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To Protest Judge's Sentence, Iranians Launch Viral Feminist Campaign on Facebook

BY Jessica McKenzie | Friday, April 26 2013

A collage of photos from the Kurdish Men For Equality Facebook page

On April 15, police paraded a convicted criminal dressed in traditional Kurdish women’s clothing through the streets of Marivan, Iran, in accordance with a judge’s sentence. A local feminist organization, the Marivan Women’s Community, found the sentence humiliating to Kurdish women, and organized a protest. The protest moved online to a Facebook page with the tagline: “Being a woman is not humiliating and should not be considered punishment.” Overnight, the page garnered 3,800 fans. One week later, it now has more than 10,000 fans. The protest has prompted 17 members of Iran’s parliament to sign a letter to the Justice Ministry calling the punishment “humiliating to Muslim women.”

The success of the Facebook campaign shows both the ease with which protests can spread via social media, and the ease with which they can be misinterpreted and misrepresented.

More than 150 men have posted photographs of themselves dressed in drag on the Facebook page in a show of solidarity with Kurdish women, resulting in a proliferation of meme-like photo galleries. Although the tangible goals of the campaign are not clear, it has certainly been drawing a lot of attention: Huffington Post and Buzzfeed both wrote about the campaign, and news articles and words of support have been posted on the Facebook page from countries across the world (recent posts on the timeline come from Sweden, Norway, France and Germany).

The Facebook protest has become remote from the original crime and punishment that prompted it. In news coverage the “convicted criminal” is hardly mentioned at all, and the punishment becomes a thing unto itself, without context. What is entirely overlooked or dismissed is that the criminal was convicted of domestic abuse (although details are unknown). It is unclear how that specific crime might have influenced the ruling, but curious to ponder how the judge, in seeking to humiliate a man as punishment for harming a woman, issued a ruling that women found more humiliating to them than to the convicted. Since the protest was begun by a “feminist” Women’s Community group, one might think domestic violence would factor into their campaign, and yet it seems the crime and the punishment are entirely unrelated issues. The problem of domestic violence has been completely overlooked, at least in how it has been portrayed in the English-language media.

The original organizers are apparently absent from the Facebook page and the news coverage, which often mentions the Facebook page before the Women’s Organization protest, if they mention the latter at all. This might be in part because the original protest is less visible on the Internet; a video of the protest has been removed from YouTube due to multiple third-party notifications of copyright infringement. Somehow the on the ground protest organized by a women’s group – and allegedly attacked by security forces – became the apparently male-driven “Kurd Men for Equality” Facebook page.

This alone is not particularly problematic, but it seems the Western media is projecting certain assumptions and desires onto the “Kurdish Men for Equality” campaign. Gay Star News boldly proclaimed: “Kurdish men from the Marivan County in the Kurdistan province of Iran have launched a cross-dressing campaign to redress outmoded concepts of masculinity and femininity.” A story on Policymic.com declared: “We often hear the stories about how backwards countries like Iran are, but a new campaign by Kurdish men and women in Iran proves that there are people working [to] break down gender barriers every day all over the world.” It went on to add, “Women have also submitted themselves wearing men’s clothing in the true nature of gender bending awesomeness.” The campaign was featured on HuffPost Gay Voices instead of HuffPost Women, HuffPost World, or HuffPost Politics, all of which would have been equally or more appropriate.

Somehow what began as a protest of local law enforcement tactics and a campaign for women’s rights and equality between the sexes – which the pan-Arab news source Al Arabiya still finds “rather peculiar” because of the cross-dressing – became a story about “gender bending awesomeness” and LGBTQ rights.

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