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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Criticism mounts over Iran headscarf crackdown

The police force were facing increasing criticism on Tuesday for their handling of a nationwide crackdown aimed at making women abide by Iran's Islamic dress code.

Thousands of women have been warned and hundreds arrested for wearing overly loose headscarves or excessively tight coats, prompting warnings in the press that the authorities should be focusing on other economic priorities.

Even the overall head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, who is appointed by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urged police against heavy-handed actions against women found to have broken the rules.

"Hauling women and young people to the police station will have no use except to cause damage to society," the reformist Etemad Melli newspaper quoted Shahroudi as telling a meeting of local governors.

"Tough measures on social problems will backfire and have counter-productive effects," he warned.

Witnesses have said that the drive, launched on Saturday, has not been universally popular on Tehran's streets, with parents of the women apprehended in particular unafraid of making their feelings clear to the police.

Reformist newspapers and the ISNA student news agency reported that 2,000 students at a prestigious university in the southern city of Shiraz staged a protest on Sunday night over new restrictions on conduct and clothing.

The protests were triggered by a new code of conduct banning the students from wearing shorts and sleeveless vests outside rooms in their strictly segregated dormitories and an extended curfew.

It is not clear whether the new directive was in line with the nationwide clampdown on dressing, which also applies to men.

Critics in the media also complained that the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had more important issues to deal with, citing the country's soaring inflation and high unemployment rates.

"Mr President, I wonder if what the police, supervised by your interior ministry, are doing to women stems from a misunderstanding?" asked Masih Alinejad, a columnist in the Etemad Melli daily.

"Or are people's major problems of injustice and poverty have been resolved?" he asked.

Alinejad recalled that Ahmadinejad asked during his 2005 electoral campaign whether the problem "in our country was two strands of women's hair or fighting poverty, creating jobs and implementing justice?"

Two-thirds of Iran's 70-million population is under 30 and the official unemployment rate stands at about 11 percent. Economists have warned against rising inflation, estimated to hit 24 percent in the current Iranian year.

Even the hardline daily Kayhan said that "being badly-veiled is not the only vice" in the country.

"There are major vices such as going to bed hungry, being deprived of higher education, unemployment and the inability of a large number of people to provide for their basic needs," it said.

"The officials should prove they have plans to resolve these as well," wrote Kayhan, whose chief editor in also appointed by Khamenei.

Some conservatives have applauded the crackdown as important at a time when many women are pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable by showing off naked ankles and fashionably styled hair beneath their headscarves.

But Ahmadinejad's government on Tuesday sought to distance itself from the clampdown, which it said was being carried out by police as "agents of the judiciary".

"The police work as agents of the judiciary to confront crimes. The government as an executive body does not interfere in the affairs of the judiciary," government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham told reporters.

Iran has issued 3,500 warnings nationwide and detained around 200 women in the new drive launched on Saturday, according to the latest police figures quoted by local media.

The campaign is aimed primarily at women seen to infringe the rules of covering their heads and bodily contours that have been in place since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

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