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.