Evading the "Morality Police"

As spring arrived in Tehran, so did the police. They’re there to clamp down on crime – specifically, unorthodox clothing. In March, officials announced that up to 7,000 undercover officers would be patrolling the streets of the Iranian capital, on the lookout for any woman not following the most conservative mode of dressing. The Gashte Ershad, or “guidance patrol”, formed as part of an effort to purge Iran of Western culture, have the powers to arrest people for not being modest enough.

As a non-Muslim, I am in no position to dictate whether Muslim women should, or should not, wear a hijab, a burqa, a niqab or any veil of any description. What I do think is that every woman, of every religion, should have the freedom to dress as they choose in public, according to their beliefs, non-beliefs, or simply how they feel on the day. Take away this freedom, and many women will find a way around it, even if it is dangerous for them to do so.

First, there came an app. The Gershad app lets users who spot checkpoints set up by the so-called "morality police" to tag the location on Google Maps, allowing others to steer clear. Unsurprisingly it was almost immediately blocked by authorities – although Iranians could bypass this by using a VPN. Speaking to Reuters, Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, said: “This is an innovative idea and I believe it will lead to many other creative apps which will address the gap between society and government in Iran.”

Not all women chose to depend on technology in order to be able to walk about their own city without fear of arrest for dressing as they please. Instead they chose to play the system at its own game – if being a woman was distasteful, why be one at all? Off comes the hair, out comes the male clothing and now women of Iran are able to go about their day – dressed as men.

A number of women took to social media to share photos of themselves with their hair uncovered – a bold move considering that eight Iranian Instagram models were recently charged with “spreading prostitution” and “promoting Western promiscuity” for doing a similar thing. In some images women have simply cut off their hair altogether – also a bold move, with hair forming a strong part of many women’s identities. In other pictures still, women are dressed in clothes typically worn by men.

Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist and activist, shared some of the pictures on her Facebook page, My Stealthy Freedom. One woman who posted an image of herself with short hair wrote: “I really hate it when someone orders me to cover my hair so that men around me will not get aroused. Since I obtained my driver’s licence, I have been deliberately getting my hair cut short to at least enjoy a whiff of freedom inside my own car. Those who see me are actually under the impression that I am a man driving his car and since they think like that they do not bother me.”

Another image features a woman dressed as a man. She writes, “I am a girl from Iran who has managed to get around all the restrictions to live and choose my own lifestyle.” Sports journalist Pejman Rahbar shared a photo of a woman dressed as a boy so she could go and watch her football team play a match. Every location or event is an example of access only being granted if one goes as a man.

Others simply post photos of themselves with their veils removed – often with a comment about the satisfaction they get from doing so. “Freedom is every person’s right!” writes one, next to a picture of herself basking in sunshine, paddling in a lake. “Freedom is a right, and rights are to be fought for and gained…Taken on a beach belonging to the government.”

“It had been the very first time I had ever seen the desert,” writes another, alongside her photo. “As the sun was rising, I took off my headscarf so she could see me beautiful too. The feeling was great. I was…fearless in the desert, with my head uncovered in the desert.” One woman simply stands, without her veil, by a busy road. "Freedom of choice is our basic right," she says.

In an interview with The Independent, one woman who had taken to dressing like a man in order to avoid the police said although she hadn’t noticed many other people doing the same thing, she had received messages of support. “But most of them just wish to have a free choice about wearing the hijab,” she said. “The system has put great fear in women and they often prefer to escape rather than make a change. They often refuse to fight because of different issues like losing their job or their reputation.”

Hijabs have been mandatory in Iran since the 1979 revolution, but opposition to the law has slowly been building in recent years. When President Rouhani was elected in 2013, many believed he would relax the country’s hardline laws, but as of yet, no drastic changes have been made since he came into office. Although critical of the Gashte Ershad, when shown the My Stealthy Freedom page he condemned the social action, stating, “When someone lives in Iran, they should abide by the laws of the country.”

This wont stop Alinejad, and her page lives on. “The Government wants to create fear but women have found their own way to freely walk in the streets of Iran or drive without covering their heads,” she said to The Independent. “For women, their hair is their identity and making it short just to avoid the morality police is really heartbreaking, but in a way, it is brave.”

At the time of writing, My Stealthy Freedom has over 990,000 likes on Facebook. When it comes to their freedom, Iranian women are happy to put up a fight.

Words by Imogen Robinson