Iran is well known to operate strict laws regarding what is and isn't deemed appropriate under Islam when it comes to both dress and behaviour for women. Following a slackening of these laws, and a subsequent boom in the fashion industry – particularly modelling – it seems there is now a backlash. An Iranian model, Elham Arab has recently been arrested for "promoting western promiscuity” after posting a series of selfies and modelling photos on social media where she was not wearing a headscarf, according to a report from the Guardian. Arab has since been forced to apologise publicly.
Arab is one of a swathe of Iranian models who have been charged for posting similar images on their social channels. According to reports from The Telegraph, she is one of eight women who have been arrested in the crackdown by Iranian police on "un-Islamic" behaviour in the country. The model had amassed legions of fans on her Instagram account and a reputation for her blonde hair and distinctive looks. She was also well known for working predominantly on wedding dress shoots. The spate of arrests – sinisterly called "Spider 2" – were aimed at reprimanding women mainly working in the fashion and beauty industries. According to the BBC, the Iranian authorities singled out 170 people running Instagram pages, of which "29 were warned that they were subject to criminal investigation." Arab was questioned on camera by the Iranian prosecutor Abbas Dowlatabadi during a hearing at the Iranian Revolutionary Court. It was here that she made a "public self-criticism" and expressed regret over her actions. Pictures posted to social media depict the model in court wearing a black headscarf with her hair dyed brown.
The Telegraph quote her statement as follows: "I think all humans are interested in admiring beauty and becoming famous, but they must first consider at what cost and what they will lose in return. For an Iranian film star they may not lose much but for a model, she will certainly lose her hijab and honour.”
Javad Babaei is the head of the cyber-crimes court and the man leading the operations to crack down on "un-Islamic" behaviour within the fashion industry. According to The Telegraph, he told a local Iranian newspaper that “the purpose of Operation Spider 2, which was launched two years ago, is to monitor the use of social media by the Western imperialist powers to change the Iranian-Islamic lifestyle of our nation.” These powers, he said, "have been making and spreading immoral and un-Islamic culture and promiscuity". It was later reported that another seven of the country’s most famous models had been arrested – named as Niloofar Behboudi, Donya Moghadam, Melikaa Zamani, Dana Nik, Shabnam Molavi, Elnaz Golrokh and Hamid Fadaei.
The hijab has been compulsory in public in Iran since the 1979 Revolution and a renewed interest on the morality of the fashion industry is part of a recent scheme to promote “Islamic values” under Iran's leader, President Hassan Rouhani. As part of his legislation, women driving without head-scarves had been threatened with having their driving licences revoked. Now, there is a clear move towards the censorship of women on social media. Ms Arab's Instagram page has already been shut down, as have those belonging to the other seven women who have been arrested. There has been some backlash on Facebook over President Rouhani's newly heated crackdown (he has often been viewed as "moderate" compared to previous presidents, say The Telegraph) and one website in particular is gathering strength: My Stealthy Freedom is an online movement fronted by journalist Masih Alinejad that encourages Iranian women to post photos of themselves online without headscarves. It has almost a million followers. However, with the formal arrest of eight women and the dispatching of plain clothes “morality police” to patrol the streets of Iran to ensure conformism, it's hard to imagine how these women will be free to return to their former careers in modelling as they once knew them. If you want to learn more about the fashion industry in Iran, watch our documentary on Tehran fashion designer Sadaf: