Iranian women pay the price in law-and-order campaign

[27 September 2007]

By Mehdi Mahdavi Azad

The Institute for War & Peace Reporting (MCT)

TEHRAN, Iran—For several months now, Iranian police have been conducting a huge operation aimed at cracking down on women who are deemed to be violating the country’s strict Islamic code. The enforcement is seen as the first step in a larger effort that some newspapers called the “Iron Fist” program, which aims to impose social order in Iran.

In addition to the crackdown on women, the police are also conducting highly publicized mass arrests of so-called thugs, those who allegedly harass women in the street, deal in drugs or trade in pornography.

The police are also staging late-night raids to round up suspected drug addicts and those accused of drinking alcohol. They have also shut down centers that smuggle banned music and films into the country.

The widespread nature of the crackdown, along with the aggressive tactics frequently used by the police, has been criticized by reformists and human-rights advocates in the country.

Police for several months now have been monitoring women’s appearances to ensure that their veils fully cover their hair, that their clothing is loose-fitting and they do not wear too much makeup.

Initially, the general public did not seem overly concerned by the crackdown on women’s dress. After all, such crackdowns have occurred several times over the last 10 years. But the duration of the latest campaign, which it began in April, and force being used by police has begun to alarm many.

According to official statistics published by the police, around 17,000 women have received warnings for not dressing conservatively at Tehran airport. Approximately 850 of those women have been temporarily detained.

Women who defy the dress code are first warned to dress more conservatively. In some cases, if women’s skin and hair are not fully covered, they are detained and their families called to bring appropriate clothing. If the women violate the dress code again, they can be tried in court.

Iranian news agencies and Web sites show images of masked policemen beating suspected “thugs” while Iranian opposition satellite networks and Web sites based outside the country have broadcasted footage, captured via mobile phones, of police roughly handling women not wearing conservative Islamic clothing.

The police have acted violently in front of the cameras—at the request of the police chief—to publicize the crackdown, contending that such strong-arm tactics will deter crime.

The police are declaring that their campaign has been a major success and that the Iranians feel more secure as a result of the operation.

“The police conduct has humiliated the thugs and hooligans,” said Iran’s police chief, Brig.-Gen. Esmail Ahmadi-Moghaddam. “It has shaken them.”

Ahmadi-Moghaddam, the brother-in-law of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, argued that these suspects do not enjoy the same rights as average citizens or even other prisoners.

He said that reformist newspapers that have accused the police of using excessive force during the arrests should be “ashamed” of themselves. He insisted tough measures were needed to root out what the government considers criminal behavior.

It’s easy to see why the government launched its latest crackdown on those suspected of drug or alcohol use. The hard-line tactics are intended to appeal to those who support a tough, law-and-order approach to government.

It’s less clear, however, as to what prompted the government’s renewed interest in women’s appearance.

On one hand, Ahmadinejad’s hard-line government, which made returning to Islamic values a key theme of its regime, has been under pressure from a section of Iran’s traditional society that wants stricter enforcement of religious rules.

On the other hand, the government is seriously concerned about its popularity among Iran’s younger generation, who make up about 70 percent of the country’s population. Young people generally do not support strict enforcement of the female dress code, or hijab.

Ahdmadinejad had previously criticized a police plan to crack down on women who violate the Islamic dress code, fearing such a move could provoke widespread unrest. The crackdown never took place and Ahmadinejad was strongly criticized by hard-line newspapers at the time.

This year, Ahmadinejad has attempted to sidestep the issues by refusing to comment on the latest campaign.

However, his appointment of Ahmadi-Moghaddam two days after the campaign began made clear his private support for the crackdown.

Hardliners see the hijab as an ideological and security issue. According to them, the West wants to weaken the foundations of Iran in order to diminish its citizens’ religious beliefs.

In their eyes, eliminating the Islamic dress code is one of the objectives of the enemies of the Islamic Republic.

Police officials, including Ahmadi-Moghaddam and Tehran’s police chief, have repeatedly declared that there are organized networks in Iran to encourage women to ditch the hijab.

Reformists argue that the show of force creates an atmosphere of intimidation and fear, and that the hijab crackdown threatens civil liberties.

Hardliners, however, are having none of it.

In a strongly worded response to these critics, Tehran’s governor, Kamran Daneshjoo, accused the reformists of promoting “fornication” in the name of freedom and “emulating” the Western world by encouraging social “moderation and tolerance.”

Such verbal battles reflect the deep divisions between hard-liners and reformists over what roles religion and civil rights should play in Iran.


Mehdi Mahdavi Azad is a journalist in Iran who writes for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict.

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