The camera does not give us a close-up of the young woman’s face. Instead, it shows Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, the prosecutor of Tehran, interrogating a young model. She is Elham Arab, a famous Iranian whose appearance on a TV show called Honeymoon sparked outrage from Iran’s hardline conservative Islamists. 

Honeymoon, contrary to what its name might suggest, celebrates the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan by showcasing heartwarming stories of people who have overcome adversity.

But Arab’s online lifestyle, some viewers discovered, was not entirely in keeping with Iran’s laws on women’s Islamic dress. Following her appearance, religious conservatives attacked her in the media, causing her to scrub her social media profiles of any photos that showed her without an Islamic headscarf, or hijab. She also shut down her Instagram page.

The producers of Honeymoon apologized for having her on the program.

After the controversy died down, there was little news of her.

But on May 15, she reappeared in the custody of the prosecutor saying, “I went to the show for the love of my family and the love of my country.” He directs a barrage of questions at her: “Did you do it by yourself or did others refer you? Did you travel abroad? What did you do abroad? How do they identify and hook individuals? How…”

Iranian state television often broadcasts televised forced confessions of political prisoners, but this scene was unprecedented, since prosecutors do not usually take the role of interrogators, and Arab was an unlikely political prisoner.

The website Mizan (“Scale”), which is affiliated with Iran’s judiciary, posted the video under the headline “Voluntary Confessions of a Repentant Model.”

 

“Girls Want Happiness” not Fun

“Joining these networks might be voluntary, but getting out of them is not,” Elham said in front of the camera, expressing remorse about what she had done. “All girls want to marry and live happily. But if you ask [men] if they would marry [a model], 90 percent would say no.”

In January, there were unconfirmed reports that several models had been arrested. The website Bulletin News, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, later confirmed the news and cited the content of the models’ Instagram pages as the reason for their arrest.

In March, Iran’s online authorities shut down the Instagram pages of several well-known models, as well as those of hair salons and photography workshops. In their place, online visitors found a large blue frame with the caption “These pages are blocked by the authority of Operation Spider 2 to open security cases by order of the judiciary.” They did not provide any details about the operation, which became known as “the spider attacks.”

Now, Dolatabadi has explained what the so-called “spider attacks” were all about. “In the past two years, a lot of good things have been done in the fight against hair salons and fashion workshops related to modeling,” he said. “In operations Spider 1 and Spider 2, around 50 hair salons, 50 fashion workshops, and 50 photography workshops were prosecuted. Individuals were arrested and pages were shut down by the supervisor of the Prosecution Office for Media Crimes.”

 

Subverting the Islamic-Iranian Lifestyle

At the same time, the website Gerdab, which promotes news about Revolutionary Guards’ online activities, reported on what it called the successes of Operation Spider 2 over the past two years.

Gerdab’s report accused the “secret supporters and operators of Instagram” of attempting to subvert the “Islamic Iranian lifestyle.” It championed what it called an important achievement in combating “modeling and vulgarity.”

“The first phase resulted in the creation of an accurate database of more than 300 Instagram pages,” the report said, quoting the Organized Cyberspace Crimes Unit of the Revolutionary Guards. “The database is an intelligent collection of specifics about these pages such as postings, followers, those who are followed, the ‘likes,’ the comment writers, addresses of [account users on sites] such as Facebook, Line, and Telegram, and emails, phone numbers, addresses and bank account numbers.”

On Sunday night, Mostafa Alizadeh, spokesman for the Organized Cyberspace Crimes Unit, participated in a news program alongside Javad Babaee, supervisor of the Prosecutor’s Office for Media Crimes, and repeated the same claims. “We started Operation Spider 1 by keeping 350 pages under surveillance as requested by the Judiciary,” he said. “Then it was requested that we should continue with Facebook and other social networks.”

 

Kim Kardashian’s Hidden Hand

Alizadeh blamed foreign powers for the Instagram modeling pages. “They are targeting young people and women,” he said. “Foreigners are behind it because it is targeting families. These schemes originate from around the Persian Gulf and England. When you draw the operational graph, you will see that it is a foreign operation.”

The aim of Instagram’s CEO Kevin Systrom, he said, is to make fashion modeling native to Iran, and Kim Kardashian is implementing his scheme for him. “Ms. Kim Kardashian is a popular fashion model so Instagram’s CEO tells her, ‘make this native,’" Alizadeh said. “There is no doubt that financial support is involved as well. We are taking this very seriously.”

Babaee, speaking from the prosecutor’s office, said that actions against offenders had been mostly preventive. “In Spider 2, we had 170 individuals who were active in modeling, fashion houses and photography workshops,” he said. “Of this number, 29 will be prosecuted. Our aim is to teach them a lesson and make them wake up. In many cases, a warning was sufficient and we did not take legal action. Of the 29 individuals, eight have been arrested and their cases are being processed.”

The names of those arrested have not been published, but the hardline newspaper Sobh-e Now recently published a pictogram showing the names of individuals and entities it says were involved in fashion and modeling. Its editor-in-chief, Farshad Mehdipour, recommended “preventive actions” to guide young people using social networks.

Alizadeh supported his advice. Then he mentioned Elham Arab. “The lady who talked with the prosecutor today did it voluntarily,” he said.

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