Like millions of other Iranians, 18-year-old Maedeh Hojabri shared photos and videos of herself on Instagram. She amassed a large following on the social media platform — the last one not to be blocked by Iran’s state censors.
In most countries, an attractive young woman such as Hojabri, who combines a strong camera presence with impressive dance moves, might have been picked for a television talent competition show.
Instead, Hojabri experienced a specifically Iranian form of reality TV — the forced confessions that are routinely shown on Iran’s state broadcaster. Hers aired last week.
Right now, the Iranian establishment is confronting a host of urgent issues: a collapsing currency; a continuing sanctions squeeze; a water shortage of epic proportions; and widespread protests over the state’s inability to solve these problems. So it seems all the more surprising that the judiciary and security apparatus should spend so much of their valuable time on a teenage dancer.
But sexuality — especially of the female variety — is this regime’s Achilles’ heel (and always has been). Controlling it has been an obsession since the Islamic republic came into power in 1979. And now the establishment is obviously losing that 40-year war of attrition.
Forced television confessions were originally designed to be deterrents, but in today’s Iran they’ve devolved into little more than official public justifications for the stupidity of the security apparatus.
Hojabri is just the latest in a long line of Iranians who have landed in prison for having the audacity to show themselves taking part in an activity — dancing — that nearly everyone in her country enjoys.
Anyone who’s ever been to an Iranian gathering knows that dancing is an integral part of any celebration. Frescos in palaces that predate the Islamic republic (though not Iranian Islam) often depict scenes of dancing women.
Still, the regime has always tried — and always unsuccessfully — to stamp out the sensual and feminine parts of the national identity.
Although Iran ostensibly obeys the whims of one man, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, there is no consensus among the ruling class on how to govern the country. One thing the establishment has agreed on so far, though, is the need for state-sponsored misogyny.
In truth, those in office have shown no sign that they are concerned with ending the country’s gender divide. That’s the weird thing about segregation. Once those imposing it have comfortably gotten used to controlling the levers of subjugating a group — be it a race, religion, tribe or, in this case, gender — they are rarely willing to let go.
And rather than distancing themselves from state media’s attempts to publicly humiliate a teenager while she is denied due process and the most basic means of defending herself, President Hassan Rouhani and his aides feebly protest they don’t control the judiciary, the state media or those who make these types of arrests.
Now, predictably, we’re seeing a rising public backlash against the heightened official chauvinism once again on display in Tehran. Countless supporters of Hojabri have posted videos of themselves dancing with the hashtag #dancingisnotacrime.
This follows months of women posting images of themselves in public without the compulsory hijab — a show of solidarity with the many women who have been imprisoned in recent months for defying the imposed dress code.
Both displays of defiance by the angry public are the paradoxical product of the Iranian revolution’s early and accidental empowerment of women.
Given the advances that Iranian women have made in the years since, their discontent will inevitably play a major role in the system’s undoing. It’s an open secret that everyone in that country knows, but few are willing to discuss.
The Islamic republic’s problems with its plans for gender apartheid started when it decided it would eradicate illiteracy. For men and women.
Then came Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq. Millions of Iranian men spent years in combat; some did not make it home. Many returned with limbs missing or with chronic illnesses resulting from exposure to chemical attacks. Others became drug addicts.
As a result, women began to assume new roles at home and in their communities. Although they had been part of the workforce before the revolution, incomes and opportunities lagged far behind what many were qualified to do.
Millions decided to stay in school and learn new skills, and in the relatively prosperous 1990s and early 2000s, many began to earn postgraduate degrees. But jobs were harder to find.
When I began visiting Iran in 2001, most of the people I spent time with were young women. They were the only people who could speak English. As I began to learn Farsi, I realized that even in their native language they had much more to say than their male compatriots. Despite the many limitations, they were voracious readers and among the earliest adopters of the Internet in the country. The result is a generation of women who are increasingly more educated than men, are an essential part of the workforce, have seen the world beyond Iran’s borders, and have expectations..
The strong and educated women of Iran long ago earned the right to express themselves however they wish. So — among other things — why not let them dance?