[Marxism] Cautiously, Iranians Reclaim Public Spaces and Liberties Long Suppressed

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Oct 6 09:58:13 MDT 2015


NY Times, Oct. 6 2015
Cautiously, Iranians Reclaim Public Spaces and Liberties Long Suppressed
By THOMAS ERDBRINK

TEHRAN — As the music ended and the crowd rose in a standing ovation, 
several women in the audience could be seen with heads bared, the 
obligatory head scarves draped around their necks.

This was no underground concert by an indie band in North Tehran, 
though. Rather, it was a recital by a classical lute player in Vahdat 
Hall. As the opera house emptied, the women casually slipped the scarves 
back on and walked out. No one seemed to care, or even to notice.

Far from a protest or a political gesture, this was a fleeting 
illustration of a newfound self-confidence, visible across the capital — 
what Iranians are calling the “lifestyle movement.”

“Nobody batted an eye, because in practice most people are far ahead of 
the norms set by the government,” said Haleh Anvari, an essayist based 
in Tehran who was at the concert. “In cars, cinemas and concerts, 
ordinary people are increasingly taking their space.”

Iranians have always enjoyed rich private lives, some following Western 
trends and fashions, but behind closed doors. The state tolerated that, 
but insisted that people adhere to the strict laws on appearance and 
behavior in public spaces that were laid down after the Islamic 
revolution in 1979.

This disconnect has led to a perpetual cat-and-mouse game, with public 
freedoms virtually disappearing after the government’s brutal repression 
of protest following the widely disputed presidential election in 2009.

But now, following the election of a moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, 
and the signing of the nuclear agreement this summer, Iranians are 
increasingly taking to the streets, this time not to challenge the 
government but to reclaim public spaces. Though there are plenty of 
skeptics who say the changes are minimal and could be reversed at any 
time, the lifestyle movement seems to be spreading across the country.

“Few would say it out loud, but we had almost become a police state,” 
Hamid Reza Jalaeipour, a sociologist at Tehran University, said about 
the years after 2009, when the morality police were a fixture in every 
main square, hauling those deemed to be “badly veiled” off in vans. For 
many, the atmosphere became so suffocating that they started leaving for 
other countries.

Mr. Jalaeipour said small changes began after Mr. Rouhani unseated 
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2013, promising a nuclear agreement and an 
expansion of personal freedoms, but have increased noticeably of late. 
“Especially after the elections and now the nuclear deal,” he said, “the 
self-confidence of ordinary people is increasing and that can be seen 
everywhere.”

But the change is palpable in a country that once posted morality police 
throughout the city; discouraged dressing in anything but black and most 
forms of entertainment; and that, in recent years, had begun burying the 
remains of martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war in the middle of public squares.

In the universities, students have started wearing bright colors. Street 
musicians line up at busy crossings, even though music is still 
frequently denounced by conservative clerics as “haram,” or forbidden in 
Islam. Fashion shows with models and runways, previously banned, are 
popping up. At night, women can be seen riding in cars without their 
head scarves, while billboards, long the exclusive domain of political 
figures, now feature celebrities like the Iranian actor Bahram Radan, 
who advertises leather coats.

Where previously even joking in public gatherings was considered 
politically risky, cafes now organize stand-up comedy evenings. Groups 
of citizens have formed nongovernmental organizations around issues like 
animal rights and the environment.

In the spring, more than a thousand animal rights activists gathered at 
the Ministry of Environment, protesting the killing of stray dogs in the 
city of Shiraz. The protest was fueled by social media, heavily 
amplified by the introduction of 3G mobile Internet. The killing stopped.

Many of the initiatives are the natural result of long pent-up demand, 
but also because the state seems to be retreating from many areas.

Analysts say that is the work of officials appointed by Mr. Rouhani, who 
have taken up high-level positions in the Culture and Interior 
Ministries. They cannot rewrite Iran’s laws: the Parliament and the 
judiciary will block any changes. But they have allowed ordinary 
citizens more space to breathe. Suddenly there are too many concerts to 
choose from, and public initiatives like campaigns to boycott Iranian 
carmakers to press them to raise the quality of their offerings or to 
save stray cats are mushrooming all over town.

The only red line is politics, many here say. Anything with a political 
tinge will be stopped cold.

Still, that provides a lot of openings for those who, like Ehsan 
Rasoulof, can see them. The son of a wealthy banker, the 32-year-old 
looks like a typical aspiring Iranian artist, wearing a checked shirt 
and ripped jeans and chain-smoking Iranian cigarettes, which are half 
the size of Western ones. Instead of driving a Maserati, as other 
children of the elite in Tehran do, he uses taxis.

House Rejects Iran Nuclear DealSEP. 12, 2015
“I am not left, or right, I couldn’t care less about politics,” he said. 
“My mission in life is to take back our public space.”

He opened the Mohsen Gallery, now one of Tehran’s most prominent art 
spaces, in honor of his brother, a photographer who died in a plane 
crash. He has used his family money to fund rock, pop and alternative 
bands, publish books and produce movies. In 2013, he opened a cafe, 
Nazdik, in downtown Tehran that sponsors a variety of cultural events 
and attracts people to a part of the city most do not usually frequent 
at night.

He did it, he said, because “we need bases to hang out.”

Mr. Rasoulof described an unending tug of war with the authorities over 
permits for concerts and other public performances. He said he had 
planned to hold a rock concert Thursday under the city’s Freedom Tower 
and had all the permits in place. But the show was canceled after the 
government announced three days of mourning to commemorate the deaths of 
Iranian pilgrims in the stampede during the hajj last month in Saudi Arabia.

“We will have the concert later,” he said. “As long as we stay away from 
politics, many things are possible.”

He said many Iranians were intent on reclaiming freedoms seen after the 
election of Mohammad Khatami, a moderate who was president from 1997 to 
2005 — minus the politics. That was like a dam breaking, flooding Iran’s 
closed society with youthful ambitions. Newspapers opened up, boys and 
girls started mixing and, at the height of what some called the “Iranian 
spring,” students battled with security forces for six days after a 
newspaper was shut down.

But conservative opposition built up, leading to years under Mr. 
Ahmadinjad devoted to destroying the civil society that had emerged, 
including imprisoning and exiling its architects.

Nowadays the moderates are also back, but operate cautiously — as they 
themselves say, like a car driving through the night with its headlights 
off.

Sitting in a newly opened party office, Ali Shakorirad, the head of the 
reformist Islamic Iranian National Union Party, said he had no clear 
agenda: “For now we are simply trying to survive.”

Most Iranians do not care much about political change these days. 
Instead, the focus is on social responsibility.

“During the Ahmadinejad era we saw that if we stood on the sidelines we 
lost out,” said Sohrab Mahdavi, a member of a group prodding the 
government to clean up Tehran’s notoriously bad air. “If we want to be 
good citizens, we must first take responsibility ourselves,” he said.

Mr. Jalaeipour, the sociologist, said that he was not sure where the new 
activism was heading, or how far it would go. It is in the nature of 
such movements to migrate into the political realm, he said, “It is 
definitely a challenge for those in power.”

But the inroads in public space are apparent everywhere, he said, and 
may not be so easy to suppress. “Nowadays you even see women taking out 
the trash without their head scarves on,” he said. “It seems difficult 
to send all these people back into their houses.”

Others were more cautious, citing past outbursts of public expression 
that were followed by crackdowns, but still saw the changes as enduring.

“Naturally, the state will try to control the pace of these changes,” 
said Ms. Anvari, the essayist. “But, ultimately, their interest in the 
private space has waned over the years. This led to families changing; 
now we are witnessing these changes on the streets.”



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