Eight Arrests and Scores Interrogated in “Project Spider 2”
May 17, 2016—Eight people working in Iran’s fashion industry have been arrested and formally charged in an industry wide crackdown led by the Revolutionary Guards. Cases have also been opened on another 29 people, and most of the 170 fashion industry workers who have been targeted during the past six months have also been interrogated, an informed source told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
“This kind of stifling and intimidation will only deprive Iranians of the cultural and artistic vitality that is rightfully theirs and further alienate the country’s youth,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
“The Revolutionary Guards’ assault on Iran’s fashion industry testifies to the fear of hardliners who try to control every aspect of people’s lives and squash any visible challenge to their narrow world view,” said Ghaemi.
Many of those who were interrogated had previously posted photos and videos on their Facebook and Instagram pages showing themselves without the hijab and wearing facial makeup, as well as what the authorities have described as “un-Islamic dresses.” Some of these social media accounts had a few thousand to as many as half a million followers.
Information gathered by the Campaign from credible sources during the past three months indicates that the crackdown on the fashion industry intensified between November 2015 and March 2016. At the end of the interrogation sessions, which ranged in duration from a few days to several weeks, some victims were released after pledging to end whichever activities they had been summoned for while others were kept in detention.
“Nobody wants to talk about these interrogations and arrests. We’re all in shock,” one model who was interrogated during the latest crackdown told the Campaign. “The officials told us themselves that this is a big operation and they are in the process of gathering information and identifying individuals.”
“After someone was taken in for questioning the interrogators would get the names of other models and photographers and summon them as well,” added the source, who asked to remain anonymous.
On May 15, 2016 the Revolutionary Guards’ organized cybercrime investigation unit announced that their surveillance operation, “Project 2,” had identified 58 models, 51 fashion house owners and clothing designers, 59 photographers and makeup artists, as well as two fashion institutes. As a result, 29 criminal cases were opened, eight individuals were arrested, and businesses associated with these individuals were shut down under judicial orders.
“In the past two years some good work has been done in fighting modeling activities,” said Tehran’s hardline Prosecutor General Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi on May 15 during a press conference. “Two cases were opened by the cybercrime prosecutor and many [fashion-related] pages were shut down.”
“Those who use sexual attraction to gain more income should be assured that Tehran’s prosecutor will come after them,” warned Dolatabadi.
Dolatabadi also accused Western intelligence agencies and Iranians living abroad of banding together “to raise a spineless generation of Iranians with sexual and financial incentives on the Internet.”
Elham Arab, who was well-known for modeling wedding dresses in her signature blond hair, was introduced at the press conference as “one of the repenters in the field of modeling on Instagram.”
Given the sudden change in Arab’s statements and tone, the veracity of her public expressions of regret are deeply suspect. The Campaign has also learned of coercive methods used during the interrogations, which have been followed by public repenting from some of the detainees.
After being asked by Dolatabadi to offer advice to young people, Arab said: “Many women have contacted me on my page and asked for advice. But good boys will never choose a model as their bride.”
Arab’s statements echo the regularly repeated views of Iran’s conservative extremists and security agencies that social media was designed to “deviate young people.”
“Instagram is one of the most important tools for tricking youth into believing that modeling and posting photos on the Internet will lead to success,” continued Arab. “On the contrary, all the girls who dream of marriage and starting a family know that boys and men might hook up with models, but they will never desire marrying them.”
Throughout her short career Elham Arab posted photos of herself without the obligatory hijab on her popular Instagram page, which has been deleted. Her following grew last year after she was featured on Maah-e-Assal (Honeymoon), a state television show that aired during the holy month of Ramadan in June 2015, and photos of her uncovered hair were circulated on social media.
“Project Spider 2 succeeded in revealing a vast network of individuals and agencies involved with domestic modeling that are collaborating with foreign sources under the guise of cultural activities,” said the Revolutionary Guards’ organized cybercrime investigation unit in a public announcement.
The announcement also explicitly warned that all social media networks, “especially Telegram,” were being monitored for what the Revolutionary Guards categorize as criminal activities.
“There is no secure space for those who manage and run content on propaganda networks,” continued the announcement. “Those who sully the reputation of Iran and Iranians… with their online activities will be seriously dealt with.”
In this instance, the Revolutionary Guards’ warning was mainly focused on modeling agencies based in Arab countries in the Persian Gulf. These agencies, many with international connections, attract Iranian women seeking careers in the fashion industry unconstrained by the strict limitations placed on them inside Iran.
In January 2016, unconfirmed reports from local news outlets announced the arrests of seven individuals (Niloufar Behboudi, Melika Zamani, Donya Moghaddam, Dana Nik, Shabnam Mowlavi, Elnaz Golrokh and Hamid Fadaie) due to their modeling activities. The organizer of a modeling competition in the city of Rasht, 150 miles north of Tehran in Gilan Province, was also reportedly arrested for posting “immoral photos of young girls” in October 2015.
A fashion photographer who asked to remain anonymous told the Campaign that most of the interrogations of fashion industry workers were carried out by the Revolutionary Guards between November 2015 and March 2016 at local police stations. Some of the detainees were also transferred to Evin Prison in Tehran.
“The interrogations generally lasted between three and eight hours [each day] and some had to return more than ten times for questioning,” added the photographer. “Some of the girls were explicitly told that they are depraved and whores and must delete all their photos without the hijab from their Instagram pages.”
The source also told the Campaign that the police raided the homes of many of the accused and confiscated their photo archives, computer hard drives and other personal belongings.
“Some of these people were questioned so many times that they decided to leave Iran and go to Turkey or Dubai because it became impossible to work in Iran under these conditions,” said the photographer. “The [modelling] agents seemed to favor their departure from Iran because there was no problem when they tried to leave.”
“Many major brands have a presence in Iran. Modeling is a very hot trend in Tehran. When actresses go to public events they talk about the different brands they are wearing and mention the name of the designer of their clothes,” added the source. “I don’t really think you can stop this growing interest among Iranians by carrying out arrests.”
Project Spider: The Arrest of Iranian Facebook Users
In March 2015, the Revolutionary Guard’s Project Spider 1 netted 12 Iranian Facebook users and led to the targeting of 350 Facebook pages for content that allegedly “promoted corruption” and western-inspired lifestyles.
Mostafa Alizadeh, the ultra-conservative spokesperson for the Revolutionary Guards’ Cyber Army’s Organized Crimes Review Center, told Iranian state TV on March 3 that in addition to the 12 Facebook-related arrests, 24 other Iranians had been summoned for questioning due to their online activities.
Alizadeh claimed that the Facebook pages managed by the accused contained “obscene and immoral content under the guise of modeling, which ultimately undermined sacred religious principles.”
“These pages were on a mission to nag and joke about everything going on in the country,” added Alizadeh, who is regularly referred to as a cyber expert for the Revolutionary Guards by Iranian news media.
In a May 15, 2016 report about the latest arrests, Alizadeh discussed the Revolutionary Guards’ particular dislike of American reality TV star Kim Kardashian.
“These individuals have to be held accountable because they use our cyberspace and have millions of followers. If social media networks delete criminal content, there would be no need for us. But we have been facing an organized trend that impacts the real world by publishing material in cyberspace.”
“Ms. Kim Kardashian is a major model in the fashion business who has been instructed by the head of Instagram to [advertise] content,” theorized Alizadeh. “Promoting [her] is the order of the day. There’s undoubtedly a lot of money behind it. We are dealing with a serious issue.”
Alizadeh also said that those who were previously summoned for questioning were warned not to continue working in the fashion industry but some did not listen and were consequently arrested.
Shabnam Mowlavi is a popular model in Iran who promotes fashionable yet traditional clothing lines. She received international attention in 2013 when her photo shoots in the cities of Tehran and Kashan were featured in the American FSHN Magazine.
Even though she has tried to comply with Iran’s strict Islamic rules on modeling women’s clothing, conservative extremists have accused her of “spreading vice.”
A makeup artist told the Campaign that efforts to control and contain Iran’s fashion industry would ultimately be unsuccessful.
“Those who now have criminal records [as a result of their fashion-related work] might stop working, but you can’t do anything about the demands of the new generation,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous. “You’ll be amazed when you look at the Instagram pages of people born after 1997.”
“Many of them see Kim Kardashian and [supermodel] Gigi Hadid as icons,” added the makeup artist. “They have no interest in [non-fashion-related] news and their entire lives revolve around fashion.”
“These are not just rich kids from Tehran,” said the source. “There are those who are not economically well off, but you could never tell from the way they dress on Instagram.”
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has frequently complained about an alleged Western cultural assault aimed at changing traditional Iranian lifestyles.
“The things I warned about many years ago have now turned into indisputable realities,” he said in a speech on December 10, 2013. “Hundreds of foreign radio, television, print and Internet outlets are following clear objectives to influence the mind and behavior of the Iranian nation.”