IRAN

Banners criticising the US mocked in Tehran

A banner in Tehran reads: "One out of 110 Americans is in jail”
A banner in Tehran reads: "One out of 110 Americans is in jail”

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“Every 9 seconds, an American woman is beaten”. “One out of 110 Americans is in jail”. “Two out of 5 children in the USA are born out of wedlock”. “The USA is the most war-mongering country on earth”.

Last week, these messages started to appear on big billboards all over Iran’s capital, Tehran, just ahead of Qud’s day, an annual pro-Palestinian and anti-American rally that is held the last Friday of Ramadan.

But the project quickly backfired, drawing mockery and criticism on social networks.

“Every 9 seconds, an American woman is beaten”.

Are the messages correct?

First, a quick look at the figures mentioned in the billboards.

“Every 9 seconds, an American woman is beaten”. This figure is indeed one used by many American anti-domestic violence NGOs, and is quoted in lots of US media outlets’ articles on the subject.

“One out of 110 Americans is in jail.” Not quite, but pretty close. The latest official figures show that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 716 in 100,000 Americans in prison. That means 1 out of 140.

“Two out of 5 children in the USA are born out of wedlock”. According to data provided by the Pew Research Center, a leading US think tank, 41 percent of children are born to unmarried parents. That is indeed 2 out of 5.

Reactions to the billboards

Accurate or not, these messages annoyed many Tehran residents. Shargh Daily, an Iranian reformist newspaper, interviewed people on public transit to gauge their reactions to the billboards. Here are a few of the answers they got:

“Who has counted domestic violence in our county, and why don’t they announce statistics publicly?”

“So we must close our eyes to reports of Iranian addict mothers, who give birth to addicted babies who they then sell to strangers, and instead count American children born out of wedlock?”

“How many young addicts and thieves are there here in Iran?”

There were many negative reactions to the billboards online, too. On Facebook and Twitter, people started ironically suggesting new billboard messages to the mayor of Tehran. Here are a few of their ideas:

“Did you know US mayors are chosen through direct voting?” (In Iran, it’s a bit more complicated: citizens vote for city councils, who then nominate mayors who have to be approved by the interior ministry and local governor.)

“Did you know that Iranian women are prohibited from entering stadiums to cheer for their teams?”

“Did you know that in Iran, sex workers sell their babies?” (There have been reports of such cases in Iranian media. Like in many countries, there is a high demand for newborn babies among prospective adoptive parents.)

Who’s behind these billboards?

These billboards are the work of the Owj Art Company, a private company with hardliner sympathies that has been very active since the election of moderate president Hassan Rohani in 2013. They have done several public campaigns like this one, notably ahead of the nuclear deal between Iran and the 5+1 nations. At the time, they put up billboards throughout Tehran that attacked not only US President Barack Obama but also Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who clinched the controversial deal.

Owj Art Company appears to have the support of Tehran’s hardliner authorities, who have provided not just prime advertising spots, but also billboard space usually reserved for messages from the city leadership.

After the huge online reaction to this latest campaign, however, some of the billboards in the city centre have been taken down.

The Owj Art Company is not the only group that chose Qud’s week to go on a campaign against the United States: several hardliner groups decided to declare it “American Human Rights Week” and published a report on the United States’ alleged violations.