If you think Tehran’s notorious Evin prison is the worst in the country, you clearly haven’t heard of Qarchak, about 50 kilometers further to the south, located in the outskirts of the Iranian capital. Qarchak is a women’s prison, holding up to 2,000 inmates in a space hardly fit for a third of that. Women charged with murder, armed robbery or drug charges are held there, as are political prisoners, including the world-renowned lawyer and activist Nasrin Sotoudeh.
Last week, an Iranian website published an interview with one of Qarchak’s best-known prisoners, the 19-year-old Fatemeh Khishvand, an Instagram star also known by her internet alias Sahar Tabar, who revealed she’s been sentenced to 10 years in prison. Her lawyer, Saeed Dehghan, confirmed the news but said the official sentence had not been handed to him in written form (as is often the case in Iran).
The news prompted profound shock. Back in the spring, Khishvand’s lawyers said she had contracted the coronavirus (though this was denied by prison authorities) and many hoped for her release. Now the opposite had happened. Many bitterly pointed out that a man recently found guilty of killing his own 13-year-old daughter because she had a boyfriend had received only nine years in prison.
Why was a teenage internet star receiving a much harsher sentence?
The Crime of Resembling Angelina Jolie
The entirety of Sahar’s allegedly criminal activity has taken place on her Instagram page, where she shared pictures and videos of herself with her followers, which number close to half a million. In Sahar’s bizarre and eery videos, she dressed up as cartoon-like characters, enhanced by computer graphics and minimal plastic surgery. Some suggested she was trying to mimic the American actress Angelina Jolie but Sahar’s own favorite was a fictional character: Emily from Tim Burton’s 2005 stop-motion animation Corpse Bride, memorably voiced by Helena Bonham Carter.
“Since I was a kid, I wanted to be famous,” Sahar said in the interview last week. “I loved acting. But it was easier to get famous on Instagram.”
Sahar’s fame proved too much for the authorities of the Islamic Republic. They routinely fail to prosecute smuggling, embezzlement, abuse of power or the murder of protesters but nothing seems to threaten the regime like a popular Instagram account. Sahar was arrested in the fall of 2019 and faced four counts of charges: “Aiding in ‘corruption on earth’ [an Islamic concept of a crime that is punishable by death]; “encouraging corruption by driving youth toward libertinism,” “insulting the sacralities by insulting hijab [Islamic veiling]” and “unlawful income.”
Charges had been brought by Branch 21 of the General and Revolutionary Prosecutor’s Office, which is dubbed the “Cultural Guidance Prosecutor” and is in charge of going after such “cultural crimes.” Sahar’s case was to be tried by Judge Mohammad Moghiseh, an infamous cleric known as the presiding judge for many of those who were arrested during the 2009 protest movement. Moghiseh has issued hundreds of years worth of jail sentences for many innocent journalists, internet users, filmmakers, poets or followers of the Baha’i faith, Iran’s largest and most severely persecuted religious minority. Due to his human rights violations, Moghiseh is subject to European Union and US sanctions. The regime, however, has rewarded him by an impending promotion to the country’s Supreme Court.
Sahar’s imprisonment in 2019 had led to much outrage. Ali Mojtahedzadeh, an Iranian lawyer, spoke for many when he vented on Twitter: “an 18-year-old girl is being tried for aiding ‘corruption on earth’ but thousands of those who’ve committed administrative, financial and political corruption in the country are either protected by the establishment or forgotten and never followed up on.”
But the judiciary, led since March 2019 by Ebrahim Raeesi, a failed presidential candidate who is a top contender to replace Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Iran’s Supreme Leader, was not about to back down. When he was appointed by Khamenei as the head of the judiciary, Raeesi had promised to go after corruption. But he showed his real priorities by prosecuting an 18-year-old Instagram star.
The arrest was followed by what has become the standard fare for the regime’s favorite victims: a forced confession on TV. The state broadcaster aired an interview with Sahar, conducted by Zahra Chomaqi, one of the broadcaster’s many interrogators-acting-as-journalists. (The most infamous of this crowd is Ameneh Sadat Zabihpour, known for broadcasting confessions with trade union leaders and dissidents who had been tortured. She recently expressed happiness following the barbaric and brutal execution of dissident journalist Ruhollah Zam, which led to the suspension of her account on Twitter.) On TV, and clearly under duress, Sahar spoke of her parents’ divorce, quitting school two years ago and her three years on Instagram. The clear intention was to humiliate her.
10 Years in Prison
According to Sahar, she has been acquitted on two of the four charges and received a total of 10 years in prison for the other two (she didn’t say which two.) She is still hopeful that an appeal court might reduce her sentence. But the fact that a teenager has already spent more than a year in one of Iran’s most notorious prisoners alongside those who are doing time for murder and armed robbery is quite telling in terms of how low the Iranian regime has sunk.
Even within the limited space for expression in Iranian media, the sentence has met with protest. Jafar Mohammadi, editor-in-chief of the news website Asre Iran, criticized Raeesi for the sentencing.
“We should ask,” Mohammadi wrote in an editorial, “Why is it that those who commit economic crimes by seriously disrupting the currency market or those who disrupted the market of people’s daily needs were sentenced to only five years in prison while an Instagram girl gets 10 years for some silly online activities?”
“Society’s general conscience won’t accept this while the embezzlers and economic violators who are suffocating 80 million Iranians get similar or lower sentences,” he added. “And some politicians who stand accused of grave economic crimes get promoted not prosecuted.”
He also pointed out that Sahar Tabar was most active on Instagram when she was well below the age of consent. Others pointed out her long history of mental health challenges, which make the sentence ever more cruel.
But the Islamic Republic has no intention of working for average Iranians like Sahar. Despite the rumors, she is not from a rich family, but hails from Pakdasht, a marginal corner of Tehran province, not far from where she is now doing time in prison. For every story on Instagram, she could make about five million Iranian rials, which is less than US$20 given the low exchange rate. Like many young Iranians faced with shrinking opportunities, she was simply trying to make a living while also following her love for the eery and the morbid, a sentiment familiar to fans of Tim Burton and enthusiasts for the Goth subculture around the world.
But Iran is perhaps the only country in the world where a teenager could get a 10-year prison sentence for the crime of loving Tim Burton.
The harsh sentence shows the regime’s fragility. Ever since coming to power in 1979, it has tried to reshape Iranian culture, but it has miserably failed. On the orders of Ayatollah Khomeini, the regime’s founder, it closed down the universities from 1980 to 1983. Its repression led to the exodus of virtually all major Iranian musicians. To this day, Iran must be the only country in the world where showing any musical instrument on TV is prohibited, as is women singing in public. Khomeini even considered banning all music everywhere before being persuaded to allow for a limited range of “revolutionary” music.
His successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, has not let go of that zeal for censorship. In today’s Iran, every single book, every single piece of music, every single theater show or movie has to pass through the censors of the culture ministry or to use its full name, the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance. A book might not be allowed to publish because it portrays a kissing scene. A TV show might not get the pass because an actress (who must appear wearing full Islamic hijab and can’t even touch a male character) is too pretty (yes, this is an actual reason that was given by a censor for a TV show that happened to be made by my father). Live broadcast of football matches on TV is sometimes interrupted because a woman in the audience is wearing revealing clothes. There are people working for the state broadcaster whose job is to watch the live games to spot any improper display of a woman’s body on TV. Nor are people safe in the privacy of their own homes. Effectively every single Iranian young man or woman knows at least one friend who was dragged to detention and given lashes (considered a cruel punishment, and illegal under international law) because she or he attended a party where men and women mingled, loud music was played or other “improprieties” that can lead to a raid by Iran’s moral police.
But despite more than 40 years of this brutality, the Islamic Republic has failed to reshape Iranian culture. In the holiday season, Iranians from all walks of life fill the night clubs of neighboring countries, including Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, or the United Arab Emirates. Despite the risk of a police raid, millions of Iranians use satellite dishes to watch foreign outlets, including many of the popular Persian-language broadcasters. The state broadcaster, with an astronomically bloated budget, is so bad that even the families of its own employees are known to prefer foreign outlets (as it happens, both my parents were long-time employees of the state broadcaster so I would know). Iranian cinema flourishes and is praised all over the world but it’s rare for pro-regime filmmakers to achieve much success. Globally famed names such as the late auteur Abbas Kiarostami or double Oscar-winning Asghar Farhadi are often attacked by the pro-regime conservatives. In 1997, when Kiarostami won the Palm d’Or of Cannes Film Festival, the greatest global honor for any filmmaker, the regime thugs threatened to beat him upon arrival — because he had kissed the French actress Catherine Deneuve on the cheek upon being presented with the award.
In short, despite exercising absolute state power, despite spending billions of dollars on state-sponsored cultural propaganda, despite using the judiciary to kill tens of thousands of dissidents and put an ever more number in jail, the regime has failed in this basic task: millions of Iranian today are nowhere close to the Islamic fundamentalist ideal the regime has tried to impose. It can sentence teenagers on Instagram to jail for 10 years, but it can’t force millions of Iranians to forego their rich cultural history.