Iran, Instagram and the case of dancing teen Maedeh Hojabri

Religious scholar says airing confession puts a ‘stain’ on teenager’s family, but one analyst urges respect of rules.

Hijab - Iran
The wearing of headscarf in public is compulsory for women in Iran [File: Al Jazeera]

The case of a teenage girl who is believed to have been detained after posting videos on social media showing her dancing has stirred debate in Iran.

The controversy arose after it was reported that 18-year-old Maedeh Hojabri was arrested after sharing her dance videos – one of which was viewed close to one million times – on Instagram.

Some of the clips showed her dancing to Persian music in her room. In others, she can be seen with no headscarf swaying to songs by popular artists such as Justin Bieber and Shakira.

Under the Islamic Republic, the use of headscarf in public is mandatory for women, while dancing is prohibited. However, several women have challenged those rules and expressed their dissent through social media.

Others have protested by removing their headscarves in public, prompting a crackdown by the authorities. Separately, the government has also blocked some messaging applications like Telegram, while the judiciary is reportedly mulling restrictions of Instagram – steps condemned by human rights groups.

TV confession

Following Hojabri’s reported detention, Iranian state TV on Saturday showed a video in which she said she did not intend to encourage “other people to do the same thing”.

“It was not done for the purpose of getting attention,” she said, adding that she just wanted to share it with her followers.

But on Monday, Mohamad Taghi Fazel Maybodi, a reformist cleric, criticised the TV station for airing the teen’s statement, saying that forcing a woman to make a confession and broadcasting it “put a stain on the face” of her family.

“Islam insists on the privacy of women and families, but the executives of [the national] television neglected this religious tradition and toyed with the reputation of people,” Maybodi, who is aligned with former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, wrote in Persian on social media.

Maybodi, a religious scholar from the holy city of Qom, did not comment directly on the propriety of Hojabri’s videos, but pointed to the irony of the authorities unable to stop major problems such as corruption.

“Which embezzler has so far come to the national media to confess to corruption and plunder of public assets? Which one’s a great sin – dancing or stealing of public resources?” Maybodi asked.

“It becomes as such when the religion is at the hands of the ignorant people.”

Reihane Taravati, a Tehran-based fashion photographer, who was detained in 2014 for posting a video of herself and her friends dancing to the hit song “Happy”, by US pop star Pharrell Williams, also weighed in on the detention of Hojabri.

“You arrested me for being #Happy when I was 23. Now you arrest #MaedehHojabri and she is only 18! What will you do to the next generation?,” she wrote on Twitter.

Others showed their support of Hojabri by posting their own dance videos online.

‘We have laws’

Meanwhile, Elham Kadkhodaee, a commentator and a doctor of philosophy graduate at the University of Tehran, stressed that materials posted on social media are “obviously part of the public sphere”, and that “any sovereign state would be expected to enforce its law in that sphere”.

She said there are several factors to consider over the controversy of Hojbari’s videos and the debate on the use of social media in a country like Iran. 

It is “important” to point out that Iran has its own culture, tradition and norms that are “different” from other countries, she told Al Jazeera.

“We should embrace the reality that different countries have different approaches to social and cultural issues,” she said.

While Kadkhodaee said she sees no contradiction between technological progress and her country’s traditions, she added that problems arise as Iran imports technologies that “promote a certain type of lifestyle different to ours”.

For Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian-American journalist and commentator, the arrest and detention of Hojabri, along with the bigger issue of compulsory headscarf use, have become a “very politicised issue”.

“It’s the very visible portrayal of the powers of the Islamic Republic,” Mortazavi told Al Jazeera.

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“But the political opposition is also using this as a tool basically to show resistance to the political system.”

In the middle of the “crossfire”, she said, are the ordinary women, who just want to live their own lives and make their own choices “without caring for the political” aspects of the issue.

Mortazavi said there are many people from both sides of the spectrum who are “angered” by the government’s restrictions.

She related how one of her female friends, who is in favour of wearing a headscarf, was recently arrested by the “morality” police, who considered the way she wore it “not good enough” and “too colourful”.

Mortazavi noted that over the years, Iranian women have also become more “creative” in expressing their opposition to the rules.

As for Hojabri, Mortazavi said she is a “perfect picture of an innocent teenage girl in her bedroom, not expressing any political slogans, but someone who just wants to dance”.

Source: Al Jazeera