By Rasa Sowlat, Mashhad (Source: Mianeh)
When Iranian girls go out these days, their friends warn them they face trouble if they are wearing makeup or are fashionably dressed. Their friends point out that they have a 1,000-dollar price tag on their heads.
Morality police question a woman in Tehran - June 2008
They would do well to heed such advice, because the Iranian police launched a new drive a few weeks ago to crack down on anyone deemed to be wearing "bad hejab" or to be flouting the rules of chaste behaviour in other ways.
The campaign is being called the "new approach to moral security".
An announcement by the chief prosecutor for the eastern city of Mashhad, Mahmoud Zoghi, made it clear that the Iranian national authorities had raised the fine for incorrect hejab from the equivalent of 50 US dollars up to 1,300. The fine applies not only to women, but also to men found to be in violation of public decency
The hejab campaign is nothing new; in fact the authorities mount similar crackdowns every year as the start of summer tempts people to appear in their finery.
Yet this year, it has come as something of a shock. In the mass unrest that ensued the disputed presidential election of June last year, the authorities seemed to set their hejab obsession to one side because they had bigger fish to fry. Some saw the respite as a kind of concession - you let us continue running the country, and we will ease up on some restrictions. (See Iran's Morality Police Vanish as More Protests Loom.)
No longer. About a month ago, Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar, who is also deputy commander-in-chief of the police, spelled out that the force was back on the job. They had let up for a while, he said, because they were otherwise engaged because of the post-election "sedition".
CLERGY LEADS CALLS FOR CHASTE BEHAVIOUR
Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave the reinvigorated "bad hejab" campaign the green light at a meeting with senior police officers on April 25 during which he asked them to "deal harshly with corruption in society".
"Those who, either deliberately or through ignorance, sully the face of society of religion, chastity and virtue must be dealt with effectively and correctly," said Khamenei.
Following Khamenei's remarks, government officials announced plans to dust down the long-forgotten "hejab and chastity culture initiative". Developed in 2003, when Mohammad Khatami was president, it envisaged measures to instill "correct behaviour" throughout society, not just in public places.
The initiative was never pursued under Khatami, nor was it enacted during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's first four-year term as president.
The Supreme Leader's comments triggered a concerted response from the clergy, particularly from Friday Prayer leaders across the country, who began using their sermons to bemoan the poor observance of hejab regulations and the Islamic restrictions on interaction between the sexes. The prayer leaders are told what the subject of their weekly sermons should be by a policy-making council which operates under the Supreme Leader.
The most widely-reported remarks on the subject came from Kazem Seddighi, the Friday Prayers leader for Tehran who declared on April 16 that earthquakes were caused by women who did not wear the proper hejab.
In similar vein, Mohammad-Taqi Rahbar, who heads the clerical faction in parliament, asked, "what part of those ten-centimetre headscarves that some women throw on, with their hair showing, or the tight-fitting outfits that they wear like dancers or Hollywood actresses, bears a resemblance to Islamic hejab?" (For a comment piece examining the regime's relationship with the clerical establishment as a motive for reviving the morality claim, see Iran: Pursuit of Morality Serves Political Aims.)
CONCERTED ACTION TO ENFORCE RULES
It was after statements of this kind that Interior Minister Mohammad-Najjar announced plans to enforce the hejab and chastity initiative.
On May 9, a majority of 236 out of the 290 Majlis members demanded that the interior ministry and police force use all their resources to crack down on social and moral corruption and enforce hejab and chastity in Islamic society. Demonstrations were staged across the country in support of the initiative, attended by schoolchildren and students from the Basiji movement.
At least 27 government agencies are to work together to enforce the hejab and chastity initiative. A new organisation called the "council for a strategy on upholding virtue and prohibiting vice" is to be established. Its head will be appointed by and answerable to the Supreme Leader.
Thus, those radical forces which have been demanding the creation of a "ministry of virtue" for years will finally see their dream come true.
The initiative will even be enforced in kindergartens. The interior minister has ruled that children will only be allowed to play games that are religiously correct and in tune with Islamic culture. They will no longer be taught to dance. It has also been proposed that the 14,000 privately-run kindergartens across the country should be taken over by the state.
In the schools, pupils will be instructed in correct dress codes and permissible interaction between the sexes. There will be incentive schemes modeled on the recent prize-giving ceremony in West Azarbaijan provincem where schoolgirls aged from seven to 14 were given certificates of merit and gifts for observing proper hejab.
women detained for improper hijab (file photo)
Women working for public-sector organisations will be subject to a uniform dress code, while the labour ministry has been instructed to inform private firms about the proper dress code, rules about makeup and male-female interaction their employees should observe.
The same goes for universities. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, secretary of the Guardian Council, has given a Friday Prayers sermon demanding that students who flout the hejab rules should be failed on tests.
Jalil Dara, head of cultural affairs at the science ministry, has said all universities must impose a common policy on hejab. However, at the moment each institution seems to be making up its own rules.
For instance, Shiraz University of Medicine has circulated a 23-point directive detailing the correct dress code for its students. According to these rules, men must wear loose, long-sleeved shirts and women must have their "manteau" coats completely buttoned up at all times. With the exception of wedding bands, all gold rings and bracelets are banned for both sexes. Fingernails must be kept short, clean and free of nail polish. Shoes must not have high heels or pointed toes. Chewing gum in class and laughing out loud in public places are also prohibited.
POLICE FINES FOR SUNTANS AND OTHER SIGNS OF IMMORALITY
The police in Tehran now has three different kinds of patrol for cracking down on citizens - one to scrutinise the colour and style of clothing people wear; one to check whether men and women who are out together have the right kind of relationship; and one to detain with "offenders of honour".
This last category is supposed to apply to men who harass women. "Honour" has traditionally applied to women, but police are now applying it to men as well; thus women wearing "bad hejab" can be castigated for offending the honour of men.
When police impound a car containing women deemed to be improperly dressed, they place a sign on it saying "offenders of honour". A week after the police campaign was launched, Tehran's police chief Hossein Sajedinia said on May 25 that an average of 150 cars belonging to "offenders of honour" were being impounded in the city every day.
The police are also filming people to provide evidence of "bad hejab" in court. The Revolutionary Courts has assigned a special section to hear such cases.
When young men and women are arrested together, they often pretend they are engaged in order to avoid a fines for breaching Islamic etiquette on relationships. The police are aware of this and may call their families to check.
When Hamideh who was arrested while out with her boyfriend, she refused to pretend they were engaged and ended up being arrested and fined 1,000 dollars, because she did not want the police contacting her strict and conservative father.
Her father paid the fine and got her released, saying, "You idiot! You should have said you were engaged and I would have dealt with you later."
Parents like this man fear seeing their children spend even one night in detention, because of the reports of rapes in custody during the post-election unrest last year.
The increased fines for "bad hejab" have proved a lucrative business for the police, as there are always plenty of young people to prey on. While the scale of fines has not been officially announced, young people say there are sliding rates - from 10 dollars a finger for nail polish, and the same amount for eyeliner or lipstick. Boys wear short-sleeved or tight-fitting shirts are charged from 50 to 200 dollars, and there are special rates for dyed hair and highlights, and even for pushing one's sunglasses up onto one's forehead.
Suntans are especially pricy, and girls are being fined 300 to 400 dollars.
When Mahnaz was arrested, police gave her makeup remover to wipe off but since she did not have a fake tan, it did not work. They ordered her to pay a fine on the spot, but released her when she said she had no cash on her. Another girl, Sanam, was not so lucky. When she told police her skin colour was natural, they forced her into their van and made her remove her trousers. Finding bikini lines on her body, they fined her 800 dollars.
When young people go out these days, they often to undergo an inspection by their parents, who understandably want to know how much they are likely to have to pay if their child is stopped and fined. If the damage looks too big, they may stop them going out.
Rasa Sowlat is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist and social analyst based in Mashhad.
This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.
About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (iwpr.net) the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.
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