Seven people have been sentenced to 91 lashes each and six month (for six of the defendants) to one year (for one of the defendants) prison terms for filming a video of themselves dancing to Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy.” The sentence is suspended for three years, meaning that, as long as none of them is convicted of a crime during that period of time, they will not have to serve their sentence. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights, the seven people (six performers and the director) were charged with “‘participation in producing a vulgar video clip’ and conducting ‘illicit relations,'” and the woman who received the one year suspended sentence was charged for illegal possession of alcohol.
The video, which depicts three men and three unveiled women dancing together and separately on the rooftops of Tehran, has been viewed over a million times on YouTube. In the credits at the end of the video, a statement reads, “‘Happy’ was an excuse to be happy. We enjoyed every second of making it.'” In an interview with the news site Iran Wire, Neda Motameni, one of the performers in the video, said that “we wanted to tell the world that the Iranian capital is full of lively young people and change the harsh and rough image that the world sees on the news.” When filming in public, “We were really afraid,” Motameni said. “Whenever somebody looked out of a window or someone passed by, we ducked behind a door to make sure we were not seen.” According to her, when they showed the finished project to their parents, “they praised us for coming up with a new idea…[but] they were afraid that something would happen to us, considering the present situation.”
Soon after they were charged, some of the arrested young men and women were made to appear on state television and “repent,” claiming that they were tricked into making the video. Iranian Police Chief Hossein Sajedinia described the video as “vulgar,” and claimed that it “hurt public chastity.”
Following their May arrest, Pharrell Williams tweeted his disapproval of their treatment:
Far more consequentially, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has made no secret of his disapproval towards the actions of the Iranian Police Force. In May, his official Twitter account released this:
In a speech the day before this tweet was written, Rouhani said, “We ought to see [the Internet] as an opportunity. We must recognise our citizens’ right to connect to the World Wide Web…. Why are we so shaky? Why have we cowered in a corner, grabbing onto a shield and a wooden sword, lest we take a bullet in this culture war? Even if there is an onslaught, which there is, the way to face it is via modern means, not passive and cowardly methods.”
In Iran, judiciary actions are frequently at odds with government policy. Rouhani’s words about the Internet are also radically different from the attitude displayed by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad played a major role in restricting web access, especially following the successful efforts of the Green Movement in publicizing and organizing the protests in Iran following the 2009 elections using social media. Though Rouhani has attempted what reforms he can, most control over social media and censorship resides with the conservative Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the agency he created to supervise it, the Supreme Council of Virtual Space.
To be perfectly honest, “Happy” on its own has started to annoy me because it’s so hopelessly overplayed on the radio, but when you watch joyful young men and women dancing to it, the song takes on a whole different dimension. In her interview with Iran Wire, Motameni said, “We want to tell the world that Iran is a better place than what they think it is. Despite all the pressures and limitations, young people are joyful and want to make the situation better. They know how to have fun, like the rest of the world.” I think that about sums up why this video is so amazing. Freedom of expression is a beautiful thing.
Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.:
Tatooine (okay, fine, it was filmed in Tunisia):