7 so-called vices banned by Iran's morality police

Iran's morality police detain a man with unacceptable hair and clothing back in 2008: In recent weeks, Tehran has cracked down on shopkeepers selling Barbie dolls.
Iran's morality police detain a man with unacceptable hair and clothing back in 2008: In recent weeks, Tehran has cracked down on shopkeepers selling Barbie dolls. REUTERS/Stringer
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Iran's morality police are at the center of ongoing protests raging throughout the country after the suspicious death of a young woman in their custody in September. In a potential "concession to the protest movement," a senior Iranian official allegedly claimed in early December that the country has "abolished" its morality police force, The New York Times writes, though there are conflicting reports suggesting in fact that "no official of the Islamic Republic of Iran has said that the Guidance Patrol has been shut." Regardless, many are skeptical and said, even if true, the government's move was "too little, too late."

The morality police exist in part to enforce Iran's strict dress code, which requires Iranian women to cover their hair. Here is a list of supposed signs of moral vices that Tehran's rulers and the morality police have tried to stamp out:

1. Uncovered hair

In September, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in the custody of the morality police after being arrested for not wearing a proper head covering, known as a hijab. Suspicions around the cause of her death sparked national outrage, leading to protests in Tehran and throughout Iran. The anti-government protests have persisted, despite the authoritarian regime's attempts to crack down on the chaos. Support for the movement has spread internationally, resulting in the protesters being nominated for Time's 2022 Person of the Year.

Amid the ongoing unrest, the status of the morality police remains uncertain, despite suggestions from a senior official to the contrary. When questioned about the police at a conference, Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri reportedly said they "have been shut down from where they were set up," per BBC. However, the Iranian government recently struck down claims that it planned to disband the morality police.

2. Squirt guns

In August 2014, hundreds of boys and girls escaped the summer heat in a Tehran park by joining in a water-pistol fight, organized via Facebook. Religious conservatives protested, and some participants were arrested. Males and females unrelated by blood are not supposed to mix this way in Iran. "They acted against social norms," decreed Ahmad Rouzbehani, head of Tehran's morality police. One boy who got hauled in reportedly admitted that the wetness war "was much more intimate than it should have been."

3. Dancing in kindergarten

Iran also reportedly banned dancing lessons in kindergartens. Welfare Organization head Ahmad Esfandiari told the news website Aftab that teaching small children to twirl and hop was immoral and flouted Islamic values. He warned that schools violating the new rules would lose their licenses, and suggested they become more "Koranic" by increasing their religious instruction instead.

4. Ankle unveilings

In 2010, a YouTube user posted a video that apparently depicted two morality cops trying to arrest a woman who'd ventured out in public wearing an outfit that revealed her ankles. The woman, her head covered as per custom, fought back and was eventually released.

5. Chic clothes

Members of the morality police frequently chastise and even arrest women for wearing clothing they deem indecent. In November 2014, 70 fashion designers were rounded up and more than 400 shops were shut down for selling "improper" dresses. A graphic designer who would only identify herself by her first name, Asal, told The Washington Post that hardliners must realize fashion trends are changing, whether they like it or not. "First, we were not allowed to wear boots, but now many women wear them," Asal said. "They said that we always had to close our coats, but now we keep them unbuttoned. These are big changes in our traditional society."

6. Snow skiing

As the 2015 ski season opened in Iran's Alborz mountain range, the morality police circulated a new warning banning women and girls from skiing unless accompanied by a husband, father, or brother. It was part of a hardliner effort to roll back reforms made under former President Mohammad Khatami, which the current government says led to flouting of religious dress codes and other traditions. Iran's ski resorts acted as "something of a haven from the Islamic dress code — and from laws against boys and girls mixing," says Thomas Erdbrink at The Washington Post. One catch: Wealthy young Iranians ski much better than the morality cops do, so it's hard for agents policing the slopes to keep up.

7. Barbie

Barbie is considered a prime example of "pernicious Western culture eroding Islamic values," says Mitra Amiri at Reuters. Iranian authorities instead push Sara and Dara dolls, which are dressed in traditional clothes. One 38-year-old Iranian mother said her daughter considers Sara and Dara "ugly and fat," adding "[she] prefers Barbies." One Tehran shopkeeper told Reuters "we still sell Barbies, but secretly." The shopkeepers put traditional Iranian dolls "in the window to make the police think we are just selling these kinds of dolls."

Update Dec. 6, 2022: This article has been updated to reflect the latest news about the protests against the morality police in Iran.

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