Iranian officials detained three young female dancers who had thousands of followers on Instagram. According to our Observers in Iran, this is part of a wider crackdown-- in the past year, Iranian authorities have prosecuted many other dancers, but because they were lesser-known, their stories didn’t reach the media.

Sahra Afsharian, Sara Shariatmadari and Niloufar Motiei are known for shuffle dancing, which is a club dance characterized by repeatedly shuffling your feet inwards, then outwards. Each of them has tens of thousands of followers on social media, as well as many students. On October 8, state media YJC reported that these three dancers had been arrested and detained in the notorious Qarchak Prison, located about 40 kilometres southeast of the capital, Tehran. State media also reported that that many other dancers had also been arrested and were being prosecuted for “obscene content creation”.

Sahra Afsharian dances in the streets of Tehran in 2017. 

READ MORE: Iran’s underground hip hop dance scene
 

“We were not famous, so media didn't mention us”

Ghazaleh is a 19-year-old Iranian dancer who specialises in zumba and ballet. She used to live in Tabriz, a city in northwestern Iran. When she was threatened with arrest a year ago, she left Iran for Turkey. She now lives in a small Turkish city where she teaches zumba and studies cinema at university. To protect her safety, FRANCE 24 is not revealing her precise location.
 
I started dancing seriously when I was 15 and, when I turned 17, I started sharing videos and photos of myself dancing on Instagram. At the time, I really didn’t imagine that it could be dangerous because a lot of other girls were doing it. Besides, my page isn’t public and I only have about 2,000 followers. I had heard of a few people being arrested or taken in for questioning by the authorities, but I wasn’t worried about it. The arrests seemed random to me and I thought it was just a scare tactic to keep us from doing what we love. Honestly, my only real fear was that my parents would find out that I was sharing dance videos because they are very conservative.

These photos of our Observer Ghazaleh our Observer were taken in Tabriz, Iran.
 
But suddenly, about a year ago, my world turned upside down. That’s when Masih Alinejad [Editor’s note: an Iranian journalist and anti-hijab activist based in Washington, DC] posted one of my videos on her Instagram page. One of my friends had filmed me dancing in a park in Tabriz and shared the video with Alinejad.

I don’t know how, but only a few minutes later, my Instagram page was hacked and I lost access to it. A few days after that, police called my school. They asked for my address and said they wanted to meet with me and my parents. That was when my parents found out I that I had an Instagram page and everything. My world became hell. My parents wanted me to stop dancing and we fought a lot. However, in the end, when they saw that I wasn’t going to give up, they helped me move to Turkey to avoid arrest.
 
“I will never go back to Iran”
 
I’ve been living in a small city in Turkey for several months now. I don’t have any contact with my parents anymore.
My story is not unique; I know a lot of other Iranians living here in Turkey who, like me, also had to leave the country over the past year. All of them came to the attention of the police in one way or another and the police came after them. Some of them stopped dancing, others were arrested and some, like me, ran away. However, none of us were as famous as the three dancers who everyone is talking about right now, so people don’t know our stories.

Last year, the authorities also shut down three gyms in Tabriz where we used to go to practice mostly hip hop and zumba [Editor’s note: Many gyms in Iran organize “undercover” dance classes. Read more about this story here.]
 
 
Another arrested dancer in Iran.
 
I really have no idea why the number of arrests has increased and why the pressure has intensified since last year. Maybe Iran’s government is trying to distract people’s attention from bigger issues like the severe financial crisis shaking our country.

My current situation is difficult. The city where I am living is very conservative and there is no dance club. I don’t have any money because I lost the support of my family. However, I will never go back to Iran.

This is not the first time that Iranian officials have clamped down on social media influencers.

Earlier this year, officials went after Sahar Tabar, who posted videos online impersonating the Tim Burton film “The Corpse Bride”. Recently, Iranian state TV broadcast her “confessions”, where she claimed she was a troubled child from a troubled family.

A similar situation occurred in July 2018 when dancer Maedeh Jojabri, who had 600,000 followers online, was arrested and then appeared in a state television documentary where she admitted to “immoral behavior” in front of a public prosecutor.

The same month, authorities closed a popular tourist site after visitors made a video of themselves dancing there.

Article written by Ershad Alijani