Iranians love football; it is the biggest source of entertainment and excitement in the country. But now, the right to have a nuclear program and the fight against the country’s enemies are on every Iranian’s mind, and those concerns come first—even when people are watching the football.
According to the conservative clergymen who rule Iran, the country’s enemies do not want to topple the Islamic Republic with war and open confrontation. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, doesn’t fear the modern armies of the US or Israel. But those clergymen do fear freedom of expression and cultural hegemony.
Restrictions on public behavior and harsh punishments for violating those restrictions (even in the absence of a clear law), in particular for people wearing Western-style clothing, have always been part of the Islamic Republic’s identity. But many Iranians have satellite dishes at home, which allow them to watch whatever they want regardless of what the regime forbids. The state-owned TV channels are mostly boring and conservative; there is always a motley clergyman wearing a black turban, or maybe a white one, talking about art or society or religion and politics. Who wants to watch that?
The lack of entertaining programs on TV in Iran is what has made satellite so popular. But there are times when the local channels are decent, like if you want local news or to watch the Iranian football. That is where we found ourselves a week ago: one of the rare circumstances where millions of Iranians were watching an Iranian channel to see the World Cup draw. In the critical minutes of that draw, something happened that disturbed many viewers: the program cut right before the matches were selected. Annoyed Iranians were clamoring to know which team would meet Iran at the World Cup, but the program remained off air. They didn’t know what had happened at the time, but as it turns out, Fernanda Lima, the Brazilian model presenting the World Cup draw, was wearing a very attractive dress.
Adel Ferdosipour, the host of Iran’s local channel and sports program, said, “To be honest with you, the dress of the lady who is presenting the show does not meet our broadcasting standards at all.”
That cut in the program provoked thousands of angry Iranians with access to the Internet to go on Ms. Lima’s Facebook page and post incredibly insulting messages, blaming her for (as they said) causing them to “miss watching the live World Cup draw.”
Within hours, Iranians posting such comments had nearly taken down her Facebook page. Some were written in Persian, saying things like, “Would it kill you to wear a decent dress, so we can watch too?”
It took most interested Iranians two or three days to find the clips on YouTube and other social networking sites, so they could see what she had actually been wearing. They began talking about her looks, the ring she was wearing, the color of her hair, her figure, and so on. Then people began sending her apologies on behalf of those who had insulted her.
Today, Ms. Lima is perhaps one of the most well-known people in Iran. The regime’s censorship ended up having the exact opposite effect to what it was supposed to have. Maybe if the live draw had stayed on air, the excited football fans wouldn’t have paid much attention to her—certainly nothing like the attention she’s getting now. This incident shows that what the regime believes to be a threat to the Islamic Republic of Iran will be a real concern regardless of how much censorship they impose or how closed the borders are.
One of the main reasons behind Ayatollah Khamenei’s decision to not open Iran’s doors to the West, and especially the United States, is the fear of a cultural invasion. However, in an odd parallel of what caused the Arab Spring—closeness with the West—being so closed and imposing so many religious restrictions might cause a cultural revolution in Iran. This revolution wouldn’t necessarily have to come with a change in the regime. Instead, they are slowly and effectively making the changes without resorting to war or occupation. But to those who fear this sort of cultural change, Ms. Lima is scarier than the Israeli prime minister.