The social and political lives of Iranian people have undergone a radical change in the last thirty odd years; this is particularly so for Iranian writers. The Constitutional Revolution, over a hundred years ago, was the catalyst through which Iranian people took their fate into their own hands by active participation in politics. It also gave new life to artistic expression through all mediums. Today, artists although still hindered by custom, tradition and the recent rise of religious fundamentalism, have found new forms of expression through literature, cinema and the social sciences.
By placing Shi’ite clerics in the mainstream of political affairs, the 1979 Revolution has had a major impact on Iranian culture and society. The clamp down and restrictions put on the print media saw many writers flee Iran and many more intimidated, arrested and imprisoned under terrible conditions. Consequently, in an effort to safely keep the dialogue alive with the outside world, Iranian writers had to find a new language for expressing their political dialogue through literary work. They hoped that this new style would offer them protection from persecution. It could be argued that finding ways of resisting censorship and thought control shape their literary work and takes them to new realms of creativity.
Although the threat of persecution has shadowed over the arts and literature for many years, the Ahmadinejad presidency since 2005 took it to new heights. Many books have been banned particularly those in the field of art and social sciences and writers face new obstacles to their freedom of expression. It was at this time that cyberspace, Internet and weblogs proved to be the champions of free expression. Yet, if possible, the situation has taken a turn for worse since the disputed 2009 presidential election, which saw Ahmadinejad take office for a second term with an alleged 83% of the votes. While hundreds of thousands of Iranians marched through the streets demanding change and rule of law, the streets were occupied by the military firing rounds of live ammunition into peaceful protestors killing hundreds and arresting many thousands more. It is here that the young generation of Iranian writers find themselves in the crucial position of telling the truth and raising their voice above repression, censorship and persecution. In this article I will argue about how different styles of writing have evolved since 2009 and how political oppression is being resisted in these different forms of writings.
The role of writing in Iranian political movements
In most transitional societies, literary writings have not only been a modern form of communication, but also a cogent means for offering people a new understanding of contemporary life, values, concepts and political goals. In dictatorial societies such as post-revolutionary Iran, literary writings, beside new forms of the written language, embody the potential to enlighten public’s views regarding existing social, political and economic conditions.
With Ahmadinejad’s victory in 2005 presidential elections, the political sphere became even more repressive and the opposition groups - writers among them, found it harder to survive. Writers either had to conform to harsher censorship requirements or see their efforts turned into pulp. Deliberately, instead of becoming tools for a despotic regime, writers and artists echoed the mass grievances adapting and changing styles as and when necessary. Thus, it can be assumed that Iranian literature in all fields is able to reflect the conditions of Iranian society while at the same time alerting the world’s conscience as to what is going on in their country. In 2009, by manifesting themselves through various forms of writing, writers and bloggers become the voices of the oppressed and spoke up for the democratic struggle in Iran. The on-going persecution of writers and bloggers in the ‘Green Movement’ meant that their language and style had to be lucid yet readily adaptable to change as control and censorship took new dimensions. The cycle of arrest and protests to the arrests, required free writers and bloggers to implement new tactics and strategies. They had to look to new forms of expressions to demonstrate their resistance, and challenge the regime’s authority by inspiring the public.
Their impact in keeping the spirit of the ‘Green Movement’ alive is undeniable. As the authorities were successful in their intimidation, resistance and protest moved from the streets onto computer screens and pages of publications and the young bloggers and writers have kept the movement alive. This explains why they have repeatedly become the targets of security forces and pursued with such vigour. They have become inspiring and influential agents for change and as far as the regime is concerned must be silenced. Political and social activism of this young generation of writers – often influenced by the ‘Green Movement’ – expose the shortcomings and weaknesses of the state. This young generation of writers, some with experiences of political and social activism, are nevertheless under threat and have had to find new outlets for their creative expression.
Blogging: A new form of writing for young authors
Looking for new outlets meant taking full advantage of the new technologies available and Internet proved to be a most effective tool in freedom of expression especially among the young writers. Taking advantage of the relative anonymity the cyberspaces provides the young writers responded to regime’s censorship and repression by utilising the cyberspace – which in itself offered its new forms of control through state filtering. Internet is not free and as reports demonstrate Iran has blocked over 10 million websites deemed politically or socially offensive.
The Internet, therefore, became an alternative means of publishing poetry, short stories, commentaries and other writings, which enable young authors to directly comment on the political struggles at any given time. It also opened them to a global audience breaking the barriers of State censorship. Young people utilized these technologies to keep the voices of their resistance alive by mobilising people inside and outside Iran. Individual authors post their poetry, writings and suggestions in weblogs, websites or social networks. The Internet enables young authors to expand their views and gather feedback on their writings and at the same time depict the crucial moments of the Iranian protesters in the streets. They have gradually become the messengers of protests through their writing; they depicted the live incidents of the demonstrations through their writings. The Internet accelerated the access of the authors to people, shocking their readers through providing news and images depicting the violent suppressions of the protesters by security forces. This immediate access to information coupled with effective reporting awakened people’s minds in and out of Iran to the brutality of the regime. The use of internet in this way broke all social and political barriers of the past collectively refusing to conform and obey. Creativity was witnessed through new designs and layouts of new weblogs and websites.
With every new achievement new waves of arrest and intimidation, new efforts to censor and control were enforced by the regime. In its desperate attempts to silence dissent and free expression the regime has been forced to set up specialised monitoring bureaus to identify bloggers and writers, to draft new laws and forms of punishment even death to clamp down and control this new outlet of expression in any way that it can.
It can be argued that although in the past the anonymity offered by internet helped the young authors liberate themselves from constant societal pressures and the control of ruling regime and that it served as a relatively safe place for the disenfranchised especially youth and women, to express themselves freely and to be more visible, recently it has become an effective and useful tool for the young Iranians in their struggle for democracy in Iran.
Poetry and short story and the politics of resistance
Unquestionably, social and political changes have affected the creative output of poets and writers throughout Iran’s long history. The events of the 1979 Revolution were no different nor were the consequences of the 2009 disputed elections. Young poets and writers are among the most influential groups in shaping protests and recent uprising in Iran. Therefore, individuality has been profoundly impacted by social and political causes and many famous Iranian poets and writers have been persecuted for their observations and contributions. Today more than ever, as the climate of repression grows, the role of Iranian writers has never been more crucial in the struggle towards socio-political change. Through their command of the language and creativity they tell the story of hope and resistance and put a mirror in front of the state oppression to expose it for all to see.
Some young writers after the 1979 Revolution developed and mastered this literature of resistance. The same can be said of the young writers of the 20-35 years old age group of the ‘Green Movement’ who have followed in their footstep adapting and responding to new forms of censorship and political oppression. Most of their work is dedicated to depicting the complex socio-political changes in Iran. Concerned with the ideas of democracy and freedom they criticise the government explicitly and express the desires and concerns of their generation. Their contribution in shaping the political discourse within the ‘Green Movement’ is enormous and cannot be denied. Their work spread rapidly on the internet reaching Iranians internationally. Using their technological know how they beat the regime’s filters and censors and manage to share their message successfully. As young cyber journalists reported on the brutality on the streets, poets and writers cooperated by writing about freedom.
There were numbers of collections of poetry and short stories published either in cyberspace or in print outside Iran that included the depiction of Iranians people’s struggles for freedom. One of the most obvious examples the inspired this is the tragic death of Neda Agha-Soltan in front of the world’s eyes. The immediacy with which the news spread internationally and the collective condemnation of the international community was a powerful example of the power of this media. Her death inspired many poets and writers to reflect the scenes of her murder through their work and at the same time offer a new perspective of her death through poetry and fiction. The body of work produced at this time is important in its power to delegitimize the regime and undermine it authority through depicting people’s struggle for democracy. The figurative expression and the glorification of the role of Iranian people and young generation have been witnessed in most of these works.
They remain at the centre of attention of the intelligence and security forces and the cycle of protest, publication, intimidation, arrest and detention has yet to be broken. But it does not stop there. Attempts to silence them and the voice of dissent result in using every means available to the State. This includes prohibition and banning from publishing their writings anywhere (magazines, newspapers, national media as well as social networks and the internet) by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance; thus attempting to remove their voice from the literary circles and the democracy discourse.
As I have discussed in this article literature has played a crucial role in both commentating and shaping Iran’s socio-political changes. 1979 Revolution and the ensuing repression gave birth to new forms of resistance literature. This is witnessed again following the disputed 2009 presidential elections. Every generation has used the tools and media available to it to best express itself. The young generation of 2009 relying on technology and their own technological prowess have tried to express themselves freely while fighting a never ending cyber war with the State for control over the Internet. Young poets and writers have increasingly turned to blogs and websites set up online for the publication of their thoughts with hope of influencing and bringing about democratic change. The ‘Green Movement’ is enriched and kept alive by these and similar efforts. Whether they have remained in Iran or have been forced to choose a life in exile this young generation of writers are paying a heavy price for striving to realise their aspirations and desires.
They remain intimidated but not beaten. They risk serious threats to their physical integrity and liberty. Yet, they will continue to write and publish their poems, short stories and diaries and carry on influencing and inspiring others. They choose to do so in the knowledge that their work will accelerate the necessary social and political changes for the establishment of democracy in Iran no matter how small their contribution may be. There is no other choice.