Middle East

Tehran Enforces Dress Restrictions

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Iran's latest morality crackdown targets women who "dress like models," according to officials, and men whose hairstyles are deemed un-Islamic. Police have taken women into custody for fashion choices that they consider too Western.


On the streets of Tehran, the fashion police are on the prowl again. Iran's latest morality crackdown targets women who officials say, quote, "dress like models," and men whose hairstyles are deemed un-Islamic.

Roxana Saberi reports from Tehran.

ROXANA SABERI: When 21-year-old Zahra(ph) put on her red lipstick to match her red jacket one recent morning she didn't think her fashion taste would land her in police custody.

ZAHRA: (Through translator) As if we don't know what we should wear. What gives them the right to tell us? I don't understand why they pick on us.

SABERI: She ended up with five other young women in this police van labeled Guidance Patrol. Their offense, according to the police who detained them in this central Tehran shopping district, is their improper appearance. They're wearing tight short overcoats and slacks revealing their ankles, too much makeup, and skimpy headscarves that barely cover their hair. In short, the police say, the girls are dressed like Western models. Here is another young woman the police had to drag into the van.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

ZAHARAB (Through Translator) I didn't think my jacket was a problem. I see many women wearing this kind of style. Are we the only ones dressed like this? I must have bad luck.

SABERI: This roundup is part of a new wave of Iran's nationwide morality crackdown against fashions deemed un-Islamic.

Women in the Islamic Republic of Iran are obliged to cover their hair and their bodies in public. But in recent years, many have pushed the boundaries. Some show off painted toenails and fancy hairstyles poking out from under their headscarves. But women are not the only targets of the morality campaign.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

SABERI: At this event to launch the operation, the police announce they would also confront hooligans, Satan worshippers, and men with Western hairstyles and clothing. Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam is the law enforcement commander of greater Tehran.

Brigadier General ISMAIL AHMADI MOGHADDAM (Police Chief, Tehran): (Through translator) They say this is a style. It's a style? This isn't style. Some things written on their clothes are swear words or they're violent. These are Western styles and we must prevent them.

SABERI: Many conservative Iranians have applauded the crackdown as necessary to fight moral corruption and crime.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking foreign language)

(Soundbite of rally)

SABERI: They've found support from women like these at this rally last year. Here women dressed in long black chadors demanded the country's parliament do something about what they considered improper clothing. But the campaign has also drawn criticism. This middle-aged woman who watched the police detain Zahra and the other girls disagrees with how the authorities are confronting offenders.

Unidentified Woman #3: (Through translator) In our society we must observe certain things, but the way they're coming into the streets and sometimes using physical force with these women is not good.

SABERI: Others, like this man who didn't want to give his name, argued that Iran should focus on tackling economic problems rather than fashion.

Unidentified Man #3: (Through translator) If our young people walk around naked, yes, it's a problem. But it's not worse than seeing our housing prices skyrocket. No one has done anything about that, and now they are picking on people's clothing?

SABERI: Many offenders are simply given verbal warnings on the street. But the six young women on this van are heading to a police station. There the authorities will call their parents, who must bring longer coats and fuller headscarves for their daughters.

If the young women sign pledges that they won't repeat their offense, they'll go free. In rare cases, offenders could be taken to court and fined. But Zaharab says this campaign will do little to keep her from changing her style.

ZAHARAB: (Through translator) My clothing? No, there is no problem with it. I'll go out dressed just like this again.

SABERI: In fact, she says, next time she'll make sure to wear an even shorter jacket.

For NPR News, I'm Roxana Saberi in Tehran.

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