As I stepped off of my plane in Imam Khomeini International Airport, I mentally readied my responses to the bombardment of questions I expected to receive at immigration. This expectation had been developed by my western understanding of the state of Iran, the cautionary advice of my parents’ bureaucratic colleagues, and the nature of my work. I was heading to Tehran to direct short promotional films for two projects that operate out of a school that caters to Afghan refugees. One of the projects, called “Re-vision,” provides children suffering from visual impairments with free spectacles. The other teaches students carpet weaving skills that will enable them to seek a job in the black market after their education, since refugees are not legally allowed to be employed in Iran. My venture could have easily been construed as an anti-establishment movement by the Iranian state. However, my apprehensions were thwarted at immigration (and consistently throughout my stay in Iran) as I was asked no questions and briskly allowed to proceed.
On the face of it, Iran seems to match its portrayal in the west: a theocratic nation with a population that suffers from heavy censorship and that lacks civil liberties that we in the west are accustomed to enjoying. But a more nuanced look offers a much different picture: a modern, liberal, and enlightened nation that wishes to enjoy the freedom of the west.
Throughout my stay, I was reminded of Václav Havel’s parable of the greengrocer from Power of the Powerless: a greengrocer living under communist rule in Czechoslovakia places the slogan, “Workers of the world, unite!” outside his store:
“Not in the hope that someone might read it or be persuaded by it, but to contribute, along with thousands of other slogans, to the panorama that everyone is very much aware of. This panorama, of course, has a subliminal meaning as well: it reminds people where they are living and what is expected of them. It tells them what everyone else is doing, and indicates to them what they must do as well, if they don’t want to be excluded, to fall into isolation, alienate themselves from society, break the rules of the game, and risk the loss of their peace and tranquility and security.”
Like Havel’s Czechoslovakia, Iran is laden with propaganda such as murals of martyrs from the Iran-Iraq War, pictures and paintings of the late supreme leader Imam Khomeini and the current leader Imam Khamenei, anti-America billboards, anti-Israel billboards, and religious billboards. One of the billboards I saw during my travels presented Israel as the excavator and Palestine as the ground being dug, one claimed America is “the biggest destroyer of the planet”, and one promoted fasting during Ramadan by stating that hell would be more torturous than an empty stomach or dry lips. A national flag is likely to be seen among your surroundings from any spot in Tehran. But these symbols do not represent the mindset of the general populace. A shopkeeper that places portraits of the two supreme leaders in his shop does so for the same reasons the greengrocer placed the slogan outside his.
While a population can often remain content in ignorance of such explicit and implicit restrictive mechanisms, the population of Iran seems enlightened of its situation, possibly because the world around them seems so artificial and farcical. I spoke to the driver of an Indian diplomat stationed in Iran that saw the world from the lens of Realpolitik. He cited the state’s self-interest as the reason for Iran’s opposition to the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, support for Hezbollah, friendship with Russia, and ambitions to develop nuclear weapons. A number of Iranians I spoke with stated that an opportunity for a civilian uprising and transition to democracy will occur at the time of Imam Khamenei’s death. Most looked forward to the moment. A teenage boy professed his love for the United States and claimed that the regime need not be so antagonistic towards the west. He told us that he would love to visit the U.S. someday, but that it seemed unlikely under the current regime.
Men and women are not allowed to touch in public in Iran. Yet when I was introduced to several women, I held out my hand out of habit. To my surprise, they extended their hands as well. Wearing a hijab is also mandatory, however, the city of Tehran is fairly relaxed about this rule. As heavy winds on the observation deck of the Milad Tower blew the hijab off a young woman’s head, I expected her to chase after it frantically. Instead, she chased after it jovially, while her family watched her struggle in hysterical laughter. As they are required to dress modestly in public, the women of Iran find innovative ways to emulate the fashion of the west. This includes dressing in western attire in private quarters and accessorizing around their modest attire while in public. The back of one woman’s chador read, “Keep Calm, I’m Queen.” Periodic lashings are given to those (usually the youth) engaging in activities considered Islamically immoral, such as men drinking or women not wearing a hijab, but the population understands that these punishments are nothing more than scare tactics.
Iran’s government heavily censors the internet. Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, and almost all other social media websites are banned, as well as most international news sources. Satellite television has been banned since 1994. All pornographic content is censored. However, most Iranians with access to the internet easily bypass the system by using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) which allows access to censored websites by directing them through an open network. More than 30% of Iran’s population has access to satellite television, with some sources claiming the percentage is as high as 70%. A young Iranian male asked me if I watched pornography. I hesitated, and asked him instead if people in Iran do, and if we could even talk about the subject so openly. He laughed and responded that everyone there watches porn. His girlfriend regularly requested him to download erotic films and send them to her. Similar trends of defiance can be seen throughout the history of censorship. Only 5% of Cuba’s population has access to the internet, but internet traffickers have produced a product called “El Paquete Semanal” (the Weekly Package) that reaches the majority of the population and contains the latest products of western media ranging from movies, television shows, music, phone applications, to even images of websites such as The New York Times and Reddit. In Romania, under communist rule in the 1970s, western movies were trafficked on video cassette tapes that allowed people to hold movie nights. These movies provided Romanians with their only information about the “imperial” world. Romania revolted against dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989. These efforts to undermine censorship are not only indicators of human ingenuity and curiosity, but also of human defiance.
The top priority of most individuals is safety and stability. Iran has done a good job of providing its population with this (if we put aside the methods by which it was probably achieved). Iranians enjoy a great level of freedom of movement. They have an extremely vibrant civil society. The streets of Tehran are crowded and lively at all points in the night. There is very little visible police or military presence. But there are certain privileges that no form of government other than democracy can provide, such as freedom of speech. It is true that people want to be able to go to work safely, come back home to their families, not get harassed by the police, but people also want to be able to speak their mind and consume the kind of media they wish.
Francis Fukuyama argued in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man that western liberal democracy is the final evolution of government and will be upheld as the model for nations to follow. This may be true, but not because it is perceived to be the most efficient form of government. Dictatorships and monarchies have produced very stable and economically affluent nations in the past and present. Neither will it be because of some Marxian-style totalitarian tautological reason that argues that the convergence of governance to democracy is inevitable. If liberal democracy is to become the most prominent form of government, it will be because in the increasingly technologically advanced world we live, obscuring facts and media from the populace has become nearly impossible. Once a population has been granted a glimpse of what it is missing out on, it will not refrain from demanding it. The human resistance and will for freedom in Iran’s population is a testament to this.
Featured image courtesy of Vishnu Gupta ’18.