The Incel Response to Mahsa Amini
Since September, Mahsa Amini’s name has been written on every news channel publication. The death of a Kurdish-Iranian woman at the hands of police strikes a parallel to the Western world; the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in the United States sparked a national reckoning with police brutality and systemic racism in 2020. Amini’s death and the protests that have ensued show that the world is in a cataclysmic moment of reckoning; more people than ever are aware of police brutality as a global phenomenon and that women’s rights are at stake.
Western feminism has certainly evolved and changed since its 19th-century first-wave era. Women’s movements emerged in the late 1800s with a push to affirm women’s rights and power as citizens by addressing the patriarchal and systemic subjugation of women. While the feminist movement between the late 19th century and early 20th century was deeply connected to the abolishment of slavery — culminating in the passage of the 19th amendment — mid-to-late 20th-century feminist movements maneuvered away from advocating for racial minorities because it was felt that women-specific rights were overlooked. As a result, Black women were left behind by white feminism. In the technological revolution of the 21st century, modern feminism must confront misogyny, sexism, and patriarchal systems online in common spaces like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok, as well as forums like 4chan. These forums serve as spaces for incels to communicate with one another and form communities.
The term “incel” refers to an individual who is ‘involuntarily celibate.”. Growing in numbers in online communities, the profile of an incel looks like a young sexually frustrated man, who is unable to have a romantic relationship, sexually or otherwise. The Institute for Research on Male Supremacism describes misogynistic incel beliefs as “developing from a male supremacist culture that consistently fails to mitigate violence against women and girls, and teaches men that they are entitled to women for sexual and romantic fulfillment and that women are only valued for their instrumentality to these ends.”
The incel community is a global one. The research for this article highlights the incel response to the death of Mahsa Amini and the subsequent Iranian feminist movement. Additionally, this piece investigates incels’ discussions around the women-led Iranian protests, using historical and emerging terminology such as “Islammaxx” and “Irancel”.
Contextualizing the Death of Mahsa Amini
The death of Mahsa Amini sparked international outrage at an unprecedented level. Amini was arrested by the Guidance Patrol, Iran’s religious morality police, for wearing her hijab loosely. Three days later, other women who were detained with Amini reported that she died at the hands of police brutality. The protests that erupted following her unjust death gained significant publicity in Western media coverage, with scenes of women cutting their own hair or protesting in the streets of Iran surfacing daily.
The last time Iran endured this intensity of political unrest was 44 years ago. The 1979 Iranian Revolution overthrew the Pahlavi dynasty, ruled by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and replaced it with an Islamic republic led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s current Supreme Leader. This caught the Western world by surprise as it lacked many of the common signifiers of a revolution, like a financial crisis or a dissatisfied military. Under Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran became a primarily Shia state, and as one, Iran remains in conflict with Sunni states, like Saudi Arabia; the two groups continue to feud over superiority in the Middle East because of this religious difference.
Since the Ayatollah ascended to power, protests have continued in the country. While electoral corruption, economic mismanagement, and fuel price hikes have been the source of frustration for many protesting Iranians, the government had much success in subduing these moments of unrest. Such government responses encourage incels who support authoritarian retorts to protests, especially feminist ones. The subjugation of women by the government is typically supported by incels on forums because it places women in a subordinate position to men. Irancels and incels who support Islammaxxing are members of the incel community who approve of government crackdowns on protests for democracy and women’s rights.
Defining Terms: Irancel, Islammaxx, Muslimcel, and Islamist
A common term used to describe Iranian incels is Irancel. The portmanteau of “Iran” and “incel” is used to describe incels with Iranian heritage. Irancels are men who feel they are entitled to women for sexual and romantic fulfillment but are incapable of doing so because women have unnecessarily high expectations of how men should behave. Irancels differentiate themselves as either Arab Iranians or Persian Iranians. According to a thread on a popular incel forum, “ugly” Iranians are “probably Arab Iranians and not actually Persian”.
Not all Irancels necessarily think that they need to “Islammaxx” in order to ascend from inceldom. Islammaxx is described as a -maxxing theory that a man will be able to attain a wife through arranged marriage if they (the man) convert to Islam. As one user on a popular incel forum describes it:
“That means moving to an Islamic country, representing yourself as Muslim to the community and eventually marrying a Muslim woman who would clean, cook, and have sex with you whenever and however you want. I’m thinking about moving to some rich Muslim country, Saudi Arabia, for example. Nothing too extreme as Syria, though”.
This is often met with resistance within the incel community. On the same thread that the user posted on, others said that the Islammaxxers would then need to deal with children who were, according to them, “unfortunate enough to be born in a world where their father was also an incel”. One critic said, “moving to a Muslim country is one of the dumbest ideas on this website”. Another noted the differences in familial relationships in Muslim cultures compared to the Western world, as well as the heightened level of religious observance.
A similar term to Islammaxx is Muslimcel. Also called sandcels, Muslimcels attribute their inceldom to their Islamic upbringing. Given that the Prophet Muhammed’s companions were male, Islamic hadiths tend to take a male point of view. As such, incels feel empowered by the hadiths, especially those related to marriage. For example, one of the most prominent hadiths on relationships describes that a spouse should be taken for four things: “her wealth, her lineage, her attractiveness, and her religious commitment”. This focus on wealth, beauty, and status are similar to the LMS theory or, Looks, Money, and Status. In this theory, women are attracted to men who exhibit wealth, attractiveness, and high status. LMS and incels’ interpretations of certain hadiths align, which is why some Islamic principles are popular among non-Muslim red pillars in the manosphere.
Despite the sharing of ideas between the manosphere and Muslimcels, Islamophobia persists in the incelosphere. Muslim men are often described by users on popular incel forums as being “slaves” to women since men are expected to provide for their wives. These users commonly bring up mehr, a dowry that men pay their fiancee and her family prior to marriage. One user argues that Islamophobia should be practiced because “they are the oppressors” and “no religion is above any human”.
As is common in the rest of the world, incels misinterpret Islam with Islamism. Islam can be described as a religious faith, while Islamism is an “anti” ideology, meaning it only describes itself in opposition to other things. “It is a dystopian ideology that distorts religion and reality” in response to Western ideas, like capitalism, Christianity, and secularism. Islamist violence is most likely the oppression referred to by the user above. But, in not clearly defining Muslims and Islamists, the user’s comment paints a misconstrued image of the Muslim community, as Muslims are the ones harmed by these Islamophobic comments rather than Islamists, the actual target of these comments.
Comparing Incel Responses to Feminism
Popular incel forums provide space for incels to respond to international events like Amini’s death. While these responses are not necessarily the opinions of all incels, they nevertheless represent a small group of users. As of November 12, 2022, one popular incel forum maintains a community of over 18,000 members and over 9 million posts.
On September 28, 2022, one user created a poll titled “How do you think the Iranian government should handle femoid protestors?” "Femoid" comes from the contraction of the word "female" and "android", to emphasize the allegedly cold nature of women. As of November 12, there have been 43 voters. This is a significantly smaller number of users compared to the total number of users on the site; however, the mere existence of this poll suggests something. While it may seem that incels voice their opinions in echo chambers, their responses to current events show that incel ideologies can and are influenced by current events.
With 30 votes, the most popular response amongst voters is to “bring out the tanks and give the femoids the Tiananmen Square treatment.” Twenty-one votes were in favor of “arrest[ing] the femoids and turn[ing] them into sex slaves for tourists.” It should be noted that all of the responses included some form of violence against the women protesting in Iran.
A screenshot of the poll found on a popular incel forum. All answers include some form of violence enacted against women.
Replies in the thread show a general consensus of agreement towards harming women involved in protests. A few users also call for violence against male protestors. One user wrote, “Put the men that participated in riots in prison for 10 years or executed [sic]. It’s treason.” Another user, commenting on the situation in Iran, expressed sympathy for the women who had been killed:
Watched some videos of these girls who have gotten killed by the government and it made me feel really bad about them. Maybe because they’re young in their teenage years?
An analysis of this user shows that they are frequently tagged on posts related to Islam, Iran, and Irancels. Their response was posted on October 8, 2022, about a month after Amini’s death and the beginning of widespread protests. They argue that incels who use Islam as a way to cope with inceldom should not defend the Iranian Shia government because their “favorite religion has failed.” In this user's replies to other users on the thread, they assert that current protestors are acting not only against the hijab but “10000 other issues for others, [and that they are ] getting raped [by] the shit economy here.” Mentions of Iran’s economy reappear in other replies to the original post. Another user who is frequently tagged in similar posts commented on the thread:
“You think people came to street [sic] to show their anger upon killing a skinny bitch? No. That’s not the real reason, there are financial reasons buried deep behind the scene.”
Both of these users show that some Iranians experiencing and participating in these protests against Amini's death are doing so not because of her killing but because they are opposed to the current economic and political situation in Iran. According to these users and others like them, Western media has fixated on Amini’s death because it allows Western feminists to harp on the “alleged” oppression of women forced into wearing the hijab. This reveals a phenomenon in the non-Western manosphere; opposition to Western intervention and ideals of feminism in society being projected into non-Western environments.
The same incel forum also had a significant response to the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling in the United States. By looking at abortion, we are able to contrast between incels’ responses to non-Western feminist movements and Western ones. One of the first posts that comes up when searching “abortion” on this incel forum is titled “the right to abortion must lead to mandatory abortions.” The creator of the original post argues that leaving the choice to women as to when to have an abortion, particularly when the fetus may be dead upon birth, means that while some women will have the abortion, others will not. “Doesn’t it mean that there would be people who believing their [sic] doing the right thing will cause pain to others by exercising their freedom?” The user proposes mandatory abortions when the fetus is damaged, regardless of the mother’s choice.
In the context of modern socio-political debates surrounding abortions, mandatory abortions seem to be paradoxical, as conversations around abortion are typically framed as a culture war between femoids and Chads, who are seen as the epitome of manliness: white, physically attractive, and well-endowed financially. By making abortions mandatory, women’s right to choose is once again eliminated and thus equivalent to removing the right to abortions in general. One user describes abortion as a “human sacrifice ritual” where the “most defenseless victim conceivable - an unborn child - [is] willfully murdered by the very person most spiritually bound to love and protect them, their own mother”. Not only does this reassert patriarchal systems whereby women should behave as mothers, but it also ignores why women obtain abortions in the first place. Users on the same thread claim that women want the right to abortion so that they can sleep around without worrying about conception.
It is common to see slut-shaming on incel forums, as well as outside of these forums. The double standard that exists for men and women with regard to how many people they have slept with harms the perceptions of women. One user argues that because men have to work in order to have sex with women, sex is a reward. For women, sex is not a reward because “all women can and frequently do get sex as soon as they demand it through dating apps, parties, and any social gathering”. This logic places the male experience on a pedestal compared to women’s experiences. Interestingly, there is a similarity between incel responses to Western policies on abortion and Iranian feminist protests. In both instances, women are seen as behaving as “whores” in what is sometimes called a “whore revolution.” Based on some posts on a popular incel forum, incels believe women want abortions so they can continue to have sex with men without the consequences of pregnancy. Similarly, those protesting against Iran’s morality police and their perception of hijabs are perceived as wanting increased female promiscuity throughout the Middle East. In short, regardless of cultural and/or factual nuance, incels find a way to blame women.
Mahsa Amini’s death sparked responses on the international stage, both in the streets and on incel forums. Incels identifying as Islammaxxers, Muslimcels, and Irancels saw the Iranian government as effective given that their authoritative style would quickly stop feminists’ protests. Certain users on a popular incel forum argue that Islammaxxers and Muslimcels ignore the negative influence of Ayatollah’s government. According to them, these protests are more than just feminist responses, as Western media has isolated Amini’s case while ignoring the economic deterioration of Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini's regime. Conversely, in response to Western abortion issues, incels primarily place the blame on women. In both Iran and the West, women are seen as acting in a “whore revolution”, which incels condemn and view in an extremely negative light.
Current events do shape incel forums and influence how incel ideology morphs to adapt to new situations. Terms like Islammaxxing, Irancel, and Muslimcel form as a response to situations like what is happening in Iran now; the evolution of the incel community is something to consider as global situations become more volatile in an increasingly-divisive world. Incels exist in local communities and respond to global situations through forums, and their continued exposure to violent communication against women online normalizes structural and real violence. Normalization of violence diminishes the experiences of women who do experience it and ultimately dehumanizes women as subjects of violence. The Iranian protests and the government’s response to them specifically also root seeds of favoring authoritarianism in incels’ minds. With the rise of populism and more authoritarian leaders in the world, like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and Narendra Modi, instilling support for these regime types has negative implications for the future of democracy. While a seemingly small populace, incel rhetoric distributes throughout information spheres online and their normalization of misogyny, authoritarianism, and violence holds a real impact for all communities. Responses such as incels’ to Masha Amini indicate a real threat to a shift away from liberal democracies, which could be incredibly detrimental to the rights of minority groups.