Iranian authorities are again cracking down on women breaking the country’s strict dress code as they try to reassert control after last year’s momentous protests that were rooted in demands for more freedoms in the Islamic Republic.

This week, authorities shut down an office of the country’s leading e-commerce business, Digikala, popularly known as Iran’s Amazon, after its female staff was seen on social media without the obligatory headscarf, or hijab. They have also reinstated widely reviled street patrols to enforce the country’s Islamic dress code, and shut hundreds of cafes, restaurants and amusement parks where staffers were seen to violate it.

Police recently closed a new hair salon after a video of unveiled women at its opening celebration went viral, and punishments for violations are increasingly designed to attract public attention.

This month a court sentenced a woman to a month of washing and preparing corpses for burial, after she was caught driving without her headscarf in a city south of the capital, Tehran. Another woman was sentenced to 270 hours of cleaning government-owned buildings for allegedly flouting the hijab law.

The fresh pressure on Iranians comes after the country’s police said this month that officers would resume street patrols to uphold the dress code, which requires women to cover their hair with a headscarf and the shape of their bodies with loose clothing. Men have been scolded for wearing shorts.

Despite the crackdown, a growing number of women are brazenly breaching the dress code. In Tehran, women sit eating French-style pastry wearing tight jeans and loose headscarves that expose braids or highlights. Women ride on motorcycles and mopeds around town, flaunting tattoos, also considered un-Islamic, as their hair blows in the wind.

Riding a motorcycle isn’t illegal for Iranian women, but in practice, authorities rarely grant women a license to do so. Yet, some female drivers say the public perception of women in traffic has changed.

“Five years ago, a woman on a motorbike was a big thing. Cars wouldn’t give way. Even buses would cut me off,” said Reyhaneh, a 33-year-old painter who for years has driven her scooter everywhere in the capital. “Many would verbally harass, mock or even once push me,” she said. “But today, the culture has changed.”

She said she had loved motorcycles since she was a child, but growing up in a conservative, religious household, it had taken her years to persuade her father to let her get her own wheels, even if just a scooter.

“I was the daughter in the family who used to go against the flow,” Reyhaneh said.

The country’s morality police force was disbanded months into the protests, which were triggered after a young woman, Mahsa Amini, died after being arrested by the force for allegedly wearing immodest clothing.

Since then, regular police have increasingly taken on tasks previously handled by the morality police. When announcing the resumption of street patrols, a police spokesperson said people caught violating the dress code would first be warned, then prosecuted if they didn’t comply.

The hijab has been mandatory in Iran, and highly controversial, for more than four decades. Upholding it is a symbol for the clerical leadership of its defense of Islam and the fundamental tenets of the state.

The hijab is also a tool of political control, which critics say serves to oppress half of the population when outside the home. The government’s violent enforcement of the dress code was the lightning rod behind last year’s mass protests, which quickly morphed from demonstrations over an authoritarian crackdown on clothing to a challenge to the existence of the Islamic Republic.

In a recent video circulating on social media, an unveiled woman—screaming at passersby to help her—was pulled into a van by a female police officer dressed in a long, black cloak known as a chador. State-affiliated media described the video, and other footage showing police officers standing in front of similar vans that were used by the morality police, as fake. It said the morality police, who were overseen by the so-called Islamic Revolution Committees, wouldn’t return to the streets.

Authorities are clamping down outside Tehran as well. In Iran’s second-largest city, the religious hub of Mashhad, they closed down a pedestrian bridge to a shopping center, as well as several cafes in the complex, on orders from the local hijab committee, according to the semiofficial Tasnim news agency.

The owner of a cafe in a trendy part of central Tehran said he had been forced to close for many reasons over the years, including for playing Western music, but that people’s behavior has now irreversibly changed.

“Today, people come here and sit dressed up as if they’re going to a party,” he said. During last year’s protests, his cafe and others like it became a shelter for protesters, including some who were injured in clashes with security forces. Months later, security forces started closing businesses, the cafe owner said.

The crackdown on Digikala, an e-commerce platform that hosts roughly 250,000 sellers and employs nearly 9,000 people, shows the willingness of Iranian authorities to target private businesses to uphold social mores that many Iranians consider antiquated. Even though the Digikala website is still working, the incident shows the vulnerability of private businesses at the same time international sanctions exacerbate Iran’s economic hardship and increase the need for such businesses to thrive.

Sanctions have isolated Iran from parts of the global economy, including e-commerce sites such as Amazon. Digikala is a leading competitor in Iran’s startup scene, for years one of the most promising growth alternatives in the country’s stagnant economy, which is dominated by state-owned oil and gas production and manufacturing, and vulnerable to sanctions and fluctuations on global prices.

The struggle over the hijab compounds other woes for the Islamic Republic, including a water shortage, particularly in the country’s restive southeast.

As part of its surveillance of private businesses, the government uses Instagram to identify establishments where the Islamic dress code is violated, the cafe owner in Tehran said. A 10-day closure costs his business the equivalent of about $10,000, he said.

“It’s not about the money. It’s about the shadow of fear they cast over a business,” he said, adding that a closure affects a long supply chain of people, from food suppliers and drivers to his own staff of 60 to 70 people.

“I am heartbroken by the way the country treats an entrepreneur like me,” he said, outside the old three-story structure he renovated for his cafe. “I have turned a dilapidated house into a place for dialogue, cultural exchanges and fun for the youth. Anywhere else in the world, that’s appreciated.”

Source » msn