Shameless Insta-bragging or a message of political defiance?
From the Rich Kids of Tehran Facebook page Rich Kids of Instagram is an account used by obnoxiously wealthy young guys and girls to flaunt their minted lifestyle to lowly strangers. A circle jerk of Rolexes and people pouring bottles of San Pellegrino down toilets. More recently, a bunch of copy-cat Instagram accounts have been created by well-off kids around the world. Perhaps the most popular of these spin-offs is the Rich Kids of Tehran, which offers a glimpse at Iran's golden youth.
RKoT follows the same template and stays faithful to its predecessor's preferred subjects: first-class brat mobiles, massive villas, and hot girls in bikinis. This brazen parade of cash, flesh, and champagne might seem surprising, given that it's coming out of a largely conservative, Muslim country—out of a culture that objects to iconography, where alcohol is prohibited and immodest dressing a crime.
Since the Iranian revolution of 1979—and, with it, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's new vision of an Islamic Republic of Iran—stern religious decrees still regulate social life, and the wearing of the hijab is still compulsory for girls in the country. In September last year, seven people who released a video of themselves dancing to Pharrell Williams's song "Happy" were arrested and given suspended sentences of up to one year in prison, as well as 91 lashes.
However, Iranian youth have managed to find room to maneuver, and the space in which they do it is largely online. On the Rich Kids of Tehran Instagram page, the country's strict government policies meet its aspirational youth culture head on. And for RKoT, so far, so good—none of the kids featured have been officially challenged or faced any judicial reprisal, despite all the photos of champagne and plunging V-neck-dresses.
When I asked one of the founders of RKoT if they were facing any governmental or judicial backlash, he mentioned a filter being imposed on the account that requires a VPN in order to access it from within the country. This type of filter is apparently imposed on many other apps and websites in Iran, as the government has put particular effort into filtering the net and implementing "smart" internet censorship against sites they deem inappropriate or immoral.
After two super expensive luxury cars crashed last month, killing five people—one of the RKoT guys was at the wheel—Ali Khamenei stopped sweeping the problem under the carpet and intervened in the media, publicly condemning "a generation intoxicated by their money" causing "psychological insecurity" in Tehran. Still, no action has been taken against the page and it's still online.
So, how are the Rich Kids of Tehran getting away with it? Talking to 24-year-old Hamid, who follows the account, he explained that "80 percent of the kids feeding the account are the offsprings of the ruling elite." RKoT is not simply about a wealthy minority, he said, but is the showcase of a political class's progeny—exactly the same political class that advocates modest behavior and self-restraint.
When I talked to some other Iranian followers of RKoT, I questioned them about the contradiction between a conservative elite denouncing a phenomenon of " Westoxication" and the existence of such a barefaced carnival of wealth. One of them, a 27-year-old artist called Saba, reminded me that, even if those kids were close (one way or another) to the people in power in Iran, it was "nouveaux riches" we were talking about and not traditional aristocracy, who remain more discreet about their wealth.
She said: "In traditional Iranian culture, we are actually not supposed to show off what we own, as we shouldn't hurt the feelings of the underprivileged."
When I spoke to the guys running the account, they were quick to defend its message. They think it shows off a more liberal, modern Iran than that portrayed elsewhere. Looking through the tweets the account gathers, it's easy to sense this desire to portray a different type of Iran; a few slogans, such as "We Don't Ride Camels," or "Stuff They Don't Want to See About Iran," punctuate the barrage of images, denouncing an inaccurate image of the country and trying to situate RKoT on the edge of proving something political. But who were "they"—the Iranian government (which didn't really make sense if these are their kids' selfies)? Or those in the West?
In an email exchange, the guys from the account made it clear: "Generally speaking, 'they' refers to the media who have printed a fabricated, scary image of Iran for their political goals, so basically you will see the 'Stuff They Don't Want You To See About Iran!'" He added: "Over the past eight years, 98 percent of the news has been about Iran's politics, sanctions, and nuclear issues. The Western media have used these topics to create a picture about Iran which would benefit their political agendas."
This desire to show a different side of Iran was a running theme among everyone I contacted. Saba, who doesn't seem to hold RKoT particularly dear, wrote in our email exchange: "I don't oppose them because, as an Iranian young girl, I would like the international community to understand that Iran is not what they think it is. We don't systematically wear veils and our men don't grow chest-long beards. In Iran, people party, dance, sing, drink alcohol, smoke, go out on dates."
The backlash the account has provoked comes not only from the people in power, but also from the internet at large. Recently, an Instagram page called Poor Kids of Tehran was created, displaying pictures of Iran's poorest. When I confronted the guys running RKoT about it, one argued that the country's poverty had nothing to do with their wealth. "Iran has been under heavy sanctions for over a decade by the West, which has almost crippled Iran's economics. There are more poor people in Europe and North America than there are in Iran, and these countries have no sanctions being imposed upon them," he said.
For all their claims, I find it hard to believe that the account was set up to challenge any great global image of Iran; it was set up, almost definitely, so rich kids could flaunt their wealth. However, with its mere existence, it does also succeed in skirting preconceptions, even if what it's revealing is just a tiny minority of Iranian youth.