Small Ways to Protest an Oppressive Government

The government of Iran has cracked down on election protests, but the Green Wave refuses to go quietly into that good night. When you can't flood the streets, how do you register your dissent? Over the years, activists around the globe have evaded surveillance, dodged legal action, and escaped oppression in dozens of mind-bending styles. These techniques might not overthrow governments, but they could embarrass or undermine them in small ways. Here are some of the more creative examples.

The Burmese antigovernment protests of 2007 are usually associated with the maroon and saffron robes of Buddhist monks. But there's another garment that has pressured the military regime: women's underwear. Panties for Peace was a campaign launched by a Burmese peace activist group based in Thailand to emphasize the military's violations of human rights, especially violations committed against women, including rape and other forms of sexual violence. Participants would mail out panties—and occasionally men's underwear—to Burmese embassies around the world as an insulting gesture. The idea was inspired by the superstitions of the ruling generals, who thought touching women's undergarments would reduce their powers. (That's hardly their wackiest superstition: in 2005, junta leader Than Shwe relocated the nation's capital to the middle of a jungle on the advice of an astrologer.) Panties for Peace went global, and undies were posted from Australia to Brazil. The campaign regained speed in 2008 in response to the junta's irresponsible handling of the Cyclone Nargis crisis.

Students harassed Burmese generals by ruining their good night's sleep: they would call generals' homes in the middle of the night, waking them up to convey a message: "We want democracy!" The sleepy general at the other end of the line would often shout in annoyance (further rousing them), but he knew another call would be coming the next night. In order to avoid being identified, the callers used an international line and a satellite phone.

Following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's dubious reelection, Iran has seen the largest mass demonstrations since the 1979 revolution. Although demonstrators have fought off tear gas and batons on the streets, they're also responding with more innocuous weapons at home: toasters and blow dryers. On July 7, as Ahmadinejad gave his first televised speech after the election, defiant Iranians collectively plugged in their household appliances in an attempt to cause electrical blackouts and prevent the president's message from being heard inside people's homes. Students behind the tactic plotted through Twitter (surprise!) to coordinate the electrical protest and share the bright news with each other as lights went out in various Iranians towns.

More than just blocking the government's voice, protestors also found a way to spread their own message anonymously. After demonstrations were broken up, members of the so-called Green Wave began writing messages on paper money. Pro-Mousavi statements circulate widely as bills make their way from one hand to another.

Anything green will do for a simple sign of dissent or solidarity, but stocks of green items have been badly depleted in Iran. Green balloons—released into the air during protests, for example—have run out, leaving Iranians to improvise. In their place, they've floated green plastic bags. Painting the streets green at night, another activity to express dissent, has been restricted after the government started monitoring the sales of green paint. The solution? Iranians are mixing yellow and blue.

Iran isn't the only country where citizens have used light—or the lack of it—to draw attention to their demands. In 1996, a car accident near Istanbul unleashed a titanic political scandal. The car was carrying a parliamentarian, a former Istanbul police chief, and the leader of a crime syndicate, who together exposed the cozy relationship between political parties, law enforcement, and organized crime. The outrage led to a national debate over the lack of transparency in politics.

With a campaign that lasted for more than a month, Turkish citizens protested government corruption and the feeble investigation. Popularized with the slogan "One minute of darkness for perpetual light," thousands of furious citizens across the country turned off their lights for a minute at exactly 9 p.m. every night. The protest eventually evolved, so that protestors flickered their lights and honked car horns, and it lasted until the military pressured the government to step down in 1997. It is believed by some to be the largest case of mass protesting in Turkish history, with the participation of millions, according to some estimates.

The Palestinian struggle for self-determination took on a violent flavor during the intifadas, or "uprisings," in 1987 and 2000. But some Palestinians have opted for more peaceful methods in their plight. While protesters in the first intifada threw stones, others made their point with wristwatches: when Israelis switched to daylight savings time in 1988, Palestinians symbolically rejected their authority by keeping standard time. Israeli soldiers didn't always respond well, sometimes breaking watches set to the wrong hour.

More recently, activists offended by a simplistic Israeli peace message decided to test it out. The object of their disgust was a TV commercial for Cellcom, where Israeli soldiers play soccer with unseen Palestinians across the separation barrier. To demonstrate how unlikely this actually was, residents of Bilin, in the West Bank, kicked a soccer ball across the real fence toward the Israeli soldiers. Instead of a friendly game of soccer, what they got in return was tear gas grenades. Activists, who anticipated such a response, videotaped the protest and created a spoof of the commercial.

Women took the spotlight in protests against Marxist President Salvador Allende in the early 1970s, when they marched the streets in crowds of thousands. During the demonstrations, they banged on empty pots and pans with ladles, nearly deafening downtown Santiago. While the empty pots were meant to bring attention to widespread food shortages, the women also voiced their general discontent with the president as well as their concerns over a increasing acts of violence in the country. The march in December 1971, planned to coincide with Fidel Castro's visit to Chile, began peacefully but ended in chaos when security forces beat many women and Allende declared a state of emergency.

Unlike typical revolutionaries, women who participated in the March of Empty Pots were mothers and housewives from well-off families. They were more likely to be spotted on the street heading to a fancy movie gala than screaming obscenities at the president and clashing with military police. Yet these elite women were very influential in creating an unstable political moment that eventually led to a military coup by Augusto Pinochet in 1973.

Never has a shoe received so much attention off the runway. After an Iraqi reporter hurled his shoe at President Bush during a press conference, residents of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, erected a statue commemorating the footwear. Around 400 people gathered to honor the journalist, Muntazer al-Zaidi, by unveiling the sofa-sized monument in a ceremony took place at an orphanage. (Throwing his loafer, al-Zaidi had shouted: "This is for the widows and orphans." The statue was built with the help of children whose parents had died in the U.S.-led invasion.) A poem dedicated to al-Zaidi was inscribed at the base of the statue and a highly symbolic bush was planted inside the shoe.

Although the $5,000 statue made the statement it intended to, it didn't survive long. It was taken down within two days following a request by the provincial government not to use government property for political purposes. Nonetheless, it showed that al-Zaidi's feelings toward Bush were shared by other Iraqis. And it wasn't the first time Iraqis used footwear to express their contempt: after Saddam's ouster, Iraqis beat his toppled statue with their shoes. An assault with a shoe is considered one of the worst insults in Arab culture.