Tabar’s posts caused an online stir last year when her Instagram account displayed her distorted features and ghoulish makeup choices. Her appearance drew comparisons to the character in Tim Burton’s stop-motion movie “Corpse Bride.”
Tabar told Russian government-owned news site Sputnik in 2017 that it wasn’t her goal to look like Jolie or the animated character in the Burton movie, saying she was her own muse. She said she had had plastic surgery on her nose and lips, in addition to liposuction. Her photos, she said, were a form of art, in which she can play with makeup and photo editing.
“For me the most important thing is to have the acceptance of my family and God. I have those and that is enough for me,” she said then. “Opinions from the rest of the world are not important, I ignore their negativity.”
The opinion of Iranian law, however, could have very serious consequences.
The crime of blasphemy covers a wide range of acts that the state disapproves of. The punishment could be a few months in jail or even death, which is often accompanied by torture, according to Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.
The penalty for not wearing the hijab, the Islamic headscarf, also could result in a lengthy sentence. In August, prison sentences ranging from 16 years to nearly 24 years were handed out to three women who in March publicly protested wearing hijabs.
Experts say fear and hypocrisy drive the Iranian government’s actions against Tabar.
Tabar’s arrest is nothing unique, said Masih Alinejad, a women’s rights activist who started a social media movement called #whitewednesday, in which Iranian women post images of themselves without their hair covered.
“The government focuses on all of those influencers on Instagram who have followers,” Alinejad said. “They try to control them.”
Drawing attention in the West, like Tabar did, can especially place someone on the government’s radar, said Alireza Nader, founder and chief executive of New Iran Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on research and analysis of Iran.
Nader said Tabar could face jail time or lashings for her actions.
The government could also coerce her into issuing a public apology for her posts, as it did last year when a teen posted a video of herself dancing without her hijab on Instagram to her audience of more than 600,000, Alinejad said. Some Iranian women uploaded clips of themselves dancing in solidarity after her arrest.
The head of Tehran’s cyber police said at the time that his staff would identify popular Instagram accounts and act against them, according to the Guardian.
In July 2018, Iran arrested 46 people for “damaging public virtue through the organized spreading of anti-cultural” activities through their Instagram accounts, according to the Associated Press.
The Telegraph reported in January that Iran had moved to ban Instagram, but it was unclear when such a ban would take effect.
The impact of social media is something the Iranian government is paying attention to amid internal unrest, Nader said.
“Social media reaches so many Iranians and is considered threatening to the regime,” he said, noting that social media platforms have been used for civil disobedience and human rights advocacy.
But Nader also noted, “If they shut it down, they shut down their own means of communication.” Most Iranian officials have social media accounts. The president of Iran has more than 2 million followers on his Instagram page, where he has nearly 1,100 posts.
Nader says there’s no rhyme or reason as to whom the government targets, but Alinejad said they are usually women — people the government really wants to control, she said.
In July, the head of the Tehran Revolutionary Court warned that people who film themselves, post under the “white Wednesday” hashtag and send their images to Alinejad could face up to 10 years in prison.
“These women know the risk, but they think this is the time,” Alinejad said of Iranian women turning to social media in their fight for equality. “They are fed up with the recent interference in their personal lives. They want to be free. They’re ready to pay the price.”