06.24.11

Iran’s Hardline Fashion Police

As Iran heats up this summer, the morality police are cracking down more than before. Men are not allowed to wear necklaces, and women can be fined for wearing nail polish.

It's that time of year again. As summer temperatures soar in Tehran and other large Iranian cities, the morality police, or gasht ershad as they're called in Farsi, come out in droves to make sure the citizenry isn't flashing too much skin or acting in other inappropriate ways. The activities of the gasht ershad ramped up after the election of hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, but it seems this year they're going for broke: since mid-June, 70,000 morality police have been sent out into the streets of Tehran alone.

The red line on what is deemed acceptable can seem arbitrary at times, and over the years the morality police have disproportionately targeted women since they're required by law to cover themselves from head to toe. Chalk one up for gender equality last year when the morality police issued new guidelines for men's haircuts. No more mullets (a move even some Tehran fashionistas applauded), ponytails, or a popular hairstyle called the rooster, which swoops up in a faux-hawk in the front and flares out at the back. And there's a new restriction for men this summer: no necklaces.

The government has not only spelled out the crackdown in legal terms, but has also tried to make the case that inappropriate clothing can be directly linked to damnation. Last week, an analyst named Ali Akbar Raefipour, appeared on state television and claimed that the word "jeans" actually comes from the word “jinn,” which are supernatural beings that can fly and take the form of animals. He took it a step further by comparing women's high heels to the hooves of demons. And if that wasn't enough, Raefipour said that numbers and symbols on some t-shirts can be read as “spells or satanic slogans.” The clip was widely circulated on websites run by expatriate Iranians and even spawned a spoof by prominent satirist Ebrahim Nabavi.

Still, if the spiritual warnings didn't grab the attention of miscreants, the heavy fines just might. A list of common fines for women, posted on some opposition websites, include: wearing sunglasses above your headscarf ($15), wearing a tunic covering that's too short ($30), wearing a tunic with bright colors ($30), wearing nail polish ($5 per finger), having tan skin ($23) and having hair that’s been lightened ($15 to $45).

After only a week of the crackdown, Tehran police chief Hussein Sajedinia held a press conference and claimed resounding success, citing a 50 percent drop in the harassment of women on the streets (without a hint of irony) and raids on several women's underground fashion shows (some of the shows have become elaborate affairs in recent years featuring catwalks and musicians). Sajedinia also issued a stern warning to any men working in female fashion shops.

Checkpoints run by the morality police have mushroomed all over Tehran and, residents say, it's not uncommon to see women getting stuffed into one of their ubiquitous vans.

For ordinary Iranians, the evidence of the crackdown is in plain sight. Checkpoints run by the morality police have mushroomed all over Tehran and, residents say, it's not uncommon to see women getting stuffed into one of their ubiquitous vans. Of course, there are cases where the cops seem to have taken things too far. One video posted on YouTube earlier this week allegedly shows policemen in the town of Hamedan chasing down a young woman in tight jeans and man-handling her into a cop car.

Soheila, a 28-year old Tehran resident, has had enough. "I was even with my husband one time when a policewoman gave me a warning about bad hijab," she says. "I'm going to start wearing the chador [a head-to-toe cloth covering] because I'm afraid of the morality police."  

As Iranians sweat it out in the summer heat, another season of harassment continues.