FRONTLINE: Tehran Bureau: Metro-Sexual | PBS
by MOHAMMAD KHIABANI in Tehran
The Ease of Being Metro-Sexual in Tehran’s Underground.
[ dispatch ] The cellphone has become the ultimate arbiter of social class in Iran, replacing the car. A majority of Iranians do not own a car, but a majority of Iranians do own a personal cellphone, which makes the all important pursuit of conspicuous consumption in the Islamic Republic much easier than before. As much as Iranians complain about their perceived backwardness, the entry of cheap East Asian cellphones into the Iran market over the last few years has put them on the vanguard of new forms of social communication — one of which is probably not seen too much in the West. I am referring here to the phenomenon of Bluetooth “sexting.” (If you are an easily offended diaspora Iranian pining in nostalgia for the homeland, please click away now.)
Cellphones became the conduit in the late Khatami period for a favorite pastime in Iran — telling jokes. As in any country with a heavy-handed state, political jokes tended to be most common, followed only by the usual comic fare of the world: ethnic jokes (A Turk, a Lur, and a Kurd walk into a mosque…). Soviet jokes were eagerly collected by U.S. intelligence, as were GDR jokes by the West Germans, and the confidential compilations of these were handed to bemused diplomats of the West on a regular basis because of their insight into life under “actually existing socialism.” During what we might call Iran’s “Brezhnev” era — the apathetic times of the post-Khatami years that hopefully came to an end in 2009 — you could not leave your cellphone on without getting sent a joke as part of some form of mass SMS mailing. When President Ahmadinejad visited Baghdad, he returned and declared that he narrowly missed kidnapping by the West’s dark machinations. A cellphone joke told me forthwith that this had occurred because the West was trying to capture the “most handsome man in the world.”
Heavy-handed as it tends to be, the Iranian government began sending “friendly” messages to cellphone users a few years back, some benign but others not so much. This is a practice which continues to this day; I heard a story that one individual who attempted to send out an SMS from the protest area of Tehran during the November 4 protests returned home and received an SMS from the government warning not to take part in such disobedience again. Iranians are therefore much more wary of what they send to each other over government-affiliated satellites. Given that a Revolutionary Guard-linked conglomerate will soon be managing (or perhaps mangling) Iran’s telecommunications, I doubt that Iranians will feel at ease communicating over any form of cellphone medium for some time. Except for one, at least.
Most new phones in Iran, even the one I recently bought for around 80 dollars, come with Bluetooth wireless protocol. Like on your computer, where a mouse or a keyboard can connect wirelessly to your monitor with Bluetooth, two cellphones can also send information to each other using this method. However, because Bluetooth turns your phone into a small digital wireless transmitter, no satellites are required. Instead, one can “hunt” for nearby cellphones who also have enabled their Bluetooth to receive wireless information. The maximum range is around 20-50 meters, and connections between two phones are secure and cannot easily be intercepted… which means that some naughty things are bound to happen on them.
I had heard that Bluetooth was being used to send sexually related matter from phone to phone in the Tehran metro. This seems a highly innovative thing to do, since the metro is crowded with hundreds of people in peak hours, and males and females are mostly separated into separate train cars. Therefore sex messaging is as anonymous as one wants it to be. Given that everyone on the metro is constantly poking at their cellphones, one could never know who was the source of an erotic “sext.” Solely in the name of science, one day I decided to turn on my Bluetooth and see what happened on my daily metro trip.
I don’t think I had even given my phone a “male” name before I was solicited to “receive data” from a certain Maryam. I agreed, and downloaded a picture of a sparkly neon letter “M.” Cute, I thought. Maybe this sexting talk was just another tall tale of ribald and Bacchanalian Tehrani youth. A few minutes later, though, some other solicitor asked permission to send a package. This time, it was a photoshopped picture of a buxom Iranian woman’s face, in the passenger seat of an SUV, with her hejab still on, pouting her lips at the camera and superimposed text exclamating that I should call her for a good time. I do not think the number on the picture was the number of the phone that sent me the message; it was more likely the Iranian equivalent of the bathroom stall limerick above your ex-girlfriend’s number scrawled with a pen knife.
This all seemed harmless enough. I put off science for a few weeks until I again became curious if it was that easy to get metro-sexted. In a rush hour train, with sack-hauling workaday types squeezing me into a cranny (the metro service has been worsening lately due to underfunding by the government), I turned my Bluetooth back on. Soon thereafter my phone was asking me if I wanted to download a hefty file. I agreed, and some four megabytes of data began to transfer into my phone from an unknown person on the Tehran Blue Line. After the crowd had thinned, I found a seat and decided to peek at my new sext. A very amateur video of a woman giving oral sex in an Iranian car backseat — with audio — began to play over my phone. Luckily the mullah next to me had got off at the previous stop.
It turned out to be a four-minute video of somewhat consensual sex in a variety of positions between Iranian teenagers. This kind of amateur video is all over the internet — and Iranians are again no slouches here either. Should it be surprising, and does it even matter, that this is happening here in the Islamic Republic?
Before the events of 2009, many thought that this form of libidinal expression was very important, in a political sense. I think it is important, but for other reasons. Pornography in Iran, like in most places, tends to end up as sex education before it actually gratifies any teenage urges. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone into an internet café in Iran and caught groups of young men watching pornography together. The fact that ill-informed youth have to do this is not really just the fault of the Islamic Republic, which is much more forward-thinking on sex education and contraceptive use during marriage, for instance, than its neighbors. Sexual taboos, ingrained during upbringing, affirmed during schooling, and upheld by parents and extended family, all contribute to a fair amount of what used to be called “hang-ups.” These are then most forcefully pressed onto one’s thinking by the very person himself or herself, creating untold amounts of stress in a society where social expectations are quite strong. This is especially the case for Iranian women, who face double social standards not just from the law, but from patriarchal social relations that originated long before the Islamic Republic was a twinkling in Ayatollah Khomeini’s eye. Iranian men can more easily break the same taboos (pre-marital sex, multiple partners, sex that involves play other than traditional intercourse) that they will enforce on their sisters and female sexual partners.
As I wrote before, the tendency of a fair amount of popular and even scholarly books on Iran before 2009 was to portray sexual emancipation in Iran as a pathway to political emancipation. But is Bluetooth sexting and self-made Iranian pornography a revolutionary act? Only if it is a revolutionary act in about 90% of the world (Is sexting in Kenya a revolutionary act? As in Iran, Kenya also outlaws homosexuality as well as most of sub-Saharan Africa). More often it is a form of generational revolution, not against a state dictator but against the parental dictator. Given that there have been bold and courageous feminist activists in Iran who publicly call for reforms of the Islamic Republic’s discriminatory legal system, and suffer the consequences, one needs to be careful not to read into every “anti-social” behavior the seed of resistance. I am not sure if my Bluetooth adventures can be counted as a “weapon of the weak” against the IRI.
Someone running an S&M dungeon in Iran in 1983 should be hailed as a revolutionary (reading de Sade instead of Lolita?). A middle-class Iranian discovering their unknown sexual proclivities for the first time via a cellphone… maybe not. After all, given the wide parental desire to control their adult offspring’s sexual choices in Iran (as elsewhere), I often wonder if, deep down, many Iranian fathers actually like the Islamic Republic’s “fashion police” — in Persian, gasht-e ershad — for acting in loco parentis in the urban metropolis.
However, history has thankfully resolved this question for us. Since the early months of 2009, we have seen what resistance to the current incarnation of the Islamic Republic really looks like. There is no debate over whether the movement to free political prisoners, challenge the June election results, and make the IRI live up to its constitution-given rights, is political or not. In fact, the gasht-e ershad has been surprisingly out of sight since the elections. If the arrow of resistance has gone in any direction, it was the other way around: only once political protest occurs does the government back down on other forms of social control, hoping not to provoke more street protests. The “sext” is more easily assimilated than the fist. Hopefully the two will not be mistaken for each other again.
Photos: Flickr/Aidin Mohammadi, Lobustemporalis (top), and Niosha (homepage)