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Iran's War On Fun

Iranian police display alcohol after breaking up illicit parties and making arrests in Tehran in October 2010
Iranian police display alcohol after breaking up illicit parties and making arrests in Tehran in October 2010
A woman in the Iranian city of Mashhad has become the latest victim of Iran's longest-standing and most unconventional war -- the war against fun.
The young woman, whose name and age has not been disclosed, jumped to her death over the weekend of September 24-25 from the sixth floor of a building. The apparent reason? -- escape from a raid being conducted by security forces against a mixed-gender party she was attending. Fun mixed with fear of arrest and charges proved to be a deadly cocktail.
Hadi Ghaemi from the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran believes Iranian authorities are to blame for her death. "These raids by security forces and police to people's homes are clear human rights violations and attacks into people's private lives," he says.
Sadly, the Mashhad woman's fate is not unique.
Precise figures are unavailable, but Ghaemi says there have been numerous cases of young people who have been killed while trying to escape police forces at party raids.
Lashed For Mingling
There's also been scores of Iranians who have been detained, fined, and lashed because of their appearance, for attending parties, for mingling with members of the opposite sex, for drinking alcohol, for participating in water-gun fights, or other activities that are being taken for granted in many other countries.
It is part of the war against fun being waged by the authorities since the establishment of the Islamic republic some 32 years ago. Religion is most often cited as the main reason for the repressive measures. Some observers, however, say the crackdown has more to do with the authoritarian nature of the clerical establishment.
Asef Bayat, a professor of sociology and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Illinois, says fun allows individuals to break free from the everyday discipline of life and from structures of power.
Having fun, Bayat says, offers temporary liberation and an outlet for individuality and spontaneity -- and this is something that authoritarian regimes don't like. "They feel that fun somewhat diminishes individuals' discipline and obligations to the big cause; the cause that, by and large, is defined by the regime," he says.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic, made clear that in his eyes fun was not compatible with Islam.
"There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humor in Islam. There is no fun in Islam," Khomeini, who never laughed or smiled in public, was once quoted as saying. "There can be no fun and joy in whatever is serious."
Authorities have since worked hard to banish laughter, playfulness, or other such behavior from public life through warnings, but also through punishments.
Laughter has been described as disrespectful to the values of the revolution and the blood of the martyrs. In its place, somber moods, mourning, and sadness have become the norm at public appearances and official events.
As Iranian journalist Hossein Kermani explains, state indoctrination against fun starts early in Iran. "We've been told since our childhood, at school, that laughter is bad. We were told it's vulgar and frivolous to laugh. One has to be serious. We were told it has to do with religion," he says.
In September, when young people in Tehran and several other cities engaged in public water fights, they were accused of violating Islamic principles. On social media, participants admitted only to seeking "a bit of fun."
One 18-year-old Iranian, who was jailed last year and fined for having a party where boys and girls were mingling together and dancing, told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that having fun in Iran is often accompanied by a feeling of fear.
"I spent one night in jail for trying to have a good time," he said. "I didn't kill anybody or steal anything. I had just invited friends over."
While in the early years of the revolution those caught drinking or simply enjoying themselves at parties could expect to be lashed, nowadays money can solve the issue. People either pay a fine or bribe officials.
"Things have changed," explained one man who was lashed in the 1980s after being arrested at a party. "If you drink alcohol, for example, you pay money and everything is fine."
Going Underground
As a result of the battle being waged the past three decades, fun has turned into an underground and secretive action. Parties are held in soundproofed homes, or after bribing the police. Those who choose to defy the official ban on alcohol drink at home. There they might listen to banned music and watch banned movies. And there are signs that, despite the obstacles, many young Iranians pay more attention to their physical appearance, fashion, and latest music hits, than values preached by the establishment.
Fun has created a gap between the establishment and masses of people who through the act of fun have --intentionally or unintentionally-- become dissidents.
"Since in Iran everything that is fun is banned and seen negatively, young people, for example my friends and I, quickly realize that whatever they do to have fun, whether they want or not, is an act that goes against the official view."
Professor Bayat says whether having fun is an act of defiance or not doesn't really matter because in both cases it contradicts the ethics of regimes such as the one in Iran.
"In fact these regimes often find fun ethics as a competition that can take away people from their support base," says Bayat. "So, in that way it of course diminishes their power."
Roya Boroumand, executive director at the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation that documents human rights abuses in Iran, believes Iran is waging a war it cannot win.
She says instead of turning into docile citizens who follow the principles dictated by the establishment, Iran's youth have become more eager to break the rules. "Whatever was banned and was supposed not to happen is happening. It demonstrates that Iran's policies have [failed]," Boroumand said.
In one of the latest warnings against potential fun, hard-line Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi said last week that students should spend less time surfing the Internet.
"If a young student surfs the Internet until late in the night and is not looking for 'scientific subjects,' or if he watches movies and forgets his morning prayers, he cannot become a pious man," the cleric was quoted as saying.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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