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Iran: Tehran Police Renew Campaign To Combat 'Un-Islamic' Dress

Students in the capital, Tehran (file photo) (AFP) Authorities in Iran have announced a crackdown against citizens who offend the country's strict Islamic dress code. Police chief Morteza Talaei said on April 18 that officers will deal harshly with offenders, beginning on April 21. Such announcements frequently accompany the onset of warmer weather. Will this effort prove more successful than conservative-led crackdowns in the past?

PRAGUE, April 19, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Each of the past two days, roughly 100 women have gathered in front of the Iranian parliament to protest "bad hejabi" -- or noncompliance with the country's dress code. They complain that lax adherence to Islamic dress is spreading in Iranian society, and they accuse offenders of "propagating corruption and prostitution."

The demonstration came on the heels of a pledge by Tehran's police chief of "firm confrontation" targeting people who disrespect "religious sanctities and social values." Even taxi services that transport "improperly" clad women will be punished, he says.

Periodic Pressure

It appears to be part of a broader initiative aimed particularly at young people ahead of the hot days of summer.

But one young Tehran resident who spoke with Radio Farda, Akbar, predicted this government initiative will be futile.

"Whenever the government changes because they want to say that, 'We [are in charge],' they put some pressure [on young people]," Akbar said. "When [President Mohammad] Khatami's government came to power, they also put the youth under pressure; but later there was absolute freedom, young people were going out in public anyway they wanted. It's the same now, but later there will be freedom again."

Police chief Talaei said that under the new plan, 50 new police squads that include female officers will help enforce Islamic dress.

He warned that women and girls wearing Capri pants, short or tight-fitting coats, loose scarves, or failing to wear socks in public will be "confronted."

Conspicuous Targets

The decency crackdown ostensibly targets men, as well, but it is women and young girls who are likely to bear the brunt of enforcement in this cleric-dominated Islamic republic.

A strict dress code has been in effect since the country's Islamic Revolution in 1979. Men are forbidden from wearing shorts. But women cannot expose their hair or ankles, for instance, and must don loose-fitting clothes that conceal the shape of their bodies.

Enforcement efforts have varied for decades. But one look around the capital, Tehran, suggests that many Iranians flout the strictest Islamic interpretations of propriety. And more women and girls defy the code by wearing tighter, shorter, and more colorful clothing -- or head scarves that barely cover their hair.

The new campaign follows recent calls by the conservative-dominated parliament for government action against the practitioners of "bad hejabi."

Lawmakers have also proposed a national dress that would "redefine Iranian identity while respecting religious and cultural identities."

Could It Backfire

But the clampdown could backfire in a country with such a sizable population of young people. One resident of Tehran, a young woman named Azar, complained to Radio Farda about the effect of such strictures on her generation:

"These actions are useless," Azar said. "It will only cause stress and anxiety for the young generation. For example, they'll think, 'If I go out, I'll get arrested, [so] I'd better not go out.' It's a bit depressing."

Dr. Amanollah Gharayi Moghadam, a professor of sociology in Tehran, told RFE/RL that tighter enforcement of the dress code could lead to trouble in the longer term.

"In fact it will lead [the youth] toward confrontation. Young people don't accept it," he said. "Even tougher past restrictions were fruitless. So today we see that these behaviors among girls and the youth are increasing -- not only in the northern part of the city but also in the southern [poorer and generally more conservative] parts, we can more or less see it. I think that not only it will bring no results, but it will actually have a reverse effect."

But authorities appear determined to fight what they consider "social corruption." Today, Tehran deputy prosecutor Mahmud Salarkia said the police should deal with those who break the rules and fail to respect Islamic principles.

Salarkia noted that, under the law, the punishment for such offenders is as long as two months in prison, a lashing, or a fine equal to about $50.