Iran was again the subject of much debate this week, this time centering on a beautiful actress who took on the clerics and their definition of modesty – an incendiary recipe for controversy in Iran. Like thousands of Iranian women campaigning for #StealthyFreedom and demanding that headscarves be a choice rather than an obligation, actress Sadaf Taherian decided to take off the hijab – and show the Internet (and the world) what she looks like without it.
Iran’s response was not long in coming: from questioning Taherian’s mental health and inciting the public against her “immorality” to officially denouncing her as an “offender,” with a spokesman for Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance even denying her the “right to act.” According to The New York Times, even the popular TV show Taherian had starred in was immediately removed from the state TV channel.
But even as she was coming under attack and abuse on social media, Taherian continued posting hijab-less selfies in an act of defiance – probably from the safe distance of Dubai, where she is said to have taken asylum before posting the pics. Recently, she told a conspicuously bare-headed Masih Alinejad – who was behind last year’s #StealthyFreedom Facebook campaign – that she wants to “live in a place and live the way that makes me happy.” When one recalls Iran’s sinister reaction to the youths who filmed a tribute to Pharrell’s “Happy” in May 2014, Taherian’s bleak words seem like another indication that in Iran, even happiness can be a crime.
Taherian’s story of defiance and despair was widely reported and sympathized with around the world, even making it to Cosmopolitan, among other news outlets. It was also reported by video news outlet NowThis, which in describing the “fierce backlash” Taherian faced after posting the images, showed a video of an angry mob of men and women dressed in traditional Arab garb. Many Facebook users blasted NowThis for distorting Taherian’s story, and indeed, there is no doubt that by using a random video of a mob from an unnamed Arab country, the outlet missed the point – that Iran has much more understated, but no less menacing, ways of controlling its citizens; and that even as Taherian was subjected to attacks and abuse by virtual “mobs” on Facebook and Instagram, Iran was cultivating its own cadre of government-approved models and putting them through 65 hours of “training” (indoctrination, that is).