Iran Uncensored: Internet and Youth Politics in an Islamic Republic

Under one of the most culturally suppressive governments in the world, Iranians find themselves in a challenging position. Between the explosive growth of youth demographics and the increased connectivity to the internet and mobile technology, Iran finds itself torn between traditionalist Islam and 21st century secularism. However, it is the youth themselves who are finding creative ways to protest the status quo using the very technology that is changing the worldview of Iran.

Image by Andy Thies

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 changed the world forever. It “introduced a new ideology and redefined the world’s political spectrum”, which makes it, strictly from a political perspective, one of the three most significant revolutions of the Modern Age. After its 1979 revolution, the second largest country in the Middle East (both by landmass and population) officially became known as the Islamic Republic of Iran and the first nation to officially adopt a government that combines Islam and democracy. Since the revolution, Iran has been ground zero for conflicts between strong cultural forces: ideologues vs realists, conservative Islam vs genuine representative government. This presents a very controversial question at the heart of modern Iran: “Is the Islamic Republic of Iran first and foremost Islamic, or a republic?” Recently, expectations for how Iran will answer that question have begun to change, due mostly to the groundswell of young, educated, and tech savvy Iranians shaping their nation. The future of Iran, and even the Middle East may hang in the balance.

In recent decades, Iran has become wealthier due to massive oil and gas reserves resulting in a more urbanized, educated, and internet/mobile-oriented society. Over that time, Iran has also experienced a sustained period of significant population growth. In 1980, Iran had an estimated population of 39 million people. Today, Iran is home to an estimated 70 million people. All that population growth in such a short time led to an Iranian population that is disproportionately young. According to recent estimates from The Iran Primer, over 60% of Iran’s population is under 30 years old.

Even younger and more liberal is Tehran, Iran’s capital and primate city. Home to over 8.5 million people (14-16 million in the metropolitan area), Tehran is one of the largest cities in the world (exceeding even that of Istanbul, London, and Los Angeles). Outwardly, Tehran is the conservative capital of an Islamic republic. Like a western haircut tucked beneath a hijab, though, Tehran is a complicated mix of traditional Islam and modern day globalization.

Infographic by Jesse Howe and Andy Thies

The progressive element is especially strong with the youngest generation of Iranians. In general, Iranian youth can be characterized as the nation’s best educated and worldliest generation since the revolution. Due in large part to their widespread use of internet and mobile phones, they’ve been able to overcome strict sanctions against international media and news. The combination of education and access to global media leads many experts to believe that the youngest Iranians are in favor of seeing their country take steps towards a more globalized and progressive society, but this desire is not widely held by older generations.

Adding to the perceived generational disconnect, Iranian youths are chronically underemployed, despite an enhanced education. Generally, the economy of Iran hasn’t been able to accommodate the sudden influx of young, university educated citizens, leading to a series of frustrating obstacles for young citizens. A lack of jobs means many can’t afford to move out, leaving twenty-somethings no option but to keep living with their parents. Without the independence of a place of their own, and with public interaction between different sexes strictly controlled, being young and single is difficult. Iran’s future will be written by the youth, and the youth are frustrated by a lack of freedom.

Within the privacy of the internet, however, this discontented youth bloc is very well connected to each other through social networks and mobile phones. The combination of a dissatisfied and well connected youth population has shown its potential to create change in Iran. Two recent examples are worth mentioning. First, in a traditional sense, the youth are a political force. Voters under 35 currently constitute nearly half of the electorate, and young Iranians are known for being among the most politically active young segments in the Islamic world.  In the most recent Iranian elections, held on February 26th 2016, the youth were largely responsible for electing a plurality of Iranian Reformists, the party most supportive of freedom and democracy. Without internet and mobile phones, the youth probably don’t have the organization to achieve such a feat.

There is power in numbers outside of the ballot box as well. Crowdsourcing, the process of using large numbers of people (rather than traditional employees) to generate content, is already being used to help people do everything from avoid traffic to find a clean toilet. In Iran, crowdsourcing is helping young Iranians walk around the streets of Tehran without being harassed or arrested for their behavior or attire. A new app called Gershad uses crowdsourced data to share the location of Tehran’s Gasht-e Ershad, commonly referred to in English as “morality police”. Ershad officers exist to enforce Iran’s strict religious-based decency laws that generally restrict interactions between opposite sexes and limit what can be worn in public. Women are especially likely to be stopped and harassed by the officers. Most violations only result in minor punishments like lectures or fines, but allegations of abuse are well known.

Screenshots from Gershad app

The Gershad app is easy to use. Whenever a user sights an Ershad officer, they report it in the app. After enough sightings, the app places a georeferenced warning on the map, and informing users what intersections to avoid. If sightings stop being reported for a given location, the icon will fade away.

In Iran, where internet freedom is next to last in the entire world, an app as openly disobedient as Gershad is not politically tolerated. The app’s site was blocked in Iran immediately after launch.  However, Gershad’s developers have managed to stay anonymous thus far, which they feel they must do to avoid punishment. Gershad users also fear that the government may use the technology against itself by flooding the app with false sightings, thus confusing users and making the app effectively useless.

Despite sanctions, Gershad has been downloaded by tens of thousands of users and has over a thousand 5-star reviews on the Google Play Store. Those numbers could grow exponentially, since Gershad could be translated for use by other populations in countries with similar police. If, or when, an app like Gershad does appear in Saudi Arabia, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise anymore. Mobile phones and internet access are credited with helping make possible the Arab Spring activities in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Across the Middle East and the greater Islamic world, political organizing and civil disobedience has found a home on the internet and the youth that dominate it.

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