“The members of a network teaching and filming Western dances have been identified and arrested,” Hamid Damghani, a Revolutionary Guard Corps commander in northeast Iran, told Jamejam Online.
Their crime, he said, was seeking to “change lifestyles and promote a lack of hijab.” In Iran, women are required to wear headscarves and modest clothing in public. Women are also banned from dancing in front of men who are not from their immediate families. Authorities have forbidden the teaching of Zumba and other dances, even in women-only gyms.
“The promotion and teaching of dancing in the name of sport in women’s gyms is a serious issue,” Damghani said.
This isn't the first time authorities have cracked down in this manner.
In 2014, six Iranians were arrested for making a video that showed them dancing to Pharrell Williams's “Happy.” The young men and women were sentenced to a year in prison and 91 lashes, though both punishments were ultimately suspended. The video caught the attention of authorities after it became something of an online sensation, garnering 1 million views in six months.
The participants later said on state-run television that they were actors and were tricked into making the video for an audition. Their arrests sparked a backlash on social media. Even Williams chimed in, writing on Facebook that “it is beyond sad that these kids were arrested for trying to spread happiness.”
This year, at least 22 journalists and activists were imprisoned as part of a crackdown by hard-liners on Western influences and activists ahead of the May presidential election, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran. The election pitted moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani against powerful conservatives.
“Almost all of the people who are being detained and interrogated are people who could have an active role in mobilizing the electorate to come out and vote, which would most likely be supporting Rouhani’s reelection,” Hadi Ghaemi, the director of the center, told Reuters at the time.
Even after Rouhani's reelection, Iran's religious elite have not relented.
In June, authorities announced that Zumba was banned. “Any harmonious movement or rhythmic exercise, if it is for pleasure seeking, is haram,” cleric Hossain Ghayyomi explained to the Los Angeles Times. “Even jobs related to these rhythmic movements are haram. For instance, since Islam says dancing or music is haram, then renting a place to teach dancing or cutting wood to make musical instruments is haram too.”
As is so often the case when it comes to policing how women act, part of the concern stems from how men will respond. According to the Times, religious leaders worried that Zumba could corrupt Iranian men. They've even deemed online videos teaching the dance pornographic. (Conservative Muslim leaders in Malaysia, for example, have issued a religious edict against Zumba.)
Iran's ban on Zumba has infuriated many women in the country.
“Unbelievable,” Zumba teacher Sepideh Abozari told the Times. “The authorities are worried about a Zumba pandemic?”
“Even in low-income areas on the outskirts of Tehran where I live … women pay as much as a month cash subsidy to participate in Zumba class to keep fit in body and mind and tune in to the happy rhythm,” Abozari said.
Just a few days ago, 64 youths were detained for attending a pool party in central Isfahan province. The TV news website iribnews.ir reported that Revolutionary Guard forces and local police arrested 64 “half naked” youths for dancing and drinking alcohol. They were also accused of publishing social media accounts of their exploits to encourage “decadence.”