'Happy' video arrests in Iran underscore political tensions

Hardliners resent tolerant stance adopted by moderate leader Rowhani

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 May, 2014, 11:40pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 May, 2014, 6:51pm

The arrest of six young Iranian men and women who videoed themselves dancing to Pharrell Williams' Happy shows how far Tehran will go to halt what it deems to be decadent Western behaviour - despite the views of its moderate president.

A tweet posted on President Hassan Rowhani's account addressed the controversy, weighing in on the dancers and suggesting leniency. "#Happiness is our people's right," it said. "We shouldn't be too hard on behaviours caused by joy."

Other social media posts in the name of one of the dancers suggested the six had been released on Wednesday, although there was no independent confirmation from authorities.

The case was another reminder of the tensions that exist at the highest levels of Iranian power.

Hardliners are increasingly challenging Rowhani as the country negotiates a nuclear deal with world powers. The president, meanwhile, campaigned for greater cultural and social freedoms in his bid to succeeded Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year, and on Saturday he articulated a moderate stance about the internet, which remains tightly regulated by authorities.

Sites such as YouTube and Facebook are blocked by censors, though many Iranians use proxy servers or other workarounds to bypass the controls.

"We should see the cyberworld as an opportunity," said Rowhani, the official IRNA news agency reported. "Why are we so shaky? Why don't we trust our youth?"

While Rowhani pursues a policy of social and cultural openness, hardliners say the government should be tough on those who challenge interpretations of Islamic norms. They accuse Rowhani of showing too much tolerance towards those who question Islamic sanctities or women who are not sufficiently veiled.

The dancing Iranians would seem right at home in the West - or indeed in the Happy video. Fans have posted similar videos from around the world, showing people dancing down streets and smiling in choreographed crowds.

But in Iran, some see the trend as promoting the spread of Western culture, as laws in the Islamic Republic ban women from dancing in public or appearing outside without covering her hair with the hijab.

The video that got them in trouble shows hip twentysomethings hamming it up for the camera in sunglasses and silly clothes on Tehran rooftops and alleyways.

None of the three women in the video wears a hijab.

The video was posted online several weeks ago. It includes the participants' first names in a credit roll with outtakes. They describe themselves as Williams fans, adding: " Happy was an excuse to be happy. We enjoyed every second of making it."

Tehran police chief Hossein Sajedinia confirmed the arrests on state television on Tuesday.

Criticism outside Iran was predictably swift, with calls for freedom for the jailed youths appearing on social media. Williams tweeted: "It's beyond sad these kids were arrested for trying to spread happiness."

In the television broadcast, those arrested said they had been deceived and that the video was not meant to be posted on the internet.




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