In late May, an Iranian court sentenced eight people to 123 years in prison for administrating Facebook pages that the judiciary claims spread anti-government propaganda and insulted the country’s leaders. In Iran, Facebook and other social media sites were officially banned in 2009 after opposition members used them to organize protest rallies following the disputed re-election of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Because both on and offline activism are carefully monitored by Iran’s conservative government, Iran is probably one of the most difficult countries in which to be an activist. But despite the dangers, social and political activists are finding a number of clever ways to challenge the system and express their ideas. Whether their actions will generate long-term results, however, remains to be seen.
Navigating a Tricky Political Landscape:
Iran has an unusually tricky political system that incorporates elements of democracy within a modern Islamic theocracy. While the country’s president and parliament are directly elected by the people of Iran, a tight network of unelected institutions — controlled by an extremely powerful and conservative Supreme Leader — exercise huge amounts of influence over both the political process and everyday life.
According to the Iranian constitution, the president is the second highest-ranking official in the country. He leads the executive branch of government and is charged with ensuring that the constitution is successfully implemented. But the conservative Guardian Council, which has no qualms about banning any hopeful candidate it deems undesirable, vets all Presidential candidates. During the run up to the 2005 Presidential elections, the Guardian Council banned all but 6 of more than 1,000 potential candidates.
Similarly, while the country’s 290-member parliament — known as the Majlis– has the power to introduce and pass laws, all bills have to be approved by the Guardian Council before they become official.
In 1979, the role of Supreme Leader was written into the constitution based on the ideas of Ayatollah Khomeini, the man who transformed Iran into the world’s first Islamic republic after the American backed Shah was forced to flee the country. Khomeini ensured that the Supreme leader was at the top of Iran’s political power structure. Today, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appoints the head of the judiciary, the members of the powerful Guardian Council, all of the commanders of the armed forces and the head of the T.V and radio. He also confirms the president’s election and directly controls the Revolutionary Guard.
The Revolutionary Guard, which was formed with the sole purpose of protecting the country’s leaders and suppressing anyone and anything in opposition to the Islamic revolution, controls volunteer militias that are present throughout the country. The power and influence of the revolutionary guard, whose military personnel includes ground, aerospace, and naval forces, is largely dependent on the President in power. Former President Ahmadinejad was once the commander of the Guards, and their powers expanded greatly following the 2009 protests.
So while Iran holds democratic elections every four years, little is accomplished without the express approval of the conservative Islamic leaders who run the country with an iron fist.
The list of banned activities in Iran ranges from the bizarre to the outright dreadful. Former President Ahmadinejad, for example, banned all western music from the Iranian airwaves, prohibited women from pursuing studies in subjects such as natural resources and mathematics, forbade the eating of chicken on television, and made dog-walking in public punishable by arrest.
Breaking the Rules:
In this type of atmosphere, it is incredible that any type of political activism could ever take place. But in 2010, Newsweek hailed Iran as the birthplace of citizen journalism, an increasingly popular form of independent media through which citizens tell their stories and report information that affects their lives and communities. Because citizens tend to report on issues ignored by the mainstream media, citizen journalism usually contains a streak of activism. In recent years, citizen journalism has been accused of sparking popular uprisings such as the Arab Spring and the Spanish Indignados movement.
Considering the enormity of the popular uprising that took place in Iran in 2009, it is no wonder that blogs and citizen journalism initiatives proliferated just one year later. But many of these movement found it difficult to survive unscathed, and by 2013 the Iranian “blogosphere” had shrunk dramatically.
Despite the rampant repression, however, there are still several sites thriving. One of these is Iran Wire, an independent news source that publishes the work of citizen journalists and professional journalists alike. Written in both Farsi and English, the site even has a section entitled ‘Journalism for Change’.
Aside from its reporting, Iran Wire has been instrumental in promoting the online movement My Stealthy Freedom, through which hundreds of Iranian women posted pictures of themselves without the hijab that their government requires they wear. But both the site and the movement were launched by Iranians living outside of the country, and some observers doubt that the initiative is having a substantial impact back home.
A similar site, Iran Voices, however, is based in Iran and relies on volunteer editors spread out across the country. Built on the popular Ushahidi crowd-mapping platform, Iran Voices strives to collect stories from some of Iran’s lesser-known cities and most obscure corners.
Meanwhile, online activism isn’t the only form of popular resistance. Graffiti has proven to be an effective tool for stealthily spreading anti-government sentiment. Like in many other parts of the world, graffiti art became popular in Iran in the early 2000s. But unlike the West where artists receive a slap on the wrist if caught, it is unclear what punishment Iran’s artists will face if their identities are discovered.
Elf Crew is just one example of an Iranian born artistic group that began to share its work through the Fatcap graffiti platform in the early 2000s. The group’s website has since been shut down, but its work can still be found on Fatcap and other foreign websites.
Following the widespread protests in 2009, anti-regime graffiti could be found in cities across Iran. Much of this graffiti directly targeted the Supreme Leader.
Since then, numerous Iranian graffiti artists have received international recognition. Recently, Black Hand –an artist occasionally called the Banksy of Iran– caught the world’s attention with a piece of graffiti that criticized the fact that women were banned from sports stadiums during the world cup. While the image was painted over quickly, it is still being shared widely on social media sites around the world.
Give Change a Chance?
While the future of these movements remains unclear, it is certain that a large majority of Iranians, some 70% of whom of are under the age of 30, are in favour of widespread societal change. When speaking with travellers from Iran, it is more likely to hear them quoting Hafez, a national poet whose tales of romantic love and wine soaked revelry are revered, than to hear them reciting snippets of the Quran or other religious rhetoric. Meanwhile, some report that Zoroastrianism is making a comeback in the Islamic republic.
But regime change will surely be slow in coming, and for the moment Iranian bloggers, artists and activists live under the watchful eye of the mullahs and under the constant threat of imprisonment and disproportionate punishment.
This is a non-profit explanation