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World In Iran, Walking Your Dog Is A Sign Of Resistance


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
In Iran, walking your dog is a symbol of resistance


After years in hiding, the 500 paces to the neighborhood park took their toll on his unpracticed legs. He lost his breath, and the lamp-lit pavement bordering the grass patch he stood on seemed like the edge of the world. He tried to break into a sprint once or twice. His two companions reacted instantly, dragging him back into the shadows of a cedar bush. There were few pedestrians at this hour, but the two shopkeepers across the street eyed him with open curiosity. There was no sign of the police, and the strangers seemed like-minded enough. Still, neither one of the three could shake their distrust. After several minutes of strained frolicking, he stood still and turned his head, imploring. His companions understood. They snapped a leash back onto his collar.

"Go home, Dani."

Tongue drooping, he led them back past the narrow alley, through the front door and into the four-walled security of home.

Dogs lead a gray life in Iran, where their ownership is technically prohibited by Islamic law yet grows popular among the urban upper class. After ordinances were passed three years ago, those who brought their dogs outside risked having their pet seized by authorities and paying a heavy fine. Though these laws are not always enforced, dog walking has thus became a brazen display of rule breaking, and is one of the phenomenons to look for as Iranians test the waters of public life under the new administration.

Despite the harsh penalties the regime officially imposes on activities deemed seditionist or un-Islamic, many aspects of civic life fall into a no-man's-land whose borders fluctuate with the political tide. The line between "forbidden" and "tolerated" was indistinguishable even under conservative rule, and Iran's recent change of leadership has eroded it even further. Three months after his election victory, President Hassan Rouhani's promises of moderation have created hope, but also thrust society into a state of uncertainty.

On the squares of Tehran, the moral police continue to comb the crowds for violators of the Islamic dress code, and the roads are lined with Basij ready to apprehend evening revelers who stray from the law, as on 10 October in the southern Iranian city of Kermanshah, where they arrested at least 17 members of a "network of homosexuals and satanists" at a private party.

"What happened to 'heroic flexibility'?" one Green Movement supporter joked after spotting the telltale police van of the "Gasht-e-Ershad", the moral police, in north Tehran's Vanak Square. In the eyes of many, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's recent statements supporting moderate diplomatic strategies are not yet being paired with a corresponding relaxation inside the country. Still, the newfound energy following the June election is impetus for pushing the envelope.

At the vanguard of this effort are the newspapers, which are beginning to regain their voice after a decade of systematic muffling. In the latter years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency, repressive policies diminished the press' role in social discourse, causing it to "fall behind society", a local journalist noted. Now, the new administration's attempt at rapprochement with the west is garnering public interest and creating space for freer media coverage. In the days following Rouhani's much-debated speech at the UN General Assembly in New York, pedestrians swarmed around newsstands to read the headlines.

Mainstream dailies like the reformist Shargh and the conservative Kayhan regularly sold out by midday.

"The lead stories are so amazing that we check them every day, when just a few months ago we did not care what they said", said one Tehrani.

However, the media environment is still prohibitive of the type of substantial investigative coverage readers hunger for, indicating the current thaw may be superficial. "It won't last", said the journalist. "If Iran's nuclear issue with the West is resolved and internal politics come back into focus, the conflict between journalism, pro-democracy groups and the government will get worse. All the newspapers are currently taking advantage of the open environment, but even so, they try not to make problems for the authorities."

Editors remain wary of covering elephant-in-the-room issues, such as the opaque economic activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps or the continued detainment of reformist politicians Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the Green Movement leaders who have been under house arrest since 2011. Though the press has more freedom than it has since the disputed 2009 presidential election and the duration of Ahmadinejad's second term in office, the environment is still far from providing the relative openness of the 1997-2005 administration of Mohammad Khatami. After his retreat from the public spotlight and court-ordered travel ban prior to the June election, the voice of Khatami has only recently reappeared on the front pages of papers like Shargh, reminding readers of the relative media openness that disappeared with the end of his presidency.

"It's different from the time of Khatami, when newspapers indirectly criticized Khamenei," the journalist said. "Now, we are moving forward, but our work is limited to analyzing US-Iranian relations and interviewing Khatami."

Nevertheless, the atmosphere is less strained than it was prior to the June election, when publicizing the views of prominent reformists like Khatami would have brought serious consequences for both the subject and the medium, observers noted. One often-mentioned harbinger of liberation is Neshat. The reformist paper is slated to resume printing for the first time since 2005, when it was definitively shut down by the courts following an earlier prosecution in 1999. That year, its publisher and editor-in chief were arrested after printing controversial articles questioning the authority of Khamenei and Iran's death penalty, sparking a clash between the Khatami administration's moderate culture ministry and the conservative judiciary. The recently announced return of Neshat, and its editor-in-chief Mashallah Shamsolvaezin is viewed as a positive signal for the press, tough industry insiders questioned its potential to reach a wide readership base.

"[Neshat] will probably sell well during the first month, but ultimately won't be able to compete with other reformist publications", the journalist said, adding that the newspaper will have trouble investigating the type of critical social issues covered by Persian-language news sources based outside the country.

A more lenient censorship policy has also invigorated the theatre scene, and is palpable at public concerts and on mainstream television channels. Patrons of the performing arts and the cinema have been encouraged by the appointment of Hojatollah Ayoubi, head of Iran's Cinema Organization, to oversee this department at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The ministry's relaxed stance has encouraged creativity, but at official cultural institutions, performers and sets remain closely watched by special committees sensitive to "immoral" gestures or topics. Any overtly controversial statement, costume or sensual move is censored prior to public viewing, and dance is reduced to disjointed pantomime, especially when female performers are involved. Nevertheless, the past year has brought upon a surge in both official and underground cultural activity, including large performances that are often held without much regard for the rules. On 20 October, popular jazz/pop band Dang Show is slated to give a concert at a Shiraz cultural center, though the band's music has never passed through the hands of government censors.

"We live in a country without laws", said Amir, 30, a Tehran-based musician. "Everybody just does whatever they want and sees if they can get away with it."

This opacity is also evident in Iranian cyberspace, nicknamed the "filternet" for its low speed and amenity for limiting access to social networks and any other pages outside the government-approved network of "halal" websites. The short-lived unblocking of banned sites Facebook and Twitter last month has raised confidence in the government's promises to liberate the internet and increase speed, but local IT experts remain skeptical of their implementation. Policymakers are considering an increase in bandwidth and an end to the Telecommunication Company of Iran's monopoly on infrastructure have been debated for years, while Tehran officials announced plans to enlarge the city's fiberoptic network. However, experts noted that internet policy in Iran is overseen by multiple bodies, including the conservative Supreme Council on Cyberspace. As a result, the government's recent overtures have so far had little impact on access or speed.

Even as the new cabinet takes to the social networks to show a new face of Iran to the world, hardliners "argue that...they do not like to see some people from government active on the websites they are blocking," said Nariman Gharib, a UK-based new media expert.

This paradox is also apparent in human rights policy. On the same month that Rouhani pardoned dozens of political prisoners ahead of the UN General Assembly, including prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Soutoudeh, watchdog groups noted that a record number of hangings took place in Iran. At least 125 people were executed since Rouhani's August inauguration, the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran stated in an 8 October report, indicating that "Iran’s Judiciary has not initiated any broad review of domestic policy since Rouhani’s election."

Similarly, Green Movement supporters' hopes for a more lenient policy towards the opposition have been tempered by a 15 October statement by justice ministry spokesman Mohsen Ejai, who refuted speculations that the regime would take steps to free Mousavi and Karroubi from house arrest, or lift Khatami's travel ban.

The effects of such bipolar decision making extend beyond Iran's borders. When well-known satirical writer Ebrahim Nabavi publicly announced his intentions to return to his home country last month after nearly a decade in exile, other members of the diaspora interpreted it a brave tactical move in the standoff between the regime and the opposition. "He's breaking the frontline", a journalist from the BBC's Persian service told Tehran Bureau.

Nabavi is not alone. Many Iranians who left the country during the past ten years are mulling a return, encouraged by Rouhani's promises to improve air travel and rethink the government's approach towards the diaspora.

"It's a tragedy that so many of us left Iran, when the skills we have could significantly benefit the people there", an Iranian American told Tehran Bureau. "At the same time, the political environment in Iran was such that the threat of potential harm we could face if we returned was high, particularly in light of my own work assisting a number of individuals detained in Iran due to their support for the 2009 protests. Rouhani's election slightly changes those variables."

"We're mindful that there are numerous burdens...a stagnant economy filled with corruption, an abusive government and little stability. That being said, we truly believe that if we don't move back, then who will? If not now, then when?"

But the justice ministry offered a thinly veiled answer 15 October: "During the 2009 sedition, much harm was caused to the people and the establishment", Ejai said. "Some of those who participated have left the country, some are still inside. Those who are accused of causing this damage...should work to redress the harm they caused and regret it. Until now, no such thing has happened."

Despite the unyielding stance of the hardliners, those longing for greater personal freedom and democracy are shedding the disenchantment of the past four years. In living room discussions as well as the social networks, there is a sense of pragmatism and civic responsibility that was largely absent during the previous sociocultural thaw of the Khatami presidency.

"Freeing political prisoners, whatever the motivation, is a good sign", said Ali, the owner of Dani the dog. "It's not a sign that all has changed, but it shows that this capacity exists within the regime. It's a step forward, maybe the first step toward some basic transformation."

Aside from the perennial indicators of the state of civic freedom, there are the small things: A popular cafe condones the open consumption of whiskey, a chador-clad woman brings her chihuahua on an evening stroll through the neighborhood and encourages other pet owners in the area to follow suit. But, just as the dog that has spent long months indoors, most people lack the assurances to explore the opportunities that Iran's new political leadership claims to offer. The heavy atmosphere of the Ahmadinejad years has altered social habits, perceptions and needs, Ali added. "The authorities made us accustomed to finding happiness in our private spaces, because there was no other way. Now, I'm not sure if I want to come out or stay at home."

Names have been changed


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
More than once in my private world, a Muslim woman has said to me, Now that I am free of my country of origin, free of my male relatives, free of mind-control I .........

They don't say, "I can have my own checking account." "I can go to the mall without having to get permission." "I don't have to wait all afternoon for my father's father to make up his mind whether I can buy a new coat," "I can .........."

They say, " I can have a dog."

And I am not kidding. Maybe it is not too late for change. In the interests of fairness though, up until the breaking wave of PURITY BE UPON ALL began its tsunami descent upon the Muslim and non-Muslim world, many Egyptians and Pakistani of my acquaintance permitted themselves a dog.


May 26, 2011
I thought owning a dog was known as "haraam" in the Islam religion.. so would that mean you're haraami if you publicly walk the dog? :p
Sep 19, 2013
I thought owning a dog was known as "haraam" in the Islam religion.. so would that mean you're haraami if you publicly walk the dog? :p

I think more accurately dogs are considered Makkruh (disliked) rather than actually Haraam (forbidden). This is mainly because dog saliva is one of the impure substances that break ritual purity (whudu). Working dogs (eg. for guarding, hunting, herding) are permitted, but it's against Muslim customs to keep them as pets.
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