A new form of anti-government protest is rocking Iran: a viral dance craze to a catchy folk song in which crowds applaud and chant the rhythmic chorus “Oh, oh, oh, oh.”
In Iranian cities, men and women of all ages gyrate their hips, twirl their arms in the air and chant the song’s catchy lines, according to videos posted on social networks, TV news channels like BBC Persian and Iranians interviewed.
People are dancing in the streets, in the stores, in sports stadiumsin classrooms, shopping centers, restaurants, gyms, parties and anywhere else they congregate. In Tehran, traffic was interrupted in a major road tunnel for an impromptu dance party to the song. Young woman, uncovered and flowing hair, dancing in parks and young men performed a choreographed hip-hop dance.
“It’s obvious that joining this dance trend sends a strong message,” Mohammad Aghapour, 32, a DJ known professionally as DJSonami, said in an interview from Tehran. “It’s a way of protesting and demanding our freedom and happiness.”
In most countries, dancing and singing in public are not considered taboo. But in Iran, it is forbidden to dance in public, especially between women and between men and women. Even if the rule is regularly defied, its application proves arbitrary. Music, dancing and singing are deeply rooted in Iranian culture and attempts by Islamic clerics to suppress them during their 43 years of rule have largely failed.
But rarely does a single song or dance turn into a collective act of civil disobedience. It all started at the end of November with an old man at a fish market in the northern town of Rasht.
Dressed in a white suit, the man Sadegh Bana Motejaded, 70, owner of a small market stall energetically swung and danced. He serenaded the crowd with a folk song and encouraged others to join in with a joyful noise: helheleh kon, velveleh kon. A small group of men clapped, shouting back the rhythmic chorus: “Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.”
Mr. Bana Motejaded is known in the city by his nickname Booghy, derived from the Persian word for megaphone. For years he had a side gig at the football stadium where he carried a megaphone, roamed the stands and energized fans by honking loudly, according to the videos on his page and local media reports.
Then came the repression. Local police in Rasht announced on December 7 that they had arrested a group of 12 men appearing in the video, closed their Instagram pages and removed the video from several websites.
On Mr. Bana Motejaded’s Instagram page, which then had around 128,000 followers, an emblem of the judiciary appeared in place of his profile photo. All of his posts were gone and instead a single message from the judiciary said: “this page has been closed for creating criminal content” and that the person who engaged in this activity “has been arrested.”
A person close to Mr. Bana Motejaded, who knew details of the arrests and asked that his name not be published for his own safety, said in a telephone interview from Rasht that the local intelligence division of the Revolutionary Guards had summoned the men, then interrogated them for many hours. He said they were blindfolded, beaten, threatened with legal action and forced to sign a pledge that they would never sing or dance in public again.
He said Mr. Bana Motejaded was detained for several hours and charged with instigating the government. As part of the crackdown, police swarmed street musicians performing in Rasht, arrested some and confiscated their instruments, he said.
The national, women-led uprising that erupted across Iran in 2022 has largely been crushed by violence, but protests endure in other creative ways, such as changing the lyrics of religious ballads religious participants of Ashura to reflect their contempt with the leaders of the Islamic Republic and the current trend of the dance.
News of the arrests spread like wildfire across Iran, fueling outrage. Many people posted angry messages on social media accusing the government of being at war with happiness. They said authorities were quick to arrest citizens for no crime other than joy, but had failed to arrest officials accused of rampant corruption.
“The regime makes no sense,” said Mahan, a 50-year-old doctor in the town of Rasht, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of reprisals. “He became like an authoritarian father, unable to protect and guide his family and resorting to violence as the only way to feel relevant and powerful. »
People mobilized, film yourself dancing to the song everywhere, imitating the dance moves of Mr. Bana Motejaded. They posted the videos on social media and shared them widely on apps such as WhatsApp, calling them a “happiness campaign”.
That of Mr. Aghapour a remix of the song, which includes the original dance, has has generated 80 million views since he posted it on his Instagram page on December 1.
Local newspapers ran front-page stories questioning the validity of the crackdown, saying it had backfired by causing an embarrassing disregard for government rules. Mohammad Fazeli, an eminent sociologist, called it a “defeat in maneuver” and a “self-created disaster.” in an article on X.
“How to turn a simple singer into an opposition activist,” was the headline in the conservative newspaper Farhikhtegan. Some officials and clerics said the fierce reaction showed the Islamic Republic was out of step with public opinion.
“If an old man expresses a little happiness in front of his shop, we consider him a criminal, but if he had danced during our religious ceremonies, he would be congratulated,” said Ezzatollah Zarghami, Minister of Tourism and former commander of the Garde who for years was the head of state television. “We have a hard time projecting happiness.”
Protests against the dance have become so contagious that even Official Farsi page of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) with nearly 4 million followers, released a video compilation of some Iranian stars and football teams dancing and clapping to the song.
The government withdrew. Police in Gilan province issued a statement on Monday denying that Mr. Bana Motejaded had ever been arrested. They resurrected her Instagram page with all her previous dancing and singing posts. Local news channels flocked to interview him and in a video that some say was likely forced, he claims he was not arrested.
He now has nearly a million followers on his Instagram page and is hailed by many Iranians as a national hero who has inadvertently sparked a new call for change.