My (Brief) Detention By Iran's Morality Police

Mar 3, 2014
Originally published on March 4, 2014 9:24 am

On my third day in Tehran last week, I was detained by Iran's notorious "morals police." This volunteer corps, with a presence in nearly every city and town, polices infractions against Islamic values. These guardians patrol parks, recreation centers, shopping malls and cafes where young people gather.

My introduction to the morality squad began with shouts and threats and ended with fruit juice and a hug from a lady cop in a black chador that covered bleached blond hair and a snug red leather jacket.

She headed the women's detention room in the gender-segregated station. My three-hour stay was a revealing look at the gap between these so-called Islamic enforcers and a younger generation chafing under Iran's strict behavior codes.

Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, had the backing of many Iranians when he said the morals police "antagonize our society." Within a few months of his election, he barred them from arresting women for what religious hardliners consider "inappropriate dress."

But women can still risk detention for getting caught with a male "acquaintance" who is not a husband or close relative. This was the offense that brought me to the station at sunset when my translator, Ahmed Saremi, got a call from his 24-year-old daughter. She'd been busted for having tea with her boyfriend in a city park.

Her frantic cellphone calls came as we were driving around the city for interview appointments. This professional translator suddenly became an anxious father as he listened to his daughter's angry description of the confrontation and her detention.

Only a few hours earlier, Saremi had assured me that this kind of thing was now rare after Rouhani's election. When he called the officer in charge, he said, "I just told an American reporter that the morality police don't do this anymore."

The reply came quickly. "Why did you tell her that?"

A Volunteer Force

Every country has busybodies. In Iran, they are organized and professionalized. The enforcers are volunteers. Some forgo salaries to perform what they consider a religious duty, but there are also valuable perks for their service, which include priority for college slots, bank loans and government jobs.

At the station house, Saremi demanded the release of his daughter. He argued that she had done nothing wrong. I pressed the record button on my tape recorder to document the conversation.

I knew I was in trouble after a sharp tug on my shoulder bag and then a shove inside the detention center. I showed my official Iranian government press card, but an angry officer shouted, "Give us your recorder or we will call your embassy and have you removed."

The standoff was over my concerns for the interviews I had recorded earlier in the day. I wanted to protect my material from an overzealous cop I suspected would erase the entire recording rather than search for the two-minute conversation in front of the station house.

When I held tight to the recorder, I was ushered into a small room with three other detainees and a squad of stern-looking female officers dressed in black flowing chadors. All of the women were sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor. I was offered the only chair.

One of the young women spoke English. She was born in Iran but her parents had immigrated to Australia. She was back for the first time in more than a decade. She had been out sightseeing with a male cousin and stopped to take pictures in a park. Busted. The other two had been picked up with their boyfriends.

Arguments Between Police And The Detained

The contrast between the detainees and the chador-wearing female guards was striking.

The young women pushed every boundary of "appropriate dress." After decades of enforcement, the morals police have lost the war on makeup, skinny jeans, dark nail polish and precariously placed head scarves that reveal ample shiny hair.

The arguments started as soon as I entered the room.

"We've done nothing wrong!" said the women.

"You have no right to harass us!" they added.

This was the gist of the heated challenge, pieced together from body language, pointed fingers and eye rolling from the two young women sitting on the floor.

I had to interpret their defiance because the chador-wearing officer signaled to the woman from Australia that she shouldn't tell me what was going on. But there was no doubt that Rouhani's challenge to the morality police gave these young women license for their own face-to-face dissent.

After Saremi's daughter was released, he told me the officers were good people. But he added, "Hardliners are giving them instructions that are isolating them from the rest of society."

He explained to the officer in charge that he saw no harm in allowing his daughter to meet her boyfriend in a public park. He has already allowed his daughter, a recent college graduate in computer programming, to travel to Europe on her own. This is one of the reasons for Iran's skyrocketing divorce rate, Saremi assured me: Young people don't know each other before they marry.

After two hours of debate with the morals police, Saremi's daughter was free to go.

"When I talk to them, I feel they are from another century," he said.

A Resolution

The resolution to my case came with the assistance of the head female guard. We borrowed headphones from one of the other detainees, and I played her the two-minute recording I had made in front of the station house. She watched me delete it. I was now free to go.

The male officer in charge came to say goodbye. "I hope you are not unhappy," he said. Then, to my surprise, he added, "We wanted to buy you a gift, but the shops are all closed."

The detainees and the parents who had come to demand the release of their children had berated these officers. As it turned out, I was the most cooperative of the bunch. The head lady cop in the severe black chador gave me a carton of fruit juice and a hug before I turned to walk out the door.

You can follow Deborah Amos on Twitter @deborahamos

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We have more now on those nuclear talks with Iran that Tamara mentioned. Iran has begun diluting its most dangerous nuclear fuel. That news this morning from the International Atomic Energy Agency. If ongoing talks can lead to a permanent nuclear deal, it could be the start of a new phase of warmer relations between Iran and the West.

NPR's Deborah Amos is in Iran for the first time since 1991. Back then, Iran was still devastated by a long war with Iraq. And it had been just over a decade since Iran replaced the dictatorship of the shah with a revolutionary, Islamist government.

Deborah joins us from Tehran with her impressions of how the country has changed in the last two decades. And, Deb, what stands out as the biggest differences you're seeing?

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: I'm going to start with the physical differences. There's a new airport. There's a new metro system. There are new overpasses on highways. But the city is clogged with high-rise apartments. It's a sign of wealth here. It's also a sign of power shifts. Each new mayor of Tehran allows unfettered construction and, as far as I can tell, no zoning restrictions. It's a way to collect money for the things that the city needs, as people are allowed to build, regime insiders are allowed to build.

So what happens is you have city traffic that is in grid lock. And, at the same time, you have terrible pollution here. That's mostly from the sanctions. Iran bought its refined gasoline from outside. The sanctions stopped that. They had to reduce their own and they didn't do it very well. So it's dirty gas.

Here's one other thing that I see on these crowded highways and that's luxury cars. Iran has more Porsches than any other country in the Middle East. And what that signals are people who are sanction busters. If you needed to get pharmaceuticals in the country, you needed somebody who could do that because Iran didn't have a banking system, international one, because of the sanctions.

BLOCK: What about the evolution in Iran of the famous religious restrictions on behavior. Are you seeing signs of change there, too?

AMOS: Here's what I noticed. There is a satellite dish on just about every house. Now, these are illegal. But about 80 percent of the country is watching, even down to the village level. So what you have is global culture booming into this country. And you see young people walking on the street with their headsets and smartphones. Two decades ago, you mostly saw women in chadors, that's the black enveloping cloak that women were wearing. Makeup was prohibited. Fingernail polish was just out. You couldn't do it. The regime now has lost the war on skinny pants and leggings.


AMOS: You see makeup on women. You see tall boots. It doesn't mean that people here are less religious or they want to Western culture, but its global fashion. And Iranians want a part of it and not just in north Tehran, which is the rich part of town, but also in the south.

BLOCK: Now, Deb, the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has promised to ease social restrictions and, in particular, the work of the notorious Morality Police. Have they, in fact, backed off since his election last year?

AMOS: Melissa, when he was elected, he spoke about easing these social restrictions. And he even banned the Morality Police from detaining women for what hardliners call improper dress. What Rouhani said was these moral squads antagonize society. But they haven't completely disappeared. We were driving around doing interviews and my translator's daughter was detained for being in the company of a male who wasn't her husband.

Then I was detained for recording the confrontation between my translator-turned-distraught father and the police. So we were all held for about three hours. What was interesting is I watched these young women on the women's side of the police station berating the women morality cops. How dare you tell us what to do under Islam? You have no right to hold us. You know, once Rouhani opened the door to say they couldn't do this anymore, then it gave license young women to berate the Morality Police.

We were all released about three hours later. And when I left the station, I got a hug from the chief police woman and some fruit juice. And it turned out I think I was the least confrontational - I didn't speak the language - of anybody, so they were happy when I left.

BLOCK: That's a fascinating snapshot of tensions and new tensions in that society.

AMOS: It is. It is such a curious place. One diplomat explained that many things are prohibited but accepted. You find that Facebook and Twitter. The president and the foreign minister both have accounts but it is illegal to have a Facebook account in this country. But everybody knows how to get around the filters. And so, Facebook is here but many sites are filtered by the government including NPR's site.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Deborah Amos who's reporting from Tehran. Deborah, thank you so much.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.