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In Iran, happy gets you arrested

By Frida Ghitis
updated 11:03 PM EDT, Wed May 21, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Six Iranians are arrested and later released for making a fun video
  • Frida Ghitis: It is ridiculous they got in trouble for dancing to the hit "Happy"
  • She says the incident is a sign of frustration with the limits imposed by Iran
  • Ghitis: For one thing, women shouldn't have to wear restrictive clothing like hijab

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Tehran's police chief was deeply offended. "It's obscene," he declared, and promptly arrested six young men and women who made a joyful fan video, dancing and lip-synching to the sound of Pharrell Williams' huge hit, "Happy."

Clap your hands if this sounds like one of the most ridiculous stories you ever heard.

The six Iranians, wearing colorful clothes, stylish sun shades and bright bandanas, dared to dance to the beat of "Happy." The women did not cover their heads with the required hijab. At times, the men and women danced together, which is forbidden and punishable under the law. But elsewhere -- when the police aren't looking -- Iranian men and women dance together and see nothing wrong with it.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

But the police found it offensive. Iran state media called it "vulgar."

The backlash against the arrests was forceful, and before long, the police released the dancers, although the director of the video apparently remains in custody.

The group describes itself as "Tehran Pharell Williams Fans," which may strike the oversensitive authorities in the Islamic Republic as a highly subversive political affiliation. The nefarious motivation for making the video was revealed at the end of the clip, which reads, "'Happy' was an excuse to be happy. We enjoyed every second of making it. Hope it puts a smile on your face."

Six Iranians arrested for 'Happy' video

As the opposition National Iranian American Council noted, "The irony that the Iranian youth were arrested for dancing to a song called 'Happy' seems to be lost on the Iranian authorities. The Iranian people cannot be forced to live in a world where (nuclear) enrichment is a right, but happiness is not."

More than 100,000 people have viewed the Iranian version of "Happy," which stirred up a bizarre political storm. Tehran Police Chief Hossein Sajedinia boasted of taking less than six hours to round up the evildoers and lock them up, but not before parading them before the television cameras, a stern warning to other young people who might be getting any crazy ideas in their heads; no telling what may lurk in the minds of youngsters listening to Williams' lyrics.

Williams tweeted, "It's beyond sad these kids were arrested for trying to spread happiness."

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani posted his own tweet, apparently quoting a statement he made more than a year ago, "#Happiness is our people's right. We shouldn't be too hard on behaviors caused by joy. 29/6/2013."

Yes, it all seems incredible silly. Behind the absurdity, ongoing tensions are shaping life in Iran. There is a boiling over of frustration among a large part of the Iranian population fed up with the restrictions imposed by the regime.

The "Happy" video showed defiance from two groups who are chafing under the limits imposed by the authorities: young people and women. From the moment the Islamic revolution took power in Iran, women, who had enjoyed Western-style freedoms, started to endure new rules restricting their lives. The mandate to cover with a hijab stands as the most visible, ever-present and personally offensive of those rules.

Every year for the last 35, the arrival of summer brings a battle between women pushing against the rules in the Iranian heat and regime backers fighting against the loosening of restrictions.

A few days ago, a Facebook page went up called StealthyFreedom. In it, Iranian women of all ages are posting pictures of themselves free from the restrictive clothing. The pictures show women dancing, smiling, with their arms extended, as if reaching for freedom, commenting on "the feeling of wind blowing through every strand of hair." One wrote, "I am a 68-year-old woman...I want to be free and comfortable in my own skin." Another vows "We will get freedom of dressing, singing, dancing. ..."

On Friday, a counterdemonstration took to the streets of Tehran, demanding that authorities crack down on dress code violations and enforce the code on women. Protesters carried signs that showed a sexy red stiletto shoe with a red line across it. Clothing connotes free expression to some, a grave threat to others.

The battle over social freedoms mirrors the contest in the government, where more conservative members are pushing back against Rouhani, who is considered a moderate by the Islamic Republic's unique standards, and is trying to improve Iran's international relations and image abroad.

The arrest of the dancers came just after Rouhani gave a speech about Internet freedoms in which he declared "We must recognize our citizens' right to connect to the World Wide Web." The President, who is not the most powerful leader in the country, asked "Why are we so shaky? Why have we cowered in a corner ... lest we take a bullet in this culture war?"

The speech was supposed to be broadcast on national television, but it was not. One of Rouhani's aides reportedly blamed a former member of the Revolutionary Guard for blocking the speech from television. The Revolutionary Guard and the President both answer to the unelected Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

There is no word so far on how Khamenei feels about Williams' hit song and the dancers. No word, so far, on whether the Supreme Leader is happy.

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