When news broke of large protests in Iran following the announcement of election results in June of this year, Western viewers anticipated a revolution to echo the deposition of the Shah in 1979. This was perhaps a logical scenario to expect from outside the country; Iranians had rebelled against oppression once, so they surely would again. Yet, within Iran’s borders, a belief in neat solutions and simple divisions is difficult to maintain. Those who oppose Ahmadinejad continue to live their day-to-day life in a country about which they feel compelling passion and unending frustration. There is, particularly for young people, constant conflict between politics and everyday life, public and private, personal and collective.
The protests that accompanied last week’s anniversary of the occupation of the American Embassy in Tehran illustrated the continuing fervour of two sides in Iranian politics. Until that day, the pro-Mousavi "green" movement had last shown their faces on Qods Day in September. Despite the peaks and troughs of a physical presence on the streets, restlessness persists among the greens.
During my travels through the country last month, I was approached by English speaking teachers, students and tourism operators who were eager to express their differences with the current government. Many young Iranians who come into contact with Westerners see it as a chance to show a wide audience that support for the current regime is by no means comprehensive.
In a café in Tehran, a student who had protested alongside his peers in the post-election protests spoke about the movement with a mixture of nostalgia and resignation. He confessed that recently he couldn’t bring himself to check his email because the political debate was so intense and overwhelming; a result of the combination of extreme passion and fading hope as sentences were handed down to protesters and reports of violent retaliation circulated.
He had lived overseas and been lucky enough to gain citizenship in a safe Western country, yet escape had not been a simple matter of visas. Overseas, he had felt isolated, misunderstood and far away from his family. Despite having an easy option to withdraw from the political confusion, these days he prioritised his family ties in Iran and sought a sense of freedom through his activism. As he understood it, his decision to engage with Iran and all its problems would not necessarily bring benefits in his lifetime, and even at the age of 27, he seemed resigned about this. "A lot of my friends are starting to study education," he said. "Maybe change will come if we engage with the next generation."
In the 2007 film Persepolis,
Marjane Satrapi remembers her life as a teenager living under the newly
established Islamic regime. Despite the hope brought by the revolution,
"Marji" and her family are disappointed by the increasing restrictions
imposed by the regime and the young woman shows her rebellion in small
but significant ways. Fearing for her safety, her parents encourage her
to study in Vienna, Austria, but her migration brings loneliness,
isolation and ultimately, depression. Unable to relate to the
superficiality of her adopted society and made to feel ashamed of being
Iranian, she returns to Iran.
On a plane between Shiraz and Tehran, I sat next to a young teacher who immediately began a light-hearted conversation about travel and where I was from. It didn’t take long for the conversation to steer towards politics, and waving around her mobile phone complete with Mousavi as a background photo, she talked openly about her own struggle between fight and flight.
For her, the experience of joining the "greens" had been overwhelmingly positive and she described the Qods day march as "beautiful". "It was such a nice feeling", she said, for the political and the personal to be brought together in a way that is often not allowed in Iran. For many young Tehranis, privacy might provide the opportunity to remove the headscarf, gather with friends, and listen to music. During the protests, however, the private world had been brought out into the open and friends were able to openly declare their hopes and appear in public with like-minded people.
The teacher ventured that it was fateful we had met — she and her husband had been applying for citizenship in Australia. But despite various concerted attempts to move out of Iran to other countries without success, her involvement with the protests had nurtured conflicting feelings about leaving the country, because, as she put it, "if all of the people who think differently leave, there’ll never be any change". Her point was significant in a country where the International Monetary Fund has estimated around 150,000 people leave to pursue professional and educational opportunities abroad each year.
In Persepolis, although Marji’s time abroad brings isolation, her return does not provide resolution. She realises the country has become more restrictive in her absence. In a perfect metaphor for the confusing intersection of the personal and the political, her feelings of depression about the state of politics are misdiagnosed as a nervous breakdown. Unfortunately a simple diagnosis can’t resolve this very complex dilemma, for Marji or for the many young Iranians still facing it.
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