Iranian Instagram celebrity and dancer Maedeh Hojabri would have been just another teenager in most parts of the world: operating multiple social media accounts and uploading videos of herself dancing.
But Hojabri's videos are suddenly at the center of the latest conflict between religious hard-liners and Iranian liberals seeking more liberties.
Officials arrested the 17- or 18-year-old Hojabri after she shared with her tens of thousands of followers videos of herself dancing to Western and Iranian music at home. The tussle over social codes is nothing new in Iran. It has played out in many ways for decades: Iranian musicians tapping into Western influences, for example, or Iranian women challenging authorities by pushing back their headscarves to almost gravity-defying styles.
The Internet age, however, has added a new dimension of dissent. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has often described websites as something akin to a Trojan horse of Western culture and values.
Iranian media outlets reported that authorities were looking into banning more Instagram accounts or shutting down access to the site completely. Other individuals besides Hojabri also appear to have been detained on similar charges. Their identities are still unknown, and all of them were reportedly released on bail.
In response to the arrest, some women took to social media in support of Hojabri to post videos of themselves dancing, using the Iranian version of the hashtag #dancing_isnt_a_crime. (Women in Iran are prohibited from dancing in front of men, except if those male observers are close family members.)
“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,” the BBC translated the tweet of one supporter.
Hojabri and others facing similar accusations previously appeared on Iranian state TV in a video in which the young gymnast — potentially speaking under duress — acknowledged producing the videos.
“I had some followers, and these videos were for them. I did not have any intention to encourage others doing the same.... I didn’t work with a team; I received no training. I only do gymnastics,” the Guardian newspaper quoted her as saying in the clip of the broadcast on Iranian state TV.
Hojabri's arrest bears similarities to a 2014 incident in which six young Iranians were arrested for producing a video based on the Pharrell Williams song “Happy.” The video quickly went viral but also provoked the dismay of conservative Iranian authorities.
After their arrest, Iranian state television showed the detainees admitting that they were involved in the “Happy” production, even though they insisted that they had been tricked into participating. As in Hojabri's case, Iranian TV did not show the faces of the individuals making the confessions. Their sentence — one year in prison and 91 lashes — was later suspended.
The arrests at the time highlighted the divides in the country's leadership. Even though President Hassan Rouhani has repeatedly indicated that he may favor opening up Iran's restrictive official Internet, enforcing laws online is ultimately up to the judiciary, which is controlled by religious hard-liners.
With an increasing number of protests taking place across Iran amid economic woes, conservatives have adopted a more repressive approach in recent months. And while authorities sometimes turn a blind eye on some violations of the country's strict laws on female clothing or Western music, Iran still regularly punishes violations to set examples.
Last year, for instance, four men and two women were detained for teaching the Colombian fitness routine Zumba and “Western” dances. Authorities became aware of the group after its members posted videos of themselves dancing on Instagram and other social media platforms.
The group was later charged over seeking to “change lifestyles and promote a lack of hijab,” a reference to head coverings for women.
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