Iranian authorities step up arrests of women for 'immodest' dress

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By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post staff writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010

TEHRAN -- Iranian authorities have begun police patrols in the capital to arrest women wearing clothes deemed improper. The campaign against loose-fitting veils and other signs of modernism comes as government opponents are calling for rallies to mark the anniversary of the disputed presidential election, and critics of the crackdown say it is stoking feelings of discontent.

But hard-liners say that improper veiling is a "security issue" and that "loose morality" threatens the core of the Islamic republic.

Iran's interior minister has promised a "chastity plan" to promote the proper covering "from kindergarten to families," though the details are unclear. Tehran police have been arresting women for wearing short coats or improper veils and even for being too suntanned. Witnesses report fines up to $800 for dress considered immodest.

Some here say the new measures are part of a government campaign of intimidation ahead of the election anniversary this month. The hard-liners have grown more influential since the vote, which led to months of anti-government demonstrations that leaders saw as the biggest threat to the Islamic system in decades.

Iranian women are obliged by law to cover their hair and wear long coats in public. The Islamic veil protects the purity of women, preventing men from viewing them as sex symbols, clerics here say. But the law is imprecise, and interpretations vary.

On a recent day, two young women wearing bright pink lipstick and identical thigh-hugging beige coats strolled down Tehran's affluent Bahonar Street. Their peroxide-blond hair, emphasized by delicately positioned brown scarves, spilled onto their shoulders.

When seminary student Fatemeh Delvari, 24, moved to Tehran from a provincial town eight months ago, she was shocked to see how some women dressed.

"My own veil oppresses my feminine side, so I can be free and active," she said of her black chador, a garment that covers the entire body except the face and hands. "But some women seem to be only interested in looking beautiful."

"They are trampling on social boundaries," Delvari said. "Violence is not good, but they should be punished."

Delvari, a leading member of the Students Justice-Seeking Movement, which aims to revive the values of the Islamic revolution, said authorities should also restrict makeup sales, prohibit jewelry and force women to "spend some nights from their families" in order to counter improper dress.

"Our Islamic system is like a ship; we can't allow some of the passengers to make holes in the hull," she said.

During the reign of Iran's Western-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, bikinis and miniskirts were not uncommon here. But in the first years after the 1979 Islamic revolution, groups of Islamists armed with batons would beat women who were not veiled, shouting such slogans as "Cover up or feel the stick."


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