A file photo of people picnicking on Sizdah Bedar

Confusion Erupts As Iran Government Tries To Restrict Spring Picnic

Sunday, 03/31/2024

The Iranian government initially announced the closure of public parks on 'Sizdah Bedar,' the last day of Norouz holidays on April 1, when Iranians traditionally picnic outdoors, but later backtracked in the face of public opposition.

This year, the death anniversary of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Shiite imam – which changes every year according to the lunar calendar -- also falls on April 1, prompting the Islamic government to try to prevent dancing and merry-making by millions of people on Sizdah Bedar. In addition to Imam Ali's death anniversary, it is still Ramadan when it is forbidden to eat and drink during daytime.

While governors and local police in several provinces have announced closure of parks and recreational areas on the spring picnic day, the Interior Ministry has denied any official directive for such restrictions. However, during Ramadan, Iranians, including those exempt from fasting, are required to abstain from eating, drinking, and smoking in public, even if they are inside their cars.

On Saturday, the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) news agency, cited the Interior Ministry as saying that all parks, public gardens, and recreational areas would be closed on Sizdah Bedar due to the death anniversary of the first Shiite Imam and the "sanctity" of the month of Ramadan.

A billboard in the city of Najafabad in Esfahan province announcing that parks are closed on April 1, 2024

Last year, authorities closed parks and blocked roads to northern forests and other locations where people traditionally picnic on this day, but videos posted on social media showed huge crowds singing and dancing despite the restrictions and even chasing away the government-sponsored vigilantes from their picnic grounds. 

Local authorities in several provinces, including East Azarbaijan, Yazd, Qazvin, Mazandaran, Golestan and Gilan, have announced that parks are closed to the public until sunset, when people are allowed to eat and drink. For instance, Mehdi Amadeh, the prosecutor of Dezful in Khuzestan province, announced the establishment of "patrol and inspection teams" to deal with people he described as "norm-breakers" on Sizdah Bedar.

The IRIB also reported that museums and historical sites under the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Tourism, and Handicrafts would also be closed.

However, several hours after the report was published, other state-run media outlets quoted Majid Mirahmadi, the Deputy Interior Minister for Security, as denying the closures.

A file photo of people picnicking on Sizdah Bedar

It is unclear whether the Interior Ministry has actually made a decision about park closures or if they are avoiding public responsibility for the decision previously communicated to provincial authorities.

This is not the first time park closures on Sizdah Bedar have become a source of contention between the regime and the people. For over four decades since the early years of the Islamic Republic, the religious autocracy has opposed the celebration of ancient festivals, including the Persian New Year Norouz and Sizdah Bedar. Instead, they have sought to substitute them with Islamic calendar events such as Eid al-Fitr, Eid ul-Adha, Mab’ath (the beginning of the Prophet Muhammad’s mission), and the birthdays of the Prophet and Shiite Imams.

However, despite warnings and threats every year, the regime reluctantly tolerates some of the country’s ancient festivals such as the New Year and other occasions such as Sizdah Bedar due to their extreme popularity. Nevertheless, after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 it renamed Sizdah Bedar as Nature Day because the religious establishment particularly opposed the “superstition” implied by it. 'Sizdah Bedar' means good-riddance to the 13th day after Norouz.

Most Iranians, even many religious families, however, have not forsaken their beloved ancient festivals and continue to celebrate them, sometimes even alongside religious occasions.

The government's attempt to regulate public conduct clashes with the public's yearning to uphold cultural identity and embrace traditional liberties, transforming a mere picnic on Sizdah Bedar into an act of civil disobedience.

According to an audio file sent by an Iran International viewer, “The Islamic Republic wants to take away the joy of the Iranian people by any means necessary. But we will use even the smallest places to celebrate Sizdah Bedar.”

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