The Harlem Shake controversy in Tunisia

The ministry's website was also temporarily hacked and a call went out on social media for the staging of a "mega Harlem Shake" in front of the ministry on Friday.

Controversy erupted in Tunisia after education minister Abdeltif Abid demanded investigation into the video staging of a "Harlem Shake" show by pupils from Menzah 6 district in a school compound. Abid called it an insult to education.  The incident occurred while the country is plunged into a deep political crisis after the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid, and before a new government has been formed.

Following the viral epidemic of the Harlem Shake video footage which shows participants dancing wildly and simulating sexual acts, students at several Tunisian high schools and universities have choreographed their own versions of the dance trend. The version filmed at the Imam Moslem high school, also known as Père Blanc, angered the education minister who said there could be possible expulsions of students or sacking of staff  behind the staging of the dance: 

“This event was staged without permission from the regional director or ministry. An investigation will be launched and measures taken against any whiff of violations,” said Abid, a member of the centre-left party Ettakatol, an ally of the Islamist ruling Ennahdha party. In response, students protested outside the school and refused to attend classes. The ministry's website was also temporarily hacked and a call went out on social media for the staging of a "mega Harlem Shake" in front of the ministry on Friday.

At another school in the coastal city of Sousse, students reacted angrily after their principal prevented them from staging the “Harlem Shake”. They "gathered outside the school, near a hospital, and began igniting smoke bombs, security forces responded with tear gas" said Khaled Tarouch, spokesperson for the  Ministry of the Interior.

At the Bourguiba Language Institute, a number of ultra-conservative Muslim youths tried to ban a performance of students who shouted "Get out, get out" at them. One of the Salafists, said "Our brothers in Palestine are being killed by Israelis, and you are dancing." Another version of the dance trend was performed outside the national constituent assembly where participants were holding a sign that says, “Where is our constitution?”

One of the participants argued that the minister should have reacted against the Salafist meetings organized at several Tunisian schools. “This is a normal form of freedom of expression. Where was the minister when the Tunisian flag was replaced by a Salafi flag?” said one of the participants. Souad Abedrahim, a member of the national constituent assembly from the Ennhadha party announced that her son participated in the dance at the Imam Moslem high school. A dance she described as a “form of expression and creativity. I believe that dancing is a form of self-expression, but I denounce some of the violations that happened in the dance,” explained Abedrahim.

The Harlem Shake incident comes hotfoot in the wake of Tunisia’s political crisis. Following the assassination of Belaid, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali resigned after failure to reach agreement on forming a new government of ‘apolitical technocrats’. On the other hand, Ministry of the Interior, Ali Laaryedh who was appointed as the new prime minister, announced that four people suspected of killing Belaid have been arrested. According to Laarayedh, the suspects were ultra-conservative Islamists.  

About the author

Sana Ajmi is a Tunisian writer currently pursuing her masters in Linguistics. Sana is a freelance journalist and a former writer for Tunisia Live. Her interests include human rights, educational management, world history and international relations.

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