Iranian women use phone app Gershad to evade morality police

Women have reported being barred from shops and even graveyards for not wearing the hijab

An Iranian police officer speaks with a woman after she was detained over "inappropriate" clothes during a crackdown to enforce the dress code in Tehran. AFP
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When Elnaz still lived in Iran, the daily presence of morality police amplified her desire to leave.

She was once apprehended in a park in Tehran by the morality police, who said her daughter, then six, should be wearing a hijab.

Women have been barred from universities and unable to access basic services as Tehran ups its surveillance of protesters, women and girls going about their daily lives without the hijab – a gesture that carries significant risk.

That is why tens of thousands of women are now using a mobile phone app called Gershad, which allows users to mark morality police locations on a map and inform other women where they may be stopped and checked.

The app was set up in 2016 by a group of Iranian activists. Following protests last autumn, it was updated to also show the location of security forces cracking down on demonstrators. More than 500 people have been killed since the demonstrations started, according to human rights groups.

“It was immediately banned upon its release,” the app's manager, a human-rights activist in exile, told The National, with users resorting to costly VPNs to utilise the application.

“Non-profit projects usually don't get much attention, but after it was launched, it was so popular that the government started spamming and attacking the app,” she said.

“I love Iran. Iran is so beautiful, but I don't want my daughter to grow up in that country, in that culture,” Elnaz told The National from Canada.

“You can't have a relationship. If you walk with a boy and the morality police see you, you'll go to prison.”

App users can report the location of morality police and security forces and also the harassment they faced.

“There are a lot of different tools, you have the location, you have the type of the report, and users have the option of adding what happened,” the app's manager said.

One woman said she was kicked out of a laptop repair shop in Isfahan for not wearing the hijab, while another said she was prevented from visiting her father’s grave for the same reason.

Those detained by morality police and Iranian intelligence have been tortured and even killed.

In September 2022, Mahsa Amini died in the custody of the morality police, sparking the biggest protests in decades. While women had previously flouted the dress code, her death has encouraged more to do so.

Some others have used the app to share their motivation to defy authorities, which order women to wear loose clothing in public.

“Today, I overcame my fear and wore a T-shirt. Between the smiles and angry looks and the woman who told me she will go out without a long coat tomorrow, my motivation has increased a hundred-fold.”

On Wednesday, government vehicles drove through the streets of several cities as part of a “hijab and chastity” convoy. Loudspeakers warned women to wear hijab or face legal consequences, part of the growing threat from Tehran.

“What they tell us is that they don’t want to run away,” said Gershad staff.

“They want us to tell them ‘here is the police – go and attack them’ and we can’t do that.”

The government has “completely changed” its tactics in enforcing Iran’s dress code, they said, using civilians who support the regime to report women on the street.

“These are not officers, these are not police, these are normal citizens, but they support the government, which tells them ‘OK, I give you a walkie-talkie, I'll give you this application, you can go and take pictures'.”

'Worse than North Korea'

In the conservative city of Tabriz, women have reported being barred from banks, schools and health clinics for not wearing the hijab, Gershad staff said, adding they have similar reports from 12 cities nationwide.

“I'm a man, but I've seen women in morality police vans. Just being arrested for wearing shorter skirts or leaving some of their hair out of their scarves. I felt ashamed that I couldn't rescue them,” Arash, 30, told The National from Tehran.

“The mandatory hijab rule is a big deal … but it was just a trigger. Morality police were present during all these years and they've done pretty harsh things before the killing of Mahsa Amini.

“You don't see traditional morality police forces. Now they send secret police forces to scare women by taking photos of them and verbally threatening them … you don't see traditional vans on the streets.

“It's the state of terror.”

Iranian authorities have threatened to prosecute women pictured without a hijab in their cars, installing cameras to survey travellers, complicating Gershad's efforts to alert hijab checks.

Gershad staff told The National that the morality police have a shift pattern and “we know that they're staying in one place for six hours and then they are going home. But with cameras is not like that. We need to find the correct algorithm.”

Elnaz said her sister was apprehended by the morality police while pregnant and held for two days for not wearing a long coat.

“She said she wanted to go home and was kicked in the stomach.”

“In Iran, everything belongs to men. When you don't have the hijab, you can't go to the doctor, you can't go anywhere. You're not allowed to be alive, you just go to prison.

“Everything is hidden, the government cut off the internet and the world doesn't know what's happening.

“It’s worse than North Korea.”

Updated: July 13, 2023, 6:36 AM