They are household names, the objects of millions of Google searches, discussed in taxis and on blogs, the women whose privates lives, in recent years, have gone on display before all of Iran: Zahra Amir Ebrahimi, Pooneh Ghoodosi, Masih Alinejad, Golshifteh Farahani. We have become so used to hearing things whispered about them -- whom they have slept with, how their families have spurned them -- that the circulation of their names, indeed their public humiliation, has become ordinary.
While their experiences have become notorious, either by dint of their celebrity or the volume of innuendo leveled against them, they are extreme forms of a phenomenon that is far more common than many realize. In today’s Iran, the trampling of privacy has become so pervasive that it’s hard to pinpoint a source of blame. While the government promotes a culture of invasion by seeking to control every aspect of citizens’ lives,
Iranian society’s shifting, intolerant attitudes toward sexuality often does the same. The result is a social climate where both state actors and those affiliated with the state, along with private citizens operating in their own spheres, routinely invade privacy in the name security or morality.
I experienced this reality myself in the years I worked in Iran as a journalist, when I learned that the authorities were closely watching my private life. They tracked the men I dated, what parties I attended, and in one comic instance, what I bought at a jewelry store. When I got married, they did more research on my husband’s family than even my own mother, and congratulated me on making such a fine match. Initially, I thought much of this attention was due to the sensitive nature of my work and personal life -- I wrote for an American magazine, reported in places like Lebanon and Syria, and socialized with diplomats. But in time, I came to see that many friends and relatives who moved in more domestic spheres faced invasions of privacy as well. A close friend returned from an interview with Iran Air in tears, having been asked whether she prayed and drank alcohol.
For my part, I was lucky; the authorities never used the intimate information they gathered about me in a public way, and the intimidation I felt simply knowing all they knew was my private problem. For the writing of this article, I set out in search of the women I mentioned above, whose private lives were exposed by either people they knew, or institutions affiliated to and supported by the government. I wanted to understand how their lives were affected by what happened to them, and whom they blamed.
I called the journalist Masih Alinejad on a grey winter day, to hear about the campaign of false sexual rumours she faced after revealing illicit bonuses in Iran’s parliament. The rumours, launched and propelled by conservative news websites affiliated with the government, eventually reached a fever pitch, with weekly reports about her alleged Friday night dalliances, and alleged purchases of villas and cars with the payments she received from purported lovers. “I would always joke that during a certain point in my career, I had, in the eyes of these sites, slept with every official in the Islamic Republic short of the Supreme Leader,” she told me. Her voice was confident and strong, but as she explained the personal fallout she has suffered -- how it compromised her in the eyes of her traditional relatives and father --it is clear the damage to these relationships has caused her much pain.
Alinejad’s experience is no isolated incident. While the allegations against her took the form of false rumours spread by a media machine enabled by the government, similar invasions -- similar in their ability to crush an individual’s life -- are also led by private individuals.
Take the case of Zahra Amir Ebrahimi, whose videotaped, private encounter with a boyfriend became a national fixation in 2006, and whose name still numbers amongst the most searched terms on Google (even a clip of what appears to be a prank phone call asking her to star in a porno has upwards of 1.65 million hits).
Amir Ebrahimi, who starred in the popular serial Nargess, endured intense public scrutiny and humiliation after the tape’s release, including officially instigated rumours of her suicide. She eventually emigrated to France, where she told a friend: “When I tell people in France about what happened to me, they say ‘here that would have made your career!’ In Iran, it would have been better to die.”While the authorities did take some action in the aftermath of the tape’s release, their handling of such cases is often muted and fails to create any real deterrent.
The founders of the Islamic Republic, if taken at their word, did not wish for things to turn out this way. The raiding of private homes and the surveillance of individuals’ sexual behavior flout -- at least in spirit -- many of the provisions in the Islamic Penal Code. And the Constitution, while not making any specific reference to privacy, forbids inspection of personal beliefs (Article 22) and holds than an individual's’ reputation is inviolate (Article 23). In particular, Khomenei’s Eight Article Directive to Protect Privacy of 1981, presented by the vali-e faghih in response to growing violations of the personal sphere by komitehs and police in the chaotic aftermath of the revolution, sought to protect citizens’ right to privacy and set limits on judges and revolutionary courts. Khomeini himself writes of the importance of accountability, even in rooting out anti-IR groups: “Because crossing the religious laws, even for them, isn’t permitted as carelessness and negligence isn’t permitted.”
Islam, which supplies the ethical and legal basis of Iran’s jurisprudence, is clear on its sacred regard for privacy and the individual’s private domain. The Koran’s explicit prohibition of suspicion, spying, and the entering of homes without permission form together a spiritual and legal shield around an individual’s private behavior. Islamic figh, explains the scholar Mehdi Khalaji, is concerned with ‘zaher,’ or outer behavior. “If you commit adultery or drink, as long as this happens in private and there is no witness, no one has the right to intrude or punish,” he says. “But the Islamic Republic is not a fighi republic.”
With an Islam that effectively forbids violations of the private sphere, and a handful of Iranian laws that do offer some modest support for privacy, how has Iran become a society where people’s sexual lives are so easily cast before the public eye, a place where ordinary citizens who would be devastated if they had to suffer such ordeals so eagerly consume others’ public sexual humiliations? Everyone is familiar with the most notorious cases of the curtain pulled back.
Film and television stars have suffered the most public invasions. The actor Golshifteh Farahani, after posing partially nude for a French magazine, met with vicious denunciations in the state-affiliated media. The attacks involved telephone calls to her father, accusations of collaboration with anti-revolutionary plots, and reports that she had posed partly nude due to financial troubles (in addition to playing music on the streets, disguised by a niqab, for money). For months, Fars News and other sites circulated angry headlines: “Golshifteh Farahani From Decency in Iranian Cinema to Obscenity in the West” and “Golshifteh Farahani Confirmed Her Shamelessness.”
Journalists working in the West have faced similar allegations of sexual misconduct. In 2012, BBC Persian journalist Pooneh Ghoodoosi, at the time presenter of the show Nobat-e Shoma (Your Turn), found herself targeted in a systematic, widespread campaign casting her alternately as the rape victim and lover of the network’s director, Sadeq Saba.
More recently, BBC presenter Nafiseh Kouhnavard has also been singled out by the same state-affiliated websites as promiscuous, guilty of multiple relationships. These whisper campaigns, which have also targeted other journalists at the BBC and been accompanied by interrogations of family members in Iran, have spread by word of mouth. People in Tehran say they hear the tales circulated in taxi cabs, the rumours gaining such momentum that even intellectual, educated urban types -- people typically critical of the regime -- have begun to wonder if there’s any truth behind them.
The BBC refused to let me interview any of its journalists on the record, citing continuing harassment, but speaking off the record, one journalist said: “The harassment is laughable, on the one hand, but also can be very upsetting. Some people have traditional relatives, and they’re trying to be supportive, but it’s hard.”
The government’s tactic of public sexual humiliation is particularly tough on women, who lose status and dignity in traditional societies like Iran, even when close relatives know that the allegations are false, the shame lingers. “It can be very isolating, depressing experience, especially for single women, who worry about what a future partner might think about such rumours,” says another BBC staffer, with close knowledge of the situation. “A man like Sadeq Saba can emerge unscathed, his virility actually emphasized, whereas women journalists are still somehow tainted.”
But while these high profile individuals’ cases are in the public eye, ordinary people are also vulnerable to the violation of their privacy, left open to sexual blackmail or intimidation, if someone with power at their workplace, local mosque or neighborhood deems to use that influence against them.
Khalaji sees control of Iranians’ sexual lives as crucial to the Iranian government’s very existence as what he calls a “Islamic totalitarianism,” which he likens to fascism and communism in its obsession with sex, but under a veneer of Islamic ideology. “When they say that you’re not allowed to watch satellite television in your own house, your room has become subject to legislation,” he says. “Your private room is a political subject, it becomes part of the public sphere.”