Life as politics in Iran

NEGOTIATIONS, or perhaps horse trading, are ongoing regarding Iran’s nuclear programme, with a new round of meetings between the members of the UN Security Council and Iranian officials scheduled for this week. In the meantime, it seems that sanctions are having some impact and are keeping the Iranians at the negotiating table. Still, Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Mohammad Khazaee, is resigned to their effects. The New York Times reported him saying, “We have learned how to cope with these problems.”

Iranians clearly have a knack for overcoming adversity, and creating opportunity where circumstances are against them. The conservative Iranian regime is putting on a brave face, soldiering on despite its massive wealth being curtailed; at the same time Iranians on the street have long been adept at getting around societal restrictions imposed by that very regime.

Kamin Mohammadi, expat Iranian and sometime Lonely Planet contributor, recently reported on the various measures that Tehranis, young and old, take to pursue aspects of life that the regime seeks to prevent.  Her report brings the lie to notions that Iran society is dry and sexually repressed. In fact, prior to the creation of the Islamic Republic after 1979, Iranian society was noted for its progressiveness.

Despite the impositions of conservative mullahs that have been the norm for the last 30-odd years, it’s still relatively straightforward to find a drink in Tehran – home brew or black market depending on your fancy – and many young Iranians enjoy degrees of sexual liberation as their counterparts in the West do. More examples – as if any were really needed – demonstrating that legislating piety, or perhaps in this case “morality”, just doesn’t work. The Islamic Republic goes to extraordinary lengths to segregate the sexes, forbidding “illicit” meetings of unmarried couples. But as Mohammadi points out young Tehranis have simply taken to meeting in taxis and orchestrating frotting sessions by squeezing into shared taxis, which are routinely packed with as many people as can fit into them. Pretty tame really, but proof that hormones and fluttering hearts can’t be stifled by disapproving religious authorities or self-appointed “morals” police.

Societal strictures are one thing, but in recent years as authorities have clamped down on any form of collective action or social protest, Iranians have found sometimes ingenious ways of signalling their displeasure with the country’s political situation. Immediately after the disputed presidential election of June 2009, those convinced of the illegitimacy of the election outcome – which returned the incumbent, regime-sanctioned candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to the presidential palace – took to the rooftops of Tehran and other cities to cry, “Allahu akbar” into the night sky. Such an action may hardly seem reactionary to Western observers, but  it is the height of irony that people should invoke the name of God to in defiance of a regime that claims for itself a pillar of religious legitimacy. It is a double irony that protesters who brought this regime to power in 1979 uttered the same cry against the Shah, whose system of repression, cronyism and unequal distribution of the nation’s wealth they were desperate to be rid of.

In the aftermath of the 2009 election, massively attended street marches were brutally disrupted, with large numbers of peaceful protestors taken into custody by government operatives. The clamp down was relatively slow in coming, but once it came the regime brooked no dissent whatsoever: no pretense of civility or rule of law, allegations of rape, widespread human rights abuses. So Iranians, ingenious as ever, devised other ways of signalling their displeasure. Time reported on a sly coordinated campaign in Tehran where dissenting locals turned on household appliances en masse in an attempt to overload the electrical grid. Subversion by toaster, iron and bedside lamp: you’ve got to love the gumption of it! Later campaigns, as reported in The Guardian, included boycotting products that were advertised on state-run TV, and a boycott of Nokia products – and this in a country that is mobile phone crazy. Nokia was alleged to have sold communications monitoring systems to the Iranian government, systems that were subsequently used to track down people protesting against the election result.

Three years on from the disputed election and Iranians have recently staged another don’t-buy protest. In campaign that appeared to be spontaneous Iranians refused to buy bread and milk in protest at escalating food prices. It seems that international sanctions imposed in reaction to Iran’s nuclear programme are having an impact on the domestic economy, so despite Khazaee’s bravado it may be that the Iranian in the street does not want to have to cope with shortages and rampant inflation. The milk and bread boycott gained momentum through social-networking sites and blogs, and as the Wall Street Journal reports, there were significant falls in grocery sales.

All of these subtle yet determined gestures from ordinary Iranians are examples of the politicisation of the everyday, a phenomenon identified in Asef Bayat’s intriguing scholarly work, Life as Politics. As Bayat argues, within authoritarian-ruled states it is often the case that ordinary citizens find mechanisms to voice their concerns and assert their political identities in understated ways, determinedly adopting positions that send signals of displeasure to the prevailing regime but that cannot be construed as subversive. A Tehrani may refuse to buy bread, thus signalling his displeasure with the status quo, but no regime, no matter how repressive, can prosecture him for not buying groceries. In Bayat’s model, people on the street may have no political voice and only restricted scope for political manoeuvring, but acting in concert they push as hard as possible against those boundaries, operating within that restricted space in the hope of bringing about change. Bayat calls these ‘non-movements’.

Of course, laying further irony on top of existing ironies, it was effectively one of Bayat’s ‘non-movements’ that brought down the Shah and saw the creation of the Islamic Republic. The more things change… perhaps…


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