Editor’s Note: CNN is committed to covering gender inequality wherever it occurs in the world. This story is part of As Equals, a year-long series.
A young woman stands on top of a utility box, holding a white headscarf aloft in front of a crowd of one-eyed monsters, her medusa-like hair cascading over her shoulders.
The scene comes from an animated video created by Samin, a 32-year-old motion graphics animator from Tehran, with the help of her boyfriend, an illustrator. Together the couple have been protesting Iran’s compulsory hijab rule with their art.
“Since we are artists, our language is our form of protest. We are hopeful that our videos can provide a voice for Iranian women,” Samin told CNN. Her name has been changed to protect her identity.
For Samin, sharing her art on social media is the safest way to show her solidarity with the movement against Iran’s mandatory headscarf law — part of an Islamic dress code that was enforced after the 1979 revolution against the Shah’s secular regime.
At least 33 people have been arrested for taking part in protests since late December, when a wave of anti-government demonstrations gave way to a public outcry over gender inequality.
People in the country turned to Telegram and Instagram to share information about the protests and voice their support. In response, Iranian officials reportedly restricted access to the social-media and messaging services in an attempt to quell the unrest.
“The government says, ‘You are Muslim — you must wear a hijab,’ but it’s like you censor yourself when you put it on. I think 90% of people don’t want the hijab. Young people would never choose it,” Samin said.
It’s not clear how widespread support for the movement is in Iran, which is still considered freer for women than many of its Islamic neighbors. Iranian women can drive, vote, hold most jobs, and are among the most highly educated in the Middle East.
With the sudden release of a three-year-old report in early February, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani seemed to signal that the country was still split on the issue. The report suggested that 49.2% of Iranians considered the veil to be a private matter and were opposed to the government dictating what women should wear.
Samin’s story underlines a generational divide on the issue. She doesn’t tell her traditional parents how she feels about the hijab, or about her boyfriend, for that matter.
“In Iran, girls are forced to be liars. You must hide everything. I must hide my work, my emotions, my love, all because of the culture here,” Samin told CNN.
The threat of arrest keeps her from voicing her views in the streets, but, behind the anonymity of social media, she continues speaking out.
“Sometimes I want to go protest like Vida, but then I think about my life and going to prison for I don’t know how long, and it’s scary,” Samin said, referring to Vida Movahedi, a 31-year-old mother who was arrested for protesting without her headscarf in a busy Tehran street.
A video of Movahedi standing on a utility box and waving her veil like a flag — which inspired Samin’s animation — went viral on social media in late December, in part because it was shared by an Iranian woman living in exile in the United States.
Masih Alinejad, an activist behind the “White Wednesday” social-media campaign against compulsory hijabs, shares videos and photos of protesters on her social media accounts, which have a combined following of over 2.3 million.
Alinejad has provided a platform for Iranian women to share their discontent with the world, and some are now taking the campaign into their own hands, posting images of themselves without hijabs on their own accounts.
Shaparak Shajarizadeh, an active member of the White Wednesday movement, was arrested in late February after she removed her headscarf in a public protest against Movahedi’s arrest. She shared a video of herself on social media, mirroring Movahedi’s now iconic demonstration — waving her white veil from a stick, her long hair uncovered.
Shajarizadeh, a 42-year-old mother who lives in Tehran with her husband and 9-year-old son, spoke with CNN before she was detained on February 21.
She told CNN that after Movahedi disappeared she couldn’t stop thinking about her: “I couldn’t even sleep — I was thinking all the time, what happened to that girl? And I thought … it’s not right to forget about her. I just felt an obligation to support this girl.”
But her actions have come at a personal cost. When Shajarizadeh’s photographs began to circulate in international reports, her parents were terrified.
“First they started calling me and asking me to stop, then they started to call my husband. When that didn’t work it got ugly, and they started talking to my son. I didn’t want him to be scared or worried … so I cut them out of my life,” Shajarizadeh said, adding that her parents, while not that religious, are afraid of challenging the status quo.
“Of course I am sad, but … this is my life. They censored me all my life, and now I just want to have a voice.”
She has lost touch with her parents and many friends, but Shajarizadeh said her husband has been by her side throughout the campaign. “That’s more than enough for me,” Shajarizadeh said.
But finding the words to explain to her son why she is protesting has been difficult at times. “He is worried when people talk in front of him about jail and arresting and those sort of things. But he is a brave kid.”
According to accounts from her family, and her lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, Shajarizadeh was beaten while being held in Vozara detention center in Tehran. After being transferred to Gharchak prison, she went on a hunger strike. CNN reached out to Iranian authorities for comment, but did not receive a response.
Shajarizadeh was released from custody on February 28, and faces trial for “inciting corruption and prostitution” — a charge being used by Iranian police to prosecute women protesting the mandatory hijab. If convicted, she could face up to 10 years in prison.
Shajarizadeh is not alone; 35-year-old Manijeh Tafaghod Rezaei from western Tehran, has become another recognizable face of the women’s movement through her posts on social media.
Rezaei, who was born with achondroplasia, or dwarfism, works as a model — illegal in the Islamic Republic of Iran. She’s been cautioned and detained after sharing videos of herself without a veil online.
“I was summoned and forced to say I wouldn’t continue, but I kept on showing my dissatisfaction and protesting on social media,” Rezaei told CNN.
Rezaei, who has not made attempts to hide her identity, receives repeated threats in person and online.
“After posting videos without my hijab, I was threatened on social media and in the real world, too. I was even threatened with acid spraying, rape and abuse.”
“Many people ask me whether I have been arrested or not. I just tell them no, because I don’t want society to be afraid and to stop women from protesting.”
Rezaei fled to the Netherlands in late February, fearful for her life.
She is currently living in limbo, unsure if she will ever be able to return home.
The As Equals reporting project is funded by the European Journalism Centre via its Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme. Click here for more stories like this.