Society & Culture

Off with Their Words! Iran’s Censorship Wonderland

July 20, 2015
IranWire Citizen Journalist
6 min read
Off with Their Words! Iran’s Censorship Wonderland

An Iranian citizen journalist, who writes under a pseudonym to protect her identity, wrote the following article on the ground inside Iran.


“Doghouse, dog, wine, pig, darkness, tattoos, kiss, chest, breast, female figure, girlfriend, underwear, carrot, revolution, insurrection, swimsuit, woman swimming, pretty cabinet, snail dish, rebellion, bastard, extra-marital affair, lie, homosexuality, drunkenness, naked, embrace, anti-war, prostitute, vodka, censorship...”

You could be forgiven for thinking that the above is a unique kind of wordplay or a poor attempt at modern poetry. But you are unlikely to see any of these words in a book published in Iran. They are a selection from some of the thousands of words that Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance “auditors”— read “censors”— have crossed out in recent years. They may not be poetry, but they do tell a grotesque story, which is repeated over and over again.

It started when the ministry’s Book Supervisory Board opened its doors to close the public mind and decide what people can or cannot read. And the story will continue for as long as people are not permitted to read what they want.

What makes the story even more curious are the marks the “auditors” leave on publications. The laws of the Islamic Republic dictate the general principles of censorship, but at the end of the day it is the Ministry of Culture’s auditors and officials who decide where and when to use their red pencils.

When personal tastes and views decide what can or cannot appear in a book, then it logically follows that if the writer has a problem with the auditor or does not think the way he does, he is left with a disjointed work. Then he must decide whether he should send this tattered child of his labor to the marketplace or to appeal to the auditor or the ministry on the off-chance that they might give in a little.

Some auditors have gone so far that even culture minister Ali Jannati has complained. “If the Koran was not a divine revelation and this heavenly book was given to certain auditors, they would no doubt reject it,” he said when President Rouhani appointed him as head of the country’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in August 2013. “They would say that there are words in the Koran that are contrary to public morality and that are objectionable.”

Although Jannati spoke out, he did not tell the whole story. He and his cultural affairs deputy inherited a ministry that banned the publication of more than a thousand books between 2010 and 2012 under President Ahmadinejad. Following the end of Ahmadinejad’s term, 650 of these books were published with very little or no change made to the original manuscripts.

Ahmadinejad’s Culture Minister, Mohammad Hosseini, appointed two cultural affairs deputies — who are responsible for overseeing book auditing, among other things — with close ties to the security establishment.


The Writer, Not the Writing

During Ahmadinejad’s second term, and following the disputed 2009 presidential election, pressure on moderates and reformists in Iran increased. This was reflected in the actions of one of the deputies, Bahman Dari, who had previously served in the Revolutionary Guards. The pressure was so extreme that any mention of the 1979 Islamic Revolution would fall victim to the red pencils because there was so much similarity between the events of 1979 and the aftermath of the 2009 election. Security and intelligence establishment heads instructed Dari not only to control what people read, but also to target certain writers and cultural figures who had supported the Green Movement in a bid to force them to recant and retreat. As they were writers, it was only logical that denying them permits for their books was used as the primary tool to pressure and punish them.

The security apparatus drew up a blacklist of writers and presented it to the Culture Ministry’s security department. They were instructed to carry out a background check on the writer before doing anything else. And they were ready. In the years leading up to 2009, security officials had been gathering information about writers and poets. Officials interrogated writers routinely after they had attended international events or even private parties. And after being summoned for questioning by security officials, some of these writers would scarcely be able to do any cultural work for some time. Some of them decided to leave Iran forever.

The background check, however, was only the first barrier in Iran’s obstacle course of censorship. Auditors were given books on subjects about which they had no specialist knowledge. Most of them were students assigned to security agencies who, besides following unwritten and verbal instructions, acted according to their own tastes and views. Sometimes one auditor would approve words and phrases that another auditor would condemn using his red pencil.

But auditors and security officials were not the only ones to decide the fate of books in those years. During the eight years that Ahmadinejad and hardliners held the helm, the security agencies created news organizations to spread propaganda and build cases against undesirable cultural, economic and political trends. Their made-up dossiers led to bans on publishing houses and publications and, in some cases, indictments against writers.

Those who created the accusatory “bulletins” acted in concert with officials high up in the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance. At one point, their stitch-ups resulted in the closure of 12 publishing houses, five of which were not reopened, even following appeals.

By 2013, when the people voted for the moderate Hassan Rouhani to become Iran’s president, book publishing was in such dire straits that it became a campaign slogan. Rouhani talked about doing away with auditing. His handpicked culture minister took up the slogan and promised to get rid of security lists.

But it has not turned out quite that way. News organizations fronting for the security establishment did not miss the message, and instead turned their guns on Jannati. The first assault was so intense that he retreated. The “auditing” board is still busy and, although censorship according to the tastes of unspecialized auditors has been reduced, lists of banned words are still in effect and operations to frame writers and their unpublished works continue.

Writers have found one way to fight censorship in Iran. They insert a telling “...” wherever something has disappeared in the censorship slaughterhouse, hoping that the reader will somehow get the message.

Maybe this act can be taken as a joke, said playwright and theater director Mohammad Rezaei Rad. “But such jokes often refer to gruesome realities. What this joke tries to point out with its ‘...’ is that a voice has been silenced.”


Zohreh Baboli, Citizen Journalist, Abadan



Related articles:

The Provocative Chicken: Iran's Censors Pressure Advertisers, Novelists

Censorship Is Not Funny

From Brautigan to Bukowski: Why are American Authors so Big in Iran?


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