For years, Iran’s morality police have harassed women who don’t fully respect legislation requiring women to cover their hair and body in public, known as hijab laws.
Women deemed insufficiently veiled routinely get warned, detained, and sometimes fined or sentenced to jail terms.
In some of those cases, police resort to verbal and physical violence.
But on February 15, after such a vice squad in Tehran’s Narmak neighborhood detained two young women, angry Iranians attacked their police van until they were forced to release the two suspects. One of the vehicle's doors was said to have been ripped off its hinges by the crowd.
First reported on social media and later confirmed by authorities, the incident appeared to highlight public frustration with the morality police, whose officers patrol city streets to enforce strict precepts including the hijab, which became compulsory after the 1979 revolution.
Many users on social media praised those who helped release the young women, although there were also warnings against the use of violence.
"The people stood behind the girls," tweeted Maryam Abdi, adding that people need to band together to combat hijab laws.
Another Twitter, user, Assal Banoo, said, "Bravo to all those who were not indifferent and ripped off the door of the morality police. If in the past 40 years we had stood with each other in this way, our situation would have been much better."
Meanwhile, Marzieh S. suggested that direct action -- in this case, damaging the police van -- might have been the only realistic option in a situation where dialogue was impossible.
“Civil disobedience is for when it is possible to have a dialogue. Can you have a reasonable talk with the officers?” she tweeted.
A widely shared video appeared to show a white van surrounded by a crowd. A woman is heard saying, "People are showing their protest by honking their horns."
A man is heard shouting, "Let her go!"
Then several shots can be heard.
The same woman says, "People defended two hijabless women. They fired shots in the air."
An unnamed police official was quoted by IRNA news agency on February 16 as saying that police on the scene had been forced to fire shots into the air to disperse the crowd, which had "disrupted" police work.
"Morality patrol police members had warned two young women who did not have proper hijab. Within a few minutes, a group of citizens gathered around to prevent the transfer of the two women [into custody]," the police official said.
He said the crowd had ripped off one of the van's doors.
"When the two women left the car, the crowd also dispersed, and the issue was over," the official said.
Over the past four decades, tens of thousands of women have been harassed and detained for not fully respecting the hijab rule.
Iranians have pushed the boundaries by wearing makeup or donning smaller scarves that reveal their hair, or by wearing shorter coats.
Over the past 15 months or so, dozens of women have removed their head scarves in public to protest the dress code, which is regarded by some as a key element of the Islamic establishment's efforts to control and discriminate against women. The hijab is seen as one of the pillars of the Islamic republic and is among its most visible symbols.
The popular news site Asr-e Iran has suggested it is time for Iran to reconsider the existence of the morality police. The site warned that the incident in Narmak could happen again and result in "bigger problems than a few hair strands or clothing of women" for the clerical establishment.
"People who are angry and tired of economic problems could take out their anger on the morality police, not because of the hijab but because of livelihood pressures," Asr-e Iran said.