Transforming Iran’s Civil Liberties Movement One App at a Time

Aug 5, 20160 comments

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post.

By Firuzeh Mahmoudi 

When I was 16, my sister, mother and I visited my aunt in Kerman –– my mother’s hometown in southern Iran. One hot afternoon, while strolling the streets, I noticed my headscarf was on backwards. I quickly lifted my scarf and turned it around. Shortly after, I saw two uniformed men approach me. My heart sank. In that moment, I knew. They were the moral police, and they were there to arrest me.

Every year millions of Iranian women and some Iranian men are stopped by the country’s morality police. In 2013, by the government’s own account, more than 3 million women were stopped, hundreds of thousands were detained, and more than 18,000 were convicted. The most common punishment for a loose headscarf is lashes, imprisonment, and a fine—on top of the stress and humiliation of being stopped and harassed in the street. But Iranian women are fighting back.

In the last decade, headscarves have become progressively looser, overcoats tighter, and styles more elaborate and daring. My Stealthy Freedom, an online campaign organized by journalist Masih Alinejad, publishes pictures sent by women in public spaces who are ‘stealing’ a moment of freedom by taking their scarves off, away from the prying eyes of the moral police.

Innovative and disruptive technologies are also changing the game for Iranian women. Gershad, a mobile phone application launched last February, alerts users where morality police checkpoints are, thereby enabling them to avoid arrest. The app serves an important purpose for women, who are often stopped randomly on the street for violations of Iran’s Islamic code of conduct. The app has been downloaded more than 50,000 times since its launch in February.

The web has become a refuge for millions of Iranians who know they can’t express their thoughts, beliefs, and desires without risk of retribution. 65 percent of Iranian homes have broadband access, nearly the same percentage as in the United States. In addition, at least half of Iran’s 80 million population have smartphones, with one million smartphones being added every month. It is estimated that at least 20 million Iranians have access to 3G data on their phones.

The rise of smartphones has been so dramatic in Iran that people in some remote areas of the country pass on owning a personal computer or an email account and connect to the internet for the first time through their phones and social media accounts instead. Technology is allowing them to form networks to express themselves and associate.

In response to the rising tide of digital connectivity, the Islamic Republic of Iran is making great efforts to control Internet access. Iran is one of the top Internet censors in the world and has blocked millions of websites. But as the Iranian government uses more tools to limit its citizens’ access, people learn more ways to circumvent these restrictions.

In some ways, the average Iranian is much more tech savvy than your average American. Iranians have to go through technological hoops, including using proxies, to access social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. They are clever and persistent advocates and their online activism has led to the release of a number of political prisoners. In a recent case, Iranians harnessed the power of social media to raise global awareness for an Iranian scientist who had been unfairly imprisoned for more than five years. Their campaign forced the authorities to release Omid Kokabie.

Never have Iranians had this much access to the world around them, and, like everything else that is hard-won, they take their access and the opportunities that come with it seriously. That is why activists like me believe the future of technology as a way to safeguard civil liberties in Iran is bright.

United for Iran, an independent nonprofit I founded in 2009 is working to develop technologies that can be used to protect people in Iran. Our IranCubator project pairs software engineers with Iranian activists and thought-leaders to develop mobile applications that move the needle toward improving civil liberties in Iran. Through a contest, we are identifying nascent solutions, and the teams that will develop them. We are providing financial and technical resources to make their projects a reality. IranCubator is able to do the work that is incredibly risky for activists in Iran. Many prominent Iranian activists have been behind bars for years for doing much less than what IranCubator aims to accomplish. We have received applications for apps that will promote electoral transparency, assist victims of domestic abuse, and protect the rights of ethnic minorities.

The aims of all these apps is to empower the Iranian people. Technology is giving us more hope than ever, that we can make noticeable improvements.