Years ago, women’s activists were among the first to use the power of the internet to spread their message of gender equality. In response, the government placed extensive internet filters on any sites featuring dissent and critiques of the Islamic Republic, as well as on pornography and other “immoral and anti-religious” material.

However, these limitations may have catalyzed the emergence of an even farther reaching network of technology-based information sharing for social and political movements. Last year, the official in charge of internet matters in the Tehran city prosecutor’s office announced that the state’s extensive filtering of internet sites had had the unintended consequence of increasing SMS message traffic, as texting less vulnerable to government control.

Most recently, the use of Bluetooth wireless technology—which allows individuals to exchange music, pictures, and video between computers and phones—has provided the Iranian women’s movement with an even more powerful tool to communicate with one another and the public at large. Bluetooth technology is almost impossible to track and control, so it provides a relatively safe and private sphere in which activists can communicate. For now, it is almost impossible for the government to monitor, allowing a kind of freedom of speech rarely seen either during the Shah or since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. And in Iran, anonymity is power. Women’s movement activists are becoming increasingly clever with their usage of such technology. For example, they will send a Bluetooth message to any Tehran metro passengers, often carry a subject line labelling the message as pornographic, a creative advertising tool to entice acceptance of the message. While passengers think they are about to view an image of a naked woman or sex act, they will often be surprised to find themselves viewing the latest news on the Iranian women’s movement.

And it does not end there. GoogleMaps are used to geographically plan protests and rallies in order to find the safest escape route in case of a police crackdown. Twitter sends minute by minute updates on clandestine Parliament sessions discussing the latest proposed Family Law. Even families who are without internet can now participate in the movement if they have access to a cell phone, which millions of Iranians do. The latest project is building a wiki for a new, democratically written Family Law and Women’s Charter. Almost anyone can add their perspectives without fear of government reprisal.

All of these tools have served to make the Iranian women’s movement stronger than ever. With technology changing at lightning speed, Iranian activists are not only keeping up, but utilizing these techniques in creative and unseen ways to bolster their movement.

The only question remains is: Can the government keep up? While the Iranian authorities scurry to find ways to monitor and censor such activities, the network is growing too fast for their efforts—currently there are an estimated twenty-four million members of the cell phone community—and there are no signs of slowing down.

08 April 2009

By Rochelle Terman

Al Arabiya