Despite the Iranian government's strict ban on the consumption of Western music, film, television and culture, the Iranian public's thirst for such forms of art and entertainment is unrelenting, and sometimes, the government gives in.
Since the first days after the Islamic Republic of Iran was formed, with Shia leaders replacing the former Iranian monarchy as the country's new leadership, everything "Western" was denounced. Besides its claimed religious mandate to condemn Western culture, the regime sought to rid itself of what it perceived to be a "soft war" of propaganda being waged on its rule. Those early days stood in stark contrast to the Iran that existed not more than a few months, or even a few weeks, before the Islamists reign. A people well into the disco era, mini-skirt wearing women with Farrah Fawcett inspired locks and shaggy haired bell bottom wearing men with Farrah Fawcett crushes, were suddenly thrust into a world that banned everything from Michael Jackson records to blue jeans on the basis of their Western affiliation. Because most, including many who had fought in the revolution for democracy not theocratic oppression, did not evolve of their own free will into this new Iran, Iranians did not accept and continue to reject the limits imposed upon them.
The regime uses a variety of laws to restrict the public's access to unapproved media consumption. Chief among them is the outright ban on all satellite dishes and aggressive Internet censorship (including stern censorship of social media outlets). Both of which are losing battles for the regime.
Satellite dishes, which are smuggled into the country and sold for approximately $200, discretely find themselves into the homes of 65 percent of Tehran residents, and 30-40 percent of residents in other cities. They stream popular and highly illegal programming, such as Risqué Turkish soap operas and Persian music video channels broadcasting from abroad. From time to time, Iran's government engages on a satellite dish rampage. Authorities simply appear at the door steps of ordinary citizens with warrants, ransack their homes and then head to their balconies and roofs to seize satellite dishes. Despite this, the overall statistics regarding satellite dish usage has remained constant or even increased.
As for the regime's Internet censorship, Iran is now known as one of the greatest suppressors of Internet freedom, dubbed by Freedom House as the "least free" country in terms of Internet freedom. Despite this, Iran's crafty youth still find ways to access the forbidden sites. Furthermore, Iran's Internet Service Providers are adept at utilizing censorship circumvention technologies, a fact which may be convincing the regime to join rather than fight Iran's social media craze. For example, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei now has a Twitter handle (@khamenei_ir), and Iran's newest president, Hassan Rouhani, recently posted a selfie of himself in a track suit watching the World Cup in Twitter.
Another method used by the Iranian government to attempt to reduce the consumption of outside media is stern warnings by clerics. But even in this, the Iranian government might be giving in to the weight of the Iranian public's demands, with the Supreme Leader himself recently quoted as praising Westerns music as sometimes "instructive and meaningful."
Significantly, at least some of Iranians consumption of Western media originates from Iran itself. Much was made in the general media in the last several weeks about Iran's new television program, Seven Stones, which is, scene-by-scene and antic-by-antic, a near replica of the American television show Modern Family (absent the gay couple). In light of the international attention paid to the duplicate show, Seyed Kiasari, the vice chairman of the Iranian Parliament's Cultural Supervisory Council, told reporters that the council had met to discuss Seven Stones. The counsel is now considering eliminating the show because of its close modeling on Modern Family, which Kiasari said promotes cultural values inconsistent with those of the Islamic Republic. It begs the question -- what would have been the fate of Seven Stones had there been no international media spotlight shined on the show's duplication of its American equivalent? Given Seven Stones' immediate popularity and the fact that the censors approved it in the first instance, it likely would have aired for its full season and been renewed for many more.
In the end, the will of the Iranian people, a young and educated group thirsty not only for knowledge of the outside world but also desiring entertainment scarcely available within the borders of the regime's oppression, is nothing to be trifled with. The regime must decide what it is willing to risk to continue waging this seemingly losing battle.
Many thanks for your likes, shares, tweets, and thoughtful commentary. Dynamic and respectful conversation is welcomed and appreciated. Yours, Shermin
Shermin Kruse is the author of Butterfly Stitching.