Iranian Actress Heads Into a Storm

Tehran, Iran - When Iranian movie star Golshifteh Farahani moved from Tehran to Hollywood, she didn't bring along her head scarf, which is obligatory in her own country.

The 25-year-old actress appeared at the New York red-carpet premiere of Ridley Scott's new action movie, "Body of Lies," last Sunday sporting a broad smile, a sleeveless designer dress and bare curly hair. In the movie, which also stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, Farahani plays a pious Muslim woman who works as a nurse.

In the past week, heated debates on dozens of Iranian Web sites have pitted those who support Farahani's decision to remove her scarf against those who accuse her of selling out her Muslim heritage.

This is not the first time a prominent Iranian woman has been photographed in the West bareheaded. When human rights activist and lawyer Shirin Ebadi received the Nobel Peace Prize in Sweden in 2003, she didn't wear a scarf at the ceremony. Following harsh criticism at home, Ebadi said that nowhere in Iranian law was it written that Iranian women are obliged to cover their heads when they are abroad.

Farahani, however, is a popular young actress who until August had lived only in Iran, although she has traveled widely. She has starred in numerous domestic box office hits and won several national acting awards. The Iranian public had never seen her without a scarf -- or hijab, as it is known here -- covering her hair.

Farahani told the New York Daily News at the premiere that she had experienced "a lot of problems because of this movie."

Iran's Kayhan newspaper, which supports the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said that Farahani's scarf-free appearance in New York was the result of a conspiracy. "The cinema mafia takes female actress to America," one headline read. "They have forced her to appear in front of cameras without hijab and in inappropriate clothing. They immediately published the pictures on Web sites," the paper said, adding, "Western groups try to break the taboo of being without a head scarf."

On the Internet, which is subject to less censorship in Iran than print media, Farahani without a scarf is a hot topic.

Supporters of the actress have Photoshopped images of her at the premiere wearing a traditional black chador, a robe that covers all but the face and hands.

"This is the way some Tehranis want her to look on the red carpet," Farhad Sabet wrote under the doctored image he posted online.

Opponents say she has sold her soul to Hollywood.

"When I saw those pictures, I was disgusted," wrote Mahdavi, an Iranian blogger who describes himself as a religious student. "It was obvious from her frolicking that she had lost all sense of respectability."

"Her being without a head scarf means she belongs to the rude and inconsiderate young generation that has no respect for Islamic values," Mahdavi added.

Some of those responding to his blog disagreed. "Everybody is free to live as they like. What's it to you?!" wrote Ali.

"The hijab is only valuable when it's chosen, and not forced. Learn that we shouldn't be totalitarian. No one can force people to have or not to have hijab. Remember this," wrote Behzad, whose identity, like that of the other Internet contributors, could not be verified.

In fact, wearing the head scarf in public has not been a matter of choice in Iran since the 1979 revolution turned the country into a Shiite Islamic republic. Women must cover up, no exceptions made. Special morality police often arrest women who push the limits by letting too much hair show from under their scarves. At some mixed family parties in the capital, Tehran, however, women wear whatever they like.

In August, when screenshots from "Body of Lies" of a veiled Farahani with Leonardo DiCaprio appeared on Iranian Web sites, the actress became the talk of the town. An Iranian news agency asserted that her passport had been taken by the authorities to prevent her from attending the movie's premiere.

Farahani confirmed part of the report after the premiere last week, telling the New York Daily News: "The intelligence service interrogated me several times. In the end, the judge said, 'We have to see the movie and then decide what we're going to do with you.' "

"I'm on trial," she said.

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which decides which movies are allowed to be shown in cinemas here, denied in the Iranian press that the actress's passport had been seized. There has been no official government response to her appearance on the red carpet.

Farahani left for the United States, with her passport and without any problems. She now fears, however, that she can't go back.

Meanwhile, a new Iranian movie in which she appears, "Darbareh Elli," is due for release soon, and some government supporters have posted demands on their Web sites for her films to be banned in Iran.

"I'm totally in love with Iran. I have family there," she said. "But now, if they want to see me, they have to leave."