Iranwire – The latest round of censorship imposed by Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) last month aimed to protect the Iranian public from the distressing sight of women eating pizza or having tea poured for them by men. It came as part of a series of insane directives in the past few years that blocked the broadcasting of cucumbers, women’s ears, wolves’ nipples and buffalo skins.
Restrictions on Iran’s cultural, entertainment and artistic fields have tightened year on year since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The stakes are even higher now that most Iranians have ready access to the internet, and with the widespread uptake of home cinema and streaming platforms. Last January a communiqué from Ebrahim Raisi, as then-head of the Iranian judiciary, tasked the IRIB with issuing licenses for streaming sites in Iran – as well as censoring them where “necessary”.
What might next be classed as too offensive for the Iranian public’s delicate sensibilities is anyone’s guess. But in this article, we’ll review some of the more recent revelations on what’s keeping IRIB directors up at night.
The Images Blacklisted on Iranian TV
Shaghayegh Dehghan, a well-known actress in Iranian comedy serials, recently went on record about TV censorship in Iran in the years just after the revolution. “In the 1980s,” she said, “women were only allowed to use three colors – grey, black, and brown – for their clothes. All happy colors were forbidden. A cosmetic foam was applied to the lips and eyelashes to dull the natural color of women’s facial features. They also said that men and women were not permitted to sit together on a double sofa, and must sit on separate chairs, at a distance.”
These sinister and patriarchal early restrictions have, in 2021, led to a situation where some IRIB staff are hesitant to show a woman’s face at all. Recently the actress Elnaz Habibi appeared as a guest on the home network series Pishgoo [Fortune Teller]; for the length of the program, her face was never visible except from a ludicrous distance. This is understood to have been a deliberate edit on the orders of the Cyberspace Audiovisual Regulatory Organization (SATRA): a subsidiary of the IRIB.
With the broad restrictions in place for decades now, the IRIB has been forced to find new, risible targets for censorship. In April 2018, Channel 3 censored the logo of the Italian football club A.S. Roma on the grounds that it was “contrary to Islamic beliefs”. The badge features two infants – the twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus – being suckled by the Capitoline Wolf in honor of the world-famous legend about how the city came to be. The IRIB blurred out the wolf’s teats, which was arguably much more offensive and drew criticism from Rome.
In 2019, it was revealed live on air that IRIB censors also had a problem with men growing their hair long. A presenter on Channel 2 admonished their guest: “God, I wish you were bald!” Addressing the audience, they added: “His hair was so long we had to put it inside his shirt, because TV cannot show long hair; it’s not normal.”
The Iranian actress Bahareh Rahnama also revealed in September 2019 that women who laughed too hard would not make the grade. “For 25 years,” she said, “my laughter has always been cut for television – and they warned me to laugh in such a way that my teeth are not visible!” A whole episode of her TV show, in which she appeared with her husband, was not aired because of her “devastating laughs,” she said.
In addition to teeth, women’s ears and chins are a sensitive issue for the IRIB. Amir Mehdi Jouleh, an Iranian screenwriter and actor, disclosed on Instagram: “Actresses must wear thick pants under their skirts so that their shape is not exposed.” One of the objections to Barareh Nights, a popular satirical TV series in the 2000s, was, he said, “why the bulge of the ear of [actress] Shaghayegh Dehghan was discernible from under her headscarf! Note: not the ear itself, but the ‘bulge’. We never figured out what they found arousing about a bulge under a headscarf.”
In January this year the TV presenter Rozita Ghobadi, who formerly hosted the IRIB’s Asr-e Khanevadeh (Family Time) program, was made to take an extended leave of absence and eventually sacked for using the word “dance” on air. Ghobadi’s guest on the show, a doctor, had innocently suggested that families stuck at home due to coronavirus during Yalda, the Iranian winter solstice, could raise their spirits and get some exercise by dancing. “I was told by a program expert that I had to apologize three times for the use of the word ‘dance’,” Ghobadi later said. “Then, even though I had apologized three times, I was dismissed from the program.”
Two months ago, Jila Sadeghi, a veteran Iranian TV presenter, unveiled another bizarre rule-apparent. She said she had been forced to retire from a show due to her sartorial choices, and in particular, because of having rolled up the sleeves of her mantle.
Women are not the only ones the IRIB is afraid might over-excite viewers. Hamid Labkhandeh, the director of several popular Iranian TV series, told Journalism is Not a Crime that IRIB directors ordered the face of Parsa Pirouzfar, the male lead in the 1990s TV series In Your Shelter, should be made “a little ugly with makeup” to prevent him from looking too attractive.
Even the majestic bodies of buffalos are not immune from the IRIB’s distrustful gaze. Director and screenwriter Mustafa Kiaei disclosed on Instagram that while he was making one series, “We’d planted the camera from two angles to film water buffalo coming out of the water, in slow motion, from the back and front. Finally when we had the film prepared and it was scheduled to be broadcast on TV, I received a correction sheet. The very first correction was to delete the frames where the buffalo were filmed from behind coming out of the water. I asked why, and they said that showing water buffalo coming out of the water, especially from behind, is arousing.”
It’s not just visuals that come under obsessive scrutiny from IRIB censors, but ideas. Last month Mahboubeh Balbasi, whose husband was killed in Syria in September 2016, claimed the IRIB had censored her TV interviews. In one example of content being cut, she said, “They’d asked me about ‘night prayers your martyr carried out’. I’d said I never saw him reciting prayers because he was so tired.” They cut out all my replies because they couldn’t portray a martyr who didn’t pray.”
Also in September, Hamid Arun, a newscaster for IRIB’s Razavi Khorasan Radio and Television, lost his job because of criticism posted on his personal Twitter account of the politically-motivated sacking of a professor at Islamic Azad University. “After my tweet,” he said, “they [the IRIB] called and said I could either tweet critically or be a presenter.”
Other IRIB staffers have come under fire for castigating the government. In June this year, Ghodsieh Salehi, host of the Tehran Salam (Hello Tehran) program, was reprimanded for having complained on air about the constant power outages in Iran. She was told her critiques fell “outside the professional framework”. Iranian actor Amir Hossein Rostami was also dismissed in the middle of a live TV show for criticizing the government’s management of the coronavirus pandemic. The host immediately accused him of “blackmailing” the state.
From female referees to male dancing, criticism to Covid-19, the Islamic Republic’s circus of censorship has no clear-defined parameters and operates according to no coherent basis or law. All anyone knows for certain is if their intended broadcast falls in some way foul of the ideological caprices of Iran’s leadership, it will surely be eliminated.