A recent spate of acid attacks against women in Isfahan, Tehran has left the international media abuzz. Many reports cite that the attacks, which have left victims severely burned and even blinded, were due to “bad hijab,” in which the women in question-who were driving their cars when men on a motorbike drove up and splashed them with acid-were wearing a more casual interpretation of Islamic dress. The Iranian government, on the other hand, has purportedly insisted that the attacks have nothing to do with “bad hijab.”
These attacks have come just as I was planning on writing a post about Iranians and social media. Although the Iranian government insists on head-to-toe Islamic dress-the most obvious symbol being the long black chador robe which women hold closed with their hands or teeth-the reality in Iran now is that many women do not wear such a strict interpretation of modest dress. Although every woman in Parliament wears chador, many women in the country dress in ordinary clothes, albeit with a modest twist: hemlines are longer, fits loser, arms covered and some form of headscarf is wrapped around the head.
I have been following three social media pages which showcase personal style in Iran: “Rich Kids in Tehran,” “My Stealthy Freedom” and “The Tehran Times,” which have all made internet headlines around the world. Given the growing popularity of these pages, which challenge the stereotypical image we have in America of a super-conservative, reserved and oppressed Iran and the subsequent shut-down and “rebranding” of the RKIT page, it makes me wonder if the acid attacks were spurred by these new representations of Iranian identity.
In a play on American reality TV shows (“The Rich Kids of Beverly Hills,” which is absolutely obnoxious) the “Rich Kids of Tehran” Instagram account account posts photos of pretty (rich) young things doing pretty much whatever the want. The girls are all heavily made up, wearing the tightest, tiniest little club dresses, posing not unlike college girls here do before a night out. The guys, dressed far better than any American guys, pose next to their Maseratis, Ferraris and BMWs. There are snaps of guys and girls together in swanky apartments, clutching glasses of alcohol, and lounging beside immense pools in skimpy bathing suits. They look like typical spoiled kids.
Except they’re living in that ostracized world pariah of a country known as Iran.
The RKIT account fascinated me (such handsome guys!) but confused me. Don’t Iranian women have to cover up? Isn’t alcohol illegal in Iran? Aren’t house parties that include the mixing of unmarried men and women illegal? Isn’t Iran subject to dozens of sanctions that prevent Iranians from enjoying consumption of foreign goods, such as designer duds? Most importantly, doesn’t the government censor the internet?
In a Facebook conversation with a young guy who found me on one of the pages mentioned below, I asked him about the RKIT page. If drinking, dancing, mixing with the opposite sex and displaying the female body are all against Iran’s laws, than why are these Iranians openly inviting the government to arrest them? Any government official could log on and try and ID these kids, or the women on the other pages. The Iranian guy said that the kids’ parents were most likely in the government and thus wouldn’t get in trouble. Aha! There was my answer, although I still found it confusing. Not too soon after, RKIT took down all its photos because “there were too many fake accounts,” a reasoning I found suspicious. A new page, Lavish Persians, was created, but it was meant to showcase Iranians living around the world. There was much insistance that the original photos on RKIT had not necessarily been taken within Iran, but I call bullshit. The photos were always taken in private mansions, NOT nightclubs or restaurants, which would make sense given that Iran doesn’t operate nightclubs and the women could never wear party dresses in public.
It turns out that the Iranian government had in fact blocked the account. However, Rich Kids in Tehran has since started posting again, although with more tame shots of mansions and cars and women with “bad hijab.” Posts are often taken down inexplicably. Will the site continue?
The Tehran Times is a fashion account that is run by Iranian designer Araz Fazaeli, who blogs about Iranian culture and posts photos of fashionable Iranian women in their daily outfits. The photos are usually always taken outside on the street; the women’s faces are turned away from the camera or are obscured by shades, presumedly to hide their identity. There’s nary a chador to be seen, just “bad hijab” here: their scarves are as loose and revealing as possible, stylish revealing their gorgeous hair. Sleeves sometimes stop at the elbow, but there are no short skirts or bare legs, just lots of skinny jeans. The women are usually wearing tops that are long enough to cover their derrieres, or long jackets, manteaus or caftans.
Not unlike the scores of fashion hijabis abroad, these women show that despite having to dress ‘modestly,’ they will not sacrifice their style. Designer sunglasses, handbags, shoes and belts abound. They mix high and low brands. The ensembles are thoughtful and stunning. However, it is hard to imagine the majority of Iranian women being able to afford such lux outfits, nor getting away with wearing them in a small town. Ironically, despite being the nation’s capital, Tehran is where most of the Western-style culture is allowed to flourish.
My Stealthy Freedom differs slightly from “Rich Kids” and The Tehran Times in that it is less about showing off and personal style: its aim is purely political, although personal style is paramount. London-based journalist Masih Alinejad posts photos submitted by women who, in their photographs, are standing outside and holding their headscarves in their hands, accompanied with a caption. The girl describes her ‘stealthy freedom,’ this act of defiance where she removes her hijab in public and allows her hair to be ‘free.’ Although some of the girls stand in the street, the majority of them are photographed in the countryside, in the woods or mountains or on the beach. While sometimes their faces are turned from the camera, many times they are facing it enough so that one can clearly identify the women.
There has been some backlash. “My Stealthy Freedom” inspired men who believe in the veil to create a counter page where men wrapped headscarves around their heads, mocking the protesting women. At a time when women may be subject to attack because of their clothing choices, these pages serve as powerful inspiration. The Tehran Times posted a photo in solidarity with the acid attack victims proving that Iranian women will not back down.
Social media gives people the opportunity to tell their stories (and combat stereotypes) like never before. If one was to read American news sources or even just academic reports the presence of these men and women would probably not be mentioned. Because American media only wants us to see a politicized version of Iran, and Iran only wants the world to see a “good” Islamic state. Now that the whole world can see these people’s lives, will ‘official’ media change? Will Iran take down these pages for good? Will it arrest those in the photographs? I hope they will not.