Some dry figures from Iran’s Mobile Communications Company tell us a curious fact – for the 20 million or so text messages sent within the country every day, the peak hours are between ten in the evening and one in the morning. That might seem an odd time to be sitting up sending messages, but the statistic graphically illustrates how the SMS phenomenon has become a way for people to circumvent authority.
Young Iranians are texting each other with humorous, subversive or plain saucy messages while the religious conservatives who run their country are slumbering.
The SMS craze has reached epidemic proportions, creating an invisible but booming social network that is far more extensive than it might appear. It has ceased to be merely a way of sending a quick alert, and become a method of political and cultural discourse, filling the gap left by the dearth of free and independent media of the conventional sort.
Texting is now a potent way of distributing information, critical remarks and above all jokes about politics. With no censorship and no holds barred, it allows people to break taboos, criticise the authorities, have some fun or chat someone up.
In the 2005 presidential election, in which Iranian society was sharply divided, messages originally sent in Tehran were being forwarded to reach the most remote provinces within a matter of hours.
Within a few days of the start of petrol rationing this summer, a text message has spread across the country like wildfire. The joke read, “Ahmadinejad was asked what people without petrol should ride on. He replied that they should ride on the 17 million who voted for him.”
That message was soon up on weblogs in places as far apart as Khuzestan, Mashhad, Tabriz, Esfahan and Tehran; it was cited by Voice of America’s Persian service and got a mention from Ebrahim Nabavi, a well-known Iranian satirist living abroad.
Another popular target is Iran’s stance in the nuclear dispute. At a time when all the official media were repeating the slogan “nuclear energy is our indisputable right” day and night, young Iranians were deliberately waking their friends with texts in the middle of the night. Anyone woken up by a phone beep would read, “Sorry I woke you up at this time of the night. It’s nothing special - I just wanted to say that the nuclear energy is our indisputable right.”
A few days after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered government offices to serve tea with dates instead of the usual sugar cubes, a text message went out saying, “It has been decided that civil servants will have their tea with dates… because they contain both energy and a nucleus.”
President Ahmadinejad, who has a difficult and worsening relationship with the younger generation, is one of the main butts of the satire. But other politicians such as Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani also come in for their fair share of lampooning .
Dr Babak Khabiri, an expert on social affairs, told Mianeh that SMS is one of the very few methods of expressing views and criticisms that has not been subject to restrictions.
“There is no need to conduct an opinion poll to keep a finger on the pulse of Iranian society. It’s enough to collect and analyse day-to-day text messages,” he said
Iranian society has developed an unwritten yet powerful system for churning out messages for wide distribution so fast that they sometimes reach people before the “real” news does.
During the last month, this informal mass network has sent out messages about such things as the speech Ahmadinejad gave at Columbia University in the US in September, the campaign to make young women adhere strictly to the Islamic dress code or “hejab”, and the distribution of dividends to poor people under the government’s Justice Shares privatisation scheme.
A large proportion of texts concern the things young people are interested in and the issues that move them, and in the case of young men, rude and obscene messages.
A few months ago, following the hejab campaign, it emerged that police were checking the content of young people’s phones. In August, the Iran newspaper reported that someone had been convicted of “keeping and sending immoral text messages”.
For a while at least, this news made young people think twice about sending texts of this kind. But they went back to normal after there was criticism in the media concerning the existence of a “mobile phone police”, and when police themselves denied this categorically.
“If boys were to be taken to task for these text messages, then all of them who have mobile phones should be detained,” Arash, 18.
Girls generally prefer messages that are either satirical or have to do with love. A typical message reads, “Newton’s fourth law states that the Earth has no gravity. Apples fall for you because you are the only centre of attraction on earth.”
A 19-year-old girl called Hilda, from an area north of Tehran, says the last text message she received said, “A sheep takes an ecstasy pill, catches a taxi and says, “take me to the slaughterhouse’.”
Another important function played by texting involves pure information provision. In recent months, the distribution of numerous pieces of genuine news and some rumours, too, have had a wide-scale reaction. On the first day of petrol rationing, for instance, an untrue story that the scheme had been delayed for 24 hours led to long queues up to a kilometre long forming outside petrol stations. This SMS rumour was reached even the remotest villages.
Another rumour, according to which Farah Pahlavi, the widow of the former Shah of Iran, had died, even fooled a number of news agencies.
The choice of news is, of course, dictated by what young people find interesting. News on human rights or political prisoners has not proved particularly popular. But when a Friday prayer leader at a mosque in Khuzestan province got the message wrong and announced that Iran only wanted the nuclear bomb (rather than nuclear energy) for peaceful purposes, his words were quickly relayed to all four corners of Iran
Earlier this year, the government appeared to be mounting a campaign to curb SMS, with the “mobile phone police” controversy mentioned above coupled with threats by the judiciary to prosecute people who send overtly political messages. The impetus of this campaign appears to have subsided, however, and no remarks of this kind have been heard for some months.
The official policy now seems to be to come to terms with and accommodate the SMS phenomenon, even if the flow of text messages represents a direct challenge to the state media monopoly and the political and social restrictions that are in place.
Texting in Iran amounts to a popular struggle to talk freely about politics, break social taboos and bring a bit of eroticism and zest into the lives of all people. In this virtual world, anything goes. One girl says she wants her marriage settlement to consist of 1,400 litres of petrol plus three rationing smart cards. Someone else has a laugh about Ahmadinejad’s famous beige jacket.
Nothing is safe from criticism or ridicule, in this area of life that keeps its secrets safe only from the most casual observer.
Parisa Dezfoulian is a journalist and political analyst in Iran. This article originally appeared in Mianeh.net