A teenage girl celebrating her birthday was beaten by Iran’s morality police for wearing ripped jeans.
The story was first reported by the U.K.’s the Independent, which is withholding the 14-year-old girl’s name due to the family’s fear of reprisals. Zahra*, who lives in Iran, told the news outlet that during the celebration in the city of Shiraz, a van of morality police drove up and tried to force her and her teenage girlfriends into the vehicle. When they resisted, police threatened them with pepper spray, hit them, and pulled their hair. “There were two women and two men in a huge van and they pushed us into it with the force of their beatings,” she said. “Their objection was to the ripped jeans that we were wearing. There were really no other issues concerning my friends and I.”
Zahra also said her friends were released only after signing written statements promising to dress modestly. “I still carry the bruises sustained from their beatings on my face,” she said. “I still feel their pressure on my arm and my ribs still hurt.” Zahra’s mother, who was present at the celebration, also gave an exclusive interview to the Independent, saying the experience was “the worst day of my life, as if the world has ended for me. I know my daughter feels the same.”
Morality police are teams of law enforcement in Iran (and other conservative parts of the world) that oversee the country’s strict dress code. The main agency in Iran is called Gasht-e Ershad, according to the BBC, and its undercover officers report to the police anyone wearing makeup, Western clothing, or women not wearing hijabs, which cover their hair and bodies. Female morality police, like the ones involved in Zahra’s case, help force the women into vehicles. “From dawn to dusk we are calling to virtue and banning from vice which is a divine order,” a female member said during a 2011 interview in the Economist. “A lot of people cry but when we let them go, they come back looking the same. I don’t believe in the tears people with bad hijab shed.”
In February 2016, anonymous Iranian developers created a phone app called Gershad to help teens avoid the morality police by alerting users to random police checkpoints with the help of crowdsourcing. Per the BBC, the description on the app’s webpage reads, “Why do we have to be humiliated for our most obvious right which is the right to wear what we want? Social media networks and websites are full of footage and photos of innocent women who have been beaten up and dragged on the ground by the Ershad patrol agents.” In response to the app, 7,000 police force members were hired.
The policing even reaches social media — in 2016, eight Iranian women were arrested after posting Instagram shots of themselves while not wearing headscarfs, including one blond model named Elham Arab who was forced to apologize on state television.
But #MenInHijab, a social media campaign started by Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad and the online movement My Stealthy Freedom, features Iranian men wearing hijabs in a show of support for women who want the freedom to dress as they please. A representative from My Stealthy Freedom didn’t return Yahoo Style’s request for comment, but Alinejad told the Independent in 2016, “In our society, a woman’s existence and identity is justified by a man’s integrity, and in many cases the teachings of a religious authority or government officials influence a man’s misguided sense of ownership over women. So I thought it would be fantastic to invite men to support women’s rights.”
— Parisa (@parisa22) December 31, 2016
— Pascale Charbonneau (@LapinPirate) February 9, 2017
— World Religion News (@WReligionNews) December 21, 2016
*Not her real name.