Last May, Iranians re-elected president Hassan Rouhani, a reformist leader, in hopes he will slowly edge Iran toward a more open and progressive sociopolitical culture.
In a country where 60 percent of the 80 million population is under 30 years old, the mobile-savvy, VPN-using youth in Iran have been resisting government control. Telegram, the encrypted messaging service, has become a popular form of communication for political expression, for example. But young people are also up against internet censorship, moral policing and fundamental religious clerics. Even with a relatively more liberal leader like Rouhani, Facebook and Twitter are still banned.
“Iranians are techy, they are ready.”
In their quest for expanded civil rights, some Iranians are taking ideas from Silicon Valley to the streets of Tehran and channeling them into apps that fill the gaps in health, education and dialogue. Built by Iranians both at home and abroad, there is hope that these mobile solutions could work where protests and advocacy has not.
“They want Iran to open up, it’s very clear,” said Firuzeh Mahmoudi, co-founder of United 4 Iran (U4I), a US-based non-profit that is working to advance civil liberties in Iran through technology. “Iranians are techy, they are ready.”
At the Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF), an annual human rights conference, Mahmoudi told me how technology in her country is being wielded as a tool for political dissent. Mahmoudi herself is an Iranian, though raised mostly in the US. She said the Iranian government now deems her an “anti-revolutionary fugitive” because of her work and political views.
But with around 20 million smartphone users, and a million new smartphones being added to the market every month in Iran, it’s clear she is not the only one looking to technology for change. The spate of new apps targeted toward Iranians and their rights reveal their priorities.
Avoiding the Moral Police
One app that sparked success upon its release was Gershad, which helps users protect themselves from the Gasht-e Ershad (guidance patrol), the so-called “morality police” of Iran. This de facto police force identifies and arrests anyone deemed to be inappropriately dressed, or in violation of Islamic cultural values, as reported by Iran Wire. Inevitably, women are more persecuted than men, as one of the main responsibilities of the morality police is to make sure women wear the hijab according to Islamic law.
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