Fashion model Elham Arab poses for the camera, her tanned skin glowing, her makeup perfectly applied, her eyebrows expertly shaped, a fur draped around her neck. Another photo shows her in a white wedding dress, her hair loose and a smile on her face. In some photos, she wears green contact lenses. In another, she covers one eye with a rose.
The supermodel left Iran a few months ago, and now she is free to post photographs and videos of her work as a fashion model. More than 400,000 people follow her on Instagram — the photo of her in the wedding dress on Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach attracted thousands and thousands of likes.
Arab has been a model for years, having worked and posed for many Iranian beauticians, designers and fashion photographers. But it was not through modeling that she gained her greatest notoriety. What really made her famous was her May 2016 appearance on state TV, wearing a hijab and repenting for her work as a model in front of Tehran Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi.
Operation Spider 2
Arab’s so-called interview with Tehran’s prosecutor was really more of an interrogation and a forced confession — despite Arab’s nervous insistence that she had agreed to speak at Dowlatabadi’s press conference voluntarily and of her own free will. The event followed the arrest of several famous Iranian models, in what Iran’s Revolutionary Guards dubbed “Operation Spider 2” — an operation specifically targeting the evils of fashion modeling.
During the TV appearance, Dowlatabadi explained what the “Spider” operations were all about. “In the last 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 the supervisor of the Prosecution Office for Media Crimes shut down [web] pages.”
IranWire spoke to someone who knows Elham Arab about the crackdown. “Elham was arrested along with other models. After a few days, they told her that she had an interview. She thought it was like other interrogations that she had been through, but then they took her to a room to wait. ‘Your interview will start in a few minutes,’ they told her. ‘Just keep cool.’”
Model with a Law Degree
According to our source, who asked to remain anonymous, authorities then took Arab to a conference room. She was shocked to see a crowd of people in the room — along with Tehran’s prosecutor. As well as being a successful model, Elham Arab holds a law degree, and for a year she worked as a secretary for Judge Javad Esmaili in Tehran. “Elham knew Mr. Jafari Dowlatabadi,” our source said. “She was surprised that she had to answer the prosecutor instead of an interrogator but she could not turn back. If you watch the video you will notice that it seems as if she is reading from a prepared statement resting on her knees.”
When the interview was over, she learned that she had just taken part in a press conference, and that it had been broadcast on TV.
It was not the first time Elham Arab had appeared on TV. A little over a year before her arrest, she had been invited to appear on a program called Honeymoon. 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. Dressed as a bride, she talked about her own easy, pleasant and high-income job, in contrast to other guests who had difficult and less lucrative jobs.
“While the program was on,” our source told us, “online comments alerted the producers that Elham had pictures of herself not wearing hijab on her Instagram page. They asked her to shut down her page right there and then. When she refused, they ordered her to take down the offending pictures.”
She deleted the photographs that showed her without a headscarf, but for quite a while, the photos continued to be circulated on social networks. “Alikhani, the program’s host, had asked Elham to refrain from posting pictures without hijab until the end of Ramadan,” the IranWire source said. “Elham complied, but after a month she started posting them again.” The source said that for more than a year, no one bothered her. And then she was arrested.
In addition to her work as a model, Elham Arab owned a clothing boutique in Tehran. On her Instagram page, she promoted her own “Elham Arab” label, posting photographs of herself or of mannequins wearing the designs. She received lots of questions about modeling and her clothing line on Instagram, but she was also asked questions about what had happened to her. People were curious to know what had made her sit down with Tehran’s prosecutor and talk. And most of all, she was asked whether she had been in prison.
For a long time, she refused to answer. But eventually, she responded: “I was neither arrested nor imprisoned,” she wrote. She also told her audience that the rumors were disturbing her family. However, she was not writing these words out of choice.
Pretend all is Normal
“For a long time after her arrest, Elham’s page was under surveillance,” the source we spoke to said. “They constantly told her what pictures to post and what captions to use. Even her denial about her arrest was dictated by them. She repeatedly told them she did not want to keep her Instagram page up, but they said that she must.”
Elham Arab and the other models arrested at the same time were also served with travel bans. “Two of the models who had been released earlier than the others moved to Dubai and resumed their activities, so they confiscated the passports of others,” IranWire’s source said.
The moment that authorities gave Elham Arab her passport back, she left Iran forever. Our source said her arrest and imprisonment had deeply affected her life, and for a long time she was under the care of psychiatrists, who helped her so she could sleep without nightmares.
Currently Elham Arab is in Dubai, working as a model. She is free to post whatever photographs she wants to on Instagram. She prefers not to talk about the days of harassment and interrogation. She wants to concentrate on her modeling and her future. In one of the most recent photographs she posted, she is once again wearing a wedding dress, this one with a low neckline, and she is accompanied by two other models. And, of course, she is not wearing hijab. The picture has received more than 10,000 likes.
More on the Islamic Republic’s vendetta against modeling:
Kim Kardashian, the Infiltrator, May 2016
Iran’s New Criminals: Fashion Models, February 2016
Iranian Models’ “Qualification License” in Limbo, November 2015
The Islamic Catwalk, April 2014