Simon Tisdall

April 23, 2007 4:35 PM

The demonstrators had worked themselves up into a fine pitch of fury. Marching past Tehran University towards Revolution Square, they chanted slogans, waved the green and yellow banners of Imam Hussein and Hizbullah, and brandished clenched fists in the sunlit air.

In total the protesters numbered only perhaps three or four thousand. But if the authorities of the Islamic Republic are to be believed, they reflect the true feelings of tens of millions of Muslim men. For the demonstration was an almost exclusively male affair. It was officially approved. And its target was women.

Unchaste, licentious and un-godly women, that is, as very broadly defined by the guardians of Iran's social and religious mores. For, as of Saturday, the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is pursuing a new obsession. It's not Israel. It's not nuclear energy. It's female fashion.

All women, but especially younger girls, have been warned that if, from now on, they do not strictly observe the pre-existing but often loosely interpreted rules on Islamic dress code, they face arrest and punishment in the courts.

The result has been confrontations with police in some of the capital's main squares where young people gather to socialise at dusk. Some women have reportedly been pushed about, detained and then released with a warning of worse to come if they re-offend.

The authorities are literally splitting hairs. At issue, in theory at least, is the way some women allow their headscarves to ride up to the top of their heads, exposing their hair at the front and sometimes the back, too. As matters stand, no Iranian woman would dare go completely bare-headed in public.

But even the occasional wayward tress or languid lock seems to be too much to bear for the fundamentalist clergy and their pervasive, muscular street enforcers, the Basij militiamen. "Disciplinary forces, you should implement the law. And we support you!" the Revolution Square demonstrators chanted. "Hijab is a necessity for our religion. Those who deny it are our enemy."

According to Esmaeel Ahmadi-Moqaddam, Tehran's police chief brigadier, the enforcement action is part of a grander strategy to curb anti-social behaviour. "In the social security plan, those groups, including those who do not observe social norms and create insecurity for families, as well as hooligans, will be strongly confronted," he told ISNA news agency.

Under the plan, "women wearing short manteaus, tight outer garments and headscarves that do not conceal hair would be notified by police patrol officers. Those who refuse to correct their appearance will be arrested and handed over to judicial officials," the Iran Daily newspaper reported.

Hardline interior minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi has added his support to this hair-raising drive to "clean up" Tehran's streets. He said the government was acting because the people demanded an end to social, psychological and moral insecurities.

Yet for all such fatuities, the "bad hijab" campaign cannot cover up some bald realities. One is that, according to some residents at least, Tehran is experiencing rising levels of serious crime in which skimpy scarves do not remotely figure. Another is the government's failure to effectively tackle more damaging social problems such as unemployment, inflation and corruption.

The hijab huffing and puffing also illustrates, at a very basic level, the authorities' obsession with control - and the sense that, for all their secret policemen and all their rules and regulations, control is nevertheless lacking. This insecurity was plainly on view in Revolution Square where demonstrators claimed those who bent the dress codes "sold out" to the west.

The hijab campaign reflects a deep-rooted official paranoia. And thus is state-sanctioned harassment merely part of the bigger battle for Iran's future.
"People say funny things......."

Peter Kay