Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Behind the Protest Scenes
Within hours of the Iranian opposition clashing with police and militiamen on the Tehran streets, the municipal cleaners emerge to wipe away the blood and other signs of unrest.
They sweep away the broken glass and clean up the trash that the demonstrators burn to counter the effects of tear gas, so that the city can get back to normal.
To make their lives easy, the city authorities have replaced plastic trash cans across with metal ones. These do not burn but protesters have learned to use them as war drums.
Then the people get back to their daily lives – but, for many, life has changed irrevocably since the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on June 12 last year, which sparked the protests of the Green Movement.
The latest clashes on February 11 were minor compared to what happened last year as this time the authorities swamped the streets with police and made life difficult for would-be protesters in numerous ways.
After the protests, some people have to go looking for their missing relatives and friends in hospitals, police stations, Evin Prison, the Revolution Courts, and, sadly, cemeteries such as Tehran’s Behesht-e Zahra.
Doctors and nurses who have secretly set up clinics in their homes must use their free time to tend to those injured in the protests.
People seem to talk much more in shared taxis and buses in the days after the protests. “People want to deal with the psychological damage caused by repression by talking. This is a form of unofficial public mourning,” a psychologist said
Government employees go to work as usual and those with better access to the internet use the opportunity to disseminate opposition statements and news and publish confidential government-issued directives online.
At a time when the government has banned opposition newspapers and journalists have been locked up, reporting the news has become a duty for all citizens. Anyone with access to news spreads it to people they trust.
One is Mina, a blogger and a member of Balatarin, a popular Iranian website that allows people to alert others to web content and comment about it.
“I don’t have a specific time to do this. I usually look for news and help spread it, at work, in the cab or bus, or when I'm doing the shopping,” she said.
Mina says she stumbled upon the identity of one of the victims of bloody protests last December when she heard two schoolgirls talking about them on the bus. She got the address from the girls and went straight there, took a picture of the dead person’s death announcement and uploaded it onto the internet.
Some women use the official requirement to cover their hair with the hijab as a way to avoid being easily identified in protests but flout the rules on other days. Some wear shorter coats and this winter sport colourful hats instead of the headscarf. The morality police are once again out on the streets, forcing youngsters to play hide and seek with them.
Talk invariably turns to politics at the night-time parties where alcohol is consumed. These take place frequently despite the fear of police raids.
Politics, for many, is taking the place of soccer as the most important topic of conversation. Fans of the popular Tehran rivals Esteqlal and Persepolis– the Blues and the Reds – argue less these days , many preferring to wear green.
While cinemas are often crowded, the state-sponsored Fajr International Film Festival that ended on February 3 did not attract much interest as people tend to avoid any event that would give credit to the government.
Participating in public protests has led to the forging of new friendships and small opposition groups have formed that have designated responsibilities; this in turn has changed social behaviour.
The mothers of post-election detainees hold frequent gatherings to offer each other support.
Nastaran, a woman with tattooed eyebrows, dyed blond hair and manicured nails, is a member of such a group. Her son was arrested in December but she is not a political animal and does not know the names of the opposition leaders.
Next to her sits Masoumeh, who comes from the poor Khaniabad-e-Nou district of Tehran. Masoumeh is illiterate, but each time she visits her son in prison, she learns the phone numbers of some of the detainees so that she can inform their families that they are in jail.
Another one of the mothers smuggled out a condolence message from political prisoners to opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi after the assassination of his nephew on December 27.
Mousavi said in a statement recently, “We must have hope that this struggle will engage the collective conscience of society in a manner that confronting it would be impossible for any government.”
Reflecting this aspiration, it appears that the Green Movement has gradually started entering the daily lives of citizens.
Fereshteh lives in impoverished southern Tehran. She is not a member of any political party or organisation but she and her friends have formed a small charity to help the families that have had a relative arrested over the past eight months.
“I first had this idea when our neighbour’s son, who is the breadwinner of a poor family, was arrested,” she said.
They have contacted the families of 15 prisoners and either stepped in to help or referred them to other charity organisations.
Alireza, who is an engineer, sprays green graffiti on walls and traffic signs under cover of darkness. He smiles and says that he and his accomplices get on their bikes almost every night to carry out their mission. A group of his friends supplies the green spray cans.
Now, the government has banned selling green spray paint but it is still easy to find.
Alireza’s mother, who cannot take part in protests, writes the opposition slogans on banknotes that have frustrated the Ahmadinejad administration. The Central Bank of Iran, CBI, had announced that as of January 7, 2010, defaced rial bills would be worthless.
In practice, however, they are still widely accepted and CBI governor Mahmoud Bahmani was forced to announce in late January that the deadline for exchanging such bills would be open-ended.
Up until the presidential election in June, sociologists talked of a “crisis of trust” in the country; it now appears that Iranian society is coming together in the face of the regime’s intransigence.
On protest days, many people leave their doors open for demonstrators running from the police and security forces.
Azar, an opposition political activist, says she and her friends “feel lonely between two protests” so they have decided to meet up at least once a week.
“At these gatherings we talk about the news, our fears and even funny things that happened to us during protests and most importantly we give each other hope,” Azar said.
While there are no accurate figures for the number of Green Movement supporters, many of them are clearly able to remain active and motivated despite the tight security measures taken by the government and the warnings and threats that emerge on a daily basis.
That may yet allow the movement to step up the pressure on Ahmadinejad’s regime despite the failure of February 11.
A professor of political science at Tehran University says there is huge underlying support for the opposition that has not manifested itself.
“The Green Movement is like an iceberg. Only ten per cent is visible during the demonstrations, while the other 90 per cent that one cannot see just go about their daily lives," he said.
Yasaman Baji is the pseudonym of an Iranian Journalist based in Tehran.
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