By Mahmoud Hakamian
In a sign of persistent tensions between the government and the citizenry in the Islamic Republic of Iran, hardline figures have focused their ire upon a series of social media posts showing young students dancing to popular music. According to Voice of America News, the Iranian Education Ministry responded on Tuesday with a statement that promised “legal consequences” for anyone who has broken the law by creating or disseminating the videos.
Public dancing is strictly prohibited by the Shiite theocracy, which also enforces the separation of men and women in public spaces including schools. However, countless Iranians have made a habit of testing the boundaries of these sorts of restrictions, prompting backlash from regime authorities. The latest incident is representative of that phenomenon, and the VOA report suggests that the defiance in this case may stem not only from the students themselves but also from school administrators who allowed popular music to be played on the grounds.
Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, therefore demanded the firing of principals at the schools where dancing was seen to take place. He also insisted that the government’s education minister be held responsible. The latter demand is arguably evidence of ongoing tensions between hardline authorities and the pragmatist administration of President Hassan Rouhani, who has been repeatedly criticized by Larijani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and others, for his pro-reform talking points and his prior pursuit of diplomatic negotiations with Western “enemies.”
These two issues appear to be closely linked in the minds of hardliners, who routinely describe dissenting opinions and secular behaviors within Iranian society as the effects of foreign “infiltration.” This language has helped to justify a number of crackdowns on social media activity, including large-scale operations that targeted professional networks affiliated with a supposedly Western-style, underground modeling industry.
References to foreign infiltration also tend to surround the regime’s response to domestic protests, including the nationwide mass uprising that began in December 2017 and continued through much of January 2018. Despite crediting the homegrown People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran with planning and organizing many of the constituent protests, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei also suggested that the group’s “resistance units” were operating at the behest of a “triangle of enemies” consisting of the United States, the state of Israel, and Iran’s Gulf Arab adversaries.
No evidence was presented by regime authorities to support the assumption of connections between foreign powers and domestic protesters. But that assumption had already been established as it relates to less coordinated and less political acts of protests inside the Islamic Republic. Dual nationals have been arrested and condemned in state media for supposedly pursuing the “soft overthrow” of the clerical regime. And at the same time, virtually any proponent of democratic reform or progressive lifestyles is deemed to be engaged in that same mission.
The regime is presumably amplifying that narrative through references to the particular music involved in the current controversy. The social media videos feature a song called “Gentlemen” by the singer Sasy Mankan, who left the Islamic Republic approximately ten years ago and currently resides in the United States. Such foreign residency tends to be viewed with extreme suspicion by Iranian authorities, but large numbers of Iranian artists and writers have been effectively forced out of the country over the years, as a result of vigorous censorship.
As VOA explains it, “Some male pop artists are allowed to sing in public and issue music videos, [but] only after a rigorous process of obtaining permissions from government offices,” and often only if they commit to balancing their popular music production with religious performance. Female singers and mixed-gender music acts are categorically banned.
The broader culture of censorship in Iran was on display last week at the conclusion of the Tehran International Book Fair. Several publications were arbitrarily banned from the event despite having previously received permission for publication from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. This prompted condemnation of authorities by a number of publishers, some of whom were quoted by the Center for Human Rights in Iran as saying that state censorship was driving Iranian authors to abandon artistic pursuits altogether.
For many such artists, fleeing the country is the only way to continue their professional work. But some professionals, along with many amateurs and activists, have sought to openly push back against the restrictiveness of government authorities and religious hardliners. The “Gentlemen” videos do not seem to be part of this phenomenon, as they largely feature pre-adolescent children. But the controversy surrounding their dancing is reminiscent of a more conscious act of defiance by six young adults who created a video in 2014 featuring mixed-gender dancing and the American pop song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams.
That video led to sentences of 91 lashes and jail time for all persons involved. It also came to be highlighted as an early example of the insincerity or weakness of the Rouhani administration’s pro-reform position. After the arrests made international headlines, the Iranian president responded by saying that young people “should not be punished too severely” for expressing joy. However, he made no effort to intercede on their behalf, instead deferring to a talking point that would become familiar in ensuing years: that the Iranian judiciary is independent of political authorities and must be permitted to enforce Islamic law as it sees fit.
That principle has surely emboldened a hardline trend that is characterized simultaneously by legal crackdowns on dissenting opinions and alternative lifestyles, and by hardline civilians’ public confrontation of the same. During the Rouhani era, the more openly hardline elements of the regime have sought to reinforce the religious identity of Iranian society, both through legal means and through social pressures.
For instance, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei began issuing statements encouraging women to focus on their roles as wives and mothers, and local authorities followed up by expanding gender segregation, deploying additional morality police, and empowering the basij militia to target fellow citizens more openly in public over perceived violations of Islamic laws and mores.
Some of these pressures have been focused upon musical performances and other displays that might be perceived as Western and secular. In a number of instances, performances that were previously approved by relevant authorities were nonetheless prevented from going forward after hardline religious groups voiced their objections. But the most internationally well-known examples of this phenomenon relate to Iran’s laws mandating the wearing of the hijab by all women either living in or visiting the country.
In line with the aforementioned pressures regarding conservative gender roles, the regime has been working to enforce these laws more vigorously in recent years. But female activists and their male allies have been pushing back just as vigorously, resulting in a number of highly visible clashes between citizens and government authorities. Videos have spread among the activist community both domestically and abroad, showing violent attempts by the morality police to detain women whose head coverings were arbitrarily deemed to be inadequate. But despite this, numerous women have gone removed those coverings altogether in order to protest the law.
This was the nature of an entire serious of protests that began in late 2017 around the same time as the nationwide uprising. The first incident involved a woman standing on a utility box on Revolution Street to hold her hijab over her head, and subsequent copycat protesters came to be known as the “Girls of Revolution Street.” Several women have been arrested in connection with those demonstrations, as have some men who engaged in similar displays or simply expressed their support for the movement.
The Center for Human Rights in Iran highlighted the effects of one such arrest on Monday, noting that Siavash Rezaeian had been ordered to report to prison to serve a three-month sentence based partly on a message he sent via Twitter in early 2018 expressing hope that “all civilized Iranians on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook support this peaceful campaign,” namely the Girls of Revolution Street.
The three-month sentence for “propaganda against the state” is a comparatively light one, but Rezaeian responded to his prosecution and sentencing by saying that his activism had always been cautious and had avoided crossing “any red lines,” only to now be punished arbitrarily. Such commentary underscores the notion that Iran’s crackdown on dissenting and progressive thought is still escalating. And that notion is further supported by the fact that many other political detainees have been subject to greater punishment for similar “crimes.”
Last month, the renowned Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was handed a sentence of 33 years in prison and 148 lashes, in connection with politically motivated charges that include spreading propaganda and insulting the supreme leader. The case against her leaned heavily on her efforts to defend the Girls of Revolution Street – an act that, according to regime propaganda, is sufficient to brand her as a spy in service of foreign “infiltrators.”