In recent months there has been a crackdown on the enforcement of hijab (Islamic dress code) across Iran. Apparently police were given the power to issue warnings for excessive make-up, showing too much hair underneath scarves, tight jackets, and excessively gelled hair or skimpy t-shirts (for men). In Tehran, women are exiled to provincial backwaters after three warnings. In addition, police also have the power to ask men and women socialising in public to prove that they are married. We spoke to one student who's brother was pulled up on the latter offence - and the police spoke to his parents and the relationship had to be immediately broken off.
In the last week, things have apparently become even stricter with the enforcement of hijab. Below is a picture I took yesterday in Kashan of a group of "hijab police" who were furtively going around scolding women for un-Islamic dress. I have tried to circle one of the walkie-talkies which presumably links back to the local police:
One question that has constantly occupied both of us since we arrived in Iran is, how did this happen? We have talked to a lot of people since we arrived - and nearly all of them have been very critical and almost apologetic of the current government very soon into our conversations. Admittedly we have talked to a very skewed sample of people - highly educated English speakers often under 30 - and I'm sure that the opinions of a poor farmer in the conservative rural areas would be quite different. That said though, I think its pretty safe to say that the local elections from late last year (and here) demonstrate that Ahmadinejad's policies aren't massively popular at the moment (if the US were stupid enough to bomb Iran that would of course change overnight).
From what we have seen, Iran is a very different country from either Pakistan, China or Cambodia - it is modernised, with a highly literate well-educated populace that loathes being associated with "backwards" Arabs. From what we have seen in the privacy of people's homes (again a small and skewed sample) - the middle/upper classes in Iran are not overly religious and are quite liberal in what they wear and drink. How then, is the current government getting away with enforcing the application of strict Islamic moral codes in such a draconian fashion?
The people that we have talked to have posited various theories - fear (understandable!), people are "asleep", and the electorate did not know Ahmadinejad's true colours until after he was elected. One potential factor that we have pondered - going by the number of conversations we have had with people of many different ages and occupations about getting visas overseas - is that the part of the population that have the strongest desire for change are leaving en masse. Anth and I walked into a pharmacy in Esfahan, and within seconds the middle aged lady who ran the shop was asking how Anth felt about wearing the scarf. The lady then told us how all the young people are leaving Iran, and that she also wants to leave but that she is too old, and how much she loves her country - pretty heartbreaking stuff.
To be honest we can never fully know the answers to our question given our limited time here and the fact that we are not Iranian- but it is certainly something we will continue to mull over and talk to people about...