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To avoid the morality police, some Iranian women are dressing like men

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Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

(Read caption) An Iranian woman walks past a mural in a sidewalk in downtown Tehran, Iran, Saturday, April 30, 2016.

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Although wearing a head scarf is mandatory in Iran, some women are finding ways to duck the country’s ever-watchful morality police.

To avoid being detained for what they say is a discriminatory law, some Iranian women have chosen to cut their hair short and dress like men.  

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“I am an Iranian girl,” a woman posted Tuesday on the Facebook page for My Stealthy Freedom, which has close to one million likes. “In order to avoid the morality police, I decided to cut my hair short and wear men’s clothes so that I can freely walk in the streets in Iran.”

Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist who started the My Stealthy Freedom Facebook page, which posts photos of Iranian women without headscarves to protest the law as mandatory, tells the UK Independent:

“It shows that although the Government arrests women who post their photos without headscarves, women are not afraid and they are following their own lifestyle. The Government wants to create fear but women have found their own way to freely walk in the streets of Iran or drive without covering their heads. It is a serious cultural war between two lifestyles. For women, their hair is their identity and making it short to just avoid the morality police is really heartbreaking, but in a way, it is brave.” 

Hijabs have been mandatory in Iran since the 1979 revolution, but change has been building at the local and national levels. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani was elected in 2013 by young voters who believed he would relax the country’s strict social laws, but the president has largely walked a middle line on the issues since assuming office.

For example, he criticized the thousands of undercover police in Tehran who have taken it upon themselves to report women not fully wearing a hijab. But when confronted with a photo of a woman without a headscarf posing for the My Stealthy Freedom Facebook page in November, President Rouhani condemned the action because “when someone lives in Iran, they should abide by the laws of the country.” 

Iranian officials arrested eight women last week for showing their hair online, in what the cybercrime court calls “un-Islamic” Instagram modeling. But as the Instagram arrests made clear, Iran’s conservatives see the controversy over the hijab requirement as symbolic of a larger struggle between Iran’s historical culture and the West’s increasing influence.

“Sterilising popular cyberspaces is on our agenda,” Mostafa Alizadeh, spokesman for the Iranian Centre for Surveying and Combating Organized Cyber Crimes, told the BBC. Iranian officials have targeted 170 Instagram accounts featuring women without hijabs. And of the 29 that received legal notice, only eight were arrested and the rest “reformed their behavior.”

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“The head scarf issue often features prominently in the constant tug of war between powerful hard-liners and Iran’s increasingly urbanized and worldly society, Thomas Erdbrink explained in The New York Times last week. “Iran’s laws require that all women, even visiting foreigners, cover their hair out of a traditional respect for culture and morality. Many hard-liners view the obligatory veil as a last-ditch defense against what they say is an onslaught of Western cultural decadence.”

And the government’s traditional hard-liners still have the edge.

Minoo Khaleghi was elected to the Iranian Parliament in February from the city of Isfahan, but she was disqualified from her position only a month later. The Iranian government defended Ms. Khaleghi’s disqualification, with “evidence” of the politician “betraying her nation.” The evidence, photos of Khaleghi not wearing a headscarf, was leaked onto social media earlier this month. Khaleghi claims the photos are fake.