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Iran, Blogging Against the Regime

A new book showcases Iran's burgeoning blog world -- a vibrant 75,000-member community struggling for free expression in the face of a militant Islamic regime.
 
 
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Described by Reporters Sans Frontieres as "the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East" -- where, in the last six years, 41 daily newspapers have been banned -- Iran has long lacked a public forum for independent voices.

But it hasn't been immune to the user-driven web revolution. In April 2003, Iran became the first government to imprison a blogger: Sina Motallebi of the popular weblog RoozNegar.com. (Despite anti-censorship public outcry, the Iranian government still uses extensive filtering to block out Internet content deemed inappropriate.) It seems that as the regime has tried to crack down on "immorality," dissent and secularity, Iranians have become more polarized against the government, creating a fast-growing community of political and personal bloggers.

Nasrin Alavi, an Iranian NGO worker who lives in London, has collected the best of the Iranian blogosphere in an acclaimed new book, We Are Iran (Soft Skull Press). This compilation of postings from the vibrant Farsi blog community gives readers an unprecedented glimpse into Iranian citizens' lives, and what emerges is a picture of an educated, youthful population with passionate opinions on Israel, the U.S., political Islam, and other far-reaching issues.

Alavi created the book to help outsiders understand the "monumental social changes" currently under way in her home country. "These blogs offer a unique glimpse of the changing consciousness of Iran's younger generation," she explains. "[They] see themselves as citizens with rights, struggling for a civil society. They greatly outnumber the soldiers of the ideological state."

Born in September 2001 when young Iranian journalist Hossein Derachshan posted how-to-blog instructions on his website, the country's weblog community has blossomed into a 75,000-member network. Farsi is now the fourth most common blogging language, far surpassing other countries in the region (such as Iraq, which only has 50 bloggers). Keeping a web journal is now common there; not just for everyday people, but for student organizers, censored journalists, ex-pats and even Muslim clerics, as a forum to discuss topics from the Oscars ceremony to the separation of church and state, and to plan protests under a militant regime that regularly jails (and tortures) dissidents.

While other Muslim countries are working to curtail this sort of extremism, Iran has experienced militant Islamic rule for a quarter century, making Iranians even more acutely aware of its failings. As one blogger, dubbed "Our Voice," writes: "Twenty-five years of religious rule has had one long-term benefit for generations to come, no Iranian will ever want to mix matters of state with religion."

And blogger Safsari notes: "At a time when our society is deprived of its rightful free means of communication, and our newspapers are being closed down one by one -- with writers and journalists crowding the corners of our jails, the only realm that can safeguard and shoulder the responsibility of free speech is the blogosphere."

Ironically, Iran's blog community owes its existence partly to the Islamic militant regime's premium on education. Because education and universal literacy were ideals of the 1979 Revolution, the Iranian literacy rate stands at 90 percent, higher than many European countries. Women account for 65 percent of university enrollment and computer access is the highest in the Middle East. Most Iranians -- over two-thirds of whom are under 30 -- have an acute awareness of Iranian history, including their democratic legacy extending back to the turn of the 19th century.

The blogs featured in We Are Iran shed light on a broad confluence of cultural influences, and an ambivalence about both Western and Persian traditions. Female bloggers intensely debate the role of the veil, which women are required by law to wear in public spaces. Is covering up a symbol of non-Western pride, a means to enter the public sphere without being objectified -- or is it just another outdated manifestation of state control? Blogger Neda writes:

Our Inheritance from our ancestors is this thing we call "honor": a reverence for the chastity of women. Yet this is the thing that separates us from the First World nations, but we still kill ourselves preserving it. Gentlemen, leave women's honor to them. Get on with your work, as this is holding our society back

And another female blogger ponders what would happen if women were no longer legally required to wear the veil:

Would this be culturally tolerable to Iranians? You, a woman who lives in Iran, are you prepared to go public in full view of our men, who get so worked up by just glimpsing an inch of ankle underneath your robes that they need to wank? Would you honestly feel secure walking past a man who for 20-something years is used to seeing your one eye, and his fantasy is just to see the rest of your face? People have to change gradually, as our culture cannot change overnight.

The excerpts Alavi has included in We Are Iran are consistently engaging and insightful, and her accompanying text helps to contextualize them with historical and cultural information (though the book's sections aren't very well organized). Alavi also provides Westerners with a sense of Iran's political realities, whose burgeoning pro-democracy forces would only be silenced by U.S. aggression. "I wanted to show that this is not a society that should be precision-bombed into democracy," she says. "I believe that the worst thing that could possibly happen to Iran would be a U.S. attack. Any possible conflict with the West will only strengthen the power base of Iranian radicals. Even those Iranians who oppose them are tempted to move to their camp in the face of foreign aggression."

And though it's still a bit early to gauge, Alavi reports positive responses to her mission, both from readers across the world ("a German reader wrote to say, 'I am ashamed to admit that for many years I have been unable to see Iranians as anything but hostage takers,"' Alavi reports) and from critics. The book was recommended by English PEN and has been selected as one of the books of the year by both the Independent and the New Statesman.

Still, it remains to be seen what kind of an impact the blogosphere will have on Iran's political future. "Only time will tell if Iranian blogs are merely a place for the beleaguered to blow off steam, or a modern day Gutenberg press that would usher in the age of democracy," says Alavi.

At least for now, We Are Iran helps shed some needed light on majority views in Iran, and its people will continue to find some respite in the freedom of expression (albeit threatened) that cyberspace allows. As lolivashe writes, "In a society where one is taken to history's abattoir for the mere crime of thinking, I write so as not to be lost in my despair. I write a weblog so that I can shout, cry and laugh, and do the things that they have taken away from me in Iran today."

Laura Barcella is an associate editor at AlterNet. Alex Alper is a former editorial intern at AlterNet.