Social media in Iran: 'Good Shia kids' can be cool, too

Two “stickers” posted by Iranian users on Telegram. Stickers are larger, more developed versions of emojis.
Two “stickers” posted by Iranian users on Telegram. Stickers are larger, more developed versions of emojis.

You can be an observant Muslim and also want to have fun on social media. In Iran, more and more young conservatives are blending religion and Internet culture and sometimes breaking taboos while doing so. Some of them have been creating faith-based emojis and stickers that also show physical contact between men and women, which is officially banned in Iran and which has not made religious authorities too happy.

Telegram “stickers” showing physical contact between a man and woman – something never seen on Iranian TV.

While Facebook and Twitter are officially banned in Iran, they and other social media sites  – especially Instagram and Telegram  – are hugely popular in the country. Facebook has an estimated 17 million users in Iran (many of them connecting via VPN to get around the ban). Some 33 Million Iranians are active on Instagram and more than 20 million on Telegram, an instant-messaging site prized for its speed and security.

Instagram and Telegram are both fully legal in Iran, for now. While most of the younger users appear to be from the moderate, secular part of Iranian society, more and more accounts are appearing with religious symbols and themes. Portraits of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei adorned with hearts find themselves next to tips on how to be a “good Shia kid”, with drawings inspired by Disney cartoons and Japanese manga. Young religious users push the boundaries of what is acceptable, designing emojis and Telegram “stickers” that depict physical contact between (married) men and women.

"After the 2009 turmoil, social media became a political issue, with the authorities getting more and more hostile"

Shima is a doctoral candidate in sociology, doing research on social media in Iran. She says that up until 2009, Iran’s religious leaders had regarded social media as “immoral”, but after that year’s contested election they increasingly seemed to consider social media sites to be a direct political threat.

After the 2009 turmoil, social media became a political issue, with the authorities getting more and more hostile. Social media allowed Iranians to organize among themselves online and plan physical demonstrations in the streets. The authorities and their conservative supporters were extremely critical of Facebook and Twitter. But Iran is a country of contradictions. While these conservatives were harshly attacking Facebook and Twitter, at the same time they were using other social media like FriendFeed and Google+. I’m talking about members of Hezbollah [Editor’s note: The Iranian Hezbollah is a conservative movement independent from the Lebanese Hezbollah] and the Basij [Editor’s note: paramilitary group controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard]. I remember in 2009 a member of Hezbollah wrote on his FriendFeed account before a demonstration by Green movement activists: “Let’s go make some protesters bloody.”

The younger generation of conservatives wanted to harness the power of social media, but after their religious and political leaders were so critical of Facebook and Twitter, they were forced to follow suit and attack Facebook and Twitter users too.

Instagram images published by an Iranian user. On the left, the text reads “A good Shia kid should modify Valentine’s Day to fit with his/her beliefs. They should celebrate it on the wedding day of Zahra, the prophet’s daughter.” On the right, a photograph of a Shia tradition with text of Shia prayers.


As for Telegram and Instagram, they became popular under Rouhani, the centrist president who took over in 2013. His government stopped initiatives by ultraconservatives to block these two new forms of social media. They’ve become the two most popular social media sites in Iran. Little by little, even conservative political and religious figures – and some ultraconservative media – have created Telegram and Instagram accounts.”

[Editor’s note: Despite the official Facebook and Twitter ban in Iran, many top officials – including the Supreme Leader, the president, the foreign minister, MPs and governors – have official Facebook and Twitter accounts.]

>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: How Iranian authorities break their own censorship laws

Telegram “stickers” showing Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.

In the Rouhani years, the conservatives noticed how social media could be effective, so they rushed to social media too. Many younger conservatives wanted to replace the often-harsh image of observant Iranians with something cooler and funnier. So they did what they could to make posts that were “Islamic” and at the same time “cool” and “up to date.” I’m talking about the kind of person who wants to be a “good Shia kid” and at the same time fit into the new era of social media like other people their age.

"These emojis and stickers suggest there’s a gulf between a large part of the conservative youth and Iran’s religious leaders"

Accounts are popping up on Telegram and Instagram that aren’t just cool, but also “sexy” – on the conservative scale of religious people in Iran, I mean. You can find emojis and stickers that show physical contact between men and women. Of course for the people who make them it’s clear that the men and women are husband and wife. But even showing simple physical contact between a husband and wife in the conservative atmosphere in Iran is pushing the limits of  the Islamic Republic's official discourse. Showing any physical contact between the two sexes – even a kiss or a hug between a married couple – is essentially forbidden. These emojis and stickers suggest there’s a gulf between a large part of the conservative youth and Iran’s religious leaders.

There’s another thing dividing conservative youth from their leaders: online relationships between men and women, which could bring gradual change to the conservative environment in Iran. Ten years ago, in religious households it was impossible for young people to have any kind of relationship with the opposite sex before marriage – except close relatives like their mother, sister, father or brother. But now thanks to social media, things have changed completely. Contact between the two sexes can be just a few clicks away. Religious leaders don’t like it, and many important ayatollahs are very critical of social media. They’re not concerned about secular Iranians – who don’t listen to them anyway – but about their own followers. The religious leaders are worried that they are losing ground to social media – and they’re right to be worried.

Telegram “stickers” showing different designs of the slogan “Down with USA" (though same mistakenly say "Dawn with the USA".

In August 2015, Ayatollah Nasir Makarim Shirazi, an influential conservative cleric, singled out Telegram for criticism. He said: “We should not be slaves of Telegram. It’s a scheme by our enemies to pervert our young people. There is a lot of anti-Islamic and anti-Shia content on Telegram. Officials should put an end to it.