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The New Generation Unhinging Iran's Moral Authoritarianism

Article illustrative image Partner logo Outside a mall in Tehran

TEHRAN - Tehran, July 25. I’ve been in Iran since the first days of Ramadan. When I take a taxi to go to Maydan Tajrish, one of the main squares located in the north of Tehran, I realize that the driver, like many bus drivers, is smoking a cigarette. As we go along Valiasr, the main avenue, I see several people drinking water, eating fruit or smoking a cigarette in public, as Iranians stand by, indifferent.

The next day, I go to Darakeh to hike in the Alborz mountain range, which Tehran wraps around. As I walk several hundred meters, I meet couples laying down under the shade of plane trees, young unveiled girls, families having a picnic on the water’s edge and hikers quenching their thirst.

These Tehranis who drink, eat and smoke before the breaking of the fast during Ramadan are at risk of arrest by the Gasht-e-ershad brigades, who are tasked with enforcing “Islamic morality” in public spaces. This moralilty police can clamp down at any time, but the Tehranis who do fast, or who prefer to respect religious instructions in public spaces, are indifferent to these daily daredevils.

Testing the limits

Why do these Tehranis defy the rules imposed buy the Republic, and why do they take the risk of being arrested by the moral police? They aren’t so much trying to provoke as they are trying to maintain their lifestyle despite the regime’s moral control over public spaces. Out of respect for those who fast, most Iranians who chose not to, don’t do it in public.

If provocation there is, it isn’t aimed at religious rules or at fasting Iranians but against the regime’s moral authoritarianism. It is true that since the 1979 revolution, a minority of the population has always refused the mullah’s behests. But this rejection has more wind in its sails with the young Iranians born in the 1980s and 1990s, who don’t identify with the regime’s moral austerity and who have created moments of freedom in private spaces.

Described by Western media as completely impervious to individual liberties, Iran can surprise those who don’t know much about the country. Moments of individual freedom and satisfied desires do not exist solely as transgressions, in the privacy of homes or hidden from others.

Sexual relations outside of marriage are forbidden, but it is still possible for young people who wish to go to “San Francisco” – the nickname sometimes used to designate intimate moments – to choose a “legal” sexuality with a sigheh, a “marriage of determined length.”

Some travel agencies are even specialized in selling temporary marriage trips on the Caspian seaside to couples who do not want to risk the 100 lashes legal sanction for non-marital sexual relations.

It isn’t even anecdotal to meet veiled transsexuals in Tehran’s bazars and main avenues. Since the 1980s, with the approval of Imam Khomeini, the Islamic Republic of Iran gives a legal framework and public financial help to nearly 150,000 transsexuals and to all of those who want to change gender.

Social reality

The regime in Tehran that grew out of the 1979 Islamic revolution has become fully aware of the changes Iranian society is undergoing, and it is trying to provide answers to the Enqelab-e Jinsi (sexual revolution) and the Enqelab-e Farhangi (cultural revolution) with legal and theological adjustments that are still far from satisfying most of Iran’s youth.

The regime’s approach to individual liberties has been less about banning them totally than regulating them in a normative framework. By formulating norms authorizing practices that would normally be contrary to religious morality, the state jurists support social change and individual liberties without ending the transgressions to the moral order in public spaces.

Thus, the handling of men and women mixing in public spaces is less and less linked to moral imperatives and increasingly bows to daily economic and social realities. The gender separation imposed in public transportation (buses and subways) isn’t respected anymore, and gender mixing has become the rule in private transportation (minibuses and taxis) for several years.

This situation reveals the formidable tensions between the formulation of norms governing public spaces and the reality of their enforcement, these very tensions that the 2009 presidential candidates said they would appease, supported by the young protesters of the Green movement.

Ahmadinejad’s reelection only postponed the formulation of satisfactory answers to these pressing demands from important, dynamic swaths of Iranian society to the next elections.

*Youssef Belal is a political scientist. 

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