Iran’s humiliated Instagram dancer stirs a backlash

Maedeh Hojabri’s public shaming seems to have stirred the opposite reaction for which the regime was hoping.

(R) Solmaz Eikder, a female activist and Iranian refugee, dances on the street of Istanbul, in the protest against the arrest of Iranian teenager, Maedeh Hojabri, who was posting dance videos on Instagram. (L) A man dances in the protest against the arrest  Maedeh Hojabri (photo credit: REUTERS)
(R) Solmaz Eikder, a female activist and Iranian refugee, dances on the street of Istanbul, in the protest against the arrest of Iranian teenager, Maedeh Hojabri, who was posting dance videos on Instagram. (L) A man dances in the protest against the arrest Maedeh Hojabri
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Maedeh Hojabri was arrested last May in Iran’s capital of Tehran on charges of spreading indecency after the government discovered the 19-year old’s Instagram page showcasing videos of her dancing in her bedroom. The page was quickly taken down.
Hojabri had posted around 300 videos on the social media platform, many of which showed her dancing in both Iranian and Western styles, and often without the obligatory Islamic headscarf. Sporting a modern pixie cut, Hojabri danced to songs like “Whenever, Wherever” by Shakira and Justin Bieber’s “Let Me Love You.” Her performances attracted a following of more than 600,000 people before the account was suspended.
In the Islamic Republic women are not allowed to dance, at least not in public. They must also wear a headscarf when appearing in public. Although Hojabri danced in the privacy of her own home, broadcasting her dances through a public medium resulted in her arrest and subsequent release on bail.
Maedeh’s fans reportedly wondered where she had disappeared to until last week. During a show called “Wrong Path” broadcast on state television, Hojabri, welling up in tears, admitted that dancing is a crime and that her family had been unaware of her online performances.
While the authorities hoped Hojabri’s public shaming would dissuade others from committing such “crimes” in the future, the campaign seems to have ignited a backlash against the government.
Shortly after her appearance, Iranian men and women used several platforms to upload videos of themselves dancing in a show of solidarity with the teen. Thousands more posted images of Hojabri and messages of support under the hashtags “dancing isn’t a crime” and “dance to freedom.”
Explaining this revolt, Alex Vatanka, an expert at The Middle East Institute (MEI) told The Media Line that “Iranian society is far more liberal than the Iranian regime.”
He explained that the country’s secular-minded population is ruled by one of the world’s last remaining theocracies. “There is a group of 60 plus men at the top of the pyramid in Iran who are religious and traditional, and they call the shots in terms of what is decent and what should be allowed.”
Azadeh Kian, an expert at the Paris Diderot University, told The Media Line that “when women let the shape of their bodies be seen, it is considered indecent in Iran.”
The ayatollahs, she explained, have been trying to impose their interpretation of women and Islam on Iranian society for 40 years, except that it is no longer working in the age of globalization and social media. Iranian women, who comprise the majority of the nation’s student body, have been resisting the regime’s precepts ever since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Vatanka added that authorities went after Hojabri who, unlike other Instagramers, captivated a large and fast-growing audience that threatened the regime. “They wanted to stop a message they deemed un-Islamic before it became uncontrollable.
“The regime is extremely nervous about anything that becomes a symbol of resistance,” Vatanka added. “The teen was arrested and punished to set an example for others who will think twice before putting a similar video out there. And often, it does deter people because they are afraid. No one wants to end up in a prison cell.”
Leila Arakami, an Iranian lawyer and activist, told The Media Line that the regime’s interpretation of Islam is highly political and based on the notion of “ummah.” In the Qur’an, “ummah” refers to the collective community of Islamic peoples. The idea is essentially that all Muslims are a united nation without borders.
Arakami explained that Iranian leaders are trying to build an Islamic state that can claim power over the ummah through more and more restrictions on women. “If you travel to Iran and see women without long black dresses and dancing with their hair blowing in the wind, then they are no different than those in any other country.”
“They [Iranian leaders] want to create a powerful Islamic nation based on the image of a nation of families, which is why controlling women with Sharia law is vital to them.”
Tara Sepehri, an Iranian Human Rights Watch representative, told The Media Line that Hojabri’s fate often depends on the family. If she comes from a secular family or one that does not closely observe Islamic tenants, then her security will not be threatened. In that case, she could very well opt to emigrate like many others who ran afoul of the regime.
But if she is from a traditional family, Sepehri added, then the pressure on her to conform will be great.
Based on Iran’s criminal code, Hojabri stands accused of spreading indecency. Sepehri explained that the meaning of “indecency” is not defined by the written law, but will depend on the whims of the judges.
Arakami concluded that Hojabri cannot be charged with a crime based on Iran’s criminal code “because she was doing something in her own home without disturbing or causing problems with any individuals. She used an online space to share her art and express herself.
“She didn't have bad motives, and there is nothing in Sharia law that says dancing is a crime.”
(Nola Z. Valente is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)