In yet another sweep of crackdowns, Iranian authorities have again deemed dog ownership as illegal, citing religion and Western opposition as its reasoning. “Friendship with dogs is a blind imitation of the West,” Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi declared a year ago. “There are lots of people in the West who love their dogs more than their wives and children.”
Their rationale lies behind the religious decree that dogs are najas, religiously dirty, therefore owning one is haram, sinful. The dictate is a generalizing one: according to the Qu’aran, it’s not the dog itself that’s considered najas, but its saliva and the moisture on its nose, and they weren’t declared dirty for religiosity, but for health reasons. Remember, Islam predates the domestication of many animals, and at that time, dogs carried a wealth of diseases and bacteria in both their mouths and their noses.
Nowhere in the Qu’aran does it say you should shun animals, and in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Islam teaches stewardship of a Muslim’s environment, and that includes co-existing and protecting animals, even dogs. Yet it also teaches respecting the different living spaces between humans and animals, and at the time, dogs were not domesticated enough to bring into the home without posing a risk to the family’s health.
Dogs have long maintained a presence in Iran, even found on pottery pieces excavated near the walls of Persepolis, notes the Vafa Animal Shelter, and they were used as companions for hunting and guarding long before pets became popular in the West. However, keeping a dog inside the home has never been as culturally prevalent in the Middle East as it is in the West. Until recently, dog ownership was limited to a tight circle of the Westernized elite in Iran. Yet access to satellite TV and the internet has made it not only more mainstream, but also a sign of social status, making the war on dogs less about religion and more about control. “The authorities can’t stop people from buying expensive cars or clothes or jewelry. But the can prevent them from displaying their wealth by keeping pet dogs on the grounds that they are unclean,” said an analyst in Tehran.
And while the law against dogs is nothing new, the crackdown behind it is, marking this summer the first time dogs owners can face criminal charges. First-time offenders face a fine of up to five million rial, close to $500 USD, if their dog is seen in public. They’re given a ten-day period to get rid of the dog, or the authorities will confiscate the dog themselves. Cars can be impounded and driver’s licenses suspended if police catch the dog outside of its carrier. The punishment has only led dog owners to become discreet, either through waiting until the middle of the night or even driving hours out of the city just to walk their dogs.
“I used to take him out for walks but the police have stopped me several times and threatened to confiscate him,” Sanaz, an art student in Tehran who owns a St. Bernard puppy, told the Wall Street Journal, “so I just take him to the roof of our apartment building now and pray he doesn’t bark.”
Milad, 24, was chased by the police because they caught his white terrier sitting in the front seat. When Milad arrived home and opened the car door for his pet to escape, police pulled a gun on the dog. “I threw myself on my dog and said, ‘You have to shoot me before you kill him,’” he recounted. After neighbors came out in his defense, police backed off, but not without suspending Milad’s driver’s license for six months and impounding his car for three months.
Yet, as is the case of many other “illegal” activities in Iran, the threat of punishment doesn’t eradicate the action, but rather, pushes it underground, where many Iranians have made an art out of evading authorities and maneuvering loopholes. In the case of dogs, criminalizing them has only created a doggy black market, and the buyers are willing to pay big for what they can’t have. Buying a puppy in Iran can cost anywhere between $500 and $10,000, and the trade is so covert, vendors will sometimes blindfold buyers before taking them to the kennel. “After a while I didn’t know if I was buying a dog or dealing in an international drug trade,” said businessman Ali Shekouri.
“It’s the latest fashion now to buy each other puppies as birthday gifts,” 25-year-old Amin told the Wall Street Journal. He recently bought a German Shepard puppy in a village two hours outside of Tehran.
The sale typically starts online, where popular websites such as Woof Woof Iran Digital Pets, and Persianpet, offer resources and outlets on buying, grooming, and even bragging about the illicit pet pooch. Potential buyers are interviewed, screened, even interrogated to make sure they are not part of the secret police. Importing dogs is illegal, but Iranians traveling from other countries are allowed to bring their pets on commercial flights, so websites like Rashtpet and Petpars smuggle puppies into the country by paying these Iranians to claim the pets as theirs. The practice is common enough that flights from Ukraine have been nicknamed “puppy flights” because of the number of “claimed” dogs it brings into the country. Some dogs are smuggled in as cargo on tour buses and trucks coming in from Armenia and Turkey.
“We have a large and very capable network expanding from Iran to Europe and beyond to help unite Iranians with dogs,” claims the owner of Petpars.
It’s also a network that unites Iranians with both the virtual world and the domestic realm, where they have more freedom behind closed doors than in public spaces. If you can’t change a law, you might as well give it the finger. By banning dogs, the government turned them into novelties, because with them comes not just the desire to emulate the West, but also the urge to defy the Iranian government. Sometimes passive aggression speaks louder than outright protest.
Photo courtesy of Hamed Saber via flickr.