Iran’s Headquarters for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Setad-PV) is suing the domestic ice cream company Domino for its supposedly provocative ice cream ads. In the company’s latest commercial, for a frozen treat called Choco-Berry, a young woman adds layer after layer to her clothing, each one matching a layer of flavor in the ice cream. A female voiceover remarks: “A tempting combination; a product from Domino.”
The spokesman for the Headquarters called the commercial an “insult to the sublime status of women” that “promote[d] promiscuity”. This wasn’t Domino’s first offence – last August a “deviant” ad from the dairy featuring a woman enjoying an ice-cream in a car was pulled from Instagram on the orders of the Ministry of Culture. As such, the spokesman said, the Headquarters had no choice but to file a complaint.
The summer of 2021 was a busy time for Iran’s already trigger-happy censors. A TV director told interviewers that state TV had banned images of women eating cucumbers and carrots; elsewhere an IRIB director reported on Instagram that new rules meant images women eating pizza, or anything red-colored, or being served tea by men, were also out. In November it was confirmed that the cucumbers ban extended to humanoid puppets as well as actual humans on TV.
It is now unclear what, if anything, women are allowed to be seen eating on Iranian television. There has also been a renewed sensitivity toward the imagined sexualisation of animals: the year before, state TV rebroadcast an animated ice cream commercial made in the 1990s, but censored the cartoon dairy cow’s udders.
The Headquarters is currently embarking on a renewed, wider campaign to keep women and their representation “chaste”. In recent weeks, particularly in Iranian cities of religious importance, there have been fresh assaults by officers on women accused of “bad hijab”, plainclothes patrols sent out to “check” people’s clothing, and multiple café and bar closures in Shiraz and Mashhad over customers’ supposed non-adherence to hijab rules.
Setad-PV’s Befuddled Mission
The Headquarters for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice was founded in 1993, initially under a different name, then rebranded after the “Law to Support Promoters of Virtue and Preventers of Vice” was passed by the Iranian parliament in 2015. The first head of Setad-PV was Ahmad Jannati, then-chairman of the Assembly of Experts. In 2019 Kazem Sadighi, Tehran’s interim Friday Imam, became the first to replace him.
Based in Tehran, Setad-PV operates across the country via local branches. It has only become more active as opposition to the enforced, conservative lifestyle has swelled in Iran. Just last week the Headquarters launched a fresh campaign to pressure the legislature and the judiciary to both pass and enforce new laws against people walking their dogs in public spaces, alongside the hijab campaign.
On June 30, announcing a new drive to curb freedom of dress in government offices, a Setad-PV spokesman said: “The managerial Guidance [Morality] Patrols have got to work. The prevention of vice, from violations in offices to bad hijab in executive branch organizations, is being strictly enforced.”
The Domino’s ad is far from an exception in the wider pattern of behavior. IranWire spoke to Fatemeh Masjedi, a women’s rights activist who was jailed in 2011 for her support of the feminist One Million Signatures campaign, about the Headquarters’ intolerance of the plurality of real, lived female existence.
Supposedly, Masjedi said, “The Headquarters is an institution that defines the cultural and social dos and don’ts, and demands that others accept them as norms. Naturally, most of these dos and don’ts are about women.”
Those in power in the Islamic Republic, she said, perceive a benefit to positioning women as “inferior” creatures. “Their cultural policies aim to imbue women with a sense of shame and sin. They aim to perpetuate the idea of women as sexual, erotic creatures to be controlled.”
At the same time, she said, and ironically despite the Headquarters’ stated mission, the Islamic Republic does need women. Censors notably permit images of “improperly” veiled women on state TV, in commercials and in election propaganda as long as they are there to promote the wider worldview.
“This,” she said, “makes the exploitation of women more complicated for them. If a woman is to represent the Islamic Republic in some capacity, she must either obey the dos and don’ts, and heed the constant warnings, or if not, she must be in some way useful to regime survival.”
In reality, she said, all this attempted control of women’s bodies only does harm to the body politic: “The Islamic Republic claims it supports strong families, but its actions have not contributed to strengthening families – or to bringing women respect. On the contrary, its cultural policies reproduce values that are damaging.”
In addition, she said, “These policies, which insult and degrade women, have also led to a significant resistance movement against male domination and the suppression of women. The new generation is leaving these old traditions behind. We saw this in Shiraz.”
Violence Against Women: The Other Side of the Coin
Two weeks ago a group of teenagers gathered in Shiraz for a skating event. Videos shot in the park that day showed some of the girls were not wearing hijab as they mingled and talked together. In the aftermath, at least 10 of the young participants were arrested, and the event slammed by local authorities for ushering in “the age of nudity”.
Though the Headquarters claims its actions aim to protect women, it and other state institutions in Iran have had little to say about the phenomenon of male violence and “honor killings” of women and girls, or how to prevent it. Just a few days ago in a village in Gilan province, Zahra Goodarzvand Chagini, 17, became the latest victim when she was suffocated by his father and brother for resisting a forced marriage.
In fact, Masjedi believes, the prohibitive actions ordered by Setad-PV and other bodies like it promote sexual violence and honor killing. Through actions that encourage the over-sexualisation of women, she says, it promotes the myth that men need to control them.
“The experience of the past few decades shows that this method of controlling women from above, and telling them what to do or do not do in their personal and social lives, leads to an insttitutionalized cycle of violence in the family and in society.
“Not a day goes by without news of women being murdered from the four corners of Iran. The result of these cultural policies, which regard women as wicked, oversexed creatures, are serial killers such as Saeed Hanaei, who murdered sex workers on the basis that he wanted to cleanse his city of ‘corruption’.”