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Iran: Wrapping Up For Winter, And The Morality Police

Bracing for the clampdown? (epa) To 23-year-old Tehran resident Setareh, the onset of winter and an accompanying crackdown to enforce the dress code mean one thing: Beware the bare ankles.

Last year, Setareh went for a winter stroll through the streets of Tehran. She quickly ended up behind bars. "Police stopped me because my trousers were slightly short and my ankles were showing," Setareh, who asked that her surname not be used, told RFE/RL by telephone from the Iranian capital. "I was walking with my male friend. The police said to him: 'She has a lax-dressing problem. We are taking her to the police station.'"

Setareh was thrown in a detention area with several other women, aged between 20 and 40. She says police were insulting and rude, but that she was finally freed after her mother arrived with her documents. "My mom pledged I wouldn't violate the dress code any more," she said.

This week in Tehran and other cities, officials began a fresh crackdown on women -- and men -- who violate rules for winter garb, such as sporting overcoats that are too short or hats instead of head scarves. Police in Tehran have set up mobile centers and stationed cars in busy areas, such as bustling Valiasr Street, to implement a new phase in the enforcement of the dress code.

"Boots that are worn over pants, also hats worn without head scarves, body-hugging clothes, and coats that are shorter than knee-length will be targeted," General Ahmad Reza Radan, Tehran's police chief, told reporters at the launch of the winter campaign on December 9. "And these rules should also be obeyed when [women] are in their cars."

Radan added that cars will be stopped and their female occupants inspected to make sure that they are not violating the winter dress code while inside their cars. He also warned the owners of restaurants, cafes, and stores to ensure that their customers do not violate the dress code; otherwise the owners will face consequences.

Wintertime First

Iranians have been informed about the police operation through an advertising campaign on radio and television. Billboards dot the streets warning women to dress properly. But it is the first time police have launched a winter crackdown on what is called "lax dressing" or noncompliance with Iran's strict Islamic dress code.

The crackdown has been gaining in intensity under President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and hit a new peak this past summer. But the "morality police" have traditionally targeted women whose small head scarves reveal a portion of their hair or pants that do not cover their ankles. Such women are given a warning and forced to write a pledge that they will no longer dress "immodestly." The police sometimes fine or briefly arrest those who argue with them.

Rezwan Moqaddam, a Tehran-based women's rights activist, says many Iranians believe police should focus on problems more important than dress. "There are many other social issues in society," Moqaddam said. "There are men who bother and harass women on the streets, people who bother others on the streets at night, and drug traffickers and those who spread drugs among young people and create societal problems. The police should be tackling those issues."

Iran's state-run media recently reported on an opinion poll that purportedly showed that more than 80 percent of Iranians favor strict enforcement of a dress code. But Moqaddam said that police interference in personal matters such as their clothes has angered many Iranians, especially young people. She says such campaigns will only backfire on the government.

Longer-Term Impact

Farid Modarres, an independent political analyst in Tehran, says that since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Islamic dress code is just one of many social restrictions and pressures that Iranians have been putting up with. While such restrictions are widely resented, he believes it is unlikely that such pressure will trigger any immediate protests.

"As far as I understand Iranian society, I don't think that the day after such measures [as the dress code crackdown] some kind of radical protest will take place," Modarres told RFE/RL. "This matter -- along with many other social, political, and cultural issues where we have restrictions -- will have an impact in the middle- and long-term future."

Although the winter campaign focuses on women, men are not exempt. Police forbade them from wearing short-sleeved shirts, having tattoos, plucking their eyebrows, or using hair gel. And last summer, police reportedly inspected hundreds of barbershops in Tehran cautioning barbers who offer Western hairstyles and facial cosmetics for men.

Ali Hussein, a young Iranian living in Dubai, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that during a trip to Iran he was stopped by a police officer who fined him for "wearing a tattoo -- and therefore harming his own body."

Despite opposition to the restrictions, authorities have vowed that the crackdown will continue through winter. And this time, they have pledged to root out what they consider un-Islamic dress "completely."

For Setareh, that could mean another run-in with police this winter, as she refuses to be cowed by such warnings.

"I'll keep dressing the way I want to," she said.

(Radio Farda correspondents Fariborz Soroosh and Niusha Boghrati contributed to this report)

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.