Happiness, it seems, is still a controversial topic in Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme leader after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, offered this pronouncement years ago: “There is no fun in Islam.”
In keeping with the ayatollah, police arrested six young Iranians and held them for a day after they playfully danced in a YouTube video tribute to Pharrell Williams’ ubiquitous song “Happy.”
While completely innocuous by Western standards, the video includes three men dancing with three women. The women are wearing pants instead of a loose-fitting robe and do not have the mandatory veil to cover their hair. The video quickly went viral, and almost as quickly, the authorities made the arrests Tuesday and paraded the suspects in front of television cameras.
The television footage appears to show seven men and one woman being interrogated, though most media reports put the number arrested at six.
Tehran’s police chief, Hossein Sajedinia, said the group made an “obscene video clip that offended the public morals and was released in cyberspace,” CNN reported, citing the Iranian Students’ News Agency.
However, President Hassan Rouhani, who has called for greater openness, seemed to side with the dancers in a tweet Wednesday from what is believed to be his account: “#Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on the behaviors caused by joy.”
Within hours of the president’s tweet, the six were released, according to Reuters.
“Hi I’m back thank you @pharrell and everyone who cared about us love you all so much and missed you so much,” the woman, Reihane Taravati, posted on Instagram.
Meanwhile, Pharrell said on Facebook that, “It is beyond sad that these kids were arrested for trying to spread happiness.”
The controversy has also sparked the hashtag #FreeHappyIranians.
For all the silliness, the episode speaks to the very real battle between many young Iranians who seek greater freedoms to express themselves and the conservative Islamic leadership that has maintained strict rules of behavior for the past 35 years.
Twitter and Facebook are officially banned in Iran. But many Iranians have figured out how to get around this — including the president, who has tweeted more than 2,700 times.
While stating his desire to reduce social restrictions, Rouhani has trod cautiously and has not made any major pushes that could spark a major backlash from the Islamic establishment, of which he has been a long-standing member.