Over the last fortnight Iran’s infamous morality patrols have stepped up their presence, and their harassment of women, in several major cities. Social media users report that they are in new cars and deploying more violence than usual.
It coincides with renewed tirades from officials of all strips across Iran about “Islamic hijab”, “chastity” and the need to enforce both. Azam Sadat Afshinfar, a member of the city council of Bojnourd, the capital of North Khorasan province, said she was outraged when she saw, “with my own eyes” male and female employees at government offices sitting next to each other having breakfast.
Mashhad’s assistant prosecutor has asked the governor to issue an order to deny services at banks, government offices and even the metro to women with “bad hijab”. And Reza Ayaz, head of Department of Cultural Heritage and Tourism in Saveh, Markazi province, announced: “Tourist sites in this city will be shut down for a week if individuals with bad hijab and no hijab are allowed in.”
On June 30, announcing a new drive to curb freedom of dress in government offices, a spokesman for the Headquarters for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Setad-PV), 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.”
Fined, Arrested and Manhandled Over “Bad Hijab”
“In the past, as far as I can remember, morality patrols in the Golsar area of Rasht were few. But this year a number of vans have been stationed in the area at all hours of the day to arrest women.” So says Mahsa, a 24-year-old resident who lives in Rasht, the provincial capital of Gilan. She is far from the only one to have noticed an increase in the number of patrols.
Art student Sima lives in Semnan, north central Iran. She told IranWire of her recent arrest: “Semnan is deserted after sundown; you’ll only come across one or two passersby in the main streets. But the morality patrols are stationed in Saadi Square 24 hours a day. One day at noon I was getting money from an ATM when an agent tapped me on the shoulder and told me I had to cover my hair with my shawl, which had fallen on my shoulders.
“I did it but the agent then told me my manteau was too short. I got so angry, I told her and the male agents who were watching us: ‘Go and arrest the thieves and embezzlers who’re sucking the blood of the people. The problems of this country are not caused by my hijab.’ They forced me into the car and took me to the police station. They forced me to sign a pledge and told me that I must pay a cash fine of 700,000 tomans [$166] for defying a government agent.”
Sheida lives in Tehran’s Navab Street but works in Arya Shahr Avenue. For the past two weeks, she said, morality patrol cars and agents on foot have been positioned around the metro station, waiting to grab women entering or leaving. “The way we dress has nothing to do with the reasons for our arrest,” she said. “That day, I was wearing a simple dress [and trousers]. I was on my way home from work. The moment I came out of the exit, a female agent appeared in front of me and said: ‘Why are you wearing short trousers, and why have you varnished your toenails? Come with us. You’ll never again think you can roam the streets this way!’”
“I was debating with her near the patrol van when suddenly another female agent grabbed my arms from behind, threw me in and shut the door. Two girls, aged13 and 14, were already in there, crying. The agent sitting in the van told them: ‘I wouldn’t let you go even if you shed tears of blood. Tonight you’ll sleep in the detention center.’ The girls begged more loudly and the agent just looked at them. I was silent. She told me: ‘Give us your ID card, sign a pledge and we’ll release you. I said I didn’t have my ID. She said that’s what they all say to begin with.
“It was almost 9pm and it was dark. I was thinking of giving them my ID when a woman screamed outside the van. A patrol agent had grabbed her while she was standing next to her husband, and dragged her towards the patrol car. When they opened the door the two girls threw themselves our and escaped. And the woman managed to escape as well, amid shouting by her husband and other people.
“I could not throw myself out of the van. The agents drove around Arya Shahr Avenue till 10 in the evening. They arrested around eight other women and took us to the police station. The male agents inside the satiation ogled us and harassed the women with dirty words. They told me to tell my family to bring me longer trousers from home, and nail varnish remover. My family lives in another town so I had to call a friend.”
A Desperate Show of Power
For years now, the morality patrols’ hunting ground has extended beyond the street to hospitals, offices and other indoor spaces. Social media has recently come into the crosshairs. On July 3, Col. Ramin Pashaei, deputy commander of the Iranian Cyber Police for Cultural and Social Affairs, announced that the unit had upped its digital surveillance to identify and take action against “immoral” live streams.
“In some cases,” he said, “those who commit such offences are in sports clubs, especially where they have swimming pools,” he said. “Besides identifying and arresting the perpetrators, legal action has also been taken against the owners of these venues. The operators of all sports facilities must increase their own monitoring.”
Anti-mandatory hijab campaigner Mahya Ostovar was arrested in a movie theater in Tehran in the mid-2010s. “We were on the way out when morality patrol agents stopped us because – in their eyes – I wasn’t properly dressed, even though I was wearing a manteau and a headscarf. They put me in the van and told me to make a pledge not to wear ‘bad hijab’ in future.
“Not only are there no rules in terms of what’s allowed, everything about stopping and arresting women is down to taste. Women can be put on trial on one of several charges, none of which has any basis in law.”
Ostovar believes that compulsory hijab is the Islamic Republic’s Achilles’ heel: “This is something that the government cannot let go of because it does not want to yield to people on anything. But now people have learned how to bypass the patrols in different ways. Stories told by the government officials themselves confirm that the morality patrol has failed to achieve anything. They’re for show.”
She added: “These days, we’re seeing fewer people just stand back and watch the arrests, and more people intervene. People are then emboldened to be brave and stand up to the patrols when they see these videos of resistance elsewhere.”
Farangis Bavat, a women’s rights activist, told IranWire that in her view, too, the regime was fighting a losing battle. “For 42 years, the drive to control women’s bodies and to enforce mandatory hijab has been a constant feature of the Islamic Republic. But the emergence of social media has helped to raise people’s awareness and helped them to fight.”
By stepping up the patrols, she said, “The government wants to send a message to people – that they’re on top of things. A government unable to manage even the country’s most minor problems wants to maintain an appearance of power and pretend that it is still powerful able to put down opposition. This has become an inherent trait, to the point that if morality patrols and compulsory hijab went away, the Islamic Republic would cease to exist as well."