Hadi is showing me pictures from epic-looking parties. Men and women dance, their bodies caught in ecstatic pause. The women are, for the most part, rather scantily clad: microscopic skirts dominate, and belly shirts that show a good deal of taut belly. Their faces are masterworks of make-up art: streaks of vibrant color rising to the eyebrow, glitter and blush and outlined lips. They move, the partiers, with abandon, heads tipped back, preening and laughing. The pictures are from Iran.
We were sitting in Prague, in mid-May 2009, before the fraudulent re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This is weeks before newswhores like me could expound upon the legitimacy of the Guardian Council and pontificate about Khamenei, before hundreds of thousands pushed into the streets and were pushed back. The human seas of opposition supporters in Mousavi green and the videoed murder of Neda Agha-Soltan surely stand with the defining iconography of our decade.
In May, my knowledge of Iran was as sorely limited as many Americans: I knew some of our sordid dealings in the Cold War decades ago; I knew about Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and had watched the ’81 run from our beleaguered embassy in class. I knew that we were supposed to boo and hiss the crass Ahmadinejad, but I was also trusting in our new President’s overtures of diplomacy to smooth the relations that Bush had mangled.
I had read Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis and thus felt qualified to comment that the current social status of women in Iran had been a modern and ruthlessly enforced invention. Since the 1979 revolution under Sharia law women had been dictated a strict dress code. The religious “morality” police in Iran were given the power to punish for improper hijab.
So I sat staring slack-jawed as Hadi clicked through his album. I had consumed, perhaps, one too many fine Czech beers, and my brain was slow that night. “But… don’t they… burqas?” I managed, watching bold women go past on the screen.
America often likes to portray itself as superior to extreme Islamic states in its treatment of women. Never mind that our lack of head-to-toe covering can promote whole other systems of body-bound repression-that’s a subject for Jezebel. We’re still a nation grappling with the fallout from a Superbowl nipple-flash.
But in demonizing Iran, or justifying bombing out the Taliban while not blinking at the civilians underfoot, Western politicians and talking heads love to jab fingers at huddled women in black, zooming in on what we imagine to be plaintive eyes peering out.
Along the way I must have swallowed that constructed image. A burqa meant a burqa, and somehow free-thinking dissent would be lost under cloth. I had not really considered that for many-for the old guard who had lived in a more female-empowered Iran, for the young, who are as wont to want to party as their counterparts across the planet-it could all just be a cover.
Hadi laughed at me, at my packaged TV-news knowledge. “Sure,” he said of the burqa. “They wear it. They wear it on the street to the party. And when they are inside the house”-he mimed tugging his shirt up-“They take it off; and they are wearing that underneath.”
Glitter and painted eye-arches and glowing lengths of skin. Laughter and dancing. Young and not-so-young people in the night’s heat, matching our slinkiest club attire, maybe even wearing less than we would. Seeming to care about it less. I sat staring and thought: we still have very little understanding of each other, despite the decade’s stunning advances in the accessibility of information.
For many in Iran, access to information became a precious necessity last summer, a means to survival and a way of bearing witness. The internet was purposely crippled in the election aftermath, and SMSing shut down entirely. The harsh crackdown on reporters and media presence that followed was unprecedented in its scope-the Iranian government would even blame the BBC for plotting coups and inciting violence.
But around the world, people were still watching, and information kept leaking through from Iran. Bloggers tracked the election protests obsessively. Twitter and Facebook icons turned Mousavi green. Companies (and governments) stepped in to keep their software accessible. Computer experts worked to make safe pages and portals for the protesters to use.
Agha-Soltan, a student who had stopped to watch the protests, was shot by a Basij militia bullet and would go on to die millions of times online and in cell phone videos and on TV, our first digitalized martyr and an instant symbol of the protest movement and the reigning regime’s brutality.
Lay people like me learned fast about the history of Iran, its tangle of politics and religion. And the need for real honest-to-God, on-the-ground reporters has never been more soundly demonstrated. When only a corrupt government’s state-run media gets to report to the people, George Orwell wins and everyone else loses.
Americans believe they should have the luxury of picking and choosing what they want to know, of leaving on only the channel that says what you want to hear. These days we seem to collectively thrive on a mix of navel-gazing outrage, scandal and denial, hopping from one to the other with hysterical frequency aided by the 24-hour news cycle and the web. While our Nobel Peace Prize-winning President surges forth with an unwanted war in Afghanistan, imperiled newspapers keep a certain celebrity golfer on their front page for what’s now weeks in the running. This is the state of America as we bring the first decade of the new millennium to a close.
Doesn’t it seem like what we want to know is not a lot? On The Daily Show last summer, Jason Jones’ tongue-in-cheek but masterfully painful segment “Jihad Walking” put questions to Iranians-who could name American presidents, locations and the branches of our government-while Americans similarly quizzed in Times Square could often not bring forth the name of a single Iranian city, or even the name of the country.
It demonstrated a very willful ignorance. As that sage Alan Jackson once sang: “I watch CNN but I’m not sure I can tell you / the difference in Iraq and Iran.”
We were in Prague, and Hadi, from Kuwait, had come away from elections there. In Kuwait, he told me, his party had just worked to successfully elect three women to parliamentary office. This was against the express advice of the hard-line imams, who cited eternal damnation for the offense of voting for any of them. He couldn’t stop smiling over the victory.
Hadi told me that the parties amongst Iran’s revelers were some of the best he’s ever been to. They favored tequila. He told me he can’t wait to go back. In the pictures, his friends hefted bottles and danced and moved close together, making Facebook faces.
For a short period of time in June 2009, the newsmedia gave its attention to a worthy cause, and the internet finally proved itself to be useful. Iran’s protest movement may be written about as the goddamned “Twitter Revolution” in history Kindles, but it was the first avidly viewed by curious and participatory audiences tuning in around the world.
And it established more than ever the need for the accessibility of uncensored information, which should now be considered a basic right. The quelled uprising in Iran represented a call for freedom and reform the likes of which we should be ashamed we could not replicate here in America during our own electoral problems.
In the 00s, we changed our online avatars to show solidarity with admired revolutionaries. Maybe we will do more. The future of peace and conflict is irretrievably linked now to our ability to talk to each other and show our truths.
Kaila Hale-Stern lives in a self-selected corner of the internet populated by basement-dwelling anarchists and people who write stories about their favorite fictional characters. Her primary concerns are the duplicities of history, the scourge of pop culture, and not letting Mayor Bloomberg win the battle against cigarettes. She can be read here and reached here.