Saturday, April 10, 2010

Green is the new Green!

The Persian language blogosphere is a rich, varied and dynamic sphere of over 60,000 frequently updated blogs. In 2005, out of the 100 million blogs registered around the world, 700,000 were registered Persian blogs inside Iran and in the diaspora. With over 20 million Iranians connecting to the internet, and over 600,000 Iranians signed up on Facebook by the Presidential elections of the summer of 2009, the Iranian cyber community is by far the most dynamic community in the Middle East, and one that is unambiguously diverse. Of the over 60, 000 Persian language blogs, three quarters may be characterized as non-political in content, interested rather in questions of religion, poetry, and sexuality.

Shortly after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election as president in June 2005, there were clear indications of a campaign for the centralization of state power over traditional media. During the first two years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, more than 100 newspapers and other periodicals were banned. 70% of the press outlets were run by active supporters of Ahmadinejad. It is important to note that what remained of the opposition's news outlets was banned or put under strict surveillance in the aftermath of the June 12th Presidential elections in Iran in 2009. On the eve of the 2009 election, foreign reporters were either imprisoned or expelled from Iran. This, in part led to the rise of online “underground” papers, such as Kalam Sabz ( Green Word) and Khiaban (The Street), and more urgent uses of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and the Iranian social media site:

According to Nasrin Alavi, Gholamhossein Karbaschi, the Vice President for the reformist candidate, Mehdi Karroubi in the Presidential elections of 2009, was the first Iranian on Twitter to call the Presidential elections of June 12th, 2009, a fraud. He was by no means the last. Elham Gheytanchi describes the days following the election:

Immediately after the results of the election were announced showing Ahmadinejad’s “landslide victory”, protesters poured into streets. For three consecutive days, masses of Iranians marched peacefully onto the streets in silence asking one question written on their placards “Where is my Vote?”

As the results of the election were announced, a twitter message from Bandar Abbas, a port city in the south of Iran, read (Raye ma ra dozdidand, bahash darand poz mida) “They have stolen our votes and they are flaunting our stolen votes!”

In an unprecedented move, the political establishment decided to cut all SMS messages, the Internet connections and mobile phones in the week after the election results were announced. The next day, demonstrators in at least 20 different locations in Tehran gathered waving placards that read (Doroghgoo khaen ast va khaen tarsoost va tarsoo sms ghate mikonad) “The Liar is a Traitor and the Traitor is fearful and the fearful cuts the SMS.”

As news and images of the protests on the ground circulated in social media all over the internet: on Flickr, on Twitter, on YouTube and on Facebook, they were channeled back to Iran via satellite, broadcast largely by way of the then popular BBC Persian.

A sense of euphoria and unprecedented freedom had dominated national politics during the presidential campaigns. Iranian state owned television broadcast a series of lively debates among the candidates. This was a first, under the Shi’ih theocracy. During one of the debates, the reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi put on green shawl to highlight his status as a descendant of the prophet Muhammad. A month later, on the days following the election, an all-embracing, spontaneous movement donning green armbands, finger-bands and headbands took to the streets to call Ahmadinejad’s victory a fraud—the color green thus became the symbol of the movement. The opposition was lovingly called the “Sea of Green", the “Green Wave”, or the “Green Movement”.

The silence of the street protesters was broken as the violence of the regime became palpable. Neda Agha Soltan was brutally shot and murdered on Kargar Avenue, at the corner of Khosravi and Salehi streets in Tehran on June 20th, 2009. The YouTube video documenting her death in the midst of a small crowd circulated on Facebook and Twitter immediately. Her name, Neda (“voice” or “calling” in Persian), became the rallying cry for the Iranian opposition.

Outside of Iran, around the globe, images of the spectacular crowds in green and the murder of Neda Agha Soltan captured the hearts of people everywhere. High school students in the U.S. would talk about “Going Iranian” against authority figures. Indeed, as Golbarg Bashi noted in the heat of the summer, “Iranian is the new black”. Hundreds of songs dedicated to Neda in English and in Persian, started circulating on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Her name became a search topic or so-called “hashtag” on Twitter (#Neda). It was the highest ranking hashtag on June 20th, 2009 indicating thousands of posts on the day of her death.

A corollary hashtag, #iranelection, continues to rank on Twitter. It was the highest ranking hashtag for weeks following the elections, dropping only momentarily after the tragic death of Michael Jackson. It ranked high as a search topic on the 30th anniversary of the hostage crisis Nov 4th, 2009 and on the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Republic on February 11th, 2010.

It may come as no surprise, then, that thousands of people on Twitter, put a green overlay on their avatars in solidarity with the Sea of Green in Iran. Many changed their location to Tehran and set their time zone to +03:30 GMT to protect people who were actually tweeting from the ground. This image of a Neda with a green overlay-- a Neda Soltan who was initially mistaken as the murdered Neda Agha-Soltan-- comprises of the many thousands of the green avatars of active Twitter subscribers in the aftermath of the summer elections in Iran. (Neda Soltan is currently seeking asylum in Germany in the wake of the publicity that the misuse of her image attracted.)

The thousands of supporters the Green Movement on Twitter and Facebook became nodal points of information for what was happening on the ground, in the absence of foreign news agencies and independent media in Iran. Many of these supporters continued to help spread the news about various online and in-person campaigns. Others came to the aid of Iranian protesters by identifying safe havens for the wounded on Google maps as word spread that the wounded were being picked up and imprisoned by military forces upon their arrival to hospitals around Tehran.

December 7, 2009, about 6 months after the Presidential election, Majid Tavakoli, a student at Tehran’s Amir Kabir University of technology was arrested after he gave a talk during the student protests. A photograph of him in a hijab (full Islamic veil) was published by official news agencies announcing that he had attempted to flee security forces donned in women’s clothing. Supporters of the Green Wave around the world, saw things differently. Cognizant that this photograph was an attempt to ridicule Majid Tavakoli, by associating his courage with “the weaker sex”, thousands of Iranian men all over the world, donned the hijab and posted their photos on the web, using them as their avatars on social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

In captioning their photos, the men claimed their solidarity with Iranian women who have no choice but to veil under the Islamic regime; they voiced their opposition to the Human Rights violations of Islamic Republic and called for the release of the imprisoned Majid Tavakoli. This global campaign is known as the “The Men’s Scarves Movement” or the “I am Majid” #IAmMajid campaign.

The international campaign eventually went live. A YouTube recording signals its impact elsewhere: A group of Iranian men calling themselves “Majid” pose, donning the hijab in front of the Eiffel tower.

This act of resistance to the violation of Human Rights in Iran had stunning reverberations: French men and women donned the veil in solidarity with the Iranian Men’s Scarves Movement, and in this simple gesture that went viral on the internet, showed their opposition to l'affaire du voile in France.

This is not to say that the effort to bring about civil rights and the fight against the violation of Human Rights in Iran has subsided in anyway, but to suggest that the circulation of the images and sounds of the post-Election period, their going viral on the internet, has had significant consequences for oppositional movements and global collaborations elsewhere.