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Broken pens and missing pieces: The effects of censorship on Iranian society

This statement was originally published on article19.org's Azad Tribune on 27 February 2015.

By Afsaneh Rigot

"Censorship is the mother of metaphor” - Jorge Luis Borges.

When the Argentine writer penned this romantic interpretation of the literary strategies many resort to when faced with the prospect of totalitarian suppression, he failed to address the after-effects.

In Azad Tribune's last article, these stealthy strategies were discussed at length. Iranian artists were rightly celebrated for their ingenious methods of circumventing censorship. But what happens to those that suffer under the guillotine of censorship, where paths of speech and expression are blocked by unseen hands intent on muzzling free thought?

Censored art is like a puzzle with pieces missing: incomplete.

Nadine Gordime, writer and political activist, wrote from her own personal experience that "censorship is never over for those who have experienced it. It is a brand on the imagination that affects the individual who has suffered it, forever.” Through my discussions with various Iranian artists, writers and journalists over the past few months, the truth of this statement has become starkly evident.

In a report conducted by ARTICLE 19 in late 2006, the same observation was made: “The majority of the interviews – from artists in exile – provide an in-depth, textured account of the lasting effect of censorship on artistic expression and the limits that these individuals are driven to, causing them to abandon their lives in Iran.” Nearly a decade later, though parliaments, presidents and policies have come and gone, this statement remains irrefutably true.

Broken Pens

“Pens which do not write for Islamic values,” proclaimed Ayatollah Khomeini, “must be broken”. Evidence of the Ayatollah's sincerity has been all too apparent. Disarmed of their pens, writers have been imprisoned, tortured and even executed.

Historically, writers and their pens have been in a constant state of resistance with the Iranian state. Writer and literary critique Faraj Sarkouhi, who has been involved with the press since the 1960s, has witnessed the transformation of censorship through the decades first-hand. Sarkouhi notes how censorship became more systematic in the 60s under the Shah's regime, where the Minister of Culture enforced the 'official censorship' of books, movies, music, theatre, and visual arts. This approach continued under the Islamic Republic's Minister of Culture.

However, there is a noteworthy difference in their approaches, according to Sarkouhi: “During the Shah's era, the government denied the existence of any censorship and pretended to champion the elevation and expansion of culture.” By contrast, the Islamic Republic views censorship as the “religious duty of nahy az monker (preventing others from doing bad) and amre be maroof (ordering others to do good).” This stance is as open and unapologetic as it is crippling.

The lethal force of state censorship was seen most dramatically in 1981. ARTICLE 19's 2006 report outlines the crusade launched against writers and books which commenced with assaults on institutions defending freedom of expression, such as Kanoon, the Association of Writers. This campaign led to the confiscation of books; mass bonfires of literature; closure of bookshops and banning of independent publishers. Iranian culture was going up in flames.

The 90s saw a string of murders of prominent writers, murder being the most effective form of censorship. The regime's hit list of writers consisted of 184 of the most prominent writers and intellectuals of the country.

Shedding Old Skin

Under Rouhani's administration many felt the winds of change were blowing. Many positive moves legitimised this belief, such as the relicensing of Cheshmeh, a major publishing house. Other promising statements were made in support of loosening procedures of pre-publication licensing of books and movies. This month, in Iran's 32nd ceremony of the Book of the Year Awards, Rouhani also reiterated the need to limit censorship for the good of the Islamic Republic.

Yet the Iranian Association of Writers still does not have permission to organise gatherings or officially work. In a recent interview, the cultural deputy of the Ministry of Cultural and Islamic Guidance declared that the association should “shed [its] skin” – i.e. get rid – of those dissenters against suppression and censorship, in order to get approval for this. The Association's response was simple: “If shedding [our] skin means don't say and don't write, it is never possible.”

Bashing writers seems to be entrenched in the Iranian system. Two weeks ago, the poet Sepideh Jodeyri was targeted for translating French graphic novel Blue Is the Warmest Colour into Persian. This translation was seen as a promotion of homosexuality, punishable by 100 lashes or even death. She told the Guardian, “An event organised [in Tehran] for my recent poetry collection And Etc was cancelled, the organiser was sacked from his job, my publisher was threatened with having his licence suspended and interviews were withdrawn.” She is now persona non grata in Iran.

Due to the internal wars of the Islamic republic, it's not uncommon for right-wing papers to be shut down by the regime. Most revealing has been the recent closure of conservative newspaper '9 Dey'. The Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, currently headed by Ali Jannati, noted that this paper had violated a number of Iran's media laws by publishing highly critical articles about Iran's nuclear talks.

With no real clear boundaries of what will be censored, the Iranian Government also partakes in self-censorship. Most recently, newspapers have been banned from publishing photos or interviews of Iran's reformist politician Mohammad Khatami (he served as the president of Iran from 1997 -2005). The effects of this have only served to highlight the unnecessary and absurd nature of Iran's censorship policy.

The effects of censorship are long-lasting, not only for those who suffer from it but also for the country itself. It leads to further divisions, lost culture and a drain of the country's most creative minds.

Their pens might be broken, but their words remain intact.

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