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Water-Gun Fight Backfires

by CORRESPONDENT in Tehran

08 Aug 2011 22:57Comments

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More like a wet-hejab contest.

[ analysis ] Mixed-gender groups of young people in Tehran and, more recently, Bandar Abbas are raising the ire of Islamic hardliners by using Facebook to stage public water fights and other playful events before and during the Holy Month. On August 6, police made several arrests at a public park in Bandar Abbas when several hundred people attempted to cool one another off with plastic water guns. One week earlier, a similar event drew around 800 participants to the Water and Fire Park in north Tehran and lasted four hours before authorities intervened. Organized via Facebook and text message, the events are purportedly indicative of a new trend among Iran's urban youth: Using social networking sites to organize public happenings featuring paintball, bubbles, and other novelties.

Although such controversial gatherings are a popular form of dissent elsewhere in the world, these recent events are unlikely to garner any legitimate political following in Iran, both because of their clash with traditional values and a lack of political awareness among participants.

Bubble blowing, pillow fights, and other such seemingly innocuous public performances have long been a staple in the repertoire of opposition youth in authoritarian regimes outside of the Middle East. In Belarus, a former Soviet republic often referred to as "Europe's last dictatorship," young activists regularly stage creative flash mobs to project a powerful message while avoiding serious political persecution. When a thousand people gather in a main square in Minsk to collectively eat ice cream or participate in a pillow fight reenactment of a historic battle, it lets observers both inside and outside the country know that they are dealing with a highly organized movement. Government attempts to quash these public gatherings create bad PR for the authorities, who inevitably get captured on camera phones while harassing defenseless students apparently just out for a bit of fun.

But in the conservative social environment of Iran, having fun in public does not send out a positive message to the conservative parts of the population. Among pious Muslims, the sight of young men and women brazenly spraying each other with expensive, oversized toy guns during Ramadan is likely to elicit more bile than sympathy, no matter how disgruntled they are with politics or the economy. The government is well aware of this, and likely to use the opportunity to deal yet another blow to the already incapacitated opposition. Indeed, some of the participants detained in Tehran have been forced to confess on state television that the water fight was sexual and political in nature. From here, it is easy for the authorities to present the gathering as a calculated attack on Islamic values committed by the Green Movement, whose followers will consequently do their utmost to distance themselves from it. "They make it so easy for the government to attack it as a sexually motivated event," said one opposition artist. "If they just want to go out and play, that's their right, but for a political gathering, it's not a good idea, especially during Ramadan."

Ironically, the group that is least likely to view the water fights in a political light are the participants themselves, perhaps with the exception of the anonymous organizers. Contrary to the statements of those arrested, most of those gun-wielding Tehranis splashing around in the Water and Fire Park appeared to be more interested in blowing off some summer steam than voicing any political conviction beyond the rebellious nature of their young age. However, this has likely changed with the overzealous government reaction: After the Tehran water fight, the Facebook site used to organize the event, Gand Keshan, was forcibly shut down. Another, apparently fake page called Gand Keshan II has since surfaced, drawing both real and government-synthesized users into a vicious debate over political goals.

Intentionally or not, those who organized the water fight have become the subjects of political scrutiny both inside and outside the country. While the ostensibly "un-Islamic" nature of the event plays into the hands of government propagandists, it also reveals just how paranoid Iran's authorities are about Facebook-organized public gatherings. Moreover, the fact that this type of organization is still possible should be a positive reinforcement for opposition leaders with more nuanced views of contentious politics in Iran. Those guys definitely need to have more fun.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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