First Published: 2011-08-22

 

Water-pistol; a new way of rebellion in Iran

 

With no space for political protest, young people express their sense of discontent through amusing activities.

 

Middle East Online

By Mohammad Ali Kadivar - Iran

Rebellion with fun

From official reactions to the recent mass gunbattle in the Iranian capital Tehran, one might have concluded that participants were using firearms rather than water-pistols.

In a country where public forms of entertainment are thin on the ground, hundreds of young people took part in the pre-planned water fight in a Tehran park called the Garden of Water and Fire on July 29.

Within a few days, arrested participants were paraded on national television to confess their wrongdoing. Quite what the legal charges levelled against them remains unclear.

It was by no means the first event of its kind held in recent months. Earlier in July, another park was used for a bubble-blowing event while in February, people with curly hair celebrated at another outdoor venue. The same day as some were firing water-pistols at each other, others took part in a fancy-dress event.

Shia conservatives appear to have been especially irritated by the water fight, though. It appears to have crossed the line by deliberately encouraging not only interaction between the sexes, but also communal public entertainment. It thereby presented a challenge – either deliberate or unwitting – to a regime that is not content merely to crush its political opponents, but also wants to control how people conduct their lives.

Hardliners have consistently pressed for tougher enforcement of the Islamic dress code and stricter separation of the sexes in all areas of public life.

In turn, these attitudes are constantly being challenged, spontaneously in public, by unmarried couples holding hands or women wearing their headscarves more loosely than Islamic dress code prescribes; and in more organised fashion in private, with private concerts and parties where men and women mix freely and consume alcohol.

Events like the water-fight combine these two strands – bringing the kind of organised boundary-breaking that normally goes on in private out into public view.

There are various readings of the water fight – one that it fits within a general pattern of non-political acts of defiance. Such eccentric but apolitical actions catch the authorities off their guard and challenge accepted rules of behaviour without making the kind of open demands that would provoke a broad clampdown.

There were no overt political messages around the event, but by enacting the kind of cultural change they want, participants were engaged in what sociologist Asef Bayat characterises as a “non-movement” – activities involving large numbers of people with no clear leadership, except in this case the coordination provided by a special Facebook page called “gandkeshan” – people who want to upset the normal order of things – reflecting a sense of discontent even if expressed through amusing activities.

This suggests a degree of common ground with the formal political opposition. The opposition Green Movement which led the 2009 protests following the controversial re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, was alert to the significance of the water-fight and the arrests that followed, and gave them wide coverage on the internet.

Kaleme, one of the Green Movement’s main websites, framed the event as an expression of resistance against totalitarian government, and as a forerunner of future changes that Iranian society would force on those who rule it.

The water fight and similar events were expressions of collective emotional solidarity which was a feature of the 2009 protests but which – given the crackdown that followed – the Green Movement has found it hard to repeat since then. The opposition may now seek to emulate the kind of positive feeling that can overcome the prevailing mood of fear and apathy. As one comment on the Kaleme site put it, “as long as the Green Movement was a movement of joy, its actions were powerful and awe-inspiring”.

But it is not just opposition leaders who may wish to capitalise on such events. While hardliners railed against such “immoral practices”, more pragmatic conservatives around the president may have spotted the potential they offer. After all, the Ahmadinejad election campaign in 2009 attempted to create a carnival-like mood just as the Green Movement did. With a parliamentary election coming up next February, we may see attempts to coopt this kind of event for political ends.

The Haft-e Sobh newspaper, linked to Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, the president’s close confident and most trusted advisor, carried an editorial suggesting that the cultural aspirations of the middle class should be heeded, not crushed.

What seems certain is that police repression is not going to stop such events breaking out, and over an increasingly wide geographical area. A week after the water fight in Tehran, Abbas Khodadadzade, deputy police chief for the southern province of Hormozgan, announced that 30 boys and girls had been arrested after taking part in a similar gunbattle in park in the port city of Bandar Abbas.

Mohammad Ali Kadivar is a PhD student of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

IWPR

 

Angry protesters storm Iraq Green Zone

War continues in Aleppo, with US-Russia agreement

Rouhani allies win second round of Iran parliament elections

Yemen government forces seize Qaeda training camp

Aleppo mourns paediatrician killed in air strike

UN council votes to bring back full Western Sahara mission

Air strike hits clinic in rebel-held Aleppo

US, Russia 'agree freeze' on two Syrian fronts

Libya unity government vows to end jihadist 'scourge'

Turkey demands 5 years jail for UK academic over 'terror propaganda'

UK pair accused of giving money to Brussels, Paris attacks suspect

Turkey says Bursa bomber linked to PKK

UN rights chief calls Syrian crisis 'shameful realpolitik'

Kuwait steps up deportations of expat workers

South Sudan unveils unity government

Iranians vote in second round of parliamentary elections

Palestinians support, Israel opposes French peace initiative

Biden in surprise Iraq visit to support embattled government

MSF condemns strike on Aleppo hospital

Lifeline to millions in Syria 'may be broken' as violence intensifies

Turkish journalists get two years for publishing Charlie Hebdo cartoon

Greece making 'incredible effort' to tackle migration issue

Iraq shuts Al-Jazeera bureau for 'instigating violence and sectarianism'

Syria regime readies for major Aleppo offensive

Israel nuclear reactor defects spark secrecy dilemma

Suicide bomber targets Aden police chief

Death toll in Syria's Aleppo rises despite UN truce plea

Italy to introduce migrant fingerprinting at sea

UN envoy plans to hold another round of Syria peace talks

US proposes full restoration of Western Sahara mission

27 Yemeni soldiers dead in key offensive

Global press freedom drops to lowest level in 12 years

Constitutional amendment grants Jordan king more powers

Suicide bomber blows herself up in Turkey northwestern city

Austria adopts one of EU's toughest asylum laws

Netherlands warns no safety 'guarantees' for visitors to Turkey

Battered Aleppo residents ask: Where is Syria ceasefire?

Libya kidnappers release Serbian worker

Sinai bombing kills three Egypt policemen

UAE considers tough safety code after skyscraper fires

UNESCO says Palmyra retains 'authenticity' despite damage

Khamenei says US 'fomenting Iranophobia'

Russia applauds cooperation with US on Syria

Etihad Airways sees $103 million profit in 2015

Russia asks UN to list Syria rebel group as 'terrorist'