Over the last few days, a number of Iranians have reported that they received text messages from the morality police accusing them of not wearing hijab while in their cars. The messages appear to have been sent out in bulk, and they don’t seem to have always gone to the people they should have. In some cases, the messages were even sent to men.
Many people reported that the messages made little sense and didn't seem to apply to them: they either had not been in their car or used it on the day the text said they were out, or they were nowhere near the location the text specified. The message appeared to be for people in Tehran, but people living outside the capital received them too. Often, the texts seemed to refer to the wrong person altogether. Elderly people who have not left their homes for weeks because of the coronavirus received texts. Women wearing full chador received them. In one amusing example, a cleric said he received a text from the police."I didn’t know that removing my turban is considered a crime as it is for women removing their hijabs,” wrote Morteza Rouhani on Twitter. Others have also gone on to social media to give their accounts of the strange text alerts.
So what’s been happening? Why are people receiving these messages? Who is watching them, and why are they getting their facts wrong?
One theory was that the texts were sent to divert the public from the execution of Navid Afkari.
The texts read: "Dear owner of car licence number ...., the offence of removing the mandatory hijab took place in your car at the following address ... on the following date …. Please accept this as a warning for you not to repeat this act. You are hereby notified to report to the Morality Security Police closest your place of residence, bringing proof of identity and car registration documents within 10 days, between the hours of 8:00am and 2:00pm, to discuss the issue."
Cleric Morteza Rouhani’s experience and quip on Twitter was one of the most widely shared stories about the bizarre messages and their unlikely recipients.
Rouhani, who is also the managing director of the Tarjoman website and related publications, received the text message on September 13, and shortly after posted a picture of it on Twitter. Apart from being a man, and so therefore not required to wear hijab, and a cleric, he says he was not on Andarzgou Street on the day the text says he was.
Another person said that a large number of people who had been summoned to the police because they had taken off their hijab gathered on the sidewalk outside the morality police station on Vozara Street, effectively blocking the way. They queued outside from early morning, many of them leaving work or closing their businesses to abide by the law, armed with their car registration details, their licence plate numbers, and contact details.
They were told they would have to pledge in writing not to repeat the offence again, and that their cases would be followed up by the court.
Parastou Nayebi, who received one of these messages, got in touch with IranWire. She said the text reported that undercover morality police had identified her and had registered her violation. When she reported to police, they confiscated her car for a week and said she was required to promise in writing that she understood she would be deprived of public services if she repeated her crime. Nayebi was also told she would have to pay 2,600 tomans for each night that her car was kept in the parking lot where it would be held while she was banned from using it, in addition to extra municipal taxes and a further penalty charge.
Another woman IranWire spoke to, 56-year-old housewife Saeedeh Ghorbani, says she always wears a veil when she leaves the house, usually a style of veil worn in Arab countries. She told IranWire she has never driven a car in her whole life. A few years ago, she bought a car for her young son to help him earn an income as a casual taxi driver. But that car has been off the road for two years now because the engine doesn’t work. Ghorbani says she also hasn’t left the house for months now because of the coronavirus epidemic and the fact that she has a pre-existing medical problem. However, she did leave the house recently to go to the bakery, wearing her usual veil. So it’s preposterous that she would have received the threatening text message.
Navid, a theater student at the Faculty of Fine Arts, also received the message. "Probably because of my long hair, they mistook me for a woman,” he told IranWire.
Finally, Entekhab News Agency reported that the police had commented on the messages."The error rate for these messages about hijab is two percent,” Tehran Police Chief Hossein Rahimi said. "We do not want to insist that they have taken off their hijab in the car. In most cases, our criteria are based on the opinions of the people; we make decisions based on this.” The police also provided a phone number so the public could report women not wearing hijab while in cars, and urged the public to give police the licence plate numbers of offenders.
Entekhab said it took "courage" for the Tehran police chief to admit the error and to accept responsibility for the mistake.
Do the Police Have the Technology to Identify These Crimes?
One Iranian, Amir Mohammad Marjan, went on to Twitter to comment on the police appeal for hijab offenders. "If we see a woman who has sunk into the trash to fill her children's belly, to which number shall we send a text message so that they can take care of it?” he wrote.
In reality, there is no real way women can be identified as not wearing hijab; no appropriate technology has been put in place by police. Lawyers advising people who received them have said as much and many of them report on their websites that most people —mainly women — who received them and then reported to the police as instructed, signed the pledge and paid the fines then received new text messages within 24 hours telling them they had not complied with their written commitment and that their car would be confiscated for a month.
"Not only does there seem to no reliable mechanism being used to identify these women, but there is also simply no legal basis for it," said lawyer Shervin Soltanzadeh. "The first issue is the way people are identified. Passing vehicles are detected by inconspicuous patrol and social security officers or by street-level cameras. The officers write down the licence plate number and then send a text message after identifying to whom the car is registered. Given the high numbers of traffic jams or the speed cars go on the highway, how have these undercover officers been able to identify the licence plate number correctly? Have they written down the number correctly? Do they have the correct phone number to go with the car registration? Can they really identify who is driving the car? But we’re also hearing that cars of people who signed the commitment are being confiscated exactly one day after they signed it. In other words, the initial written pledge has not even been registered in the police system.”
Soltanzadeh also spoke of the illegality of the recent crackdown. "Fines or confiscation of cars by law enforcement forces, which act as the general officers for the judiciary and whose job it is to report the perpetrator to the judiciary, is against the law. The police cannot decide on the rights of citizens without the intervention of parliament. It is beyond the authority of the police to send a message to a person and then take immediate action to confiscate or fine his or her car."
However, this is justified under Article 638 of the Islamic Penal Code. According to it, "Anyone who commits an act of haram in public places, shall, in addition to being punished for the act, be sentenced to imprisonment for between 10 days and two months, or up to 74 lashes. And if a person commits an act that is not punishable by law but violates public decency rules, he or she will be sentenced to between 10 days and two months in prison or up to 74 lashes."
According to the same law, "women who appear in public without wearing a religious hijab will be sentenced to imprisonment for between 10 days and two months or pay a fine of between 50,000 and 500,000 rials."
Shervin Sultanzadeh says that actually, there is no clear definition of religious hijab in Iranian law. Therefore, it is not clear what the legislator's definition of the religious hijab, which is a relative matter, was in this legal clause. The definition of so-called “bad hijab” is not explicitly explained in the law, so criminalizing it is impossible.
He also emphasized that such actions and complaints require legal formalities: an investigation, a trial, and evidence for the crime, as well as a legal basis.
Of course, this illegality hasn’t had an impact on the way the morality police conduct themselves. According to reports, the force deployed several of their officers on the streets, and positioned them at the entrances of buildings to identify offenders.
Fear of Going Out
A woman called Anisa described her experience, and the sham investigation. "I went to the Vozara Street branch of the morality police,” she said. “About 300 people were there and 10 or 12 officers were sitting on chairs in the yard with a list in front of them. They wrote down the names of car owners and their licence plate numbers and phone details and told them to leave, saying, ‘it’s crowded now, we will inform you later."
Parastou Nayebi, who has had experiences with morality police in the past, said the worst part of the whole ordeal was being insulted and intimidated. “It’s that feeling that you do not even dare go out because it may do something wrong and you’ll be reprimanded."
She said that although people are used to abusive behavior from the authorities, this experience of spending a whole day lined up on the street in front of the police station or in the corridors is new, and very annoying.
"Imagine for a second you were kept in such a place from morning until noon and were forced to answer questions and then go back home, frustrated and nervous. Also, when you receive such a text message, even if it is wrong, your name is recorded in the police system. Wherever you park your car, they will come and seize it and take it away. You have to follow up to get your car and then pay for the cost of police parking and so on. If it happens a second time, they keep the car for a month. This puts an end to any kind of life in a city like Tehran."
She says she’s pretty sure whoever came up with this new form of harassment doesn’t have a problem with hijab. Instead, she suggests it’s about money: Tehran police have come up with a new way of generating revenue. After all, there’s not a lot going spare. “It’s a new kind of business to cover police costs,” she says.