Page last updated at 00:00 GMT, Monday, 8 June 2009 01:00 UK

Iran: Rap, blogs and the political mix

By Jane Corbin
BBC Panorama, Tehran

Sixteen years after visiting Iran to report for BBC's Panorama, and just as President Barack Obama makes overtures to the Islamic world, Jane Corbin returned on the eve of presidential elections.

Jane Corbin and rapper 'Nobody'
Rapper 'Nobody' tackles God and nationalism in his music

She found a country with a burgeoning underground music scene, a love of cosmetic surgery and an internet savvy young electorate eager to make their own mark 30 years on from the Islamic Revolution.

After so many years, the Tehran I discovered was a capital of contrasts, reflecting a true - and deepening - divide in this nation of 72 million people.

People here told me that while they remain committed to the values of the Islamic Revolution, they are hungry for all that modern life has to offer.

On the streets, many push the limits of Islamic dress code, despite the lurking presence of the morality police, at the ready to arrest those deemed to have gone too far.

At the moment, that fashion is for brightly coloured silk headscarves and big sunglasses. Instead of conservative black head coverings and flowing robes, many women today are sporting a shock of dyed blonde hair pushed out provocatively from under their headscarves.

The trends extend to the popularity of plastic surgery, with surprising numbers of people - both women and men - walking the streets with post-surgical bandages on their faces.

Richard Dimbleby Panorama 1961

Tehran, it turns out, is the plastic surgery capital of the Middle East.

Perhaps even more surprising in a country where homosexuality is banned and gay people can be hanged, sex change operations are sanctioned by religious decree.

It is with this younger, more liberal Iran that Britain, America and Europe hope to connect. This nation is one of young people - 60% of the population are under 30 - a reality that worries religious and political authorities.

Controlling this post-revolution generation is not easy.

Tight lid

The conservative government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tries hard to keep a tight lid on the country.

Indeed, it is one of the hardest places to film and to find people willing to open up and tell you what they really think - especially when it comes to politics. Repression remains and while there is some freedom of expression, saying the wrong thing can - and does -land Iranians in jail.

But thanks to the youthful make-up of today, there is also a thriving underground scene of musicians, artists and bloggers. These are the people who are changing Iranian society in ways which are beyond the reach of those who control the political arena.

Some of us have to be pioneers and later the rest of the people will join us to shape change. We have no other option…we're going through a time of transition and I really hope it will bear fruit soon
Asieh, underground women's rights blogger

In a basement flat, where I was carefully regarded through a spyhole before being allowed in, a powerful wave of sound hit me immediately.

It is produced by one young man fighting back against censorship. He is a rapper called 'Nobody' and his music, although American in origin, is very much Iranian in content.

'Nobody' raps about God and nationalism along with social commentary. He has even written a rap in defense of Iran's right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

'Western, decadent'

The authorities regard 'Nobody's' music as western and decadent and he is banned from performing and forbidden to travel.

Yet his music and his messages are performed at night on rooftops in the city and downloaded by young Iranians in defiance of the ban.

"The Islamic Revolution was a big thing and it was good," 'Nobody' explained. "But it was the older generation who made it and our generation has to build everything from within - rather than going backwards we must try and go forwards."

Jane Corbin
Asieh's internet savvy generation easily circumvent blocked sites
Information is spread here in ways which are difficult for the Islamic authorities to stop. Television is state-controlled but at least a third of Iranians have satellite dishes, offering glimpses of the world beyond its borders.

The government is nervous about the BBC's popular new Persian Service, beamed in from outside. Thanks to home computers, rather than the internet cafes of a decade ago, monitoring of the internet is largely beyond the reach of the authorities.

The government still tries. It recently blocked Facebook for a couple of days because the opposition was using it to campaign successfully among young supporters in the upcoming presidential election.

Asieh, a smiling young mother in a bright orange scarf, ushered us quickly and discreetly into her flat. A campaigner for women's rights Asieh uses her blog to expose and publicise cases of stoning and execution.

She showed me grim pictures - graves she had discovered and pictures of a girl in red curled up lifeless on a floor. Officially, such executions are no longer approved by the government, but some judges still pass death sentences for adultery.

Internet savvy

When Asieh attempted to show me her website it was blocked by the authorities - a normal occurrence.

But, just like her computer savvy Iranian audience, she is a step ahead. She uses filter busters to easily reach her latest posting.

"Some of us have to be pioneers and later the rest of the people will join us to shape change," said Asieh. "We have no other option…we're going through a time of transition and I really hope it will bear fruit soon."

Many young Iranians say they are not interested in politics and that their society will change regardless of their leaders, even if it is a slow process.

But the reformist candidates in Friday's elections - Mir Hossein Mousavi is seen as the biggest threat to Mr Ahmadinejad -- hope that young people who have never bothered to vote before will embrace their message of change and attempts to secure better relations with the West and turn out at polling stations in large numbers.

Panorama: Obama and the Ayatollah, Monday, 8 June, BBC One at 2030BST.

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