Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Iranians were Happy, but authorities put a stop to it

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TEHRAN, Iran -- An Internet video of six young Iranian men and women dancing to Pharrell Williams' Happy has led to their arrests, showing how far Tehran will go to halt what it deems to be decadent Western behaviour -- despite the views of its moderate president.

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

A tweet posted the evening of May 21 on President Hassan Rouhani's account seemed to address the controversy, even if it stopped short of mentioning the video or the arrests directly.

"Happiness is our people's right," it said. "We shouldn't be too hard on behaviours caused by joy."

The case was another reminder of the tensions that exist at the highest levels of Iranian power, with hardliners determined to maintain the status quo while moderates try to push through change -- be it improved relations with the West or a loosening of morality clampdowns at home.

Rouhani recently articulated a moderate stance about the Internet, which remains tightly regulated by Iranian authorities.

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

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

Oppenents accuse Rouhani of failing to stop the spread of what they deem "decadent" Western culture in Iran. Last week, hardliners marched against women not wearing hijabs and dressing provocatively.

The dancing Iranians would seem right at home in the West -- or indeed in the music video that accompanies Williams' song. 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 their hair with the hijab.

The video that got them in trouble shows hip 20-somethings hamming it up for the camera in sunglasses and silly clothes on Tehran rooftops and alleyways. One of the bearded men goofily dips his female dancing partner.

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 TV late Tuesday in a report that blurred images from the video and then showed the six with their backs turned toward the camera.

"They were identified and arrested within six hours," Sajedinia said.

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

"They had told us that this video won't be released anywhere and that it was for our own joy," one of the women said.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 22, 2014 C16

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