The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There’s an app for young Iranians to avoid the morality police, but its makers are worried

In modern Iran, morality watchdogs are a part of life. Under the orders of Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, officials censor or sideline those seen as violating Iran's conservative Islamic codes.

Iranian women have often faced the most scrutiny. Morality squads — under the direction of the powerful Revolutionary Guard — may give warnings or even take women to court for how they act or dress. (Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iranian women have been required to wear the hijab, a Muslim head covering, as well as loose fitting coats or cloaks.) Morality vigilantes have even taken aim at the sale of Barbie dolls.

Over the past few years, the situation has seesawed amid wider battles between conservatives and more liberal forces. Authorities have stepped up pressures in other directions, including monitoring perceived dissent on the Web.

Within Iran, the actions of morality overseers have long been controversial. And many — including its large and well-educated population of young people — increasingly challenge codes imposed by officials. For instance, women have continued to test limits with shorter and tighter coverings.

And this week, a group of Iranians came up with a plan to help people avoid the eyes of authorities: a smartphone app.

Gershad — a play on the name given to the morality overseers in Iran, Ershad — was released this week on Google's Android system. The way it works is simple: Users can mark on a map of Tehran where people are being stopped for the way they dress or act, allowing other users to avoid those spots. The app updates after six hours to show which reports of morality watchdogs are old and which are new. In effect, it's not dissimilar to the popular navigation and traffic app Waze, which allows users to mark traffic and other obstacles for other drivers.

This screenshot from Nima Akbarpour of the BBC's Persian-language service shows the app in action:

The Google Play store shows that more than 600 users have reviewed Gershad, giving the app an almost perfect rating. According to the developers, they had 10,000 users is less than two days.

Clearly, the app proved there was a market for avoiding the Ershad within Iran. Yet its success quickly gained the attention of Iranian authorities, who have made an attempt to block it in less than 24 hours. The creators of the app, understandably, have some concerns not only about their own safety, but also that of their users. WorldViews conducted an interview over email with the app's creators, who asked not to be named for reasons they outline below.

The interview has been lightly edited for style and clarity.

WorldViews: What inspired you to create Gershad?

Gershad: According to official numbers, in a single year (2013), almost 3 million people were stopped by the morality police [Ershad] in Iran and received warnings for what the patrollers perceived to be improper dress codes. Out of this number, 18,000 people were actually tried for how they were dressed. We want Iranian police to protect our interests, but they have become an instrument in violating one of our most basic rights, the right to dress the way we choose. Iranian women are specially targeted by the morality police since they are required to adhere to a more strict dress code.

We thought enabling people to get around morality patrols would be an effective form of nonviolent resistance.

WV: Do many Iranians seek to avoid the morality police?

G: Absolutely. It would not be an exaggeration to say millions of Iranians, specially women and girls, try to avoid the morality police. [Iran has a population of almost 80 million. Women make up slightly more than half.]

Being warned by Ershad is a humiliating and unpleasant experience and could lead to arrest, trial and receiving lashes. It's a common experience for Iranian women walking in large cities in Iran to be warned by others, “You might want to cover your hair better, Miss. There is an Ershad patrol a block away.” However, before Gershad, there was no reliable and systematic way to avoiding the patrols.

WV: How many people were working on the app and how long did it take?

G: We came up with the idea about two years ago and worked on it off and on. Several people have been involved at various stages. Unfortunately, due to security concerns, we can’t provide you with a more exact number. This is the kind of information Iranian intelligence service will be keen to use against developers and users.

WV: You launched the app this week. Did it prove popular?

G: We didn’t do any marketing or advertising for the app. It was only shared on social media, and it received immediate response. It was only meant to be a beta launch, but it went viral. Although we were hoping for a high participation, the numbers are beyond our expectations. Just one post on Telegram (a messaging software which is popular in Iran) was viewed by more than 127,000 users. In less than 48 hours after launch, we have over 10,000 active users.

WV: What feedback are you getting? Did the app work as intended?

G: Overwhelmingly positive. For example, the app was only designed for Android phones since they make up the majority of smartphones in Iran. We have received many messages from people asking for an iOS version.

Since we’ve just launched, users are very excited and are trying it out by making many reports. As more users report similar locations for morality patrols, the app will improve. We are making some improvements in our system to better identify patrol locations.

WV: I’ve seen news reports that say Gershad is now blocked in Iran? Is that correct?

G: Our website was blocked very quickly (within 24 hours of launch). We anticipated blocking and included Psiphon's SDK in our app to allow users to connect to our servers through Psiphon's encrypted tunnel and make reports, even if the app is blocked [Note: Psiphon is a tool that uses a variety of secure communication and obfuscation systems to help circumvent censorship.] Circumvention tools are used widely in Iran, and users are familiar with them. Iranians rely on circumvention tools every day to access various social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.

WV: How successful has this attempt to block the app been? Are you working to get around it?

G: Although we didn’t expect the Iranian government to block the app in less than 24 hours, we never had any doubt that the app will be blocked, and there will be other attempts to sabotage its effectiveness. In anticipation, we embedded Psiphon circumvention tool on the app, and came up with a number of other solutions including improving reporting and adding restrictions to prevent abuse and astroturfing to fight any attempt [by the government or the morality patrols themselves] to interrupt the app’s intended purpose.

WV: At your request, we’ve not included your names in this interview. Could you give us a sense why you don’t want your names published?

G: The Iranian government has given lengthy sentences to hundreds of peaceful nonviolent activists and even ordinary citizens, people who have done much less than getting involved in an app that allows citizens to avoid government patrols. This is a sensitive app that could result in harsh reaction from the government, and we are taking every precaution. This is not about us but rather about the average Iranian citizens who have rushed to download an app that protects them from government sanctioned harassment.

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