There have been thousands of covers of the Pharrell Williams hit “Happy” but few can tell us something about the internal power struggles of a nation.
Six Iranians who appeared in a video cover, titled “Happy in Tehran,” were arrested and paraded on television. The video was vulgar and offended public morals, an Iranian police chief reportedly said.
Soon after, the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, posted a message on Twitter in apparent support for the group. According to a human rights organization, the six have since been released but the crackdown highlights a struggle between Iran’s overwhelmingly young population, a new president who was elected as a modernizer, and hardliners who still hold much of the power in Iran.
More than half of Iran’s population is under the age of 30. They’re young, internet-savvy and hungry for greater freedom. The ‘Happy’ video was so controversial because it showed unmarried women dancing with men while not wearing the hijab. It is illegal for women to appear in public without a headscarf and it’s illegal for men and women to dance with one another - especially if they are not married. Punishments can range from fines to floggings to prison sentences.
While many Iranian women push against the boundaries of the hijab rule, moving it as far back as they can to expose fashionable haircuts, this month thousands have gone further and posted photographs of themselves on Facebook, hair uncovered, in a viral #MyStealthyFreedom campaign. Facebook and Twitter have been banned in Iran but users find ways to access social media.
The ‘Modernizing’ President
President Rouhani, who has his own Twitter account, has called for greater social freedom and less government control over the internet.
Rouhani was seen as the pragmatic candidate when he was elected president in June 2013. Since then he has tried to give Iran a more moderate face while dealing with his most pressing issues: negotiating a deal over its nuclear program in return for the easing of sanctions which have crippled Iran’s economy.
He’s been given the power to reach a deal with the West by Iran’s most powerful man, the spiritual leader Ayatalloh Khamanei. While Rouhani’s charm offensive with the United States was welcomed by many, it angered hardliners in Iran opposed to engagement with the country they refer to as ‘ The Great Satan’.
Ultimately, Rouhani’s modernizing message is tempered by conservative hardliners who hold key positions of power in Iran and aren’t afraid to use them. Recent crackdowns in Iran have been interpreted as hardliners re-asserting their authority. Anicee Van Engeland, an Iran expert at SOAS University in London, likened the “Happy” arrests to a slap on the wrist:
“It is a reminder of who has got the power at the end of the day," Van Engeland said. "It’s a lesson for Rouhani - the traditionalists are saying, ‘look there are limits and you must play within the limits.’”
Push and Pull
Who won this latest struggle is unclear. At least two of the people in the "Happy" video have been released on bail. One of the women released on bail posted a selfie on Instagram after being released from custody, thanking Pharrell and all those who campaigned for the group’s freedom.
As for ordinary Iranians, it’s just another part of the push and pull for freedom with their government. During a BBC Persian television phone-in on the subject last night the presenter asked each caller if they were "happy" in Iran.
The answer – unanimously – was "no."