Internet shutdown is another brutal blow to women from the Iranian regime | Azadeh Akbari

Ooman, life, freedom. These are the words repeatedly used in Iranian social media posts and carried on banners during ongoing protests across the country. Three words that could have been a poetic combination in any other context, but not for women who pay the price for their freedom with their lives. The death of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, after being arrested by vice squad for her “abusive hijab”, has sparked widespread anger, leading to the deaths of at least 41 other people.

The collective furor pouring into the streets is the result of decades of oppression against women in Iran. While the murder of George Floyd exposed the structural racism prevalent in American society, and the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia paved the way for an unforeseen Arab Spring to arrive in the region, the death of Amini led to the shattering of Iranian women’s 44-year struggle against unjust laws and a lack of control over their bodies and sexuality.

The first demonstration against compulsory hijab took place in 1979. Since then, despite constant attempts to suppress it, the women’s movement has persisted. Activists have seized the opportunities presented by digital technologies in recent years, with campaigns not only to change laws and policies, but also to shine a light on more taboo issues such as policing the female body, domestic violence , workplace violence, sexual harassment. and the Iranian #MeToo movement. That is why the regime moved quickly to shut down internet access, blocking social media platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp.

However, the purpose of these closures is not just to hinder mobilization or block the sharing of videos showing police brutality. Over the past few years, the Iranian regime has developed a sophisticated surveillance system that transcends conventional internet censorship measures. The National Information Network helps divide Iranian cyberspace into two parallel universes: a national network and a global one – which, to the average user, are strikingly similar. The national grid, through which vital public services operate and which banks and businesses are strongly encouraged to use, is heavily pushed by the state through advertisements, is cheaper and faster – and is likely to be exposed to government surveillance. However, the global network could be cut at any time by the state.

The government has perfected this system since the last uprising was brutally suppressed in 2019. More worryingly, these cyber-surveillance powers could now be combined with newly introduced digital ID cards, which will allow the regime to identify demonstrators in seconds thanks to CCTV cameras. installed throughout the country. These digital ID cards are now vital for accessing health services or booking domestic train and plane tickets – and the system’s biometric databases can be easily used to find “troublemakers”, as they most likely did so to identify a woman protesting compulsory hijab on a crowded bus, who was arrested. It’s no wonder that many protesters cover their faces and pull down CCTV poles as a first move during protests. Think about it when you see women who have come face to face with police and counterinsurgency guards – and recognize their extraordinary courage.

An internet shutdown may not seem like an act of violence, but when bullets are fired at protesters and no one is able to document it, brutality can thrive. Since the ratification of the new Islamic punitive law in 1993, the police forces are legally obliged to impose the wearing of the hijab. Morality police patrols, which came into effect in 2005, have violated women’s rights in public spaces and can lead to the arrest of anyone deemed not to be appropriately dressed. Women are arrested and transferred to the office against social corruption, where they are treated like criminals: their photos are taken and their personal information, including their psychological well-being, is recorded and archived. This draconian, hours-long procedure ends with the women being coerced into cutting off their “bad” clothes with scissors. Any repetition of such “crimes” is prosecuted in court. Anger is a natural result of such humiliating treatment, and one of the few outlets for it is online.

The My Stealthy Freedom campaign encouraged women to walk the streets without a hijab and share the videos on social media. One app, Gershad, used collective mapping to help women avoid morality police patrols. In 2017, protester Vida Movahed climbed over a telecommunications box on busy “Revolution” street in Tehran, put a white scarf over her head with a stick, and stood there in silence until her arrest. The following week, the country was full of women silently standing on telecommunications boxes, waving their headscarves and often being brutally dismantled. The winter of 2017-18 marked the beginning of an independent movement of ordinary women who literally held on. The power of an image traveling across social media and messaging apps has challenged all the injustice imposed on women for decades.

Despite the reluctance of Western leaders to get involved in the Iranian women’s struggle while starting new negotiations with Iran on a nuclear deal, some new developments, such as the easing of US government sanctions on internet technologies, could be the start of the expansion of Internet freedom in Iran. . Meanwhile, big, for-profit tech companies, such as Elon Musk’s Starlink, which provides satellite internet access and is expected to be activated in Iran, are seizing the opportunity to act like heroes. The stories have spread without mentioning the fact that these systems require special hardware, International Telecommunication Union licenses and connection to international payment systems that Iranian banks are cut off from due to sanctions. Mitigating harm should not pave the way for giving big tech companies a free hand in a country where there are no clear data protection or privacy regulations. Think of the controversies that Facebook’s Free Basics program has caused in developing countries.

The face of Neda Agha-Soltan, covered in blood, became the icon of the struggle of the Iranian people in 2009. Today, the death of Amini has given new impetus to the struggle of Iranian women against discrimination, state control and patriarchy. It is access to information that allows social movements to thrive and document injustice and brutality. The establishment of a free global internet must become an international priority: disconnection kills.

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