SPEAKING FREELY Tehran treads social liberties tightrope
By Amin Shahriar
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
The beginning of the warm season in Tehran is always a serious concern for the Islamic republic. A brief stroll in Vanak square, a busy, modern and prosperous part of Tehran and a favorite hangout for the youth, reveals volumes about the fundamental socio-ideological conflicts the Iranian regime is facing.
Hundreds of young boys and girls walk in terror, trying their best to avoid the white police vans hunting for the less conventional. Police women in black coverings scrutinize every female in the
area and stop them if there is something different about their clothes or make-up.
Vanak square is a small yet revealing microcosm of the Iranian urban middle class. Interestingly, the appearance of only a very tiny proportion of the women there conforms to the minimum standards of the governors, much less their ideals.
Despite the people voting for President Hassan Rouhani to take power last July - a moderate representing the liberal side of the Iranian political spectrum - it seems that the regime has not yet decided to loosen its grip on social freedoms. Yet the gap between the lifestyles of the governors and the governed has remained intact. Iranian authorities expect citizens to live a life according to Islamic values while middle class citizens do not demonstrate much willingness to comply.
In hindsight, the liberal urban middle class was very much in a minority when the Iranian revolution, or the Islamic revolution as it is referred to by Iranian authorities, overthrew the secular regime of the shah. Being traditional and religious, the majority of people had no difficulty coming to terms with the standards advocated by the new regime and the dissenting minority was easily silenced.
The war provided the regime with justification to violate people's social freedoms for eight years. Unfortunately for the Islamic regime, the population composition of large cities have undergone a fundamental change, creating threats for the regime at every turn.
The silent move towards requesting social liberties has long begun. Now that the kids born in the 1990s are coming of age, they don't appear to agree with their parents or even their elder siblings. Called third generation revolution kids, they are much less attached to the revolutionary values and not in the least concerned about religion and politics.
Teenagers and young adults seem to prefer a lifestyle resembling that of Western countries. Drinking is no more a taboo and young boys and girls have very liberal relationships which were almost unheard of about two decades ago. The rate of divorce has increased and now there are a large number of uninhibited single and divorced young women who have economic independence and, therefore, do no seek marital support to meet their financial needs. Many of these young people have opted for a lifestyle that is by no means congruent with what is portrayed by officials as the single right way to live.
The media have of course had a very strong role to play. According to official statistics, about 70% of Iranians tend to watch satellite television. This means that they are not as susceptible to the government propaganda as they once were. The Internet has also removed the geographical boundaries, making it possible for young people in Iran to become part of the youth culture globally. Social networks have expedited this shift.
What we have in Iran, or rather will have in the next few years, is in effect a religious government using Islamic principles to rule a people who do not give too much weight to these principles in practice. This divide is not as easily reparable as the political system is.
Can the government halt change?
The Iranian regime is an Islamic state. Article 4 of the Iranian constitution provides that all Iranian rules and regulations must be formulated in accordance with the teachings of Islam. It is based on this article that the obligation of wearing the Islamic hijab is often justified. Because there is an eternal prohibition of any change to this article based on the constitution, it is often the cause of political stalemate.
Third generation Iranian, kids born in 1990s, are unimpressed by politics and care very little what unfolds politically. All they want is a life without any control coming from people who claim to have exclusive ownership of the truth.
The government faces a challenge that is likely to produce a lose-lose outcome. On the one hand, handing liberty to a population deprived of it for more than three decades could unleash a massive, existential challenge. On the other hand, continuation of the present circumstances would cause resentment to build up and the gap to widen.
In the latter scenario, it is not difficult to envisage a time when the government and people will be totally unable to communicate in a language they both understand. Additionally, the hijab and social restrictions are so much a part of the regime's identity that any compromise on them may rob the regime of its Islamic nature in the eyes of its supporters in Iran and abroad.
The Iranian regime has its own supporters. This strong minority ensures the survival of the regime at times of political crisis; they are mobilized in election times and they take part in government-organized rallies and demonstrations.
This omnipresent minority have expectations of the government in return for their unqualified support. The supporters of the regime are mainly ideological advocates who care deeply about the application of Islamic rules in the country.
Save this minority, the rest of the population are either disinterested or positively rebellious towards government policies, which might be because of the regime's inability to provide economic stability, to name only one reason.
Put differently, the regime cannot afford to lose this support base and there is no guarantee that by giving social freedoms, it can buy support from the youth who are ideologically neutral.
Tied up in the nuclear negotiations, Rouhani is unable, at present, to take any action regarding culture and social freedoms. This had decreased his popularity among his young supporters. The experience of 2005 election shows public disappointment with social changes will only enhance the chance for a conservative to come to power.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Amin Shahriar is a pseudonym used by an Iranian lawyer and journalist.