Women's Rights: Iranian Kurds Dress in Drag to Protest Sexism

This week, the Internet buzzed with news of an emerging online movement for women’s equality led by some very unlikely participants — Kurdish men in drag! In the age of the internet meme, it is hardly a surprise that such a unique and bold initiative would go viral in record time. However, far from being just an amusing online phenomenon led by a few men hoping to make a statement, the movement signals a real understanding of the social implications of women’s dehumanization and a gender solidarity unparalleled in many other parts of the world.

Iran is a country known for doling out harsh punishments to convicts. Capital and corporal punishment have often horrified international spectators, and a report published in 2012 demonstrates that these measures are far from an exception to the rule. On April 15, however, a judge from a small city in Iranian Kurdistan issued a punishment never before seen in this part of the world: a man was sentenced to parade around the city dressed like a woman. His punishment, meant to inflict public humiliation upon the accused, signalled the Iranian authorities’ contempt for women, casting of the female body as an object of shame.

The outrage felt by women throughout Iranian Kurdistan was instantaneous. How dare this judge imply that being a woman is equal to a type of punishment? Are our bodies really so shameful that being one of us is considered the ultimate public humiliation? In an act of bravery in this traditionally chauvinistic society, the women took to the streets. But in a country in which opposition of any kind is repressed with brutal force, the police quickly dispersed the protests and the women were forced to return home. This is, however, far from where the story ends. In a decisive moment that highlights the changing nature of protest and resistance in the 21st century, Kurdish men decided to take matters into their own hands and use the unparalleled power of the internet  (specifically Facebook) to reach audiences far and wide and make their voices heard. Thus the online social movement "Kurd Men For Equality" was born.

Within a matter of days, nearly 11,000 men shared photos of themselves on the internet dressed in traditional women’s clothing. The messages of solidarity that poured out to the women of Iran were touching, to say the least. One Iranian man posted on the movement’s Facebook page, “For many years women in my country have been side-by-side with men, wearing men’s clothes, struggling. Tonight I am happy and honoured to wear women’s clothes and be even a small part of the rightful struggle of people to express gratitude and excellence to the women of my country.”

Despite the difficulties of organizing a social movement in Iran, the online success of Kurd Men For Equality managed to grab the attention of some of the country’s parliamentarians. Seventeen members of parliament sent a letter to the Ministry of Justice demanding an explanation for why the dress of virtuous women should be insulted in such a way. The visibility and widespread nature of this new movement teaches both oppressors and activists a few very important lessons. The first is never to underestimate the power of the internet to amplify voices that would otherwise be silenced. The second is that dehumanizing anyone in a community has effects that ripple outward, permeating every corner of society and affecting each citizen. The third, and perhaps most important, is that men will not remain silent while their sisters, mothers, partners, and daughters are scorned. Equality is a cause for everyone, and it now appears that the Iranian Kurds are leading the movement for it.