Iran has banned women from dancing, cycling, watching soccer matches, listening to certain music and now … Zumba.
That's right. The Islamic Republic's Shiite leaders announced this week that, under religious law, the 17-year-old Colombian dance aerobics craze is forbidden.
Ali Majdara, the head of public sports in Iran, issued a statement Sunday banning "Zumba and any harmonious movement or body shaking instruction." The ban applies to public and private gyms, clubs and classes. The announcement came just days after Majdara's Iran Sport for All federation provoked an outcry on Twitter by calling for the ban.
Critics took to Twitter as well, but to express displeasure and dismay using the Persian language hashtag #Zumba. "Has Colombia summoned the Iranian ambassador yet?" one Twitter user joked.
"Unbelievable," said Zumba teacher Sepideh Abozari. "The authorities are worried about a Zumba pandemic?"
Tehran-based cleric Hossain Ghayyomi explained the reasoning behind the ban.
"Any harmonious movement or rhythmic exercise, if it is for pleasure seeking, is haram," forbidden under Shiite leaders' interpretation of Islam, Ghayyomi said. "Even jobs related to these rhythmic movements are haram. For instance, since Islam says dancing or music is haram, then renting a place to teach dancing or cutting wood to make musical instruments is haram too."
While some have tried to justify teaching or listening to music as legal under Islamic law in Iran, he said, "They could not change the mainstream of the clerical establishment."
There's also the fear among religious leaders that Zumba is corrupting Iranian men, who can watch videos of classes posted online. Some Iranian Zumba instructors' videos already have been deemed pornographic and blocked by authorities since the ban.
As Zumba has spread to more than 180 countries, it has been banned by other conservative Muslim leaders for being un-Islamic, including by a fatwa, or religious edict, in parts of Malaysia.
But Iran's ban comes at a time when the dance fitness trend has gone mainstream here. In Tehran and other large cities, most public and private gyms offer women's Zumba classes. Many women, whose exercise opportunities already have been curtailed by the state, were aghast at the Zumba ban.
Abozari said the classes are incredibly popular, not just among wealthy women, but also among the middle class and the poor.
"Even in low-income areas on the outskirts of Tehran where I live ... women pay as much as a month cash subsidy to participate in Zumba class to keep fit in body and mind and tune in to the happy rhythm," said Abozari, 38, who teaches Zumba in her spare time to children too poor to pay for lessons.
At issue isn't just women's rights, she said: It's about the economy. She noted that middle-class and wealthy women in north Tehran often pay for private Zumba classes at home, and those jobs — where pay is negotiable and usually generous — will now disappear.
Malihe Agheli, 38, a mother of two who works at a bank in Tehran, said the gym at her office already refused to offer Zumba or other "rhythmic workouts." She has been paying a steep price, $50 for eight private classes a month. While Zumba classes still may be offered underground, she said, "After being banned, it will be more expensive."
Zohre Safavizadeh, who has taken Zumba classes at her Tehran gym in the past, likes the music and the ambiance.
"I feel wonderful — the body rhythm and the music in background are fascinating," she said.
But as often happens in Iran, there’s a political element, even with Zumba. Safavizadeh sees the ban as a backlash by hard-liners to the reelection last month of moderate President
"The hard-liners want to undo what was promised by President Rouhani," she said, and as a result, "We as women are deprived small happiness."
Rouhani won after promising to unite Iran. But terrorist attacks by Islamic State militants in the capital this month that killed 17 people gave hard-line Shiite leaders an opening to crack down. Some analysts said the Zumba ban may be the beginning of efforts by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other hard-liners to reexert influence and sideline Rouhani.
Tehran-based analyst Nader Karimi Juni wasn't optimistic that Rouhani will make much headway against the supreme leader's bans, including Zumba.
"For the supreme leader, America and Israel are archenemies, the eternal foes," Juni said. "So whatever lifestyle, tastes or athletic activities are associated with what he calls 'corrupted Western culture' is haram and should be banned."