Women in Iran are defying authorities and posting videos on Instagram in violation of the strict social codes.
New Delhi: Eighteen-year-old gymnast Maedeh Hojabri would have been just another Internet celebrity in most other parts of the world, but in Iran, she has unwittingly become the face of rising dissent.
The teenager was one of many detained by authorities for posting videos on Instagram that were seen to be in violation of the Islamic republic’s strict social codes.
Hojabri’s videos, one of which has close to one million views, show her dancing in her room to Iranian and Western music. In some, she can be seen without a headscarf, swaying to songs by popular Western artists like Justin Bieber. Before her account was suspended, she was reported to have more than 600,000 followers.
— Negar Mortazavi نگار مرتضوی (@NegarMortazavi) July 8, 2018
Iranian law prohibits public dancing even as the use of headscarf in public is mandatory for women.
Soon after Hojabri’s reported detention, Iranian state TV Saturday showed a young woman, with her face blurred, crying and explaining her reasons for posting the video.
According to media reports, the video was of Hojabri admitting to breaking social norms and clarifying that “it wasn’t for attracting attention” and that she did not have “any intention to encourage others doing the same”.
Activists called these forced confessions, saying it’s a tactic often used by Iranian authorities to justify crackdowns.
History repeating itself
This is not the first time that young people in Iran have been caught in the war between religious hardliners and liberals demanding more social freedoms in the country.
In 2014, authorities sentenced six men and women to suspended six-month prison sentences and 91 lashings for a video in which they could be seen dancing to Pharrell Williams’ song ‘Happy’ on the rooftops of Tehran.
After their arrest, Iranian state TV had shown a similar video in which the group confessed to voluntarily filming the ‘Happy’ dance video. Earlier, the detainees had stated that they were unaware of the production and had been tricked into participating.
And just like the case of Hojabri, their faces were not shown.
In February this year, Shaparak Shajarizadeh was arrested for waving her headscarf on a stick in Gheytarieh, a north Tehran neighbourhood. She received a 20-year sentence Sunday.
A dance of solidarity
Reihane Taravati, a Tehran-based fashion photographer, who was a member of the group detained in 2014, spoke out against this pattern of injustice.
“You arrested me for being #Happy when I was 23. Now you arrest #MaedehHojabri and she is only 18! What will you do to the next generation?” she wrote on Twitter.
— Reihane Taravati (@reihanetaravati) July 8, 2018
Since the news of Hojabri’s arrest went viral, many other Iranian women have begun sharing their own videos and messages using the hashtag #dancing_isn’t_a_crime as a mark of solidarity and protest.
“If you are a woman in Iran and you dance or sing or show your hair then you are a criminal. If you want to enjoy your true self, you have to brake (sic) the laws every day,” tweeted Iranian activist and TV journalist Masih Alinejad. She is also the founder #WhiteWednesdays, a movement which saw women protesting against oppressive laws by posting pictures and videos of themselves without their hijabs online.
I dance in a public park in Tehran to support Maedeh the 19 year old girl who got arrested for dancing.
در پارک هنرمندان بدونحجاب اجباری رقصیدم ولی نوازنده نگران اینکه بساطش جمع بشه با عذرخواهی آهنگ رو قطع کرد.
برای حمایت از #مائده_هژبری بیا #برقص_تا_برقصیم pic.twitter.com/8JtGU4QOzI
— Masih Alinejad 🏳️ (@AlinejadMasih) July 7, 2018
“I’m dancing so that they [the authorities] see and know that they cannot take away our happiness and hope by arresting teenagers and (girls like) Maedeh,” said one supporter in a tweet translated by BBC.
Breaking the internet
In retaliation to these social media activities, the Iranian authorities have found a new enemy of the state – the internet.
The police have stated that they have plans to shut down similar accounts on Instagram, and the judiciary is currently formulating regulations that may severely limit, or completely block the website altogether.
The government has already blocked some messaging applications like Telegram. Earlier in January this year, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met with “cyberspace experts” to discuss challenges that the internet poses to the country’s leadership.
The secretary of the influential Guardian Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, has relayed Khamenei’s stand in the past, having reportedly said in a joint session of the Assembly of Experts on 25 January that “cyberspace is a curse threatening our lives”.
“I have already said that it is impossible to totally block the internet, but we can slow it down,” he added.