A Muslim mother in the sharia-ruled country of Iran, was talking about her 10-year-old daughter: "She asked me, 'Why can't I dance? We dance because we are happy. How can being happy be wrong? Why is dancing a crime?'" She spoke about the confusion in her daughter's eyes. "It is a question I don't know how to answer."
Her daughter's life had changed, she said, when she heard that a 19-year-old woman named Maedeh Hojabri had become the target of Iran's Islamist "morality" police. Her crime? Posting video clips of herself dancing on popular worldwide social media sites, like Instagram. The consequences for an act like that are severe. As has happened to other young women who posted video clips of themselves dancing, Hojabri was arrested, jailed without due process and without an opportunity to defend herself, and publicly shamed with a televised confession of her "crime."
Hojabri's dancing videos on Instagram made her a popular figure on Instagram in Iran, and gained her hundreds of thousands of followers on the social media platform. Imagine, if she were living in the West, how she would be treated. She would likely have been considered talented, have had opportunities thrown at her, been invited on popular shows and be sponsored for radio and television programs.
But in a sharia-governed state such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, authorities consider people like Hojabri disgraced criminals. The irony is that it is many of the extremist leaders of her country -- a state sponsor of terrorism -- who should be regarded as criminals. These are the men who view Hojabri and others like her -- who simply wish to spread joy -- as an intolerable danger to their country.
Cheerfulness and dancing can make a difference in the grim lives of a people faced with economic struggles, political unrest, censorship and general hardship. In Iran, however, these simple acts of sunlight are repaid with intimidation, sharia courts and imprisonment. The results are too often forced confessions, which the Islamist Republic of Iran airs both to validate their concerns and to threaten anyone who might consider dancing themselves after watching these videos.
This brings us back to the question of the 10-year-old girl: "Why can't I dance? Why is dancing a crime?"
As difficult as it may be to imagine how dancing could lead to imprisonment, it is far more difficult for a child just becoming aware of the world around her, who now fears that she could be swept up by the Islamist morality police, just for expressing joy.
What is it about dancing that so concerns and frightens many Islamic religious leaders? Why is there such an emphasis by Islamist groups on brainwashing girls into believing that dancing is an unforgivable sin?
It may be partly an attempt to suppress the sexual desire that dancing or watching dancing can arouse, and partly about the wish to control, confine and subjugate women on the pretext of keeping them "pure" and ostensibly free of sexual desire.
Controlling a woman's body has always been a core pillar of sharia law in Iran. Also, as the imposition of sharia law in Iran has shown, Islamist laws prioritize the monitoring and controlling of every aspect of every citizen's day-to-day and private life. This level of supervision and punishment seems intended to create an atmosphere of fear throughout society: people are always aware that they are being watched.
In addition, for radical and extremist Muslims, anything that can labeled as "fun" is forbidden. Not just for religious reasons, but more importantly for political reasons. For fundamentalist Islamic leaders, people who engage in fun activities, such as dancing and hosting parties, become less fearful. As a result, less fearful people are more likely to cross the boundaries set by the sharia state and rebel against the state. This is viewed as a threat to the power that Islamist leaders hold over their people.
Furthermore, from the perspectives of extremist Muslims, if a woman is allowed to do what she desires, she may start speaking up for her rights, risk "impurity," gain financial independence, and be emboldened to reject the status of a subservient and second-class citizen given to her by the religious authorities at her birth.
But as might be expected, such an imposition of sharia law also creates resistance, especially among women and girls seeking, as so many of us do, freedom. That is why, after girls like Maedeh Hojabri are arrested, courageous women begin joining the same cause by posting their own dancing videos, imitating Hojabri's dances.
The teachings of sharia law should be watched carefully in mosques, schools, and throughout society. To people in the West, it may seem impossible for dancing to become a crime. But as sharia laws get imposed, before you know it, any innocent act of "fun" can suddenly become a crime.
For now, the 10-year-old girl can only hope for a time when she is free to dance, while her mother must continue to search for answers. In most of the world, girls may leap, spin and shout with joy -- but still for many girls, the slightest twirl is regarded as a crime. Who will the morality police come for next?
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated scholar, businessman, political scientist, board member of Harvard International Review, and president of the International American Council on the Middle East. He has authored several books on Islam and US Foreign Policy. He can be reached at Dr.Rafizadeh@Post.Harvard.Edu