Photo by Ulisse Albiati, Flickr CC

Teenager Maedeh Hojabri was recently arrested and imprisoned by Iranian authorities for posting Instagram videos of herself dancing in her bedroom. People around the globe were stunned at the news, although such punishment and censorship is sadly a common phenomenon. In Iran, Hojabri’s actions violated conservative legal norms that impose a strict dress code and condemn women for exposing their hair or dancing in public. More than a century of social science research can help shed light on why governments criminalize the violation of expected gender norms.  

Classical sociological theory argues that state actors use legal sanctions to exert control and enforce moral sentiments, in an attempt to garner social solidarity. The criminalization of dancing, for example, enforces and legitimizes the morality of conservative values and strict social control. To protect dominant social values, elites may use the penal system as a tool to persecute and discriminate against social minorities. The dominant group’s repression of subordinate groups derives from hierarchies that operate around patriarchal, racial, religious, class, national, political, or ethnic distinctions. Hojabris’ case illustrates repression based on patriarchal norms.
The state may also use the penal system to demonstrate competence and authority. Penal repression allows the state to demonstrate its sovereign capacity and reassert political authority under threat. The case of criminalizing dancing in Iran thus illustrates how public authorities use penal policy to address a legitimacy crisis. Many scholars link the loss of public confidence in the political system to the rise of punitive populism and the ascendancy of penal severity in and outside the United States.

The penal state has become a central instrument for the exercise of authority. It can protect conservative values and strengthen the power of political elites, who exploit the penal system to legitimize their political agendas. While criminalizing dancing seems odd in the United States, in Iran it serves to enforce moral rules, extend social control, and demonstrate state power.