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Iran: A guilty nation

Feelings of guilt aroused by violating Iran’s laws lead to a weakening of a citizen's self-esteem and truth-finding spirit

A policeman is the only stranger you can trust. This is what I have been telling my children since they were small, but it seems that is no longer the case in Iran today.

A policeman, his car or his motorbike can be worrisome to a great majority of Iranians. Not because the police have been behaving brutally to people, no, but because every Iranian you see is doing something illegal. 

To start this exploration of Iranian guilt, let's talk about satellite dishes. They are found on almost every rooftop or balcony in Tehran and many other cities. Even remote villages are dotted with the white discs. This despite the fact that under Islamic Republic laws it is illegal to have or use a satellite dish.

The resolution outlawing the dishes was approved by parliament in 1994 and passed to the government the next year for implementation and enforcement. Police were expected to meet any disobedience with the relevant punishment.

Accordingly, from time to time we Iranians see and read that the police and other disciplinary forces have raided the houses of a certain neighbourhood and confiscated and destroyed the satellite dishes, still clearly visible on many of our own houses.

So anyone who owns and uses these dishes is, in fact, a lawbreaker, but these other dishes and the disobedience they demonstrate is handsomely ignored by the judiciary for much of the time.

Yet feelings of guilt aroused by violating the country’s laws lead to a weakening of a citizen's self-esteem and truth-finding spirit. As a result, one becomes more tolerant towards other wrongdoers. 

Hijab confusion

Likewise, a controversy remains between people and the government when it comes to the rule requiring women to cover their hair. The issue of hijabs is not clearly explained in the Quran, hence an instruction was introduced by Islamic governments such as Iran’s.

This law is solely the state's interpretation of the faith, and therefore it remains a subject of controversy.

Women are required to cover their head and body except the face, hands and feet. But how, and what portion of, the hair must be covered has always been a matter of serious arguments.

While a visitor might be able to truly claim that he or she has seen that the hijab code is not very strictly enforced in Iran, this cannot be guaranteed always to be the case, and often enforcement differs from public place to public place.

Every woman leaving the house, therefore, is not absolutely sure that she will not have any problem with her hijab and, depending on the place and the situation, she is always expecting to be warned by the morality police or to be asked by an ordinary, conservative citizen to correct her hijab.

This, then, can lead to feelings of being guilty of breaching a law, even though it is not a clear one. This in turn can contribute to anxiety resulting in social isolation or public fear.

False payments

Inappropriate payment - that is to say, when an employee receives a payment which he thinks he does not deserve - is another example that can cause Iranians to be overwhelmed by guilty feelings. 

Let me explain: there are different items in an employee's pay slip in Iran, such as the regular pay, skill payments, car and food allowances, wife and child allowances, and any other additional earnings.

There are two more items named "overtime" and "mission additional payments" which indicate when an employee should be rewarded for taking on additional working hours or assignments outside his or her permanent location.

These payments are not routine, and are quite often paid without any additional work or travel having been carried out. Traditionally, they are considered to be a way of helping out employees in need of a financial boost.

The employee receiving this reward, even though the sums are often insignificant, has to confirm that the task or travel has been fulfilled by signing a paper that states they stayed longer or went on a work trip.

This signing of a false statement can cause a guilty conscience and also means that a worker has no desire to fight other types of corruption in his or her office.

Facebook banned - but not for all

There are even paradoxes of guilt that take in the country’s high-ranking officials. Facebook is blocked here in Iran, but Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, uses it regularly and according to some sources has nearly 200,000 fans.

Zarif also has a Twitter account, another blocked resource. So we see a senior Islamic authority using illegal tools by operating on social media networks quite openly, even though technically speaking this is considered to be a crime.

Applying a loan request can also make you a potential criminal.

There is a relatively easy loan to receive for things deemed "necessary commodities," which means money for buying home appliances such as a Frigidaire, a big name appliance brand in Iran, or a stove.

Here the applicant, as well as providing general documents of proof of identity, must present a Performa invoice for the appliances he or she is about to buy. But this, as with many things, is only formality – the true purpose of the transaction being the money.

The shop that issues the Performa invoice, then, and the applicants have both broken the law, which the back staff also knows very well.

Guilt by association

Finally, there is the idea of guilt by association.

During and after the controversial presidential election of 2009, a movement called the Green Movement, which at least half of Tehran's population more or less supported, came into existence.

Months later, however, when the movement was gradually cracked down upon, the hard-line incumbent made it a taboo to support or even sympathise with the Green Movement.

Everywhere in the media, TV, radio and newspapers, the words Green Movement were dropped and the word "plot" replaced them. Not everyone in the country, and not even everyone working at the papers, agreed with this change – and so once again the nation was divided.

The TV, or more accurately the official broadcasters, started to call the Green Movement an attempted conspiracy. Green Movement supporters were forced to accept this new title. A label such as this is enough to allow the system to oust any unwanted elements.

So millions of people were unconsciously part of a major crime which they had never even considered being a crime.

There could be some logic behind deliberately looking the other way when it comes to such examples of lawbreaking. Firstly, underlying feelings of guilt can influence our ego and make us more accommodating and selfless. This in turn can result in submissive behaviour.

The second possible reason could be of even more benefit to the state. Allowing certain behaviour to slide past unnoticed gives them the opportunity to use it against non-conformists should the need arise.

For example, if someone inside Iran is interviewed by the foreign media from time to time, even though there is no law against this activity the state could suddenly decide that the individual’s other illegal activities, previously ignored, are now a priority and merit attention. There could be a well-timed raid of the person’s house, and they could be arrested for having illegal items – which would be perfectly true. 

-Dadbeh Gudarzi is MEE's Iran-based columnist and writes under a pseudonym.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Iranian women watch waves crash on the rocks on the coast of the Gulf of Oman in the southern Iranian city of Chabahar on 12 May, 2015(AFP).

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