By Sahar Bakhtiari, citizen journalist
Tehran - As temperature rises, you feel a tug of apprehension before stepping out onto the street.
You drape a scarf over your head, but as you catch a glimpse of your reflection in the mirror, self-disgust fills you.
You summon the courage to toss the scarf around your neck and tell yourself, "Don't be afraid!" You tuck it into your bag instead, breaking free from the confines of your home and make your way to your usual meeting spot, Firdous Garden, near Tehran’s Tajrish Square.
As you observe the streets, you notice that little has changed. Girls still roam the streets, wearing colorful t-shirts, their tied summer colored hair tied or it cut short because of the heat. They raise their heads and make eye contact with other women, offering silent encouragement.
However, something disrupts this equation: an unmistakable white van with green stripes. For many Iranian women, this vehicle represents the tragedy of Mahsa Amini’s death.
Three women clad in chadors stand in front of the van, with two male agents lingering behind them, probably to monitor and potentially assist them.
Yet, they appear invisible, unnoticed by the passersby. If you happen to cross their path and deviate from the conformity they demand, you're bound to hear phrases like "Ma'am, respect your hijab," "Take the scarf from around your neck and place it on your head," or "Ma'am, come here..."
However, no one bothers to acknowledge them; heads turn away.
Girls with exposed hair and summer attire stroll past them, occasionally shouting, "It's none of your business!"
Despite the chador-clad officers' attempts to project confidence and assert their authority, they are met with scornful gazes and derisive remarks that push them back. Like when Samira, holding a cup of coffee, responds to one of these agents, "How long will you keep debasing yourself?...don't let extra work hours diminish your worth!"
The woman becomes angry and retorts, "Let me inspect you!"
Samira stops, but the woman doesn't take a single step forward. She coldly demands, "Hurry up and cover your head!"
Without waiting to see if Samira complies, the woman walks away, heading back to the van.
As Samira continues walking with me, she expresses her pride in being a woman. She admires the courageous women who refuse to regress, and she herself refuses to be humiliated by donning the hijab.
As you continue on foot and approach Vanak Square, the atmosphere undergoes a slight change.
Another van is parked on the north-east side of the square. Two veiled women stand facing each other on the sidewalk, and it appears that people are being stopped at a checkpoint.
Female officers stop some individuals while allowing others to pass. Two male police officers lean against a car, sipping juice and conversing about the scorching weather.
With only 100 meters left until you reach the vans, girls approaching from that direction take notice of your appearance and warn, "The patrol car is stationed there, go around the other side!"
If you're fortunate and you happen to encounter one of these passing girls, you can quickly bypass the Morality Police patrol, along with all its officers, in a matter of seconds.
You ponder to yourself whether they are unaware that many of us will avoid passing by them, or if they simply underestimate our determination and willingness to face any consequences.
In Vanak Square, female officers diligently wield digital cameras. Sometimes they forcefully stop individuals, snap a photo of their faces and meticulously write their personal information on forms.
These forms include fields for the person's name, surname, father's name, national ID number, phone number, home address and workplace.
Maryam happens to be one of those individuals stopped in Vanak Square. Her photo was taken and her personal information recorded.
The young girl recounts with frustration, "They threatened me saying that if I made a scandal, they would put me in a van and take me away. They urged me not to make a fuss, provide my information and go away!"
Maryam explains that they emphasized multiple times, "If you provide false information, we will verify it. If we discover you've lied, you will be forced into a van, and your family will have to take you from the authorities."
Ultimately, she shared her information. According to Maryam, one of the female agents instructed the other to inquire about her details.
After enduring a 20-minute wait, she was eventually released. Maryam says that the names of at least 20 people, with their information, were recorded on the forms.
In Vanak Square, one notable aspect is the occasional raising of voices by female officers to grab the attention of women who are not paying attention to them. The male officers then chime in assuming the role of school administrators, saying, "What's going on, ma'am? Come over here."
Taking on the role of defenders of the female agents, they sternly advance, determined to address the matter at hand. The female agents whisper among themselves that they are not alone in their mission.
The city center exudes a distinct restlessness emanating from the traffic congestion, the presence of “morality” patrol vans and the multitude of officers. It feels as though people are awaiting a spark — a spark that sometimes ignites inside a BRT bus.
The weather is sweltering, and people are crowded together. A girl wearing a shawl around her neck points to an inscription inside the bus reading, "One of the signs of human perfection is beautiful clothing."
Then she tells me, "We don't seek perfection, whom would we show it to? We are suffocating."
A woman tightly clutching her chador interjects, "You have it easy; why don't you remove this too?"
A verbal conflict ensues inside the bus, prompting the driver to shout, "Ladies, have mercy on yourselves!"
A woman remarks, "God forbid that someone records this. Last year, a poor girl got into a fight with the authorities and ended up in prison."
As you gaze out of the window, an unusual crowd becomes visible amidst the cars and people, contrasting with the previous days. Vali Asr Square appears to be the pulse of Tehran.
After stepping out of the BRT bus and while observing the square, you feel as if you are standing on the heartbeat of Tehran — an accelerated pulse. Multiple events unfold simultaneously in the northern and southern sections of the square.
To the south of Vali Asr Square, a large car stands with several motorcycles atop it. A girl standing beside it is engaged in a conversation.
According to her account, she was running late for her language class and took a motorcycle. While traveling in the lane designated for buses and ambulances on the northern side of Vali Asr, the police stopped them, confiscated the motorcycle's documents and asked why the lady riding pillion was not wearing a hijab. They proceeded to seize the man's motorcycle as well.
The girl pleads with the police, saying, "Sir, I’m wearing my hijab. Please return this poor man's motorcycle! What crime did he commit?"
In response, the police impounded the motorcycle under the pretext that the man rode in the wrong lane.
Upon hearing the girl's story, I consider that perhaps the main reason for the move was a violation of traffic law. Yet, the heartfelt desperation of the girl dismisses that possibility.
Sitting on the edge of a bench facing the square, the girl sheds tears. She says that the man struggled to purchase the motorcycle and is still paying the installments.
He had a helmet, but because he lacked a license and was riding on the back of the motorcycle wearing a shirt and pants, his vehicle was confiscated.
She asks with frustration, "What kind of country are we trapped in that won't grant us a license? Wearing a t-shirt is a crime! Not wearing a hijab is a crime! Riding a motorcycle is a crime! Even breathing here without permission is considered a crime!"
The police officer says with a disdainful expression, "Go away, stay put! Aren't you ashamed to smoke in front of me? I can take you away and hand you over to the Morality Police."
She smiles at the police officer and retorts, "Well, you've got us surrounded. You must be feeling important!"
A different kind of unrest is brewing in the north-western corner of the square, and yet, no one fears confrontation.
Female officers issue warnings, while the girls stand their ground and respond. At times, the officers retreat. They hold lists in their hands, much like the ones carried by the agents in Vanak Square.
They try to take a girl into the van, but a group of men and women encircle the officers to prevent them from doing so. The girl sits on the ground, and the officer grabs her collar, shouting, "Get into the van!"
The few people surrounding the girl respond with boos, prompting the male police officers to intervene and attempt to resolve the situation. They disperse the crowd and yell at the girl to enter the van.
One of the officers kicks the boys away while making sure that no one is recording the incident with a mobile phone.
The girl reluctantly enters the van, pulls the curtain slightly aside and playfully misbehaves behind the glass. Then, one of the women enters the van, and the curtain is drawn.
I no longer see the girl.
For those who love the city center, its cafes, walking along Keshavarz Boulevard has an added benefit during the summer.
Beneath the shade of the towering old trees, one should sit and gaze upon Tehran — a city that, as the girl on the motorcycle suggested, is under siege.
It is peculiar to see the high number of motorcycles passing through the boulevard, carrying passengers with bent bags and emitting a distinct exhaust sound.
Occasionally, they cast curious glances at you, as if they are carefully assessing the situation.
The bustling flow of people, encounters with patrol vans and the filming of some vans is abnormal for these wary motorcycle riders who observe everything, seemingly determined not to be caught off guard again.
The tension is more palpable in the city center than anywhere else. “Morality” patrols traverse the streets in vans. Some of them no longer bear a green stripe and are plain white.
There is a high presence of plainclothes officers, and vans are parked at almost all four intersections — Ferdowsi Square, Vali Asr Intersection, and Enqelab Square.
A girl who goes around the patrol explains that she doesn't feel like engaging in a fight: "Yesterday, a van stopped in front of my friend on Iranshahr Street, and they forcibly took her into the van and brought her to the authorities for fingerprinting. This indicates that the patrols are not necessarily stationed in one place, and they can apprehend you while you're on the move."
Nevertheless, the people remain resilient.
Near the University of Tehran, around Enqelab Square, the girls exude an air of determination, as if something significant has transpired.
Despite the mounting pressure created by the patrols, they bravely adorn their chosen attire and confidently visit cafes, purchase books and take leisurely strolls.
They aim to send a resolute message: "We are not turning back."