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Iran: When Freedom Is the Right to Stay Under Wraps

“Corruption and immorality have engulfed the nation,” Shala Mousavi, a round-faced conservative woman, told an eager reporter for Iran’s state television. “We are forced to act.”

Tehran’s governor had said in an extremely polite statement that there would be no permit issued for the protest. But here the protesters were, descending on Fatemi Square, right in the middle of this city of 12 million and a stone’s throw from the Interior Ministry building, casually defying a government ban on rallies conducted without permits.

Nervous police officers stood by as the protesters blocked traffic in the square to deliver their demand for harsher measures against women who flout Iran’s obligatory Islamic dress code, especially now that the hot Tehran summer is approaching. In its numbers, the demonstration, organized by a Shiite seminary in Qum, was unimpressive. But that it was allowed to take place at all drove home the point to many here that powerful forces are conspiring to undermine President Hassan Rouhani’s frequent promises of delivering more personal freedoms.

Right after the rally for more conservative dress, the organizers announced a new protest to express their doubts on the nuclear talks with the West.

Wednesday’s front in the long cultural war between Iran’s hard-liners and those seeking reforms within its political system focused on one of the cornerstones of Iran’s Islamic revolution: the obligatory veil.


All women in Iran, including visiting dignitaries and foreign tourists, are obliged to cover their hair and wear a coat, preferably just over the knees, in public. The state does not prescribe exact shapes, colors and sizes for the scarves and coats, so over the years many urban Iranian women have come up with spectacular outfits, combining tight coats with fluorescent scarves the size of handkerchiefs, from which locks of hair cascade. While no woman in Iran ventures out on the city streets without a scarf, hard-liners, speaking on television and during Friday prayers, frequently accuse some women of “roaming the streets practically naked.”

Western clothes are also uncomfortable, a prominent ayatollah said on Wednesday.

“Wearing very tight clothes, some cannot easily sit or stand. Such dresses are in fact a prisons and not a clothes,” Naser Marakem Shirazi said in a statement. “Our clothing culture must be altered.”

First, the state tried “cultural work” (long debates by clerics on state television), to persuade women to fully cover up, pointing out that showing too many tresses can lead to “moral depravations.”

Recently, posters have gone up in Tehran showing Iran’s national delicacy, the pistachio nut, with text saying that everything that is good is wrapped in a shell, just like the head scarf, the hijab.


“But this is not working,” said an angry woman during the demonstration regarding the educational approach toward the hijab. “Every summer the ‘bad hijabis’ come out again. It is just awful.” Giving her name only as Masoumeh, she said she and her friends had rented a bus to travel from their neighborhood, Yaftabad, “in order to end this situation.” As she was speaking about Iran and Islam, and how everyone should obey the law, a bald man clearly opposing the protest came up to her and said, “Leave us alone. I am ashamed you are Iranian,” and walked off.

“May you be bald forever,” she replied, causing her friends to burst into laughter from behind their chadors.

The solution, “unfortunately,” Masoumeh said shaking her head, is to give the morality police free rein. All her friends nodded in agreement.

Faced with a quickly changing society, where more people are focusing on individual rights than traditions, Iran’s judiciary and police in 2005 established a special police, called the Gashte Ershad, or guidance patrol, in order to enforce the dress code.

For years they stood at shopping centers, main squares and subway stations where they intercepted women they deemed improperly dressed, put them on buses and drove them to a police station. Their fathers, husbands or brothers would have to go to the station to get them released.

During his campaign in June, Mr. Rouhani promised to take the much-hated force off the streets. After his election, he changed several police commanders and made sure the responsibility for the morality police would fall under the Interior Ministry, which he controls.

But even that was not enough to force change. During a visit last week, when Mr. Rouhani said at a book fair that “cultured people do not need guidance,” Ismael Ahmadi Moghaddam, an old-school police commander, responded that “uncultured people do need guidance.” The next day, vans and officers from the morality police appeared at the entrance to the book fair.

There are signs, though, that the morality police and their hard-line backers may have a tough summer ahead. A newly created Facebook page posts photographs of Iranian women taking off their head scarves during tourist outings. The page, titled “Iranian Women’s Freedoms Stealthy” has received more than 31,500 likes since Saturday.


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