Battle of the blogs

Internet campaigners for civil liberties and women's rights pay a high price for their "online crime

In September 2001, when the student Salman Jarbar established the first Iranian weblog, no one imagined that blogging would become a social phenomenon in Iran. But over the past seven years blogs have come to fulfil the role of liberal newspapers, civil society organisations and even private gatherings. In 2004 unofficial estimates placed Persian as the fourth most common language in the blogosphere.

When I started blogging I had already been a journalist for 12 years. The criteria for writing for daily newspapers in Iran are very strict: the laws governing our publications, along with our social, cultural and traditional beliefs, impose lines which cannot be crossed without consequences. Political conditions promote self-censorship as well as official censorship.

At first, journalists were extremely guarded about what they wrote, even online. But that soon changed. As official pressure on the print media increased, daily papers were threatened with closure, and the fear of arrest and imprisonment spread among journalists and activists. Blogs have become our major source of news and information.

As elections approach, bloggers promote or oppose participation, criticise candidates, and provide uncensored analysis, reports, articles and satire. Their impact has been so great that many politicians have taken up blogging themselves. In 2003, Seyyed Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a popular reformist cleric and vice-president to President Khatami, became the first political blogger when he launched www.webneveshteha.com, one of the most visited Iranian blogs. In 2006, President Ahmadinejad followed suit with his own blog, www.ahmadinejad.ir, which is translated into English, French and Arabic.

The blogosphere breaks taboos that the Iranian media cannot. The subject of women is one of the most important: now young women have started to write freely on the internet about themselves: their bodies, their sexual relationships, their hopes and wishes, and their criticisms of the patriarchal norms of Iranian society.

Taboos concerning human rights have also been broken. I have used my blog to openly discuss issues such as stoning and the execution of women and minors, areas rarely covered by even the most daring of reformist publications. But these posts have put me in danger. On 12 June 2006, I met other women's rights activists in one of the main squares in Tehran to protest against legal discrimination against women. The protest was arranged online, because no print publication or other official media outlet was willing to publicise it. The demonstration ended in the arrest of more than 70 people and five activists were charged with organising it.

On the day of their court hearing, several of us went to the revolutionary courts in support of the five women on trial. But our peaceful presence in front of the courthouse was not tolerated and we were violently attacked by police, arrested and taken to prison. Along with 32 other activists, I spent four days in prison. We were released on 8 March 2007, International Women's Day, but were charged with actions against national security. Some of us received prison sentences.

On the day that I was interrogated in prison, sitting blindfolded across from my interrogator, I could still see the stacks of papers on his desk that comprised the case against me. Some of the papers were printed entries from my blog.

But women activists still band together on collective blogs such as the One Million Signatures Campaign (www. change4equality.net/english), which seeks to secure equal rights in marriage and inheritance, an end to polygamy, and stricter punishments for honour killings and other forms of violence. In August a coalition of activists opposing the Family Protection Bill - which advocates limits to women's rights such as allowing men to take a second wife without the consent of the first - took shape. Their only means of contact was an internet mailing list.

Online crackdown

The state's backlash against the virtual community started in 2003. Sites and blogs that clashed with official state policies were blocked, but censorship then expanded to cover blogs with the term "woman" or "gender" in the title. Even professional medical sites that provided information on reproductive health were affected. The crackdown continued, and in February 2005 several bloggers were arrested, including Arash Sigarchi and Mojtaba Saminejad, both of whom had criticised government policies online. The "Case of the Bloggers" attracted widespread international criticism.

Since Ahmadinejad's election in 2005, the pressure on journalists and campaigners has increased. The new government viewed civil society as a means through which the enemy worked to influence Iranian society. The ministry of the interior approved regulations imposing controls on internet publications, although, because of technical difficulties, they have yet to be implemented. And in July the government began to consider a bill against "online crimes". Parliament is yet to vote on the bill, but if it is approved, bloggers and webmasters found guilty of "promoting corruption, prostitution and apostasy" may find themselves facing the death sentence.

Asieh Amini is a journalist and civil rights activist who blogs (in Farsi) at: http://www.varesh.blogfa.com

A president writes...

“Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – The Official Blog, Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran”

  • I have been thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of bureaucracy for some time now.
    21 November 2006
  • The behavior of US government concerning the people of other nations is very supercilious and slighting.
    28 November 2006
  • Since my last post on the blog, a few months have passed. But this doesn't mean that I have not been keeping my promise of spending 15 minutes per week on it. As a matter of fact, I have spent more than the allocated time on the blog. The magnitude of the reception and acclamation from the viewers was beyond expectations. I would like to use this opportunity and ask those of you who intend to send me messages through blog, to make it as brief as you can. Thank you.
    18 November 2007
  • The happiness of an orphan who has achieved his right is preferable to the satisfaction of oppressive and voracious politicians. The political system of the Islamic Republic of Iran is based on this viewpoint.
    1 December 2007

Comments

  • Why would anybody want to listen to you. youre surpressive
    Gary Adamson, UK
  • I find you very intelligent and smart
    Isis Wong, China
  • Cool . . . are these all real comments from real people? Or planted? Anyway, your blogs are somewhat formal sounding. Why not loosen up the language a little for the American readers? Also what kind of music do you like? What is your favorite color?
    D DuBois, US
  • Why dont you answers questions regarding the execution of gay people in Iran straightly?
    J Shore, US
  • Mr President - it will be great if you can tell the person whos maintaining this website not to use ASPx (Windows Technologies = American dictators) There are better Open Source projects
    Hasan Akyol, UK

From http://www.ahmadinejad.ir/en

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Iran

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain