It's something like a holy war on haircuts. Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has issued a directive banning 'decadent' hairstyles for men, restricting barber shops to only certain kinds of cuts. The primary target: spiky, gelled hairdos associated with rebellious youths, corrupted by Western influence. It's a style that was commonly seen on the front line of last year's post-election protests.
The faces and bodies of young Iranians have long been part of the political arena, an extension of Islam's role in governing public life. By law women must cover their heads and bodies; men are encouraged to grow beards (a sign of faith), discouraged from wearing neckties (too foreign), and now, banned from getting hip hairstyles (too subversive).
Iran launched a crackdown on so-called 'Western' hairstyles in 2007, yet the streets of Iran remain a mix: some men bearded and in conservative clothing – a way to wear their faith - and others in blue jeans, ponytails and long hair, or sporting the spiky style. At times police have cracked down on what has been deemed illegal hair or dress, just as they have clamped down on women whose head scarves reveal too much scalp.
Just after the presidential election controversy, the policing of personal style started loosening up, says Nader Talebzadeh, a prominent filmmaker in Tehran. Women's outfits started veering into styles that were considered erotic for Iran, and away from the standard roupoush, or overcoat, which is meant to hide the contours of the body. But in the months that followed the government renewed its focus on Islamic behavior, once again deploying state forces to keep up appearances.
On Monday, the Iranian government unveiled the first photographs of hairstyles it wants to see on men – clean cut, with some gelling and sideburns permitted. The images are part of a "journal of Iranian hairstyles approved by the ministry," released ahead of the Modesty and Veil Festival later this month.
Interpretations vary as to whether veils for women and style restrictions for men are specifically mandated in Islam. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself has varied on the point of enforcement. Last month he said he is against any forceful imposition of clothing laws, drawing ire from clerics in his own hard-line camp. Ayatollah Ahmed Jannati, a conservative, has long complained about immodest dress, and was especially vocal when rules were relaxed after the election.
It's unclear how authorities would enforce the new regulations on haircuts in barbershops across the country. Talebzadeh, the filmmaker says, "parents will do most of the enforcement."
He points out that Iran's government has come to accept a range of technically illegal behavior, from the use of TV satellite dishes to Western movies and underground music sold on the street. Sources in Tehran say that at rest stops and movie theaters, pirated copies of 'Lost' and 'Prison Break' constantly sell out. It is as if the government is finding a compromise, trying to calm political tensions by easing up on lifestyle factors. 'It's about testing the tolerance of the government. Eventually, people find the middle path, and the authorities learn to cope," said Talebzadeh.