‘Happy’ in Iran: the trials of the young and disenfranchised

Young Iranians, like these supporters of President Rouhani, must take care when expressing themselves not to push conservative clerical leaders too far. EPA/Abedin Taherkenareh

In Iran everything is possible, and everything is impossible. – Football Undercover, 2008

Iranian filmmaker Ayat Najafi’s words sum up the conflicting nature of government policy on artistic expression and social commentary in contemporary Iran. Repression of civil liberties has attracted international interest and criticism over the last couple of weeks. There have been several high-profile incidents involving the arts, or defiance through art.

Young Iranian protesters gained attention by regularly uploading mobile phone video footage of the 2009 government crackdown on post-election peaceful protests. Since then, Iranian creatives have organised sophisticated projects that express the nuances of being young and disenfranchised in Iran.

Some artistic productions send messages of protest and dissatisfaction so subtle that the Ministry of Guidance and other authorities devote little or no time to pursuing the instigators. Others, as in the case of the “Happy in Tehran” video of men and women dancing to Pharrell’s hit song, result in arrests and imprisonment. This includes the incarceration of filmmaker Sassan Soleimani, who influenced the selection of the colour purple for president Hassan Rouhani’s 2013 election campaign.

The 2009 protests highlighted the rising power of social media. Facebook and Twitter play a significant role in helping protesters communicate with each other and the world.

London-based political journalist Masih Alinejad recently began a Facebook campaign called “My Stealthy Freedom”. Iranian women contribute pictures of themselves enjoying a moment outdoors without the headscarf. It is a way to express their objection to laws that oblige them to wear the headscarf in public – an example of many legal and social restrictions on women.

Despite strict censorship, the Iranian art and intellectual scene is vibrant, well-cultivated and in dialogue with global movements. Some Iranian artists exhibit their work internationally and to critical acclaim, particularly in the case of film. This month’s Sydney Film Festival is screening Iranian or Iranian-based movies.

However, artists in Iran suffer from limited support for work perceived unfavourably by authorities; must follow unreasonable protocols; and are pressured to express themselves and create art under the weight of stringent religious and political sensitivities. Not all artists successfully meet the official criteria.

Defying simplistic interpretations

The precarious challenges and practical obstacles associated with being young, liberal and creative in Iran are difficult to unpack if one interprets the Islamic Republic as diametrically opposed to a definition of liberal democracy.

To analyse the intricacies of life under the theocratic state one must recognise that hardline clerics grapple and negotiate with diverse political actors. These include reformists who represent different grades of commitment to state ideology.

Even president Hassan Rouhani’s use of Twitter is testing the boundaries of expression in Iran. EPA/Abedin Taherkenareh

Although not quite in the reformist camp, Rouhani, who has been labelled a centrist, responded to the “Happy” arrests by apparently tweeting:

Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviors caused by joy.

Ironically, Twitter is officially banned in Iran.

The examples above complicate narratives of Iran as a completely bleak dystopia where every expression of discontent is stifled. It is imperative to expose and scrutinise human rights violations and ideological constraint of civil liberties. One must be cautious, however, of oversimplified interpretations and sensational reports.

Popular dichotomies such as secular/religious and modern/traditional do not fit neatly into Iranian’s current socio-political context. Binary narratives are misleading and mask important contextual details surrounding reports focusing on Leila Hatami kissing Giles Jacob on the cheek at the Cannes Film Festival, the emergence of women’s cyber protest, new Iranian films in conversation with global cultural trends, a summons for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to appear in an Iranian court, and even Pharrell’s sadness over the Iranian “Happy” arrests.

Drivers of the diaspora

Significant issues and events remain relatively underreported in Western news coverage. International sanctions continue to cripple the economically vulnerable and the culturally progressive; state executions have increased since Rouhani took power, making Iran the world leader in executions per capita; Iran is experiencing an extreme brain drain; ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Baloch, Arabs and Afghans are denied many rights; homosexuals are persecuted; and Baha’i graves are razed and their leaders imprisoned.

While members of the ruling establishment try to strike an uneasy balance between ideology and pragmatism, these pressing issues persist. An increase in international media awareness and deeper analysis may help illuminate reasons why Iranians make up one of the world’s largest diasporas. Leaving their livelihoods to settle in unfamiliar places, some risk their lives to come to countries like Australia.

However, a sense of hope endures within Iran’s cultural scene, together with a burning creativity and critical insight. The revival of a rich literary and oral tradition perseveres through the ambiguities and irregularities of state policy and implementation.