Following the crackdown on journalists which began in November 2015, the regime in Tehran is now focusing on the fashion industry. The campaign, nicknamed Ankaboot (spider) 2, is targeting approximately Iranians in the fashion industry, (models, photographers and make-up artists) who are “promoting a culture of promiscuity, weakening and rejecting the institution of family, ridiculing religious values and beliefs, promoting relationships outside moral rules, and publishing the private pictures of young women” by simply sharing pictures of women without hijabs.
This new crackdown is not only a nightmare for its victims but is part of the ongoing clash between hardliner Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani. This struggle, which ranges across many issues such as the economy, foreign policy and human rights, is bound to culminate in the next presidential elections in 2017 which will decide if the Iranian people endorse Rouhani’s efforts for change or Khamenei’s efforts to maintain the status quo established by the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Meanwhile, just as in the previous crackdown on free speech, Iranian civilians who don’t want to emulate all of the hardline ideals of the Islamic Revolution will be oppressed, harassed and imprisoned.
The mechanics of the crackdown
The mechanics of the campaign are relatively simple: The IRGC regularly monitors, through the aid of internet “spiders”, social media for content that runs counter to the ideals of the Islamic Revolution and this time, the monitoring focused on pictures of female models without the required hijabs.
The models, photographers and make-up artists who shared these pictures on social media suddenly found themselves defenseless against the sanctimonious and patriarchal forces of the regime and the results were crushing: businesses were shut down, social media accounts were blocked and some of the “criminals” were dragged to court under charges of “spreading prostitution”, “promoting corruption” and promoting “immoral and un-Islamic culture and promiscuity”.
Some of these “criminals” have fled Iran while others are reluctantly forced to play the game by “confessing” to their “mistakes” and by promising to return to the narrow path dictated by the Islamic state. None, to date, have taken an activist stand and most are unwilling to fight the system, knowing too well that such a fight will lead them directly to jail or worse.
Even Kim Kardashian has come under the fire of the regime: She is now being accused by Tehran of being a secret agent, in conspiracy with Instagram no less, with a mission to influence Iranian youths to “abandon their religious principles” by looking at and sharing her revealing selfies.
It’s not about fashion, it’s about politics
While this may seem to some people as legitimate since the victims of this campaign have de facto broken Iranian law, it should be obvious to all that the campaign is not really about the transgressions of these “criminals” but is, in fact, a political campaign targeting Rouhani and his “moderate” government as well as the moderates who were elected to parliament in February 2016.
The crackdown on journalists began in November 2015 soon after the beginning of the implementation of the JCPoA, the “nuclear deal” meant to lift sanctions, monitor Iran’s nuclear program and re-integrate Iran into the global economy. Hardliners, led by none other than Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, were upset that some of Khamenei’s “red lines” were crossed and felt that the JCPoA had somehow diminished the respect to the ideals of the Islamic Revolution. Despite Rouhani’s open stand against the crackdown, 4 of the arrested journalists were sentenced to 5 to 10 years in jail through sham trials and the persecution continues unabated.
Khamenei made it clear last week where he stands on the issue of the basic freedom of sharing content on the internet: according to him, the internet “is a real battlefield. The clerics and seminary students should prepare to enter this field and fight against deviations and erroneous thoughts”. Iranians, according to Khamenei, will have to keep any thoughts or actions which might be considered “anti-Islamic” or “anti-regime” to themselves or risk feeling the wrath of the regime.
Rouhani, without a doubt, has been critical of the chauvinist attitude of the regime towards women for a while as can be seen from these quotes from 2014: “Those who are scared of women’s presence and excellence, or have other views, are asked to please not attribute these wrong views toward religion, Islam, and the Quran…is it even possible to marginalize 50% of the members of society?“. He has also taken an open stand against the over-zealous implementation of hijab laws and even the establishment of the 7,000 strong undercover “morality police” intended to enforce these laws.
And yet, just as in the case of the jailed journalists, it seems that Rouhani will, once again, be powerless to help the victims of the fashion crackdown. Rouhani understands the regime all too well to pick a fight which could force him out of his position to join political opponents of the regime such as Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hussein Moussavi under house arrest which he had promised to free during his election campaign in 2013. Instead, he is focusing on drumming up enough support from the Iranians who do want social change and more personal freedom to re-elect him in 2017.
Pressure is effective and is required
The issue of human rights in Iran is not an easy one to tackle. On the one hand, it seems natural that the citizens of a country should respect the laws of their land making this issue a local one. On the other hand, following the implementation of the JCPoA, countries and businesses around the world can choose whether to deal with Iran or not based on many factors including human rights.
But pressuring Iran on human rights can be effective: the premature release of Atena Farghadani, the cartoon artist who was sent to jail for 12 years for lampooning Iranian members of parliament and then released after only 18 months, is just one case which should inspire NGO’s and governments around the world to pressure the regime. To further complicate the matters, pressure from the world on human rights in Iran can strengthen Rouhani in the eyes of the Iranian public but will definitely weaken Rouhani in the eyes of the regime.
Were Iran a true democracy, the issue would be easily settled in the next presidential elections but since the regime in Tehran is wholly undemocratic, no one can foresee if and when the regime could lash back at efforts for change just as it did in the elections of 2009 in which accusations of a flawed election were met by a crackdown on the “dissidents” who found themselves to become enemies of the state.
Just as Iranians have a choice to back or bury Rouhani, the world has a choice to pressure or to ignore the regime’s harsh oppression of human rights. It’s time to choose.