Thousands of Iranian women have been cautioned over their poor Islamic dress this week and several hundred arrested in the capital Tehran in the most fierce crackdown on what’s known as “bad hijab” for more than a decade. It is the talk of the town. The latest police crackdown on Islamic dress has angered many Iranians – male, female, young and old.
But Iranian TV has reported that an opinion poll conducted in Tehran found 86% of people were in favour of the crackdown – a statistic that is surprising given the strength of feeling against this move.
Police cars are stationed outside major shopping centres in Tehran.
They are stopping pedestrians and even cars – warning female drivers not to show any hair – and impounding the vehicles and arresting the women if they argue back.
Middle-aged women, foreign tourists and journalists have all been harassed, not just the young and fashionably dressed.
Overnight the standard of what is acceptable dress has slipped back.
Hard-won freedoms – like the right to wear a colourful headscarf – have been snatched away.
It may sound trivial but Iranian women have found ways of expressing their individuality and returning to drab colours like black, grey and dark blue is not something they will accept easily.
“If we want to do something we will do it anyway, all this is total nonsense,” says a young girl, heavily made up and dressed up.
She believes Islamic dress should be something personal – whether you’re swathed in a black chador or dressed in what she calls “more normal clothes”.
Interestingly many women who choose to wear the all enveloping chador agree – saying it’s a personal choice and shouldn’t be forced on people.
“This year is much worse than before because the newspapers and the TV have given the issue a lot of coverage compared to last year; it wasn’t this bad before,” says Shabnam who’s out shopping with her friend.
At the start of every summer the police say they will enforce the Islamic dress code, but this year has been unusually harsh.
Thousands of women have been cautioned by police over their dress, some have been obliged to sign statements that they will do better in the future, and some face court cases against them.
Though the authorities want coverage internally to scare women – they don’t want the story broadcast abroad.
The BBC’s cameraman was detained when he tried to film the police at work and the government denied us permission to go on patrol with the police.
“Really we don’t have any security,” complains Shabam’s friend Leyla.
“Since we came out this morning many people we met have continuously warned us to be careful about our headscarves and to wear them further forward because they are arresting women who are dressed like this,” she says.
Boutique owners are furious. Some shops have been sealed – others warned not to sell tight revealing clothing.
One shopkeeper selling evening dresses told us the moral police had ordered him to saw off the breasts of his mannequins because they were too revealing.
He said he wasn’t the only shop to receive this strange instruction.
There’s even been less traffic on the streets because some women are not venturing out – fearful they will be harassed.
And it’s not even safe in a car. Taxi agencies have received a circular warning them not to carry a “bad hijabi”.
“They have said we shouldn’t carry passengers who wear bad Islamic dress and if we do we have to warn them to respect the Islamic dress code even inside the car,” said one taxi driver.
And it’s not just women who are being targeted this year.
Young men are being cautioned for wearing short sleeved shirts or for their hairstyles.
Morad – a hairdresser whose gelled hair is made to stand straight up – says it’s necessary for him to look like this to attract customers.
“These last few days I don’t dare walk down the main roads looking like this case I get arrested,” he says.
“I use the side streets and alleys.”
Morad is scared because his friends have told him they’ve seen the police seize young men and forcibly cut their hair if it’s too long.
Fifteen-year-old Tofiq who’d also gelled his hair to stand on end said he too was afraid but he wasn’t going to change.
“I want the whole world to know that they oppress us and all we can do is put up with it,” he said.
Some parents have complained that harassing the young over their clothing will only push them to leave the country.
But one MP has said those Iranians who cannot cope with Islamic laws should leave.
Some commentators have suggested that the government is conducting this crackdown to distract attention from the rising cost of living in Iran and increasing tension with the international community over the nuclear issue.
If so, it’s a strategy that risks alienating people who’ve got used to years of relative social freedom and do not want to return to the early days of the revolution when dress rules were much more tightly enforced.