The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Iran cracks down on Instagram models, blaming Kim Kardashian

Iranian women visit the Chamran garden during the Laleh flower exhibition in the city of Karaj on April 21. (Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA)

Iranian authorities have arrested eight people for alleged "un-Islamic acts" online, according to reports in the country's state media on Monday. The operation, called Spider II, appears to have targeted models who used Instagram, an American photo-sharing app that has been widely used by Iranians even though its parent company, Facebook, is blocked within their country.

One woman who was detained, model Elham Arab, was later shown on state television offering a public apology. “All people love beauty and fame,” Arab said. “They would like to be seen, but it is important to know what price they will pay to be seen.”

Arab was known for her Instagram and Facebook accounts, which often showed her wearing wedding dresses and showing off her bright blond hair, but those accounts now appear to have been deleted. State media reports had not specified what charges those arrested faced. Reports suggested that a total of 170 people had been arrested in the operation, including models, photographers and makeup artists.

According to IranWire, a spokesman for Iran's Organized Cyberspace Crimes Unit had specifically mentioned Instagram when discussing the arrests on Sunday — and, curiously, he'd also mentioned an American reality TV star. “Ms. Kim Kardashian is a serious fashion model and Instagram’s CEO tells her, ‘make this native'” in Iran, Mostafa Alizadeh was quoted as saying in a televised interview. “There is no doubt that financial support is involved as well. We are taking this seriously.”

Authorities in Iran require women to cover their hair and bodies while in public, but many Iranian women defy these restrictions by, for example, wearing tight-fitting clothes or a loose headscarf that can still show off their hair. In recent years, there has been a slow move away from conservative dress codes among a section of society, with even some limited signs of acceptance from the country's entrenched religious elite: Three years ago, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a religious edict that allowed fashion and modeling, the Guardian newspaper reports.

To an extent, Instagram has played a role here. The photo-sharing app is not blocked in Iran, unlike Facebook and Twitter. It offers not only a window to the wider world but a chance for Web-savvy, young and liberal Iranians to show off their personal lives. One such Instagram account, The Rich Kids of Tehran, regularly shows women without headscarves and in relatively revealing clothing. In a message posted Monday, The Rich Kids of Tehran said they had no close links with those who were arrested, who they seemed to suggest were detained in a sting operation targeting "prostitution and escort agencies" in Iran.

Iranian women have complained before of being targeted for their Instagram posts: Last year, actress Sadaf Taherian said she had to leave Iran after threats were made against her in the wake of her decision to post photographs of herself without a headscarf. There were unofficial reports of models arrested in January, and some Instagram pages that featured models appeared to have been abruptly shut down in March.

More on WorldViews

There’s an app for young Iranians to avoid the morality police, but its makers are worried