Last month, an Iranian judge in the northwest Kurdish city of Marivan handed down a rare form of punishment to three men involved in a violent street fight: they were to be paraded around town trussed up in women’s clothes.
Turns out, the women of Marivan were less than amused by the sentence. When the first convict marched down the streets on April 15 clad in a veil, dozens of angry women turned out to protest, calling the perp walk sexist. Local police cracked down on the demonstrations, breaking one woman’s leg and injuring several other activists, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Citizen journalists recorded videos of the punishment and the protest and uploaded them onto YouTube, while activists created a Facebook page—“Being a Woman Is Not Shameful”—and invited Iranian men to join them in solidarity. So far, the page has gained more than 13,000 likes in the past week, and thousands of male supporters have submitted pictures of themselves dressed up in female finery for the cause.
Ahmad Rafat, an Iranian journalist who works for the Italian media, is a big supporter of the campaign and sent in a picture of himself clad in Kurdish women’s clothing, with the caption: “There lies such sanctity in women’s clothing that not every man deserves to wear it.”
“My main reason to join this campaign was to protest this mindset that being a woman is shameful,” Rafat said. “When any officials order such a sentence, it is an insult to my mother and to my Kurdish nanny who raised me … [and] we need to support such campaigns to encourage people to echo their disapproval of Iran’s system.”
The campaign has been vociferous enough to reach the ears of Iranian policymakers. Seventeen parliamentary members expressed disbelief over the “outrageous sentence” and issued a public statement denouncing the punishment. “This action is contrary to Islamic values and a humiliation of the character of a Muslim woman,” it read. The sentences were also slammed by the Center for Women and Family Affairs, a government office concerned with women’s issues, which said in a statement, “This sentence shows a deep misunderstanding of the position of women and shows the need for cultural education nationwide.”
But some activists say that, even as the campaign gains support among men, entrenched biases against women run deep in the culturally conservative Kurdistan. “I ask myself, where were these men a couple of months ago when a Kurdish father killed his daughter for having a relationship outside of marriage,” says women’s rights activist Leila Mouri. “No one protested that, or any other discrimination against women in Kurdistan, as a matter of fact.”
Rafat, the Iranian journalist, agrees that Mouri has a point. “She is right,” he says. “Looking at the unofficial statistics, you see that Kurdistan’s provinces are very traditional when it comes to women, and patriarchal. Women don’t even have the chance to decide their own life there.”
In such a system, Rafat says, “culturally, they view women as second-class citizens and inferior to men. So it must be shameful for a man to be called a woman, in their mind. I also believe that this sentence has a political meaning. It happened in the Kurdish province of Iran, and Kurds—as a minority group in Iran—have a long history of friction with the capital.”
The use of Facebook as a protest tool may have encouraged some men to join the fight who otherwise might have stayed silent, says Mouri. “A Facebook protest is the easiest way to protest for men—it doesn’t require much of an action,” she says. “For instance, they could have joined women in the street protests, but they didn’t—because it is hard for men, too, to stand up against the patriarchal culture and object to the discriminations.”
Iran has seen protests like this before. In December 2009, Iranian officials circulated a picture of the leading student activist and opposition figure Majid Tavakoli dressed in a hijab, and claimed he was disguising himself as a woman to hide from officials. (When he was eventually arrested, reports say, Tavakoli was in fact dressed in men’s clothes.) In protest, hundreds of men posted photos of themselves wearing the hijab in solidarity with Tavakoli.
While there seems to be a groundswell of protest against the ongoing use of women’s clothes as a symbol of shame or humiliation, a deeper shift in women’s status in the country may still be far off. “Overcoming these discriminations requires the government support,” says Rafat.
“We need to question discrimination from its root,” Mouri adds, “and attack violence against women that takes place under the name of religion in Iran.”
Solmaz is a digital journalist and works for CyberDissidents.org.