October 5, 2015


Cautiously, Iranians Reclaim Public Spaces and Liberties Long Suppressed (THOMAS ERDBRINK, OCT. 5, 2015, NY Times)

[F]ollowing 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.

Posted by at October 5, 2015 1:20 PM

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