February 25, 2008 / 10:43 AM / 12 years ago

"Hijab problem" sparks police standoff in Tehran

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Wearing a brightly coloured headscarf and high-heeled boots, the woman refused to be bundled into the police van without a fight.

Protesting loudly and even trying to escape, her standoff with Iranian police cracking down on women violating the Islamic dress code lasted several minutes.

But the outcome of the drama shortly after dusk on a cold winter’s day on Tehran’s most famous boulevard was never in doubt.

Two female police officers in head-to-toe black chadors pushed her into the white vehicle which then drove off into the bustle of tree-lined Vali-ye Asr Avenue.

“Hijab problem,” one male onlooker said, referring to the clothes women must wear in Iran to cover their hair and disguise the shape of their bodies to conform with Iran’s Islamic laws.

Based in Tehran for the past year, I have often written about police detaining women who challenge the dress codes that have been more strictly enforced under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But this was the first time I saw it happening.

To judge by the passers-by who stopped in the lamplight on the snowy pavement, or the people peeping out through the windows of the neighbourhood grocery store where I was buying milk, my curiosity was shared.

The dark-haired woman, who appeared to be in her 30s, argued in a high-pitched voice with a burly, bearded male police officer towering over her in his green uniform.

When his female colleague put a hand on the woman’s shoulder to lead her into the van, she angrily pushed it away and shouted. Then suddenly she turned and tried to run away.

She did not get far. The two female officers grabbed her and shoved her into the police vehicle. The door was slammed shut and the van disappeared into Tehran’s evening rush hour.

TOO WESTERN

“Not good,” a fellow shopper told me in halting English, shaking his head in disapproval at the police action.

Thousands of women have been hauled in or warned by police in the 10 months since the authorities launched one of the strictest campaigns in recent years.

In addition to the annual summer crackdown, when sweltering heat prompts some women to shed clothing, police in December announced a drive against winter fashions seen as immodest, such as tight trousers tucked into long boots.

Iran’s clerical leaders say Islamic attire helps protect women against the sex symbol status they have in the West.

But young women in wealthier urban areas often defy the restrictions by wearing tight clothing and colourful headscarves that barely cover their hair. The codes are less commonly flouted in poor suburbs and rural regions.

Even men with spiked haircuts deemed too “Western” are being targeted by the authorities in the latest clampdown.

One Iranian woman in her early 40s told me later the campaign had persuaded her to dress more conservatively, but younger women “are not scared anymore”.

Those found dressing inappropriately may be warned or, if they are repeat offenders, can spend the night in a police station and may also be fined.

The authorities say they are “fighting morally corrupt people”. An opinion poll published by the semi-official Fars News Agency last year said most Iranians polled supported the way police were dealing with women wearing “bad hijab”.

But there was little obvious sign of approval from the small audience who watched the incident in Elahiyeh, a relatively well-off suburb in north Tehran.

Then after a few sighs and a bit of muttered discussion, the customers shrugged off the commotion and returned to their shopping, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

I stepped out into streets blanketed in snow during Iran’s coldest winter in decades, wondering about the woman.

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