A young woman cries as she answers questions on “Wayward,” a program on state-run Iranian TV. She says she is sorry she posted clips of herself dancing. It was just a whim, she explains.

And as her repentance was broadcast across the country, Maedeh Hojabry's tears elicited widespread sympathy.

The persecution of Hojabry and the other two young women — Shadab and Alnaz Ghasemi — started in May, when their Instagram pages were blocked. Anybody in Iran who tried to access their pages was confronted with the following message: “This page has been blocked by the order of the Honorable Judicial Authority for publishing criminal content.” But the news of their arrest only emerged on July 6, when the three women appeared on state TV. As is usual in the Islamic Republic, they were forced to sit in front of the camera and beg forgiveness for their transgressions.

After the TV program aired, thousands of Iranians started tweeting in support of the three women. People posted videos of themselves dancing. Their message: Dancing is not a crime. “I wanted to show these kids that they are not alone,” one woman who posted a video told IranWire. Her video has been shared hundreds of time and received thousands of likes. “I wanted to tell the Islamic Republic that if they think dancing is a crime then we all are criminals. How long must we tremble in fear for every small, natural thing? Let us live.”

Being a Woman is a Crime

“I wish we could do more,” said another woman who posted a video of herself. “For now, we just want to say that we will not keep silent and you cannot do with us as you wish. Any one of us could have been arrested instead of them. Today it was their turn and tomorrow might be our turn. In Iran, being a woman is a crime.”

After her release, Alnaz Ghasemi returned to Canada, where she lives. She posted a video [in Persian] saying that she was released on bail and that her lawyer is pursuing her case. She also says in the video that she learned to dance by herself and without an instructor because she loved it. When she posted her videos on Instagram she never imagined “it would become such a big deal and lead to such horrible trouble.” Ghasemi described how a group men raided her home in Tehran at six in the morning and arrested her.

On July 7, Turaj Kazemi, head of Tehran’s Cyber Police, said the police intended to take action against “Instagram celebrities” [Persian link]. According to him, more than 30 percent of cases filed have been against people based in Tehran. In one-third of the cases, he said, authorities had summoned the administrators of the Instagram pages and “taken all necessary action.”

In late April, General Kamal Hadianfar, the top commander of the Cyber Police, announced that his forces were reviewing 51,000 Instagram pages with “obscene and vulgar content.” Kazemi says that if the cases fall outside the jurisdiction of the Cyber Police, then they are pursued in cooperation with the Moral Safety Police “to the limit of the law.”  

Don’t Be Happy

It’s not the first time that police have gone after Instagram celebrities or people posting videos of themselves dancing online. In the spring of 2014, six young Iranians were arrested for posting a music video for Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” on YouTube, part of a global trend spurred on by the singer. “I was arrested at the age of 23 on the charge of ‘being joyful’ and Maedeh was arrested on the same charge at 18,” tweeted Reyhaneh Taravati, one of the six arrested in 2014, following the most recent arrests. “What are you going to do with the younger generation?”

In a separate event, on March 7, a group of young girls danced [Persian link] during a gathering to mark International Women’s Day in Iran in the presence of Mohammad Ali Najafi, who was then Tehran’s mayor. When the video was posted online, conservative principlist media reacted strongly, the mayor asked that “Islamic principles” be respected and Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi, Tehran’s prosecutor, announced that he would pursue the case.

It was reported that investigators checked the girls’ IDs to see if they had reached the age of puberty.

People posting photos and videos of themselves dancing are not the only ones to have been targeted. In January 2016, security forces arrested seven fashion models. Six of the seven arrested were women, and all had posted photographs of themselves not wearing hijab on their Instagram pages. The models were named as Melikaa Zamani, Niloofar Behboudi, Donya Moghadam, Dana Nik, Shabnam Molavi, Elnaz Golrokh and Hamid Fadaei.

Here Comes the Spider

On March of the same year, the Revolutionary Guards launched “Spider” attacks against models on Instagram. In June 2016, the Guards arrested 12 people in Shiraz, the capital of Fars province, as part of Operation Spider 2, intended to crack down on Iran’s fashion industry. In December 2016, as the verdicts against the eight women and four men were issued, one of their lawyers, Mahmoud Taravat, faced allegations as well.

Among those arrested in the “Spider” operations were fashion models, fashion designers, and boutique owners. All were accused of promoting “obscenity” and “immoral acts” online, facilitating moral corruption and prostitution through publishing obscene photographs, taking part in fashion shows that advertised western dress, and promoting western “nudity” culture through modeling. After their release, some of the detainees left Iran.

Dowlatabadi announced that around 50 hair salons, 50 fashion boutiques and 50 photography ateliers were shut down.

Elham Arab, a wedding dress model with over 400,000 followers on Instagram, was invited to appear on a TV show called “Honeymoon.” She was arrested after it was discovered that Arab’s lifestyle was not entirely in keeping with Iran’s laws on women’s Islamic dress. Authorities shut down her Instagram page and the producers of “Honeymoon” apologized for having her on the program. For a period, there was little news of her, but then on May 15, she reappeared on TV in the custody of the Tehran prosecutor, expressing remorse. In early 2018, Elaheh Arab traveled to Dubai and announced that she would not be returning to Iran.

 

More on the Islamic Republic’s crackdown on “obscenity” and fashion:

Supermodel Says Farewell to the Islamic Republic, April 18, 2018

The Battle Against Models and “Cultural Infiltration”, March 10, 2017

Crackdown on Fashion Continues, December 6, 2016

Iran Continues its Crackdown on Models and Fashion Photographers, November 16, 2016

Censoring Fashion, Religious Sensibilities and Female “Virtues”, May 27, 2016

Kim Kardashian, the Infiltrator, May 16, 2016

Revolutionary Guards Launch “Spider” Attacks against Models on Instagram, March 17, 2016

Iran’s New Criminals: Fashion Models, February 2, 2016

Iranian Models’ “Qualification License” in Limbo, November 11, 2015

The Trials and Tribulations of an Iranian Fashion Model, June 8, 2015

The Islamic Catwalk, April 4, 2014

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