Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iran: Radio Farda -- Tehran Cracks Down On Dress Code In Summer Heat

By Niusha Boghrati (RFE/RL) August 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The recent, hot summer days in Iran are seeing one of the strictest crackdowns against "lax dressing" in years.

"More than 527,000 people have been warned, over 20,000 have been arrested and then released conditionally, and a total of 2,265 cases -- including men and women -- have been presented to judiciary sources for trial on the charge of noncompliance with the Islamic dress code," according to deputy Iranian police chief Hossein Zolfaghari. He added that hundreds of shops and dress manufacturers have also been shut down for providing "improper clothes."

Those figures are likely to have risen since Zolfaghari's statement on June 25, as the crackdown grew in intensity during the first month of the summer.

Teams of police have been patrolling streets of major cities -- particularly Tehran -- since the crackdown began in April, arresting young girls and boys who do not follow the strictest interpretation of the Islamic dress code.

Room For Interpretation

Article 638 of Iran's criminal code describes" noncompliance with the Islamic dress code" as a crime. The law asserts that all girls and women who reach maturity, according the Shari'a, must cover their head and body -- that the only parts of the body that can be exposed in public are the face, the hands from the wrist down, and the feet below the ankle.

But there is no precise definition of "bad hijab," or lax appearance in violation of Islamic dress, in Iranian law. But that concept is the target of the recent crackdown, and such police plans are derived from the "noncompliance" article.

Authorities suggest that the crackdown's objective is to put pressure on citizens who "pay no attention to the Islamic social values through the way they dress." Young male offenders are mainly identified through "Western hairstyles," and shirts bearing Western logos or, in some cases, with short sleeves. For girls -- whom the rules are much stricter -- wearing short or Capri pants, small or loose scarves, tight-fitting coats, light-colored dresses, or heavy make-up entails consequences.

Such items and fashions burst onto the clothing scene during former President Mohammad Khatami's reformist administration, when women had alternatives to the traditional long, dark-colored, loose-fitting gowns that had previously been compulsory. But that appears increasingly likely to change.

'Everyone Is Scared'

"From the time that I heard about the strict plan, I began to change my clothing," a young girl, Maryam, tells Radio Farda. "I put on long and loose-fitting dresses with tight scarves."

"If you look at the people in Tehran," she adds, "you will understand that everyone is scared. I am scared."

Tehran's police chief, Ahmad Reza Radan, acknowledged the changing atmosphere when he told state-run television, describing the "fruitfulness" of the newly launched plan. "You can realize the difference in the general appearance of the society now, compared to some months ago when the plan began."

The confrontation with offenders of the official interpretation of the Islamic dress code is not new to Iranian society. Each year, with the beginning of the hot season, police warnings briefly kick off then faded away within some weeks.

An Iranian woman purportedly bloodied by police over her "lax" attire

"But this time it is different" says Peyman Barati, a student of political science at Tehran's Azad University who two months ago was prevented by his university's disciplinary committee from attending one of his final exams because of his appearance. "That was [ex-President] Khatami's government that used to confront hard-liners and prevented the police from making it hard on the youth," Barati says. "But now the government, the parliament, and many other authorities see eye to eye. Now the power is in the hands of the same people who were once archenemies of Khatami's theory of flexibility and relative social freedom. This time, there is no reason for [hard-liners] to retreat."

Tough Enforcement

Evidence suggests that the methods of the Iranian police in confronting widespread dress-code noncompliance in larger cities have taken a major turn during the recent crackdown.

Some argue that firmness, consistency, and the vast dimensions of the recent police operation vividly highlight a tendency to roll back society to the pre-reform atmosphere.

"We have taken a different approach to social issues from the previous administration," Tehran police chief Radan says.

The "different approach" in many cases has resulted in friction between patrols and the young "offenders" in which police have harshly and physically confronted people.

"I saw two girls of around 16 in Evin [prison in Tehran] who were arrested for dressing 'improperly,'" Zeinab Peighambarzadeh, a women's rights activist who was herself arrested for her activities to fight discrimination, tells Radio Farda. "They had been beaten badly and their bodies were all bruised. The only reason they were beaten was that they had protested the behavior of the police officer who arrested them. The girls were taken to solitary-confinement cells and were kept there for days while handcuffed."

Compounding A Problem?

Critics say the harsh practices and withholding of what human rights defenders describe as basic social freedoms can result in hidden outrage and leave all of society more vulnerable. "Denying the young generation social freedom causes a general nervousness that makes sensitive youngsters more rebellious," says Tehran-based psychiatrist Mahdis Kamkar. "The lack of a place for them to vent their fury could result in underground behavior that increases the vulnerability to destructive agents like drugs."

While conservative officials have applauded the crackdown as important to protect the security of society, more moderate voices have publicly questioned its implementation.

Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi was among the most prominent figures to oppose the current crackdown. He warned police of what he saw as a likely "countereffect" of harsh approaches. Hashemi-Shahrudi added that "bringing women and girls to the police station [on charges of defiance of the dress code] will do us nothing but harm."

Another prominent religious figure to have openly criticized the crackdown is the Grand Ayatollah Abdol-Karim Musavi, who said "the harsh approach will result in people distancing themselves from religion." He asked officials to stop the program, stressing that similar plans "did not work out well in the first years after [Iran's 1979 Islamic] revolution."

Meanwhile, according to what social-affairs expert Mohammad Ghaed tells Radio Farda, "these cases of social violence are also meant to send a message to the political rivals -- a message that says, 'We are tough in our stance and are determined to maintain power.'"

Words And Action

Police and other officials have repeatedly denied the use of force in enforcing the social operations. But pictures and short videos caught on mobile phones and posted on the Internet hint at a different story. Scores of posted pictures and videos show Iranian police apparently using force against individuals accused of dress-code noncompliance.

In one of the most alarming cases, protests were sparked by images of a girl's face covered in blood after a purported beating by police in Tehran's "7 Tir" square. At the time, police officials said they would investigate the incident.

Weeks later, Tehran police chief Radan said the investigation revealed that the girl had "defied the police" and attempted to "disturb the public order," which he described as a crime. Radan blamed the young girl, saying she had "instigated the incident herself."

Less than a month later, when asked in a television interview about the alleged use of force by Tehran police during the current crackdown, Radan replied that he was unaware of any such cases.

(Radio Farda's Mohammad Zarghami contributed to this article.)

RFE/RL Iran Report

RFE/RL Iran Report

SUBSCRIBE For regular news and analysis on Iran by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Iran Report."