Yasmine Mahdavi, Generation Citizen’s Measurement and Evaluation Fellow, responds to a recent opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal.


Ideally, girls and women should have the freedom to advocate for themselves and others in any way they choose. But, when we dictate or ideologically critique the way in which they choose to express themselves we model the same act of oppression tyrannical regimes use to silence dissent. Having grown up in Iran and the United States, the invaluable democratic freedom this country has offered me – to be an agent of change through civic participation – is priceless and not to be taken for granted.

On March 2, 2017, the Wall Street Journal published an Opinion piece entitled, “Western Feminists Snub an Iranian Heroine”. In it Ms. Safai, a Belgian-Iranian women’s rights activist, highlights the fact that 18-year-old Iranian chess grandmaster Dorsa Derakhshani was removed from the national chess team because she refused to don a hijab. Most of us in the United States would find this a reprehensible act, but it might not be too much of a surprise that much of our attention is primarily domestic at this time. But Ms. Safai takes her judgments to a new level when she rages that no feminists in the West rallied to Ms. Derakhshani’s defense. Along the way, she cites her fury with human rights violations led by the Iranian government and the way some women, Muslim or not, have behaved: Swedish dignitaries visiting Iran who covered their heads, women in America planning a “Day Without a Woman” in protest of the president’s behavior towards women, and an American activist born to Palestinian parents who abides by Sharia law. She concludes Western feminists are undeserving to be called feminists because they effectively do not advocate for women’s rights the way Ms. Safai would. Really?

Ms. Safai’s tone begs the question, with whom is she at war? Is it the act of wearing the hijab in and of itself or the broader repression or disrespect of women? She dangerously fails to draw a distinction. If it’s the former, she might as well declare war on all dress codes, because in one form or another they indicate cultural relativism. If it’s the latter, Western feminists, as all individuals and groups in democratic societies, have the right to choose any aspect of feminism they wish to concentrate their efforts on: be it sexism, hijab, discrimination, etc. It is precisely the right to choose the ways in which we act and on which issues we take action that move us toward progress. When we fail to appreciate the power of choice in how girls and women make decisions about their complicated lives we become complicit in their oppression – hijab or not.

The spotlight is on Ms. Derakhshani whose accomplishments – in a country where in the West we question opportunities afforded to girls and women in the East – should be celebrated and her bravery lauded. She should be modeled to young people around the world empowering them to act upon the issues that affect their daily lives and communities. However, if others did not pay the attention Ms. Safai thinks the incident deserved, it doesn’t make them less worthy of feminist credentials, or their activism less relevant in paving the path forward in women’s movements. Let us not create one dimensional, exclusive or myopic silos to activism. Let us be inspired by Ms. Derakhshani and connect her story with our youth, whose upbringing in a democratic society provides another lens to inclusive civic participation.

I was six years old when the revolution in Iran changed my life. Then, I asked “If we all have the same God why does the Muslim God say women have to cover their hair and the Christian God says they don’t.” The best response I received was from my pious hijab-wearing nanny. “Child, God is the light inside you that guides you. Do what you think is right.” Let us not allow superficial bias unhinge sound judgment.


Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.