In Tehran, undercover morality police battle ‘bad hijab’

Finding balance over hijab is one of several challenges facing Rohani.

Iranian plainclothes police officers stand in an inauguration ceremony of the newly established undercover division of the morality police, at the Tehran police department, last April.


2016/05/08 Issue: 55 Page: 18


The Arab Weekly
Gareth Smyth



London - My Stealthy Freedom, a Facebook page with 1 million fol­lowers on which Iranian women post selfies without a hijab, is irk­ing Iran’s “principle-ists” as Teh­ran’s police chief deployed an extra 7,000 morality police — all under­cover — on the streets to enforce dress codes as well as control noise and dog walking.

“This is a social movement. They can’t arrest them all,” said Masih Alinejad, who set up My Stealthy Freedom. “We can’t do anything through elections — but if we em­power women and the youth, they can’t do anything. They’re scared of social media and that’s why they attack us.”

Summer temperatures in Teh­ran can hit 45 degrees Celsius and rising sap after the winter’s snow opens an annual cat-and-mouse game between morality police and fashionable young women strutting along boulevards such as Valiasr.

This year, authorities blocked an app designed for Tehranis to track morality patrols combating what is known as “bad hijab”. In Iran, however, politics is rarely distant and Iranian President Hassan Ro­hani has chided those not respect­ing “the people’s dignity”. Rohani holds the pragmatic conservative belief that “private” behaviour is not the state’s concern. Social media, though, shifts boundaries between “public” and “private” space.

Alinejad left Iran in 2009, where in 2005 she was a 28-year-old feisty reporter irking conservative parlia­mentary deputies with questions about their expenses after they campaigned for “social justice”. They, in turn, accused her of “flirt­ing”. She hit back with a punchy novel Taj-e Khaar (Crown of Thorns) and revealed she was divorced and had an 8-year-old son.

She went to England and the United States but remains a tough journalist. In a recent Skype inter­view with parliamentary deputy Hamid Rasaei, she asked for evi­dence she is a “whore”, as his mag­azine claimed. Alinejad has also sprung interviews on Ayatollah Ah­mad Khatami, Tehran’s substitute prayer leader; and Mahmoud Alavi, the Intelligence minister. If these do not make Voice of America, BBC Persian or Manoto Television, she publicises them on social media.

Nonetheless, hijab is no straight­forward issue and Iran is not just the women of north Tehran sport­ing tight jackets under mounds of hair straining their scarves. Many young men in the morality police and the Basij — staunchly Islamic volunteers who help police public morality — are from poorer back­grounds and resent inhabitants of affluent north Tehran flaunting wealth and what appears as sexual licence.

In a masterful study, Poverty and Revolution in Iran, published just after the 1979 revolution, Farhad Kazemi, now at New York Universi­ty, studied “poor migrants” arriving in Tehran “with great hopes… [but finding] their new urban life is not an escape from marginality”.

Kazemi argued the urban poor “realise[d] their political power” in adopting the “slogans and ways of the revolution”. Such a basis for politicised, egalitarian Islam is not purely Iranian. Sayyid Qutb, argu­ably the founder of modern Islam­ism, was a country boy who headed for Cairo and Washington.

Kazemi found the moderate National Front had few recruits among Iran’s poor. Years later, Iran’s reformists struggled for inroads where slogans of social and politi­cal freedom meant little to people struggling for a living or to find a spouse.

In 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadine­jad won the presidency promising to put “the oil money on the sofreh [the mat poorer Iranians sit on to dine]“. This was despite rumours he had segregated buildings as Tehran mayor and planned to extend this as president.

“The principle-ists have their own ways of reaching their social base among the poor and more con­servative people,” said Saeid Gol­kar, consulting senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and lecturer at Northwest­ern University.

“Morality policing pleases the more conservative part of society. If you talk to people in south Teh­ran, even men who peer at girls in the street, they say they want hijab and that boys and girls are being corrupted.”

Finding a balance over the hijab is one of several challenges facing Rohani. The last thing he wants is rising tensions but in Iran any issue can be caught up in political fac­tionalising.

“Rohani has a China or Singa­pore model in his mind — a strong economy with some liberties,” said Golkar. “He doesn’t want confronta­tion and he doesn’t want to lose his middle-class social support because people think he’s doing nothing [over social reform].”

Pushing populist egalitarianism, then, makes sense for his principle-ist critics as the 2017 presidential election appears on the horizon. February’s parliamentary poll saw low turnouts in Tehran’s poorer districts, where people feel no eco­nomic benefit from the nuclear agreement, leaving the capital’s turnout at 50%, lower than 62% na­tionally.

Rohani’s critics may fan discon­tent to mobilise poorer Iranians — partly by highlighting the riches and “bad hijab” of north Tehran. They want the president to feel the heat as summer arrives.


Gareth Smyth has covered Middle Eastern affairs for 20 years and was chief correspondent for The Financial Times in Iran.


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