Since the Iranian protests began on September 16, 2022, social media has been inundated with images and videos of women bravely confronting over four decades of authoritarian control over their bodies by cutting their hair, burning their mandatory hijabs, and remaining steadfast in the face of batons and bullets attempting to force them into submission. For people outside this context, digital visual content has been their first point of contact with this movement. They see and learn about the grievances of Iranian people and the government’s continued violence upon its own citizens – in a sense, processing the meanings of dissent, repression, and resistance – as they play out in the images. But outside of their symbolic functions as movement “memorabilia,” social media visuals also play an important role for protestors and affect the evolution of activism itself. Images and videos of the Iranian movement build on over nine years of prior digital visual activism. Past content both formed a script for future instantiations of protest – the likes of which we have seen over the past few weeks – and helped create a foundation for women’s grievances against the regime to take shape. Social movement scholars need to take this content seriously in light of such developments, especially as they relate to the dynamics of on and offline activism that remain of special interest to the literature.
Studies on visuals hold a marginal position in the literature compared to text-based social media research on, for example, tweets or comments. But such studies tell us a lot about why visuals form a significant part of digital interactions. Visual content has unique cognitive effects which often helps to generate more interest in a movement. Because “words can only speak of one thing at a time, but images arrive holistically, (making) everything present simultaneously,” they are especially well suited to amplify the emotions of sadness or rage that motivate people to take part in protest. Visuals are also an important medium of activist communication and, importantly, because of their combined effects in engaging audiences and sustaining interest in social mobilization, help movements gain visibility in the public sphere.
My own research on Iran’s “My Stealthy Freedom” movement builds on these insights in authoritarian settings. Since 2014, Iranian women and girls have taken photos and videos of themselves partaking in publicly banned activities from unveiling to singing and dancing as a protest to Iran’s gender discriminatory policies. I argue that this content poses a challenge to the Iranian regime’s control over spatial settings, social norms, and gender roles, the likes of which others argue are significant to its hold on power. Images of women walking unveiled in heavily trafficked public spaces such as markets or town squares, and doing so without provoking male attention, challenge the Islamic Republic’s rhetoric on the hijab as a form of protection from sexual harm. It also challenges the role that men and women play in such environments and, at the same time, imagines a future without such laws by allowing people to prefiguratively live out the aims of protest.
As with other forms of social activism under repressive regimes, many of the movement’s activists have faced public confrontations, fines, and arrests in conjunction with their protest. One of My Stealthy Freedom’s campaigns has attempted to tackle this kind of backlash by documenting and sharing such negative interactions, shedding light on women’s experiences with the regime’s coercive apparatus. Recordings of women being beaten by plain-clothes officers or shoved into morality police vans for refusing to veil are reminiscent of many of the images and videos coming out of Iran today. In this sense, today’s content builds on a multi-year visual archive of past images showing both the level of state violence on women who defy sexist policies and women’s resistance to such attacks on their bodily autonomy.
Such interactions between today’s on-the-ground protests and past digital mobilization are visible in the way content continues to take shape. Some of the images, for example, of women at daily protest sites throughout Iran are reminiscent of prior photos staged using similar poses. In many instances, women weaponized public propaganda in defiance of the regime, embedding images with the same meanings of resistance that have become symbolic of today’s protest pictures.
In other examples, an unveiled woman boldly walking alongside a “mullah” (or religious leader often thought to enforce the regime’s policies) speaks to earlier pictures capturing fleeting moments of solitary protest using the same figure. Groups of schoolgirls, who for weeks have participated in chants, marches, strikes, and sit-ins against the regime, also draw on past tactics, leveraging the tools of the classroom to demonstrate their agency and protest to higher authority.
These juxtapositions between past and present content suggest an ongoing conversation between activists of a non-hierarchical movement in deciding the tactics that effectively bring them attention, elucidate their grievances, and shape their demands. Past content helped bring women-specific issues to the forefront of the Iranian public sphere, creating a foundation for today’s protests to build from. It also created a script for future activists to follow in acting out their resistance to the regime, following what one Iranian writer calls an “unconscious perform(ance) of those things (she) had seen other protestors do.” Images circulated online thus represent more than just visual representations of a movement but in many instances are part and parcel of the movement itself. They enact new forms of political participation and, as has been the case with the Iranian movement, may also foreshadow the crossover to mass public demonstration.
 Prior research suggests that images and videos make up a significant chunk of online protest interactions. For example, social media images accounted for 50% of online interactions during the Egyptian Uprising in 2011. Additionally, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok have surfaced as visual-based modes of digital social interaction, countering media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter which are more text-heavy.