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This text is by Sheida Soleimani in her capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

A History of Censorship:

Iran's Religious Dictatorship and The Ruling Thought Police

Sheida Soleimani

On July 26, 1981, just after Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic took control of Iran, Persian poet and playwright Saeed Soltanpour was arrested at his wedding ceremony and taken away. He was executed several weeks later. His politically provocative poetry, including verses like ‘his young heart is like a compass that at all time points towards revolution', was not tolerable to either the Shah’s or Ayatollah’s regimes. He was imprisoned during the Shah’s rule, but was executed by the Ayatollah’s forces. Like many other Iranian artists and creative individuals living under a totalitarian regime, Soltanpour believed that art must carry and reflect a social responsibility. In the end, he paid the ultimate price for his beliefs.

On November 28, 1994, the well-known Iranian writer, poet and journalist Ali-Akbar Sa'idi Sirjani was executed in a government safe house, eight months after his arrest. Sirjani’s writings used satire and allegory to criticize the Islamic Republic for what he described as "authoritarianism, religious hypocrisy and obtrusive meddling in people's personal lives.”1  According to government news releases, Sirjani was guilty of many crimes, including ‘contact with foreign spy networks’.1 The majority of the Iranian people knew that the accusations were false and that his actual arrest was due to his criticisms of the Islamic Republic and its Supreme Leader, an intolerable act in the country.

In August of 2014, Iranian artist Atena Farghadani posted a cartoon she had drawn on her Facebook page. In her drawing, Iranian government officials were portrayed as monkeys and goats, a critical response to a bill that would outlaw voluntary sterilization and restrict access to measures of birth control. Since Facebook is heavily policed by the Iranian government, it was not difficult for them to find the drawing. Atena was jailed soon after posting it. During a brief release, she posted a video online explaining her experience in Evin Prison, where she stated that she had been beaten and abused by guards. Not long after posting the video, Atena was again arrested. On June 1, 2015, she was sentenced by the Iranian Revolutionary Court for “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security”, “spreading propaganda against the system”, “insulting the Iranian Supreme Leader” and “insulting members of parliament through paintings”.2 Saeed’s, Sa’idi’s, and Atena’s cases are not isolated ones: there are hundreds of cases similar to these that go unreported or do not receive attention in the media.

A History of Censorship: Iran's Religious Dictatorship and The Ruling Thought Police 01
*Atena Farghadani’s drawing, using animals as metaphors to portray the unintelligence of the Islamic Regime's decision making, August 20143

Having grown-up as an Iranian in the United States, I tend to agree when someone condemns the atrocities that occur in Iran, especially since the events are almost always a result of the regime in power. But hearing is not enough. Totalitarian regimes violate human rights and impose severe censorship. However, we do not often hear about specific cases: Middle Eastern tragedies, including atrocities and crimes by the governments against their own people, along with the struggle for freedom by citizens, is marred by the media. As a result, we begin to demonize the citizens as we demonize their governance, portraying the Middle East as as a homogenized entity. What is overlooked is the struggle for justice, civil rights and a better life for the citizens of Middle Eastern societies.

Being raised by two parents who were forced to escape Iran and who came to this country as political refugees, I have always been reminded that to better understand the rise of the reactionary governments to power, one must follow the history of social struggle. Throughout the past century of Iranian political history and moving into its contemporary climate, severe censorship has occurred. To better understand this specific type of censorship, one needs to recognize the fundamental differences between a classical dictatorship government (such as Shah’s in 1941-1978) versus a religious dictatorship (Islamic Republic, 1979-). In the following conversation, my father, a political activist during the Iranian Revolution in late 70s and early 80s, describes some critical distinctions as well as some of his specific encounters: his experiences have provided a narrative for me to understand why events transpired the way they did and what motivated them.  By looking at the history of Iran, its tumultuous involvement with the West and the current state of the country, we can begin to understand not only the dimensions and strength of censorship, but also how art and culture have adapted to being silenced by a religious, reactionary regime.

*In this conversation, I refer to my father as ‘Baba, to protect his identity and name from distribution

S: Just to give some historical background as to how the current regime came to power, can you discuss what history triggered the revolution? What were the events leading to the fall of the Shah and how did the Ayatollah gain control so quickly?

Baba: One can look back at historical events that occurred some 80-100 years ago that laid some of the groundwork, but I’ll give a shorthand version beginning with the coup d’etat that occurred in 1953 and toppled the only democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mosaddegh. The coup was organized by the U.S. Government (the C.I.A.) as a way to gain full control over Iranian oil, as well as keeping the Iranian Government from tilting toward the Eastern Bloc, led by the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. After the coup, Shah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) regained the power and moved very fast to consolidate his reign by a fast and brutal purging of members of opposition, including intellectuals, writers, poets, college students and workers in the oil industry. Thousands were jailed and hundreds were executed. Heavy censorship was imposed on media.  Political parties and civil associations were dissolved and banned from activity.

The heavy hand of the government lasted until 1960-1962, which were the years that witnessed changes in the international scene. To modernize the society under international pressure from the West, the 1963 ‘White Revolution’ (a name attributed to the fact it was bloodless) was initiated by the Shah. Some elements of the reforms were intended to implement progressive changes in the society, including the rights for women to vote. However, the White Reform or Revolution faced stiff opposition by religious leaders, including Ayatollah Khomeini, who sensed a direct threat to their influence in a mostly conservative society. There were mass demonstrations in several big cities and scores were killed in the hands of military officers. Following a new round of purging opposition forces, Khomeini was sent to exile in Iraq.

The next 16 years (1962-1978) witnessed major changes in Iranian societal structure.  A large segment of population was uprooted from their homes in villages and small cities and forced to move to big cities to search for work due to a severe stagnation in agricultural economy.  Unfortunately, these groups were not absorbed into the fabric of the society and were forced to live on the fringes of the cities. At the same time, a new middle class, including government workers and university students, began formation.

In 1973, oil prices skyrocketed, as a result of an oil embargo imposed by Arab countries in solidarity with Egypt, Syria and Jordan in their fight against Israel in the famous 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The Shah did not follow the oil embargo due to his Western-leaning policies and friendship with the West. Oil revenue increased significantly and the annual income of the government skyrocketed. Due to a lack of economical planning, mismanagement and large scale corruption in the ruling class, the large influx of oil revenue into the country resulted in big inflation; further increasing the hardship of the displaced and lower class of the society. At the same time, the expanding middle class was facing a heavy handed regime intent on limiting civil rights and keeping censorship to its maximal extent.

The net effect of these changes caused extreme dissatisfaction, unhappiness and anger in a large segment of the society.  The society was reaching a crisis point and there were signs of fracture in the unity of the ruling class. The Shah’s regime had annihilated all organized opposition forces—there was no structure, no organization and no parties outside of the government that could lead a strong opposition. He had killed, exiled and suppressed any organized forces: at that time, the only organized group and structure that remained active were the clergy and the mosques. These conditions generated the prime environment for Khomeini to lead the opposition from abroad.  The mosques started to function as Khomeini’s extended arms to spread his words to the people. At the  time, Khomeini appealed to the Iranian people by promising complete freedom of expression with no censorship, freedom of association, women’s rights and freedoms, along with huge economic incentives; promising that no one would need to pay for electricity or water. As there was no alternative organization at the time, many people believed him. Khomeini made his ‘triumphant return’ to Iran on February 1, 1979 and took over the government in a relatively swift uprising on February 12, 1979. He solidified his power within the first several months of his rule by carrying out mass executions of leaders of the Shah’s government and bloody suppression of movements in various border provinces.

Just two months after he came to power, Khomeini’s regime announced that it was compulsory for women in public to cover their hair and wear hijabs. This was just the first of many changes that were not part of Khomeini’s original promises and plans for Iran. His forces purged all newspaper and media sources that were not sympathetic to Islamic law and instilled forces from the clergy to control the country’s media. Any speech that was not sympathetic to Islamic ideals was phased out and punished. Things were moving fast and the regime had gained popular support since they had gotten rid of the Shah, which was a unifying triumph in the eyes of many.

A History of Censorship: Irans Religious Dictatorship and The Ruling Thought Police
“In a dramatic representation of the Iranian Revolution, this poster illustrates the chaos and violence of the demonstrations leading to the collapse of the Pahlavi monarchy and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini. A wounded protester lies bleeding on the ground holding up a green banner that bears the revolutionary slogan: ‘Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic.’ Above the revolutionary fray, Khomeini’s visage bursts through a tattered U.S. flag, symbolically breaking Iran free of U.S. influence”4

S: What enabled Khomeini’s new regime to succeed? It seems like Khomeini went back on his original promises quite quickly…what kept the people from overthrowing his new regime?

Baba: The simple answer is brute force and backing by a large segment of the society that believed in him. In November of 1980, Khomeini’s government occupied the U.S.Embassy, a symbolic act that was interpreted to mean that Khomeini was fundamentally against Western powers—this was an idea that attracted many leftists and intellectuals, and in response to this move, they decided to support him. One remaining major group, Mojahedin, was forced to take up arms to fight the Islamic Regime. Khomeini used the utmost savagery to suppress this uprising: more than 10,000 young people, mostly high school and college students were brutally murdered.

In the first few months of Khomeini’s rule, he founded factions of neighborhood militia, referred to as Basij. Members of the Basij acted as tentacles of the Islamic regime to spy on people and report anti-governmental activities. It was hard to openly discuss any dislike of the regime, as you were not sure of who was listening and who you could trust. In the end, the Islamic Republic led under Khomeini was easily able to succeed as they started with many followers at a time when the Iranian people had no one to trust—they maintained their power afterwards by using brute force. Thousands of executions and lots of torture. They ruled the country based on the fear they instilled within the people.

S:  Can you tell me more about how you got involved with the political movement? What types of actions were you carrying out? What were you fighting for?

Baba: In the presence of a harsh government policy toward freedom of expression during the Shah’s reign (specifically, following the brutal coup in 1953 and social unrest in 1963), universities became fertile ground for the radicalization of intellectuals who were fighting for a better nation. Unlike other places in the society which projected a calm facade, universities were simmering with the call for social change. The pace of calling for action specifically accelerated in the late 60s and early 70s—this period corresponded to major social unrests in both Western and Eastern Blocs; including the mass student uprising in Paris in 1968, anti-war demonstrations in the U.S. peaking in 1968-1972, and the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union in 1968 (ending the Prague Spring of 1968). In parallel, there were anti-government armed and unarmed groups blossoming in South America, Western Europe, and the U.S.A.  Collectively and coupled with the forced suppression of all peaceful demonstrations in Iran, the universities radicalized. As young men and women with ideals for better lives, a good number of us joined with the radicalized forces. We were involved in the organization of large-scale, non-violent demonstrations, which resulted in mass arrests and imprisonments on many occasions. Opposition groups comprised of students, myself included, were also involved with underground activities, including the distribution of anti-government pamphlets, along with writing and distributing essays on our views and beliefs.  Our actions were not tolerated by Khomeini’s regime.

S: Censorship was heavy under the Shah, but it seems that it became much stricter under Khomeini’s rule—can you describe some of these differences? How did  art, music and culture suffer from this and how has it adapted?

Baba: Whereas the Shah’s government was a classical dictatorship, the Islamic Republic represents a completely different entity which can be classified as a religious dictatorship or theocratic totalitarianism. The Islamic Government not only rules with an iron fist, but also wants to control the mind of its people to instill its religious ideals. It aims to brainwash its citizens, starting in primary schooling; it encourages family members to report on each other; rewrites history and, in short, changes everything, including the means for people to communicate.

Publishing a poem or an essay critical of the government brings heavy punishments for the author. People have been arrested, tortured, have disappeared or have been killed just because they expressed an anti-governmental sentiment. Oftentimes, these sentiments are shared on social media, an entity that is heavily policed (not just by the government and Basij, but even by family members and friends who are loyal to the Islamic Republic). The dimensions of censorship are difficult to imagine.

There is an agency within the ‘Ministry of Guidance’ which oversees the cleansing (censorship) of pre-published articles (poems, essays, or books) before they are approved for publication. The artists and authors often resort to the extreme to evade the censorship. As a result, self-censorship has risen. However, and more importantly, artists resort to the use of symbols to get their message across. It is not surprising that simple words such as “wine” cannot be used or depicted in any article or drawing.  Pictures of women or men that do not conform to Islamic guidelines can not printed or shown. In brief, the government has handicapped the artists in what they can say or show. Intellectuals, writers, poets, satirists and painters are pushing back: they use symbol-rich work to get their message across in a more coded fashion.  Oftentimes, the West criticizes Iranian artists for not being direct enough in their visual and verbal language, expressing difficulty in deciphering an inexplicit symbolic language. We (Iranians) have seen and felt the consequences of being direct, and not many are willing to risk their lives. However, even with the utilization of symbolism, there are still consequences to pay. Atena Farghadani is a prime example of this: a drawing posted on her Facebook page, which used symbolic imagery to express her discontent with the regime, caused her to be imprisoned and tortured.

A History of Censorship: Iran's Religious Dictatorship and the Ruling Thought Police
*Still image from Jafar Panahi’s ‘This Is Not A Film’, a movie made on Panahi’s iPhone, after he was put under house arrest for his ‘anti-governmental propagandistic films’. Panahi was banned from making films for 20 years: in this film documentary, he shows his daily life under house arrest while commenting on the current regime. The film was snuck out of the country on a flash drive, hidden inside of a cake.

S: How do you feel about the situation in the country currently? What do you think needs to happen to create a change?

Baba: The current situation is frightening and the prospect for a regime change in the next several years is grim. There is no organized opposition or any independent organization inside the country that can call on the people to unite. The opposition forces abroad are too fractured and unable to communicate with people inside Iran, hence extremely ineffective in mounting a serious challenge to the legitimacy of the government.  The Achilles heel of the regime is three fold: dire economic circumstances, a very high unemployment rate, and a remarkably young population looking for jobs and stable lives.  The Iranian Government is unable to offer any viable solutions for improving the economy, inflation or unemployment: hence, the unrest will grow and that means more suppression and more harsh tactics by the government to keep the unrest under control.  The society is in turmoil and the outcome is unpredictable.


1Molavi, Afshin. The Soul of Iran: A Nation's Struggle for Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. Print.

2"Iran: Serious Health Fears for Artist on Prison Hunger Strike." Imprisoned Iranian Artist Atena Farghadani on Hunger Strike. Amnesty International, 2 Mar. 2015. Web. 1 Aug. 2016.

3"Iranian Artist Goes on Trial for Cartoon Mocking Draft Law." BBC News. BBC, 19 May 2015. Web. 1 Aug. 2016.

4"The Graphics of Revolution and War: Iranian Poster Arts." Graphics of Revolution and War: Iranian Poster Arts. Np., nd. Web. 09 Aug. 2016.

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link - issue 31: September 2016
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This article is part of the 2016 Art & Race Series organized in partnership with the University of Michigan Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design and infinite mile running from January – September 2016.