Arts, Culture & Media

Iranian hardliners jail young people because they're being too Happy

It looks like dancing or being happy in Iran can get you in trouble.

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Earlier this week, six young Iranians were arrested for dancing to Pharrell Williams' song "Happy" and posting it on YouTube. Part of their punishment was to go on state television to apologize and repent in another viral video with no music or dancing.

Iranian authorities are pushing back on a global phenomenon. Homemade videos set to the song "Happy" have been recorded in more than 140 countries.

"It's beyond sad these kids were arrested for trying to spread happiness," Pharrell Williams tweeted, in response to the arrest of the Iranians.

Golnaz Esfandiari covers Iran for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is also an editor of the Persian Letters blog.

"They were trying to have fun, and they said, those who produced the video, that they were trying to give another picture of Iran — that Iran wasn't such a horrible place to live in," Esfandiari says. "They were arrested, though there were some reports today that some of them were released on bail."

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said Wednesday that the performers had been released, but the video's director remained behind bars.

Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi is reported to be behind the tough reaction to the "Happy video," saying that "Islam is against laughing loudly for no reason."

"I'm not surprised that Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi said that — I remember the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was quoted as saying, 'There's no jokes in Islam. There's no humor in Islam. There's no fun in Islam,'" Esfandiari recalls. "I think this has been one of the principles of the Islamic Republic, that people are not supposed to have fun. The reason that has been cited in the past 35 years or more, is often religion."

In addition to religion, Esfandiari says "fun" goes against the authoritarian nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran. "They want people to have discipline, and laughing and having fun goes against that," she adds.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, has not weighed in directly on the issue, but he has been trying to paint a new picture of Iran — something a perceived ban on fun or dancing runs countrary to.

"He's outside of Iran currently — he's traveling in China," she says. "But there was a tweet from his Twitter account saying that it is people's right to be happy, and that we shouldn't be too hard on behaviors caused by joy. ... But let's not forget that President Rouhani is part of this system for the past 35 years, so he probably agrees with some of these things that have been happening."

Esfandiari, who grew up in Iran, says she was "warned by the moral police" a number of times for laughing too hard in public.

"I spent one night in jail because I was arrested with my friends at a party," she says. "It's very normal and it happens all the time."

Nowadays, according to Esfandiari, Iranians can pay officials instead of going to jail. During the early days of the Iranian revolution, however, things were different.

"They would raid parties, arrest people, put them in jail," she says. "One of my friends was lashed 25 times just because he was at this party with me." 

This interview first appeared on PRI's The Takeaway, a public media show that invites you to be a part of the American conversation.