A looming ban on Instagram in Iran — one of the last major social networks still permitted by the country’s internet censors — has Iranian influencers, entrepreneurs, and gender-equality activists worried about the future.
Authorities say the anticipated move is to block immoral and obscene content, but critics say it’s a naked attempt to crack down on one of the last remaining areas of online freedom for Iranians, especially for women and other marginalized groups, including ethnic minorities and the LGBT community.
In much of the rest of the world, Instagram is known for celebrities hawking detox teas or pictures of eggs breaking records for likes rather than political content. But in Iran, where women must cover their hair in public by law and observe other restrictive rules governing their appearances, Instagram is a battleground for free expression. The government has arrested women who have appeared on the platform showing their hair, but that hasn’t stopped women in Iran from engaging in this subversive act.
“Basically Instagram is the only platform which is not blocked in Iran, and during the last 10 years it has become the only place that people can freely share information and advertise their business,” said Samaneh Savadi, an Iranian feminist activist living in the UK. “Blocking Instagram is going to affect so many people in different ways. I am mostly worried about the young generation who deserves to have access to true news and information.”
For activists like Savadi, blocking the platform could be a real blow.
“Iranians get access to information that wouldn’t be allowed on national TV or newspapers [on social media],” she said. “There is a big number of activists running campaigns on Instagram. It’s not just about photos.”
Iranian authorities have talked about banning Instagram before, but the most recent discussion about a possible ban began early this month when authorities said they were preparing to block access to the app.
The ban would affect women and LGBT people in the country more heavily, activists say. Same-sex relations are criminalized in Iran, and LGBT activists in the country use Instagram to communicate with groups outside it, sometimes using pseudonyms to hide their identities. And ّin May 2016, a number of women Instagram models were arrested along with those who had regularly shared videos of themselves dancing. Many of those charged had to flee Iran because of their online activities.
Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have been blocked in Iran for several years, and the widely used messaging platform Telegram was blocked last spring. It’s unclear why Instagram has managed to remain available, but it has amassed tens of millions of users in the country.
“Just like everywhere else, Iranians are trying to get Instafamous. Iranians are posting videos of dancing, lip-synching, parodies, and even doing paid posts for clothing, teeth whitening products, and plastic surgery,” said Holly Dagres, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and editor of its IranSource blog.
Iran has one of the tightest internet censorship regimes in the world, though analysts said that anecdotally, VPN use is widespread. Some Iranian authorities have been calling for a “halal internet” — essentially a severely restricted version of the internet that controls what users inside the country can see.
But concerns about Instagram as a platform for immoral behavior don’t seem to apply to the country’s male leadership. Hassan Rouhani, the country’s president, has a verified account on the platform with 2.2 million followers.
And though Twitter is among the social media platforms blocked, many government officials in the country are prolific Twitter users, including supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; President Rouhani, who also has a verified Twitter account with more than 800,000 followers; and former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who’s used his English-language account to comment on the NFL and the French Open in addition to international affairs. VPNs are so widely used in Iran that government ministers and many members of Parliament use Twitter, and many municipalities even have official accounts.
Dagres noted that the desire to block Instagram could also be linked to public outcries caused by government leaders and their families making ostentatious displays of wealth on the platform. A controversy erupted last summer, for instance, over conspicuous consumption by the daughter-in-law of the Iranian ambassador to Denmark, who had posted pictures of herself decked out in designer clothing and handbags on Instagram. Most Iranians couldn’t dream of buying such expensive goods.
Female entrepreneurs are among those with the most to lose if Instagram is blocked, said Aida Pooryanasab, a Tehran-based doctoral candidate and businessperson who works with many women-run small businesses and has operated a popular Instagram account for seven years. She currently has more than 500,000 followers.
“We work with single mothers and women of lower classes, housewives,” she said. “These women are not only earning money — they also feel like they are existing [in public].”
Instagram is a particularly important platform for women in Iran who want to start businesses she said, because many women in Iran can’t work outside the home due to cultural or family obligations. And there are few startup costs to starting an online business in Iran, so it’s easier to do than opening a brick-and-mortar shop.
“After they become mothers or get married, they are supposed to stay home and be taking care of the household every day as their main duty,” she said. “Instagram-based businesses let these women feel good about their economic independence.”
Iran has blocked Instagram temporarily before, and threatened to block it as recently as last summer without actually going through with it. Some high-profile Instagram users approached by BuzzFeed News expressed skepticism that the government would really go through with it this time. And because many Iranians already use a VPN, simply blocking Instagram would not be enough to drive them off the platform.
Still, paying for and turning on a VPN is one more hurdle for internet users, and Iranians who depend on Instagram to run their businesses said they worried it would negatively affect their work nonetheless.
“I am more than worried because I have been working for so many years to get to this point on Instagram,” said Maryam Moqisé, a 30-year-old Iranian artist and embroidery and jewelry designer based in Tehran whose account has more than 100,000 followers. “I have built this page like a house, with money, health, and time, bit by bit.”
“All the years of my youth have gone onto this page and now, there’s the threat that it might just be taken away from me.” ●