Spooning up some pomegranate seeds by the side of the road while waiting for my German friend Nadia, I noticed the morality police approaching. But dressed in my baggiest clothes and a pair of nerdy glasses, I didn't imagine I could possibly be mistaken for a moral transgressor. I was wrong. The two ladies in long black chadors informed me that my coat was too short, and ordered me into their van. I protested that I was waiting for a foreign friend whom I couldn't just desert. They considered the argument, then decided to wait and take both of us. When Nadia arrived, they loved her. "Look at her, she's a foreigner and her coat is longer than yours," one officer said. The other added that I needed to learn better hijab (Islamic covering) from my German friend!
Everyone familiar with the situation in Iran had tried to change my mind when I decided to spend a few months there this fall. "It's become bad, people prefer to stay home rather than go out because they keep bothering everyone," the argument usually went. I had dismissed this as exaggeration. Even in the back of the van, Nadia and I were quite comfortably eating our pomegranate and at times laughing about the absurdity of the situation. I joked with the morality police ladies that I was the worst catch they had ever made. "You really couldn't find someone a little more provocatively dressed? Am I just filling your nightly catch quota?" But the third captive in the van, a 19-year old girl who'd been caught with her boyfriend, was crying hysterically, begging to be released. I suspect she may have feared the wrath of her own parents more than the sanction of the morality police.
Driving us off to one of their stations, the police ladies told me to call a family member to bring a longer coat. There was no way I could call my mother, who was on a much shorter visit to Iran, and who would have panicked. So I called my old uncle. "Ehem, I was arrested by the morality police, can you please bring me a longer coat? I'm really sorry about this. Oh, and don't mention it to my mom please!" Life in Iran can make you feel like a teenager in an eternal boarding school.
At the station, I was required, along with five other women, to sign a statement promising to do a better job of covering myself. Meanwhile, I found myself staring wide-eyed at the treatment of the highly made-up woman in super-high heels: The male officer who was about to set me on the right path was clearly flirting with her.
One of my fellow detainees had told me that once a longer coat arrived for me, my own one would be shredded. I asked the female guard whether that was true, and she nodded. She just ignored me when I told her that was truly psychotic. But when I saw the pile of coats left behind, intact, in a plastic bag, I realized the shredded-coat tale was an urban legend, or a relic of a more ideological past. In fact, not once did I feel real fear or threat during the experience a stark contrast to what the generation before me had endured. Many of my friends and family members have horrifying stories of violent encounters with the morality police, called the "committee" in common parlance, including being punished with lashes and fines. Still, there are fears that things could get worse again: Tehran prosecutor Said Mortazavi announced on Friday that there would be an increase in morality patrols after Ramadan.
The morality committees, which are a subdivision of the police, had eased up on their strict enforcement of dress codes and other social restrictions in the last years of the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami, but things changed last summer, when the police announced that the morality committees would resume street patrols to ensure "social security".
The resultant crackdown saw beatings and humiliation of young people so extreme that President Ahmadinejad's conservative government even criticized some of the treatment. If my experience is anything to go by, they seem once again to have been restrained.
The duty officer who interviewed me said the country had laws and that I had to adhere to them. I told him I was doing so by wearing a coat and a scarf, and that as far as I was concerned, my morality was more intact than the morality of some who wore chadors.
He said it wasn't enough for my heart to be pure I had to wear the right dress. Although I was arrested for wearing a coat whose length was deemed morally inappropriate, Iran has no law that stipulates the correct length of coats. And the law that requires the wearing of hijab is open to a multitude of interpretations.
Still, my cousin who had accompanied my uncle knew the "right" interpretation and had brought me a coat that reached my knees. That pleased the officer, and having learned that I didn't usually live in Iran, he made a friendly remark about Iran being mine as much as it is his. Once out, my family and I simply giggled together and I knew that as far as arrests go, I had experienced a good one. Not so long ago, the experience could have been far more traumatic.
The officers who dealt with me seemed, more than anything, to be simply doing a job they were being paid for. Still, I too now prefer to stay home as much as possible, not convinced that, right now, Iran is mine as much as anyone else's.