Iran's Morality Police Sets Sights on Models, Musicians and Mannequins

Elham Arab's interrogation was broadcast on national TV as a deterrent in Iran, where modeling is defined as 'involvement in organized crime.'

Model Elham Arab, who was arrested in Iran after appearing in fashion photos without the obligatory head scarf.
Twitter image

The homepage of Gerdab leaves no room for doubt. The website, run by the cybercrime unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is mainly devoted to the horrible damage surfers may suffer on social media sites. Among other things, Gerdab reports that 50 percent of Iran’s teens “waste” more than three hours a day on “valueless” sites, interactive games and pornography, rather than on schoolwork.

One caricature shows an arm, attached to a computer-mouse cord as a sort of conduit for drugs. Another item warns of dangers lurking for children online because their parents are not at home – or, more accurately, because the mother decided to go to work rather than fulfill her duties.

The site is part of the Spider surveillance project, which began in 2010 to keep watch on social media users in Iran, and to arrest those suspected of subversion. The latest victim is the model Elham Arab, who was arrested after appearing in fashion photos without the obligatory head scarf.

The morality police didn’t settle for just arresting Arab, who models mainly bridal garb. Her interrogation was filmed and broadcast on national television, as a deterrent. Modeling in Iran isn’t just some ordinary crime. It is defined as “involvement in organized crime.”

With the help of Spider, the Iranian authorities target a different industry each time. During the last two years they’ve set out to stamp out two in particular – hair salons and fashion houses. If six years ago Tehran set its sights on fighting Facebook, now the battlefield encompasses Instagram, Vyber, Telegram and Whatsapp.

The results are impressive. The owners of about 50 hairdressing salons and about the same number of fashion merchants are now on trial.

According to the radio station Zamaneh, which broadcasts from the Netherlands, Arab admitted to her guilt and expressed remorse, stating, “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 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,” she said, adding that a model who loses her hijab “has no place in the Iranian family.”

The question of the price Arab paid isn’t an easy one. She claims to earn about $3,000 a month from photographers and fashion houses, a vast amount relative to the Iranian average wage. A single image for distribution online can bring the model $150; the photographers and distributors earn 10 times more.

But now the entire industry is in Tehran’s sights. So are mannequins, which from now on have to wear head scarves too, and hide their private parts. Any hint of female breast is off-limits. “Family values” are the legal grounds for this assault, as is the danger that the West will have influence on Iran’s culture.

Models aren’t the only profession being persecuted by the conservatives. So are classical Persian musicians.

For instance, the prosecution in the town of Nishapur (Neyshabour) stopped a concert from taking place that was supposed to feature the famous tenor Sharham Nazeri, a.k.a. “the Iranian Pavarotti” – an innovator who melds Persian and Kurdish music to create an original genre that has won him international acclaim and awards. None of that did him a bit of good when he sought to hold a concert on the anniversary commemorating national poet Firdausi (or Ferdowsi), who died in the year 1020.

Nor did a concert, also in honor of Firdausi, by Kayvan Kalhor, master of the traditional string instrument called the kamancheh, pass muster: The local prosecutor said religious elements in the town opposed the concerts on the grounds that music is harmful to Iranian society. The culture ministry had approved these concerts, but even it cannot stand up to local conservative forces.

The prohibitions are now part of the conservatives’ struggle against the president, Hassan Rohani. They couldn’t foil the nuclear agreement, so now they’re laying land mines in his path, and social and cultural bombshells, ahead of the presidential elections next year. That is the only arena left to the conservatives after the parliamentary elections significantly curtailed their power, ditto the elections to the Guardian Council, which is responsible for choosing the next supreme leader after Ali Khaminei.

This is not an easy arena for Rohani, who has to tread a thin line between the conservatives and the reformers, who also have complaints about him for failing to advance reform in culture and human rights. A show trial for Elhem Arab, or canceling a concert or two, won’t bring reformers into the streets. But it constitutes a significant show of power to which Rohani has no answer.