“We cannot close the gates of the world for the younger generation.” A quote from President Hassan Rouhani in a speech broadcast on Monday, directed at hardliners opposing the renewal of licenses and expansion of the Iran’s 3G cellular phone network. Rouhani, who has been calling for an open internet atmosphere in Iran since his election, has denied claims by a prominent cleric that a high-speed mobile internet is “immoral” and “un-Islamic”. He used this address to urge religious leaders not to “close the gates to the world” by refusing Iran the same opportunities in technology, stressing its importance for the youth of Iran. According to Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, a 3G internet service goes against “religion, morality and humanity” as it allows the opportunity for Iranian people to be exposed to “immoral” content and open paths for “spying”. As it stands only certain companies have been issued with 3G licences and a limited number of citizens with access to mobile broadband. Rouhani continued “If we do not move towards the new generation of mobile today and resist it, we will have to do it tomorrow. If not, the day after tomorrow.” More detailed information about the dispute can be found on Asharq Al-Awsat’s article. This is not the first time Rouhani’s stance about the internet has been disputed: last year Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, the head of Iran’s judiciary, suggested that Rouhani was ignorant of the internet’s dangers thus deepening the tensions between the Rouhani regime and hardliner clerics. Larijani, in response to Rouhani’s claims that the internet needs to be seen as an opportunity and not a threat, said “Those who do not agree with the poison of the internet, do not know cyberspace”. Although the comments made by Rouhani are vital at this point in time, as the BBC Middle East analyst Sebastian Usher states, it will be unclear if they will carry any real weight.
Access to the internet has been an issue in Iran for a number of years. In 2013 an independent study demonstrated that the Iranian authorities use the lower internet speed in order to “frustrate users and limit communication”. They use the example of Iranian elections, Internet traffic and speeds dropped significantly in the days following the 2009 Iranian presidential election and in the weeks leading up to the 2013 election.
Since the 2009 protests against the re-election of hard-line former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Iran has increased its heavy restrictions on social media networks that were used by the opposition in Iran. These social networks include Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have been banned in Iran, yet as many have noted, the Iranian authorities have been unable to contain the emergence of new social networks and their use in Iran. According to the Culture Minister, Ali Jannati, there are currently 4 million Iranians who access sites, such as Facebook, using proxies. Iran is one of the best examples that highlight that the more restrictions you place on the population, the more creative they become at sidestepping the barriers set against them. This defence of communication platforms also includes efforts by the Rouhani administration to allow access to communication services. Earlier in the year Rouhani successfully vetoed the proposed ban on the Whatsapp messaging app. As Zachary Davies Boren notes “The Rouhani administration is exasperated with the attempts of Iran’s powerful religious conservatives to ban, block and censor websites and even internet providers.” Boren also highlights that this has not been the first time this debate has surfaced. In 2013 Ayatollah Shirazi, and three other clerics, had issued a fatwa against RightTel which is a 3G provider in Iran, based on their accusations of corruption, and enabling Iranians to access pornography. Whether Rouhani’s defence of the expansion of 3G services in Iran will be successful will become clear soon.
However, the hardliners in Iran are again directing their attentions to the suppression of women’s empowerment too. This week it was announced that the newly launched women’s monthly magazine “Zanan-e Emruz,”, headed by prominent editor Shahla Sherkat, has been under attack for promoting un-Islamic and “obsolete” feminist views. It has been reported that Sherkat will be put on trial by Iran’s Press Court on September 7, 2014. This may indicate that the magazine may be shut down. “Zanan”, the former magazine Sherkat was the editor of, was shut down in 2008 for creating “a somber picture of the Islamic republic” and publishing information that they found morally questionable. Golnaz Esfandiari provides and interesting and thought provoking analysis of this and the implications for women’s rights in Iran.
This damper for women’s voices and rights is again highlighted in the recent declaration by the Islamic Republic Police Chief Khalil Helali, that women will be able to obtain a licence to run coffee shops but will need to hire male staff as the presence of women in a coffee shop is prohibited, regardless of whether they have a licence or not. This has however been challenged as these statements have no legal basis. In the Peyvand news website Legal expert Nemat Ahmadi is quoted as saying: “The constitution as the highest legal document of the state prohibits any form of gender discrimination, and under labour legislation, women are only prevented from performing harsh and unendurable work.”