By Maryam Dehkordi
August 7, 2019
On Friday July 26, reports started appearing on social media that a Morality Patrol unit of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance had arrested a woman on the street for not “wearing a bra,” which, according to the unit, is an action that “arouses men.”
There was widespread response to the news on Instagram. Most of those criticizing the arrest were women, who said such behavior could not be tolerated, and that the morality police had no right to arrest the woman. Supporters of the move, however, agreed that a woman not wearing a bra would arouse men and said it was a “corrupting” act and must be dealt with accordingly.
The woman who was arrested, Narges — who didn’t want to give her full name to protect her identity — has an interesting story. “I take medication because of acute fibrocystic disease,” she told IranWire. “After all these years my body has reacted to the medication and my skin has become sensitive but I must go on taking the medication so that the disease will not spread. I feel a lot of pain both on my skin and in my breasts. I do not wear bras at home, at work or even at parties. It is not important to me if somebody asks me about it. I always say that I have grown morally because of my illness. I no longer look at my body or anybody else’s as an ideal.”
Fibrocystic breast disease, common among women, is a condition which affects breasts and underarms. The breast becomes lumpy and full of cysts, which are noncancerous but can cause acute pain, especially just before and during menstruation, and wearing bras can intensify this pain.
Narges, a photographer, says that the body and nakedness is not a taboo for her because most of her subjects are human beings with ordinary bodies. “That day [of the arrest] I left home in my usual outfit,” she said, “a roomy and open-front manteau and a very long shawl that completely covered the front of my body. I came out of Ferdowsi metro station and before I had taken a few steps three chador-clad Morality Patrol women pulled on my manteaux and my shawl was pushed aside. The moment that they noticed my nipples one of the women angrily asked for my ID. I did not have it with me so she took my banking card and quickly shoved me into the van.”
The Doctor’s Word is not Good Enough
As Narges and the policewomen were driving toward Vozara Avenue, where Tehran’s Morality Police is based, Narges tried to explain that she could not wear a bra because of her condition, but they would not listen. When they reached their destination, she said, “I called my doctor and the doctor explained to them the situation. But it was no use and they told me that I had to stay there. It was as if they had caught a burglar!”
When the patrolwomen refused to take the doctor’s word for it, Narges decided to show them her condition. “I was in a lot of pain,” she said. “It was hot and sweating. They were shouting sexual slurs at the women they had arrested and after two hours, against my [wishes], I decided to do something about it.
Narges says she took the hands of one the women and they went to another room, where a few other policewomen were present. “I pulled up my T-shirt and told them ‘Look! This is my condition and I am in pain,’” she says. “But their response was very ugly. One of them, with a shocked face full of disgust, grabbed me and threw me out of the room. In the end, they forced me to sign a pledge that I would not do it again. And then I could go.”
Narges says she cried her heart out when she left the building. She has not been able to talk with her family about the incident. However, she did private message her story to close friends on Instagram without discussing it on the public part of the platform.
Confrontations between Iranian women and the Morality Police have been escalating on a regular basis. Women find innovative ways to assert their rights but, on the other hand, the army deployed against them is increasing in numbers. Now not only do judiciary bailiffs act harshly against women who remove their hijabs, the Revolutionary Guards in the provinces has announced that it will take action against women who “promote western styles.”
The judiciary spokesman has announced that women who send Masih Alinejad, the US-based women’s rights activist and journalist, photographs and videos are effectively cooperating with “an enemy state” and they could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.
Some women’s rights activists, however, do not believe that the question of hijab takes priority. They believe that the issue is far less important than tackling feeble laws that support “the family” and other huge problems such as the right to divorce and the guardianship of children. Nevertheless, the Iranian regime hands out the most draconian punishments to women who fight against compulsory hijab — and is willing to pay the high cost of maintaining and expanding the workforce of the Morality Patrol.
Hijab, the Mainstay of the Iranian Regime
“I believe that hijab is the mainstay of the Iranian regime,” said Samaneh Savadi, a UK-based women’s rights activist, lawyer and criminologist, when asked to explain the Islamic Republic’s harsh treatment of women when it comes to “proper clothing.” This principle has become so important that now even women’s undergarments can become a reason to arrest them. “The regime knows full well that, with the present level of awareness among Iranian women, if it yields when it comes to how women dress, then it will have to restore thousands of rights that women have been deprived of over the last 40 years. If how to dress becomes optional, then [the regime will have to] open the doors of sports stadiums to women unconditionally, put equality of inheritance on its agenda, give women the rights of divorce and guardianship — and thousands of other things, big and small. It is like the owner of a bird who believes that if he opens the cage door the bird will stay in the room, unaware that the bird yearns for freedom and will not just leave the room but also the house.”
Savadi believes that the government is becoming harsher partly because Iranian women are more aware of their rights. She said that, thanks to social networks, the discourse on choosing how one dresses has spread even to traditional and religious segments of Iranian society, both in big cities and in remote towns.
“However,” she told me, “the sad and important point is that whereas women have moved forward in this area, men do not significantly support women’s freedom of choice in how they dress because the regime has turned them into its accomplices. The regime has sold them the notion that, yes, women’s bodies arouse men and ‘even if you are an exception to this rule, outside of your home there are men who would be aroused by looking at your wife, your mother or your sister.’ The absence of men’s support for women’s right to choose is quite visible. Let us remember this and tell the men around us — our husbands, our sons, our brothers and our male friends — not to become accomplices of the regime.”