Colourful plastic guns, soaked clothes and soap-laden headscarves -- the giant festive water fights organised by Iranian youths are not to the taste of the country’s authorities. Two water fights have ended in arrests, with police accusing participants of breaking Islamic law and warning that any future water fights would be promptly shut down.
It all started when hundreds of Tehran youths answered a call on Facebook to gather in the city’s Ab-o-Atash (“water and fire” in Persian) park on July 29 for a giant water fight. Carrying spray guns and water balloons, they playfully fought for several hours, revelling in the sweltering summer heat. It was a new, fun way to spend a Friday afternoon, a non-working day in Iran and most Muslim countries.
The first water fight was met with such success that the organisers decided to turn it into a weekly event. They created a Facebook page, ‘Tehran’s water fights’, to announce the dates and venues of upcoming festivities.
But the fun ended when photos of water-fighting youths, laughing and dishevelled, came to the attention of Iranian authorities. Ten young men and women were arrested a few days after the first fight took place, and accused of breaking Islamic law. On August 5, seventeen participants in a second water fight in the city of Bandar Abbas suffered the same fate. A local police official ruled that the "promiscuity between men and women" during these fights was unacceptable, and even more so the use of water during the Ramadan holiday, during which observant Muslims refrain from consuming food or beverages from sunrise to sunset. All of the arrested youths were eventually freed, but the chief of the country’s morality police warned that all future water fights would be severely punished. Since then, though there have been repeated calls online for new water fights, no one has dared participate.
Were the water fights just innocent fun or did they have a politically defiant undertone? Not all web users who discussed the question online agree. According to the Iranian-American opposition website Tehran Bureau, the movement became politicised only after authorities tried to ban it.
“The policemen wanted to know if I worked for people abroad”
One of our Observers in Tehran alerted us to the arrest of one of his friends following the first water fight. He sent us the following transcription of his friend’s account.
I decided to go to this event just to take photos for my blog. I didn’t see it as anything political; I just thought it would make for good pictures. There were a lot of people there, mostly young ones, both men and women. They were, quite simply, happy to be there and having fun.
I then published the photos on my blog and they rapidly spread online. Several of my friends shared them on their Facebook accounts, and they were published on other websites. Six days later, on August 3, I got a phone call from the morality police [a police unit specially dedicated to the monitoring and repression of ‘anti-Islamic’ attire, acts and behaviour]. They asked me to come down to their headquarters. I said I could go the following morning. Thirty minutes later, however, when I left my house, several plainclothes police were waiting in front of my door. They asked me to follow them. They were very polite. These officers won’t mistreat you as long as you stay calm and don’t get carried away.
“The judge accused me of spreading anti-Islamic propaganda because I photographed girls without headscarves”
I was locked up for four days in a cell with four other men who participated in the water fight. Five girls were also arrested, but they were held in another spot. They asked me why I took these photos, why I had published them on my blog, for what press agency I worked for. They wanted to know if I knew the people who had organised the fights. And above all, they wanted to know if I worked for people abroad. Also, while I was in prison, they broke into my home and took my camera and computer. I was sent before a judge. He accused me of spreading anti-Islamic and anti-governmental propaganda, because I photographed girls without headscarves.
“Before letting me out, they made sure to tell me not to write or talk about my arrest”
The policemen weren’t violent with us. We were given food before and after sunset [in accordance with Ramadan rules], but we weren’t allowed to shower. Before letting me out, the police made sure to tell me not to talk about my arrest or write about it on my blog. Today I feel better; I’m with my family and friends. But I’m very afraid. All of the people arrested these past few days [following the water fight] were released, but authorities continued to track all those who write about the water fights on the Internet.”
The above photos were taken on July 29 by tehranlive.org's photographer, who was arrested for publishing them on the Internet. For more photos, see this Facebook page.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Peggy Bruguière.