A dispatch from a middle class neighbourhood in Tehran
In the evenings, children play in Khoshi (Happy), an alleyway in western Tehran where I have lived for a couple of years since migrating from Kashmir. This middle class neighborhood is glum; pollution often adds to its rundown appearance. The alley has cars lined up along its sides and cats or garbage pickers, often Afghan refugees, pick through dustbins on brighter mornings. Contrary to the mood, people dress pleasantly and use their cars even if they are only traveling a couple of blocks. The store at the end of our alley is stuffed with everything one may need. Further along the lane, grocery shops and vans offer abundant, locally produced vegetables and fruits. Most other shop fronts are decorated and stuffed with the latest fashion accessories for homes, cars, and pets.
Every day, I cross the road from Refah ,a local supermarket chain, towards the other side of the neighborhood where my gym--a fancy, exclusive place--is located. It's run by a couple of young women in their mid-thirties who expertly keep up with the latest trends in bodybuilding and fitness. I have opted for Zumba, a fitness dance program that was several times taken off the list of government sanctioned, permissible activities for women in Iran. But these gym instructors couldn’t care less. The gym is always packed to the brim for every session by urban housewives and professional women alike. Women attend the gym sessions enthusiastically. They don the latest fashion and makeup trends, keeping at bay a deeply felt disconnection to the outside world.
Many of the women I've befriended here are impressed by my English and will often throw a word or two at me to show their own English skills haven’t completely disappeared. I've even taken on an English student. The deeper psychology behind that feeling of being left behind is visible in every conversation that takes place between us. To compensate for not knowing the world outside our own controlled political environment, Tehranians assiduously keep up with modern trends, which in part explains the particular characteristics of Iran's foreign trade.
This feeling of lacking is not self-produced; it is informed by a burgeoning international and well-connected upper class. A few months ago I visited Persepolis, in Shiraz, with an affluent family member. While there she grew quite emotional and exclaimed with a sense of dismay, “Look at what we were and what has become of us.” Her comment made me realize that there is still romanticism attached to some Iranians sense of the past, a kind of longing for a golden antiquity and the imperialism that it involved.
The religiously-based state of Iran has not provided continuity to their ethno-nationalist aspirations. Instead, it has confined itself exclusively to religious identity and the attendant institutions. The regime's total control of local media ensures the distrust of many people to the news; they look elsewhere for alternative sources and find, among other things, propaganda produced by the Shah’s family and supporters who populate the airwaves and TV channels with reminiscences of Iran's glorious past. The people, then, are wedged between two competing propagandas central to the Iranian identity.
The historical residue of abrupt revolutions and precarious state identities has done little to subdue popular discontent. A significant number of Iranians believe either one historical narrative or the other, resulting in a deep and dangerous political division in society. The resultant political conversations are held in people’s dining rooms and bedrooms. Consistently, the Shah’s era is presented by those opposing the current regime as a golden age of Iran, when people were free, had better rights and access to jobs. And suddenly in private conversations too, people’s anger has swelled to a level where they will even throw themselves behind an obsolete idea of an historically glorious Persian monarchy and are not in a mood to acknowledge that the former Shah was, too, an authoritarian dictator. They choose not to remember that the Shah also had a terrible record of dealing with the opposition, forgetting, for example, the Jaleh square massacre which left eighty two people dead. How could he be thought as better on economic or human rights? But soon I figured out that people are using these discourses only to point at deeper crises.
A few days ago, protests against the government of President Rouhani, which originated in the city of Mashhad, were hijacked by anarchic groups of local people to challenge the entire clerical rule. Yesterday evening when my English student came over for her lessons, we got into a conversation about the protests and the people most affected by economic instability. What she told me got me thinking about the complexity of Iran's broken economy. She said "the reason you don’t see poor people in the streets is because they are clothed and provided for by the people themselves." In this very neighborhood, stories are rife about people’s economic distress.
Very recently a young woman in her thirties lost her husband and was left with a six year old son and her elderly mother and soon after she was diagnosed with cancer. The government did nothing to help. The woman's neighbors raised money to provide for her family including covering rent during her prolonged illness. When she passed away, neighbors were left with her son and old aged mother who they could not shun. They ended up buying a house for the family, an extraordinary gesture.
A similar thing could be witnessed during the recent earthquake that struck Kermanshah province. The destruction wrought by the earthquake evoked an extraordinary response from the common people. Iranians organized aid and responded to the crises convinced that the government would likely do nothing substantial. One of my relative participated in organizing aid and drove in her own car, which was stuffed withblankets, food and emergency provisions, all the way up to Kermanshah. Upon her return, she told me that the authorities had wanted her to take a clergyman along so it would look like the aid had arrived from the state.
Meanwhile, literacy rates are rising along with unemployment rate. Some Iranians wait for miracles while others take up jobs out not suited to them out of necessity. One friend of mine, a former Fullbright scholar, is currently giving tuitions to kids privately because she could not find a job. Another friend, an engineer by training, currently makes ends meet by selling her artwork. While its citizens struggle, the state spends lavishly on religious sites and foreign wars. As my student noted to me, in "this they are displeasing both God and their people.” Popular mistrust runs deep.
When I asked my student about lack of civic freedoms she replied, "People who don’t want to wear hijab evade [religious] dictates and practice their freedoms privately in the north of Tehran where the rich live. For the disadvantaged, which is a huge demographic, these are non-issues." However, civic freedoms cannot be understood separately from economic issues, when the state doesn’t invest in recreation or provide spaces for communication without scrutiny or moral policing. Iranian people, therefore, who have the option, choose to spend money outside the country in places like Turkey.
The issues of civil liberties, human rights and social justice do not affect people uniformly. Personal political priorities are general determined by one’s class mobility, wealth and access to education. The Rouhani government that came on a reformist agenda won in a landslide victory, offering hope that some of these issues would be addressed. Donald Trump’s win in the United States presidential contest stymied many of these hopes. Apart from the nuclear negotiations many of the sanctions that are directly responsible for the precarious nature of economy were reintroduced by the Trump administration. Making matters worse, when Trump rhetorically threw himself behind the Iranian protesters it looked like a cheap trick. To be sure, the protesters are in some cases the very people he has committed to keep out of the United States with the travel ban.
The speech by the Iranian president showed that he more or less understands the psychology of the Iranian people. He acknowledged that issues of economic distress and that people’s protests were genuine and should be respected. Yet he may have failed them on many of their aspirations and promises. This seemed like an opportunity for people to help Rouhani negotiate more of these freedoms with the Hardliners. Given the current geopolitical world order not much would automatically change for poverty stricken people, but it would have been a start. However, the increased rhetoric by the United States around issues of human rights and the economy in Iran hijacked this conversation. As a response the Iranian state carved out an opportunity demonstrate its legitimacy. The Iranian media for a few days now is regularly broadcasting images of pro-state processions in Iran to counter US rhetoric, which in turn divides the people of Iran further into pro- and anti-state groups. The result has effectively put an end to what had started as a promise of change.
Inshah Malik is a Kashmiri scholar, writer and poet based in Iran. Her forthcoming book on Muslim women, agency and resistance will be published later this year by Palgrave Macmillan. You can follow her on Twitter at @InshahMalik.
Photo credit: Kyodo News/AP via The Intercept.