Iranians do not want to change the entire system. But, they do want more personal liberties and a good government that can tackle corruption. And, they want to be connected with the rest of the world
Shubha Singh Tehran/Delhi
Iranian society has been changing in the past few years. The scale of these changes became evident in the unprecedented protests that erupted after the result of the 10th presidential election was announced.
The most potent symbols of the discontent were the green wristbands and armbands worn by six members of the Iranian football team when they lined up for their World Cup qualifying match against South Korea in Seoul. National football players are treated akin to national heroes in football crazy Iran. The telling protest by the iconic football team indicated the depth of anger at what was seen as a 'fraudulent' election result.
The election, with its bitter personal attacks and the questioning of authority, has shaken the delicately balanced political setup in Iran. Whatever course politics takes in Iran over the next few months, it would be difficult to return Iranian society back to the circumscribed patterns dictated by the combination of State authorities, the clergy and the morality police. Iranians are devout Muslims but there had been simmering dissent among the urban youth who have been straining at the restrictions such as curbs on freedom of speech and the official dress code for women.
Green was the colour adopted by presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi. Tehran was flooded with green ribbons, flags, posters, scarves and banners in the last days of the campaign. Demonstrators defied the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia to continue their protests over several days.
Two factors cast doubt on the election verdict - the speed at which the 39.1 million handwritten ballots were counted and the fact that President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's lead continued even in areas considered strongholds of his opponents. Results were announced within hours of the close of voting. Ahmedinejad received two-and-a-half times more votes than opposition candidate, Mehdi Karroubi in Karroubi's own hometown of Aligoodarz in Lorestan province.
The protests showed the deepening divide in Iranian society among the traditional, conservative classes and those seeking a modern lifestyle. President Ahmedinejad's support came from the deeply devout rural masses and the working class who believed that he was taking the country back to the ethos of its revolutionary past. Ahmedinejad expanded his support base with 'defiant nationalism' by reviling Israel and attacking America over its opposition to Iran's nuclear programme. The government policies were geared to the urban poor and rural areas. Heavy subsidies and cash doles given to those who had lost a family member during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war endeared him to war veterans.
Initially, it seemed that the reformists support came from the liberal upper and middle classes and the business sections - the bazaaris. Mousavi's campaign conducted through mobile phones and emails was dismissed as restricted to a small section of the westernised youth. But, the people who came out on the streets in protest were Iranians of all ages and classes - students, young men and smartly dressed women in bright coloured clothes with flimsy scarves were accompanied by older men and women in traditional sober colours. The demonstrations and protests were held in urban areas but they spread from Tehran's affluent northern localities to the working class southern areas.
The fervour on display in the streets of Tehran was also due to harsher restrictions enforced by the Ahmedinejad government on personal and social freedoms which included stricter adherence to segregation between the sexes and a dress code for women. The Ahmedinejad government had reversed many of the regulations that had been relaxed by earlier reformist regimes. In a society, where access to information is controlled through state-owned television and newspapers, modern technology helped people to reach out. Satellite television is banned but TV dishes sprout from rooftops in Tehran. In a crackdown last year, police raided homes to destroy and confiscate satellite dishes.
The opposition campaign was termed the 'iPod revolution' giving the impression that it involved only the rich, westernised youth. Many Iranians have taken to blogging as the one uncensored means of communication open to them. About a third of Iran's population has access to the Internet. Most Iranian blogs are not political but are vibrant avenues for debate on poetry, art, film criticism, personal freedoms and changing social mores. President Ahmedinejad has his own blog since 2006. During crisis, Photoblog, amateur videos, text messages, Facebook (which the government tried to block but retracted in the face of protests) and Twitter provided the means for communication and instant news. When the government tried to bar access, Iranians used proxy servers to evade the state monitors.
In a country like Iran which has a young population (more than 50 per cent Iranians are under the age of 25), each decade brings a change in society. The young are more familiar with the digital age than the Islamic Revolution. The urban population of Iran has increased steadily over time as more people move in from the rural areas. More than 61 per cent of the population live in urban areas.
Iran is a country of many contradictions existing side by side with each other. The influential clergy ordains an orthodox Islamic lifestyle which is leavened by the strong strain of Iranian Sufism. The contradictions have been accentuated by many changes in ordinary life. Literacy rates for women have gone up from 33 per cent in 1976 to 82 per cent and the birth rate has fallen to 2.1 per cent. About 60 per cent of the students in universities are women. But, women find it difficult to get jobs that match their qualifications. Unemployment is high in Iran and affects both men and women.
There have been periodic protests by students in Iran; in 1999 and 2003 student demonstrations had taken place but the protests were put down by the security forces. The protests could be easily contained as there was no coherent political leadership within the student groups nor could they gain support from political parties. But, this time the protests were entirely political and not restricted to students. The younger generation had shed the apathy to politics that was visible during the 2005 elections due to the reformist Khatami government's inability to bring in reforms. This time they believed that a new government would ease tensions with America and seek to end Iran's international isolation.
Tehran's main squares were full of life till the late hours of the night. Mousavi supporters were on the pavements or roaring up and down the streets in cars and motorcycles waving posters, shouting slogans through the windows and honking car horns. Even as the security forces began breaking up groups of protesters on the streets, groups of people would gather on rooftops and at 10 pm sharp would begin chanting "Allah-u-Akbar", a tradition from the 1979 revolution. Iranians do not want to change the entire system. They make use of Islamic symbolism in their campaigns. But, they do want more personal liberties as well as a good government that can tackle corruption. And, they desire to be connected with the rest of the world.