By Naimeh Doostdar
A film about an interrogation session was aired by the media inside Iran. In it the Tehran Prosecutor General, is interrogating a woman, a famous fashion model: Elham Arab.
Elham Arab is a female bridal fashion model that stirred much controversy when she made a guest appearance in a TV program called Mah-e Asal (Honeymoon). She is now the subject of a publicly aired interrogation and prosecution. She was arrested in the midst of revolutionary guard raids on scores of photo studios, fashion houses and hair salons in Iran. A film of her confessions was aired by the state run television.
In the Islamic Republic of Iran media, modelling is presented as involvement in “a network of organized crime” as a official statement on the new raids reads. On Sunday 15 May, Tehran Prosecutor, Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi said the courts are ready to give “support to serious legal action against obscenity in cyberspace”. He stated that the head of cyber crimes courts has opened two cases in the past two years entitled “Spider I and II” to deal with “hair salons and fashion houses linked to modelling.”
Operation Spider Web or Project Spider is a surveillance programme first introduced by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to monitor Iranian internet users on social media such as Facebook. A similar internet surveillance operation started in 2010 by targeting Iranian pornographic sites and it was called Gerdab. In January 2015 with a statement issued by The Center for Investigation of Organized Crime (IRGC) Operation Spider expanded to monitor users on Instagram, Viber, Telegram and WhatsApp as well as all other social media, digital messaging tools and applications.
Spider I and II operations have now expanded to include prosecution against 50 hair salons, 50 fashion houses and 50 photo studios. Tehran Prosecutor added that they have made some arrests and shut-down a number of Facebook and Instagram pages in connection with these files. Those who were arrested, were fashion models who were also active on social media mobile applications such as Instagram in which they post photos of themselves.
Jafari Dowlatabadi said: “…with this blow we have managed to throw against these internet sites, they are no longer able to continue their activities so easily because they know there is serious monitoring of Facebook and Instagram pages.”
Confessions of Members of the “Fashion Mafia”
Elham Arab admits in the her televised confession that she has attended the interrogation session voluntarily: “I am speaking here because I love the Iranian family and my country and I hope that what I have to say would help young women who are interested in such things.”
Iranian human rights groups in the past have raised awareness on the issue of forced televised confessions and how those who are arrested by Iranian intelligence services are forced to confess in front of a camera.
Elham goes on: “Everyone by nature likes beauty and being looked at but what is important is to understand the price of that self-display and if it is really worth it. Many of our actors are seen but they do not compromise their values. But a model loses her hijab and has no place in the Iranian family.”
Elham in the televised confession shapes the idea of the existence of a “fashion mafia” that is attacking Iranian family values. Here is what these “Mafiosi” activities which have led to the opening of two Spider I and Spider II cases by the judiciary entail.
Elham Arab explains: “You may enter the network by choice but you cannot leave it whenever you chose to. The main reason for entering is to be seen and make money. There is a range of incomes; I made 10 million toumans [$3000] per month on average.”
Elham adds that she was first introduced to the business through a hairstylist and then continued through other hairstylists and photographers. “Now there are thousands of photos of me as a model on the internet while I regret having them published but I have no way of taking them back.”
She also mentions that she has travelled abroad as part of her modelling activities adding that while it did not provide much in terms of income, it did promote her image.
She displays herself as a victim of abuse. “Photographers and hairstylists use models for advertising and put their photos on their pages. A model receives 500 thousand toumans for a picture. The hairstylist makes millions of toumans from it. The more likes the picture receives in Instagram, the value of the picture and the model also goes up.”
“Discovering the chief guiding lines of the project to seduce Iranian citizens” was allegedly the second phase of Spider II project which according to the Center for Investigation of Organized Crime “through complex investigations by experts led to the identification of the principle members of the think-tank which aims at altering the fashion and lifestyle of Iranian citizens.” Elham Arab reveals that “most modeling photographers do not have studios or offices and only run their business and advertising through the internet especially Instagram.”
One hundred and seventy directors and managers of internet sites including 58 models, 51 heads of fashion houses and designers, 59 photographers and hairstylists as well as two active organizations involved in modeling business, have reportedly been identified. Of these, 29 individuals have been arrested and are now facing charges, another eight have been summoned and the establishments linked to them have been shut down.
The Center for Investigation of Organized Crime also refers to “taking action against heads of a number of internet advertising pages in foreign communication networks and the presence of a number of individuals in neighbouring and Western countries”. The foreign operations branch of the centre to identify and expose these networks adding that they will soon publish photo evidence of these operations. The centre also alleges that it has managed to identify international links to the domestic modelling business disguising themselves as cultural organizations”.
Why is Modelling and Instagram Bothering the Tehran Prosecutor
Instagram, Telegram, and Facebook are fields of war. The Islamic government fears anything that is shared on the sites and applications. Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi Tehran Prosecutor says they have established intelligence and judicial monitoring over Facebook and Instagram pages linked to modelling and a number of hair salons, fashion houses and photography studios are under their surveillance.
The Islamic government does not get along with inanimate modelling either and security officers and guidance patrols do not even pass on mannequins on display in shops. The mannequins have to have their breasts cut off and show no protrusions or curves. How could they bear live models on the catwalk; it would wreak havoc on the Islamic social values they promote.
According to Islamic Republic ideology, the family is the main focus for Islamic propagation for society in general and especially for women. In compliance with the recommendations of the Islamic Republic’s leader “Islamic lifestyle” has to be implemented.
While professional Iranian models walk on catwalks in private events in north of Tehran, modelling in the official literature and the minds of traditional groups is akin to licentiousness and is considered an immoral activity.
Even though there have been some efforts to present modelling with a somewhat Islamic face advertising “Islamic Models” for promotion of Islamic outfit and hijab, modelling remains a way of “promoting looseness and vulgarity” for traditional classes and in their view it ends up in “production of un-Islamic outfits which are not compatible with the lifestyle the government is trying to establish.”
The chief trigger of all these concerns is ultimately women or linked to women: designers, hairstylists, makeup artists, fashion show promoters and salespersons, photographers or models.
In this construct, “model” is the “promoter of immorality and lust and a threat to the family structure”. The model who has been forced to confess in public hammers this point: “In Iran many men may be attracted to a model but do you think they will also choose such a girl if they are thinking of marriage?”