By Edward Carney
On Sunday, Iran Human Rights Monitor reported that an activist by the name of Naser Alirezaie had been arrested and charged with “spreading lies” after he revealed information about the death of an unnamed young woman and the injury of her male companion in a traffic accident involving members of the Guidance Patrol, or morality police.
The report noted that it is illegal for unmarried and unrelated persons of the opposite sex to intermingle or have any physical contact in the Islamic Republic. Enforcement of these restrictions has apparently been accelerating in recent years. Countless young Iranians have been arrested and summarily flogged for attending mixed-gender parties, and some prominent activists and media personalities have faced prosecution and public condemnation for physical contact as insubstantial as shaking hands, even when this contact occurred on foreign territory.
In the incident highlighted by IHRM, the young couple was reportedly chased by the Guardian Patrol, leading to the driver losing control of the vehicle and crashing into a bus. The injured man was then apprehended on the scene.
In arresting Alirezaie for his public disclosure of this incident, Iranian authorities are arguably betraying their concerns about public backlash at a time when there is growing conflict between activists who oppose Iran’s strict religious laws and hardliners who are increasingly committed to vigorously enforcing them. The traffic accident occurred less than two weeks after a video went viral on Iranian social media that depicted a woman in a public park being violently attacked by female morality police officers because they considered her hijab to not be covering enough of her hair.
According to EA Worldview, the backlash against that video compelled some government officials to call for an investigation or to publicly urge restraint from the morality police in the future. But the same report noted that Sadeq Larijani, the head of the Iranian judiciary, disregarded this criticism and said, “The police should not take even one step back, otherwise, the society’s order, the police’s authority, and the country’s security would be compromised. It is unacceptable that some people resist the police and politicize a cultural or social matter.”
EA Worldview added that Larijani is only one of several officials to link the issue of forced veiling to matters of national security. Indeed, some accused foreign enemies of fabricating the video or drumming up the backlash against it. Such statements are reminiscent of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s own insistence that opposition to the hijab laws is a product of foreign infiltration. As well as voicing opposition to the laws, Iranian women have made a habit over the years of testing their limits by wearing their hijabs loosely, only partially covering their hair.
The video of the young woman being attacked for this behavior emerged in the wake of a series of public protests in which women removed their legally mandated head coverings and held them up in public spaces to protest the law. Some male activists have also mimicked the gesture in a show of solidarity, in the months since the first woman, Vida Movahed, undertook such a protest in late December on Tehran’s Enghelab (Revolution) Street. This action gave the movement its name: Girls of Revolution Street. Since January, more than 30 people have been arrested for their participation, and one has been sentenced to two years in prison.
One of those arrestees, Maryam Shariatmadari, was also injured during her arrest when a police officer violently pushed her off a public utility box, causing her to facture her knee. On April 25, the same woman was targeted by security forces when she and her mother attended a peaceful gathering at the Shah Abdol Azim Shrine, where a mummified body had recently been discovered which many believed to be the 20th century monarch Reza Shah.
Shariatmadari’s arrest arguably highlights the tendency of Iranian security forces to enforce tighter restrictions on activists once they have already been arrested or otherwise brought to the attention of the authorities. IranWire reports that she was beaten, blindfolded, and forced into a car by men who did not identify themselves but were later determined to be members of the intelligence division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Her mother was initially taken as well, but then was forced out of the car and abandoned by the side of the road at 1:30 AM.
At the time of the IranWire report, Shariatmadari was still in detention and it was unclear what charges she was facing. In any event, if she is sentenced a new in connection with this arrest, it will be in addition to the one-year sentence already levied against her for her anti-veiling demonstration. Yet, her willingness to participate in a controversial gathering at the Shah’s shrine is indicative of the limited effect that such repressive arrests and sentencing have had on a defiant activist community.
This same trend is also demonstrated by persistent reports of protests and related arrests, many of which are directly inspired by earlier actions that resulted in heavy sentences or other reprisals by the government. Another IRHM report indicated on Sunday that women continued to sneak into Iranian sports stadiums while dressed as men, or to seek entry undisguised, in protest against the regime’s longstanding ban on female attendance at male events.
On Friday alone, three young women were arrested for just such an action at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, and two others were arrested in Isfahan, at Naghsh-e Jahan Stadium. Another five women later revealed on social media that they had successfully attended a men’s football match while wearing male clothing.
With multiple reports emerging at once, one might conclude that the pace in increasing for public defiance of the clerical regime’s institutionalized gender discrimination. Earlier protests against this have involved coordination among dozens of activists, as on March 1, 2017, when 35 women were detained by authorities after attempting to enter Azadi Stadium.
But direct confrontations between morality police and the Iranian public is not the only battleground related to the Islamic Republic’s forced veiling and gender segregation laws. And in other areas of society, public defiance may not be enough to overcome the obstacles erected by the regime.
Illustrating this phenomenon, Al Monitor recently reported upon escalation in the efforts of Iran’s censorship authorities. Sporting events are a major focus of these efforts as well, with Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting routinely cutting footage of foreign competitions in order to remove images of female fans whose attire is deemed un-Islamic. In April, IRIB also blurred out the logo of an Italian soccer club, which depicts a she-wolf suckling twins. The incident made IRIB subject to ridicule in social media but also helped to highlight its still-expanding power over information and culture in the Islamic Republic.
The Al Monitor report pointed out that the cultural commission of the Iranian parliament recently granted IRIB the authority to grant licenses and to regulate virtually all audio and visual content on the Iranian internet. As well as tightening restrictions on such content, this move will also force content producers to pay roughly half of their revenue to the state broadcaster at a time when hardline authorities are notably desperate to enforce their strict vision of Islamic society.
While tightening its grip on traditional media, Tehran is also continue to take measures against the internet and social media, having just announced a ban on the popular messaging app Telegram. Authorities have urged the public to adopt easily monitored and censored domestic alternatives, but IW predicts that much of the population will shift their focus to Instagram or continue to access Telegram via virtual proxy networks, so as to continue activist organizing and cultural defiance on those platforms.