Last week the heavy-handed arrest of at least 10 teenage skaters at a friendly gathering in Shiraz made headlines in Iran. The official pretext was that some of the girls walking around the park off Chamran Boulevard had been seen without hijab. But so grievous was this offence that the chief justice of Fars Province said the “perpetrators” – by which he meant the organizers of this informal event – would be “investigated and dealt with”, while the governor of Shiraz declared: “Some of the behaviors exhibited would be unfamiliar to us even in pre-Islamic times.”
In fact, this incident came at the peak of an apparent, wider clampdown on women's rights and civic freedoms in Shiraz. Recently several cafes, restaurants and bookstores in the city have been shut down while others received warnings to observe “Islamic hijab and customs”. At least three veterinary clinics have been told the same. The electronic bicycle-sharing scheme, Bdood, has also had to stop operating in the city, for as-yet undisclosed reasons.
Where is This Coming From?
Centuries ago, long before a dogmatic Shia clergy took control of Iran, the great Persian lyric poet Hafez – sometimes known as Lisan al-Ghaib or “Tongue of the Unseen”, a speaker of hidden truths – would write of his home city: “Blessed is Shiraz and its unique state / God forbid its decline”.
For the people of Iran today, Shiraz is Hafez – who died in the city in 1390 – and also his predecessor Saadi. Shiraz is wine and poetry, a city that has endured historic onslaught and now under siege from Islamic Republic appointees, intolerant as they are of the passions of youth. For tthese princelings, Shiraz is “the third most religious city in Iran”. It is this to them because Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (himself a failed poet, naturally) said it was.
The justification for this is that Shiraz is home to Shah Cheragh, the burial place of the brother of Imam Reza, the eighth Shiite Imam. True enough, but as a local activist points out, “The government’s sensitivity over Shiraz has increased over the years. In the past few months the infractions have increased again, and the morality police patrols have multiplied.”
The surge in enforcement activities began in spring, around the time the government was probably hoping for increased post-pandemic footfall from tourists and religious pilgrims. As well as the shuttering of businesses and the end to bicycle hires, allegedly even some men have been warned off wearing T-shirts to work. Far from attracting visitors, locals complain these measures are “killing the soul of Shiraz”.
From Skaters’ Hangout to Dawn of ‘the Age of Nudity’
The teenagers’ gathering last week coincided with Go Skateboarding Day on June 21. This worldwide initiative has its roots in California in summer 2004. That, coupled with the fact that some of the girls were not veiled – and in the immediate aftermath of the regime’s “Hello Commander” youth propaganda-fest, which had featured girls aged under 10 in full chador singing about sacrificing themselves for the Islamic Republic – meant this innocuous event organized on Telegram was cast by regime supporters as a knowingly contrived, “counter-revolutionary” operation.
Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, Iran's attorney general, duly claimed without evidence that “teenage girls were abused” in the course of the event. He went on: “Some overseas actors, like the United States, have a mission to incite such things and get money for it." The head of Fars Province Skating Board was fired, and the Friday Imam of Shiraz also weighed in for good measure: “When it is a political-security issue, our behavior [with regard to arresting children] is different to when it is a moral issue.”
A counter-rally was then held in Fars province, with seminary leaders signing a joint statement calling for a city-wide campaign to be launched under the suggested title “No to Sin”. The statement decried the “normalization” of a phenomenon they termed “social sin”, which the clerics said should be dealt with “seriously and effectively” by law enforcement and the intelligence agencies.
Then it was the turn of central government. The regime’s Enjoining Good and Forbidding Evil Headquarters issued its own statement declared the rally a harbinger of “the age of nudity” and “slavery” – and also, confusingly, “sexual freedom”. It entreated the girls to follow the examples of Fatima Zahra and Zainab, respective daughters of the Prophet Muhammad and the first Shia Imam, instead of “awkward Western patterns… [to] become like the depressed, loose Western women".
The business closures began in late March to early April this year. On April 9 Kazem Mousavi, the chief justice of Fars province, asked the General Cultural Council to give the judiciary permission to order the sealing-off of any premises in which “indecency” was regularly observed. “Debauchery is rife in parts of Shiraz,” he claimed, “as if a flood has swept us away.”
This is not the first time shops in Shiraz have been targeted on pretexts like “corruption”, “non-observance of decency” and, of course, people’s lack of hijab. In 2019 at least 110 coffee shops and other commercial premises were closed by officials.
This time, however, Mousavi went further, saying the properties themselves would be confiscated: “This will be one of the defining policies of the judiciary in Fars province.” Among the newly-seized units are Café 404, Mood Bar, Roller cafe, Bencotto restaurant, the Blue Café cultural hub and a book store, Bookland.
One observer in Shiraz told IranWire: “Everything people-centered that was created under the previous [local] administration is being dismantled.” The new speaker of Shiraz City Council, they added, was “a stubborn Basiji” who previously helped suppress protesters in the city in 2017: “The mob is working under him.”
The now-offline Bdood bicycle sharing system used to offer people the chance to cycle through Shiraz on an hour-by-hour basis free of charge. It was part of a wider set of initiatives aimed at reducing car use and improving air quality. Its creators wrote delicately on Instagram: “We were deprived of the reward of continuing to serve the honorable citizens of Shiraz.”
News outlets close to or controlled by the IRGC, including Tasnim and Fars, suggested Bdood had financial difficulties. But last July, the same scheme was part-pulled in Mashhad, another holy city and pilgrimage destination in Iran, due to sex discrimination on the part of the authorities. Women who tried to use the bikes were greeted with an error message that read: “Dear lady, use of shared bicycles has been provided for you in women's parks. Please refer to those parks to use the service.” It came after Ahmad Alam al-Hoda, Mashhad’s Friday Imam and President Raisi's father-in-law, had used a June 2020 sermon to call for a ban on women cycling in public spaces.
Will Shiraz Shrug Off the Latest Intrusions?
Some citizens of Shiraz have also reported an uptick in the number of so-called “guidance patrols” in different parts of the city. Data from the popular app Gershad, which provides live information on the patrols’ reported locations, appears to support this belief.
Harassment of women over veiling tends to intensify in the summer months in Iran. But this June the Enjoining Good and Forbidding Evil Headquarters raised the stakes, saying two sets of special events would be held to help “control bad hijab”: a training camp to “reform” government employees, and a “Hijab and Chastity Day” for cultural propaganda.
Nevertheless, one Shirazi café owner told IranWire, he expected little to change. “Several of those skater children have been coming to my café for a long time. All of them were born in the late 2000s and now they wear masks so they won’t be recognized.
“But no matter what the Islamic Republic does, it cannot take the spirit away from Shiraz. Shiraz has a long history of coexistence between people of different religions. It survived the Mongol invasion. You’ve seen the videos: in Shiraz, every neighborhood is full of passion and life. The Mongols couldn’t stop it, and neither can the Islamic Republic."
And under his breath, he whispered a few lines of Hafez:
"Dye the prayer-carpet with liquor, if the Magian Elder bid/ For the wayfarer the stages, and the way alone, can tell."*
*A famous verse from Hafez's Ghazal No.1, as translated by John Payne.