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Many women in Iran who have disobeyed hijab rules say they'll remain defiant


In Iran, many women have been defying the country's mandatory headscarf rules for the past several months, and they have mostly gotten away with it. Iran suspended patrols by the so-called morality police for a time after a woman died in custody last fall. Even now that patrols have resumed, many women say they will continue disobeying rules requiring the headscarf or hijab. NPR's Arezou Rezvani reports.

AREZOU REZVANI, BYLINE: Life without the morality police was a dream for 19-year-old Baran.

BARAN: There was more peace in the streets. I myself wear T-shirt and no scarf and nothing, going out like a boy. And the people getting used to woman without hijab.

REZVANI: Cases of harassment, detentions and fines were down. But then, a few weeks ago, came a rude awakening for Baran, who we reached through internet calls to Tehran.

BARAN: I heard this news from Instagram, and I was so surprised.

REZVANI: The government had called the force back into action. And in the brief time they've been back, Baran, who gives only her first name for fear she'll end up detained like thousands of others the government has arrested over the last year, has already encountered them numerous times in their signature white vans.

BARAN: I saw them yesterday, and they're just like - stand behind their vans and waiting for girls. It's like horror movie, you know? You cannot recognize it when you have to run.

REZVANI: That running and hiding is something Yasaman Choubeh monitors closely. She works for a U.S.-based organization called United for Iran that runs a crowdsourced navigation app called Gershad. Users in Iran share the location of their run-ins with the morality police, alerting others of which streets to avoid. Sightings have shot up in recent days, and Choubeh and her team have noticed changes in how the force is operating. For one, they're more discreet.

YASAMAN CHOUBEH: They are back in work with white vans. They don't have morality police logo on them.

REZVANI: They also seem to have a more sprawling presence.

CHOUBEH: We have been getting a lot of reports from these cities that we have never had reports from them. And these are the cities who have ethnic minorities of Kurdish people.

REZVANI: It was Mahsa Amini, known by her Kurdish name Jina, who died in morality police custody last year, that set off months of protests and a violent response by government forces. But even with this police force back in place, many women are still letting their hair down, says Nahid Siamdoust, professor of Middle East studies at UT Austin.

NAHID SIAMDOUST: The facts on the street, you know, speak to women having claimed this piece of freedom for themselves. And I think it's going to be very hard for the Islamic Republic to roll that back. So really what I'm looking at is, how is that dynamic going to play itself out between state enforcers and the women on the streets?

REZVANI: Nineteen-year-old Baran is certain of how that dynamic will play out for her and her friends. When I ask if she'll tuck her long curly hair back under a headscarf again, she doesn't hesitate.

BARAN: No. No way. I prefer to die. We are not wearing that hijab because we are still fighting for Mahsa, Nika, Sarina and everyone killed by Islamic Republic of Iran.

REZVANI: The headscarf has long been a key symbol of Iran's clerical rule. Hardliners keep pressing for it, but on the streets of Iran, its future remains very much in doubt.

Arezou Rezvani, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Arezou Rezvani is a senior editor for NPR's Morning Edition and founding editor of Up First, NPR's daily news podcast.