Proliferating Iranian weblogs give voice to taboo topics

In a recent entry, LadySun - the handle used by a feisty online diarist - takes aim at the strict dress code for women, grumbling about a guard who wouldn't let her into a hotel, "cuz I wasn't wearing socks!!"

It is easy to see why she is celebrated by her fans as the "emotional voice of Iran's Generation X." Whether the subject is partying or politics, football or feminism, she writes with feeling, and often humor.

A proliferating form of alternative expression in the Islamic Republic, such online journals are a fascinating insight into a closed society, airing issues that may be taboo in public and revealing the underground lives of many young Iranians.

For some, they are an opportunity to write about boyfriends or girlfriends, to discuss film and music, or dwell on fears and aspirations. LadySun, a 20 something professor of English (ladysun.blogspot.com) calls her digital jottings "my naked observations from this crazy world of words and worries and wishes."

Unsurprisingly, however, in recent days many Iranian bloggers are writing about the student-led demonstrations and street violence that has rocked Tehran.

LadySun tells of a raid on a student dormitory by Islamic vigilantes who struck like a "thunderstorm" in the night.

"Dormitories are evacuated and in ruins. Examinations are suspended. Students are wounded, not only physically, but very much emotionally and mentally."

She hates the "pressure groups" (Islamic vigilantes) that use violence to suppress the protests and is fed up with the reformist camp she sees as powerless to tackle "all this chaos."

Her entry reflects the widespread feelings of frustration over the political deadlock holding back change in Iran.

And no-one is spared LadySun's criticism. She lambastes "this stupid Bush" who has "no idea what kind of people Iranians are" yet releases statements in support of the students. "Where were he and his fellow neoconservative friends when the same Saddam Hussein was bombing Iran with chemical weapons?" she demands.

Most bloggers write from inside Iran, so their personal journals cannot be branded as American-backed by Islamic conservatives, who for the first time last month began blocking pornography and other websites deemed obscene or subversive.

"They [blogs] are individual, they're new and they're in Iran - this is the most important thing," says Hossein Derakhshan, a veteran Iranian blogger (hoder.com/weblog), and former journalist for reformist newspapers in Iran before he moved two years ago. He worked out an easy way to show Persian letters and characters on the Internet, a protocol which Iran's 20,000 bloggers now use.

An Internet boom in Iran has seen the number of users soar by 90 percent in the past year, with about three million users in a population of 65 million - half of them under 25. Some 15 million are expected to be online within the next four years.

It remains unclear how far the old guard - challenged by demonstrations at home and hostile American rhetoric abroad - will move to restrict Internet use as it has with foreign satellite channels.

When Internet cafes became popular four years ago, Islamic conservatives saw the Web as the West's latest high-tech weapon in its assault on Islamic values.

One ayatollah railed that pictures that "threaten all of humanity and chastity" could hurtle down phone lines at the speed of light.

But Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president, argued that keeping abreast of information technology was essential if Iran's relationship with the West was to develop on equal footing.

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