Defying Iran’s propaganda: Teens dance hip-hop, listen to Harry Styles and read NY Times best sellers

Video of a girl dancing hip-hop in an underground dance class in Isfahan, Iran.
Video of a girl dancing hip-hop in an underground dance class in Isfahan, Iran. © Observers

Each year, the Iranian government spends millions of euros on Islamic propaganda to promote a restrictive lifestyle in line with religious values. The state controls television, media outlets, school textbooks and even teachers in order to advance conservative values. However, these efforts are not enjoying total success: videos shared online show the real world of children and adolescents in Iran, eliciting outrage from extremists in Tehran.

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A video published on August 20 and shared widely on Telegram and Instagram shows a young girl in Isfahan, in central Iran, dancing hip-hop to an Iranian rap song. This kind of dancing is unheard of for girls in Iran. 

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A video published on social media on August 20 and recorded in Isfahan shows a gym that is mostly being used as cover for underground dance classes in Iran.

This video is just the latest example showing how some young people in Iran are defying the values promoted by the Islamic Republic. The women and girls are not wearing the hijab, mandatory in Iran. They are wearing Western-style clothing and dancing to underground rap music. This kind of music and dancing is banned in Iran, and only appears in the country’s underground scene.

Other similar videos have sparked outrage and scandal in Iran. In June, teenagers gathered wearing Western clothes to celebrate international Go Skateboarding Day, eliciting a furious response from Muslim leaders. 

>> Read more on The Observers: Boys and girls together, dressed in Western clothes: Teenage skaters spark scandal in Iran

In Iran, authorities spend more than 200 milion euros a year on religious schooling, 176 million on state television channels and 139 million euros on the Basij forces, the paramilitary branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. 

Millions more are funneled to other propaganda tools, such as Owj, a non-profit media company known to promote the Islamic Republic’s conservative values in its films. The state also censors books, movies, music and school curriculums.

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A propaganda video entitled “Hello Commander” was released in March 2022 to praise Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It describes the children born in 2010s as Khamenei’s soldiers. This song has been remade in multiple languages in multiple cities always showing the same scene with children in conservative dress.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to a young Iranian teenager to learn more about how adolescents in Iran view the state’s efforts to enforce an Islamic lifestyle through propaganda and the infamous morality police known as “Gasht-e-Ershad” who enforce traditional values in the streets.

>> Read more on The Observers: Shooting of former boxing champion highlights brutality of Iran’s ‘morality police’

‘Our social life is mostly on social media’

Nazanin (not her real name) is 15 years old. She lives in a village in eastern Iran. 

As far as I’m concerned I don’t watch any of the state TV channels. Everything on them is boring.

My parents watch the news sometimes but I don’t even watch that, I’m not interested. I watch movies or series online, or I download them. The last things that I watched were “Money Heist” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin”.

And I find the news about the topics which I’m interested in on social media, such as Instagram or Telegram channels. I’m interested in lifestyle news, Hollywood, fashion and music.

Boys and girls in Iran celebrated International Go Skateboarding Day with a gathering. The event caused widespread controversy in the Islamic Republic of Iran when a video was shared online in June, showing teens wearing Western-style clothing, girls with uncovered hair and the genders mixing. Five people who helped organise the event were arrested.

We have some gatherings with friends from time to time at home. However, because we live in a village, there’s no cafe or library around, so our social life is mostly on social media. I have many good friends who live in the other villages near us. I'm in contact with them through social media. We exchange messages about the latest music videos they have seen, movies, fashion and gossip too on WhatsApp groups with friends.

My favourite music genres are rap and hip-hop, R&B and some pop. It’s the same with almost all of my friends. I like mostly Iranian artists but I also love international ones like Eminem, Adele, Harry Styles and Zayn.

As for books, I read a lot. I mostly search for PDFs of books online. I either buy or download them and I read. One of the last books I read recently was “Girl, Wash Your Face” [New York Times best seller by Rachel Hollis] and the last novel I read was “The Girl You Left Behind” [by Jojo Moyes, an award-winning romance novelist and New York Times best-selling author].

There are hundreds of pages on Instagram related to hip-hop music and teaching this popular style of dance in Iran.
There are hundreds of pages on Instagram related to hip-hop music and teaching this popular style of dance in Iran. © Observers

Many social media networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, have been blocked in Iran for more than a decade. Iran banned Telegram as well in 2018. Instagram – the most popular social network and the only foreign social media not banned in Iran – has also been threatened with a ban by some conservative officials. 

State authorities say that these social media networks encourage vice and immorality. In February 2022, an Iranian Parliament committee approved the outlines of a bill that some say will lead to tighter restrictions on internet activity in Iran, such as blocking more foreign social media channels. 

‘The problem with the schools, TV, textbooks and police is that they try to impose their lifestyle on us’

Nazanin continued: 

All of this that I described is in our bubble, in our chat rooms and our homes. But outside, the streets and school are a different world.

Most of the teachers are old and absolutely do not understand our world. They make speeches about how important it is to respect the hijab, how wrong it is to listen to this or that singer we like, or how sinful it is to wear makeup.

Barely any of my classmates believe in these things. Sometimes we argue with them – mostly about why we do not have equal rights with boys in our country – but not too much so that we avoid any trouble.

The textbooks are another headache. They try to teach us the values we do not believe in. But we have to learn them and pass the exams and tests, so we go along without believing in them.

For example, one of the things that I had to learn for exams was in my theology textbook. It said that men and women are different, that women are more emotional and men are more physically capable. It said that women are unfit for some jobs and positions – a claim that I think is stupid. 

In the end, I respect anyone that has a different lifestyle or different beliefs from me. I have friends who want to wear the hijab and I respect them just as they respect me. The problem with the schools, TV, textbooks and police is that they try to impose their lifestyle on us. That’s what me and many of my friends cannot accept. It’s a two-way street: we respect their lifestyle and they must do the same for us.