Iranian Women Dance on Social Media to Resist Government’s Attempts to Stifle Freedoms

When 19-year old Iranian teenager Maedeh Hojabri filmed videos of herself happily dancing in her bedroom to American and Iranian pop music and posted them on Instagram, she didn’t think she would end up in prison.

Photo courtesy Maedeh Hojabri

When 19-year old Iranian teenager Maedeh Hojabri filmed videos of herself happily dancing in her bedroom to American and Iranian pop music and posted them on Instagram, she didn’t think she would end up in prison.

Iranian authorities clamped down and arrested her without warning and without specific charges. That sparked an Internet campaign and a nationwide debate over the prohibition on women dancing in Iran.

A month after her arrest in May, Hojabri appeared in a broadcast on the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Underscoring the message with menacing music, the program juxtaposed emotional, apologetic “confessions” by her and other young people deemed morally corrupt because of their social media presences, next to authoritative men warning of moral bankruptcy. In Hojabri’s “confession,” her face was blurred, and shown in shadow in a dimly lit room. The back wall of the room displayed a projection of a spider web.

Hojabri’s several Instagram accounts had garnered around 600,000 followers and more than a million views. Under Iranian sharia law, it is illegal for a woman to dance in public. During her TV “confession,” Hojabri admitted that dancing is a crime and that she had broken “moral norms,” but that she had “no bad intentions” and “did not want to encourage others to do the same.”

Iran’s arrest of Hojabri and broadcast of her “confession” met with widespread criticism and backlash. Responding to criticism of the TV station’s broadcast of what appeared to be forced confessions, the IRIB’s public relations director defended the media outlet, saying, “judicial authorities had asked [us]” to air the program. One incredulous Iranian Twitter user asked, “For whom would [this confession] serve as a lesson, seriously?”

A reformist Iranian cleric, Mohamad Taghi Fazel Maybodi, condemned the IRIB for invading “the privacy of women and families,” a right on which “Islam insists.” He called religious hardliners “ignorant” and underlined the hypocrisy of publically castigating a dancing teen while corruption persists in the government without arrests or public confessions: “Which one’s a great sin – dancing or stealing…public resources?”

Religious jurisprudence, no matter the religion, is inherently complicated, as different interpretations of the same source material can produce thoroughly divergent results. In Islam, the Qur’an and the hadith (recorded words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad) are the source material.

The religious interpretations made by Iran’s founding Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, form the basis of the country’s theocratic-democratic legal structure. One of the few direct prohibitions mentioned in the Qur’an is “frivolous discourse” that leads one “astray from Allah’s path.” Khomeini, as other conservative jurists around the Muslim world have done, saw dancing as a “frivolous” act that “seduces” one away from God. He thus banned dancing entirely in his new Islamic Republic.

This, of course, is the subject of perennial debate amongst jurists and scholars within and outside of Iran. The hadith, with their several, conflicting statements on music and dancing, complicate the conversation. Forms of dance performed by women like the Moroccan shikhat or Egyptian raqs baladi (belly dance) are loved by the people as cultural treasures and at the same time censured by conservative critics.

Specifically, Iran prohibits adult women – which it defines as nine years and older – from dancing in front of anyone but their husbands. In the spring, a video circulated showing a group of 8-year old girls dancing to traditional music at an International Women’s Day event in Tehran with both men and women in the cheering crowd. Religious hardliners were outraged, condemning local mayor Ali Najafi for organizing such an “immoral ceremony” that was “destroying the culture of our country.” These critics described the girls as “women,” even though they were all younger than nine years old. Najafi apologized, but asserted that given their ages, the dance was “not un-Islamic.” Nevertheless, soon afterwards, he resigned.

Supporters denounced the hardliners. One Twitter user wrote, “It’s shameful that you have such a filthy mind when you look at these children,” implying that if they see dancing 8-year olds as provocative, they must also see them as sexual beings.

Another justification used in Iran for prohibiting women from dancing is similar to that used by conservative Christian groups in the U.S.: women who dance encourage “unlawful passions” in men and could lead to illegal sexual acts, which in turn could degrade the regimented social fabric. According to this view, women’s bodies are blamed for the offences caused by unbridled male libidos.

The arrest of Maedeh Hojabri is not unprecedented in Iran. In 2014, six young people – male and female – were arrested, shamed on state television, and threatened with lashes for their video remake of American pop star Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” One of these, Reihane Taravati, later became an Instagram celebrity and posted, in solidarity with Hojabri, “They don’t seem to learn from what they did in the past…Dancing is in our culture, it’s a way of showing happiness.”

Another video surfaced this year of a mixed gender concert audience at a shopping mall. Some of the women in the audience swayed with their friends. Men and women are prohibited from mingling in public in Iran. Hardliners decried the concert as an “offence against public decency” and eventually arrested the head of the local Islamic guidance department, which had authorized the event.

In the past week, Iranian news sources reported that authorities arrested at least 40 more people – men and women – in the city of Bandar Abbas for “immoral” behavior on social media. Those arrested are Instagram models, photographers, and beauty salon owners. They were accused of “damaging public virtue through the organised spreading of anti-cultural” activities. A similar wave of arrests occurred in 2016, when female Instagram models posted pictures of themselves without hijabs.

Iran’s strict moral code gets blurry when digital reality enters the picture. Women are required in public in Iran to wear hair-covering hijabs and are forbidden from dancing. These rules do not apply in the privacy of the home. In most of her videos filmed at home, Maedeh Hojabri is not wearing a hijab. She and the other Instagram arrestees took their photos and filmed videos in private, but then shared them on one of the most public of platforms. The smartphone’s unprecedented ability to render the private public is problematic for Iran’s conservative rulers.

While religious lawmakers have tended to allow Iranians freedom within the walls of their homes, the public sphere is heavily policed. President Hassan Rouhani, who ran on a campaign that promised broader freedoms, has tried to defend the digital sphere. But, facing criticism after Hojabri’s arrest, he absolved himself from responsibility, explaining that the judiciary responsible for the arrest reports only to Supreme Leader Ali Khameini.

Iran has banned Facebook, Twitter and the messaging app Telegram since 2009 (though they are still widely used, via virtual private networks). Authorities now are threatening to put Instagram on the chopping block as well. The New York Times reported that national police commander Kamal Hadianfar warned of Instagram-related arrests and said that 51,000 accounts were “under police surveillance for vulgar and obscene videos,” or, as the judiciary termed it, “unwanted content.”

As in many countries worldwide, Iran’s 24-million-user strong Instagram market allows hundreds of Iranians make a living from their online presence. An Instagram ban would endanger their livelihoods. More profoundly, it would snuff out yet another platform used by the Iranian populace, especially women, to resist an oppressive regime.

For whatever moral justifications it gives, the regime also fears Instagram’s ability to empower and mobilize opposition. A hardline politician explained Instagram as a benign application that “Westerners” have turned into a “mischievous tool for dangerous subversive actions against the state or pornographic purposes.”

Indeed, Instagram has been a platform for defiance and protest in Iran. In solidarity with Maedeh Hojabri, Iranian women of all ages, in and outside of the country, have posted videos of themselves dancing without hijabs on Twitter and Instagram. Thousands of other posts, many by popular public figures, have shown their support with the hashtag #DancingIsNotACrime. One Twitter user posted a video of herself dancing in the street to a busking violinist. The caption reads: “Art is the language of the souls, highest of the hopes, not a crime. Souls die when you confiscate the art.”

Social media has also been used specifically to protest the compulsory hijab law. Widely shared videos reveal male and female morality police verbally and physically assaulting women for being improperly veiled. Prominent activists like Masih Alinejad use Twitter to amplify their voices and rally support against the compulsory hijab (a cause that the Trump administration, in a plainly Islamophobic and politically-motivated move, has taken up, while at the same time attempting also to erode the rights of American women).

Social media users have also rushed to the defense of those who have protested by removing their hijabs on public streets. Vida Movahed was arrested in 2017 after standing on a Tehran street with her hair uncovered, waving her hijab on a stick. Shortly thereafter, police arrested thirty more women who did the same. Courts sentenced Shaparak Shajarizadeh, who removed her hijab at a public protest, to two years in prison and 18 years of probation. Youth came out in solidarity on social media, calling for her release and for the end of the compulsory hijab.

But Maedeh Hojabri, while technically breaking a law by dancing on Instagram, was nonetheless doing nothing that explicitly threatened the state. Iranian-American journalist Negar Mortazavi told Al Jazeera that Hojabri is a “perfect picture of an innocent teenage girl in her bedroom, not expressing any political slogans, but someone who just wants to dance.”

Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, who was detained by Iranian authorities for nearly two years, suggested that part of the government’s public demonization of a dancing teenager is a tactic to distract the populace from its administrative failings and an economic crisis.

Women’s bodies have become political instruments in other ways as well. While teens like Hojabri are arrested, Iran is engaged in a liberalizing one-upsmanship with its archrival, Saudi Arabia. In the international spotlight, the two countries are trying to pass off the superlative of “most repressive” as if they are playing hot potato. When one of the countries makes a small but very public concession towards women’s rights, the other follows suit. In December of 2017, Tehran claimed it would stop automatically arresting women for wearing improper hijabs. While Saudi and Iranian women may have benefited, the developments have clearly been a shallow political tactic, and not a genuine move toward advancing women’s freedoms.

While Iranian women have generally had more freedoms than Saudi women, they nonetheless have long suffered under Iran’s morality laws. But they are pushing back, in ways both subtle and strong. Jason Rezaian wrote that Iran has been obsessed with controlling female sexuality since the 1979 revolution. “Now,” he wrote, “the establishment is obviously losing that 40-year war of attrition.” This young generation of Iranian women is educated and in the workforce, is engaged with the outside world, and expecting rights and liberties. When young women like Maedeh Hojabri dance on Instagram, they are staking their claim as citizens deserving the right to live as they please. In one of Hojabri’s Instagram bios, she wrote, “Only God Can Judge Me.”