Last Week, 18 year-old Iranian, Maedeh Hojabri, was arrested after posting a video of herself dancing with uncovered hair to her large Instagram following, the last social media platform not be blocked by government censors. While charges against Hojabri have not been detailed, she will presumably be accused of breaking the strict Islamic codes of dress and behaviour. Iran’s Sharia law requires women to wear a headscarf and dress modestly whilst outside their homes, and they are banned from dancing in public.
Last Friday, Iranian State TV aired Hojabri’s apology for “breaking moral norms,” in what activists say was an involuntary appearance. “I had no bad intentions” a crying Hojabri conceded, “I did not want to encourage others to do the same.”
Predictably, there has been public and international backlash against the arrest, with supporters uploading their own dancing videos alongside the hashtag #dancingisnotacrime.
For Iranian-American journalist Negar Mortazavi, the 18 year-old’s detention, coupled with the controversial issue of compulsory headscarves, has become a “very politicized issue” affecting all Iranian women. Caught in the “crossfire,” she said, are ordinary women who simply wish to make their own choices “without caring for the political” consequences.
Political protester Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki wrote on Instagram, “If you told people anywhere in the world that 17 and 18-year-old girls are arrested for their dance, happiness and beauty on charges of spreading indecency, while child rapists and others are free, they would laugh! Because for them, it’s unbelievable!”
Reformist cleric Mohamad Taghi Fazel Maybodi did not comment directly on Hojabri’s conduct, but underscored the irony of the authorities’ inability to solve the much larger issue of corruption. “Which embezzler has so far come to the national media to confess to corruption and plunder of public assets?” He asked, “which one’s a greater sin – dancing or stealing of public resources?”
In contrast, Elham Kadkhodaee, Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Tehran, said that in the light of international condemnation, it is “important” to remember Iran’s unique culture and traditions in the debate. Kadkhodaee argued that social media material is clearly “part of the public sphere” and that it is reasonable for “any sovereign state” to enforce its laws “in that sphere.”
Islam demands privacy for both women and families however, State televised confessions of detained teenagers such a Hojabri is a clear contradiction of this religious tradition. Not only is the individual affected but, according to Maybodi, the confession puts a “stain” on their family. It is a shame to see Hojabri who, in her 300 dance videos, portrays the picture of youth and innocent excitement, without any outward political motivation, has been dragged into a fierce political debate.
Sadly, Hojabri’s story is not an uncommon one. In April, an Iranian official was arrested for “undermining public decency” after sharing footage of young boys and girls dancing in the streets of Mashhad. In 2014, three unveiled women and three men were arrested for sharing videos of themselves dancing on Tehran rooftops to Pharrell William’s song, Happy. They each received suspended sentences of one year imprisonment and 91 lashes for their ‘crime.’
Right now, the Iranian government is dealing with a host of urgent issues, intensified by widespread protests over their inefficiency in solving them. These problems range from a collapsing currency through to severe water shortages and increasing sanction impositions, making the State’s focus on Hojabri even more astonishing. With each arrest, the international support for these dance-loving individuals has only grown. In this unwinnable battle, why not just let the women dance?
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