With the arrival of spring, Iranian police have launched a crackdown against women accused of not covering up enough, arresting nearly 300 women, some for wearing too tight an overcoat or letting too much hair peek out from under their veil, authorities said Monday.
The campaign in the streets of major cities is the toughest such crackdown in nearly two decades, raising fears that hard-liner President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad intends to re-impose the tough Islamic Revolution-era constraints on women's dress that had loosened in recent years.
The move highlighted the new boldness among hard-liners in Ahmadinejad's government, which has used mounting Western pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program and Iraq as a pretext to put down internal dissent.
But it could bring a backlash at a time when many Iranians resent Ahmadinejad for failing to boost the faltering economy or halt spiraling prices and blame him for isolating Iran with his fiery rhetoric. The two-day-old crackdown was already angering moderates.
"What they do is really insulting. You simply can't tell people what to wear. They don't understand that use of force only brings hatred toward them, not love," said Elham Mohammadi, a 23-year-old student.
Mohammadi's hair was hardly hidden by her white and orange headscarf — an infraction that could bring police attention. Police could be seen Monday stopping and giving warnings to other women who were showing too much hair or even wearing too colorful a headscarf.
Looser dress codes are one of the few surviving gains from the era of Ahmadinejad's predecessor, reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who was in power from 1997 to 2005.
During that time, many women, particularly in cities, shed the dress code imposed after the 1979 revolution — veils completely covering the hair and heavy coats or the black or gray head-to-toe chador hiding the shape of the body.
Now it is common to see women in loose headscarves — some as narrow as a ribbon — that show much of their hair. Many women also wear short, colorful, formfitting jackets that stop at the knee — or even higher — showing jeans underneath. Even under Ahmadinejad in the past two years, women can be seen wearing pants that leave the bottom of their calves bare.
Any of those styles could bring warnings or detention from the anti-vice police in the current sweep, which began Saturday. So far, 278 women have been detained, 231 of whom were released after they signed papers promising they wouldn't appear "inadequately dressed in public," police spokesman Col. Mahi Ahmadi told The Associated Press Monday.
Another 3,548 women have been given "warnings and Islamic guidance," without being detained, Ahmadi said. Twelve men have also been detained for "not observing the proper Islamic dress code" by wearing tight pants or short-sleeve shirts, he said.
Every spring, there are calls by clerics for a crackdown, and the past two years have seen minor, localized sweeps. But this year's campaign is the first since before Khatami's presidency to result in so many arrests and be given such high prominence in the government media, with warnings for women to adhere to Islamic dress.
Ahmadi said the sweep would go on "as long as necessary," but it wasn't clear whether it heralded an all-out, permanent campaign to bar looser dress codes.
One hard-line cleric on Monday warned of a backlash. "In many cases, the use of force in the fight against social harms can backfire," said the head of judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, according to the state news agency IRNA.
But many conservatives were applauding the crackdown, launched after a call from senior hard-line clerics in the holy city of Qom to tighten the reins.
"All are responsible toward the problem of inadequate dress," Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, one senior Qom cleric, told newspapers.
Mostafa Pourmohammadi, the interior minister in charge of the campaign, said it would please the people by restoring social stability. "People are unhappy with the social and moral status of the society. They expect that the fight against social insecurity be properly implemented," Pourmohammadi was quoted in the conservative daily Resalat as saying.
A hard-line lawmaker, Mohammad Taqi Rahbar, said the looser dress codes had prompted Iranian women and families "to cry out" for help. "Men see models in the streets and ignore their own wives at home. This weakens the pillars of family," he said.
Ever since Ahmadinejad won the presidency in 2005 elections, Iranians have been fearing a return to the prohibitions on "un-Islamic" dress, music, male and female mixing and the other restrictions from the revolution's heyday.
But criticism of the president has been increasing as prices for basic goods like food and housing have increased in past months — despite his campaign promises to reduce poverty.
"The problem of our country is unemployment, rapid increase in the number of crimes and murders, not women's dress," said Sadeq Rowshani, a bank clerk.