Recent reports indicate that the Iranian government has cut off access to all encrypted Internet services. Google has confirmed that users in Iran can no longer access their secure services. By blocking access to websites using the HTTPS format the Iranian government has, in essence, censored sites including Google, Facebook, and Yahoo. Luckily Tor still seems to work. For years activists have speculated that Iran has been moving towards a “halal” internet, which would for all intents and purposes be an intranet controlled by the government.
This saddens me for a number of reasons. You see, back in the good old days of 2007 I used to work in a think tank that dealt with issues of nuclear proliferation; Iran was obviously a big focus of this work. It was there that I first encountered the idea of online activism outside the context of the Western world and I’ve considered Iran as a beacon for online political dissent.
When you mention clicktivism and Iran many people first think of the Green Revolution. That was nowhere near the first run that the Iranian government had with the Internet.
I’d like to take this chance to highlight a favourite book of mine, Nasrin Alavi’s We Are Iran (which you can find on Google Books). We Are Iran tells the story of dissent in Iran using the words of Iranian bloggers. The book not only provides insight into an Iran that is rarely seen in the West, but also shows the potential of the medium. In 2005 there were more than 64,000 Farsi blogs.
The story starts in 2000 with Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian who emigrated to Canada. While studying at the University of Toronto he wrote a how-to blog guide in Farsi and the Iranian blogging revolution began. Derakshan is currently in jail in Iran for “insulting religion.” The use of anonymous blogs allowed Iranians a place to express themselves on ways that they couldn’t anywhere else.
A big focus is of course, given the circumstances in the country, women. Alavi writes,
Blogs have allowed some Iranian women to express themselves freely for the first time in modern history and this small freedom may have a big knock on effect. It might be objected that the majority of female bloggers do not reflect a true cross-section of Iranian society, as not everyone has access to computers and the internet. However, thanks to the Islamic Republic’s policy of free education and its national literacy campaigns, those who enter further education tend to be from a relatively wide cross-section of society. Iranian students come from a broad variety of social and regional backgrounds and have access to the internet.
Which can be seen in this statement from a blogger called Baakereh, which could not be expressed anywhere but online:
What would happen if you were no longer legally required to wear the veil? Just imagine if our women were free to wear whatever they wanted; if even mixed bathing on the beach were allowed would this be culturally tolerable to Iranians?
The history of online activism in Iran is long and storied, and while a bit outdated, We Are Iran provides fascinating context to the activism we see expressed today.