Waze-Like App Helps Iranians Avoid Morality Police

Citizens can now use smartphones to avoid run-ins with officials who might fine or arrest them for their clothing choices.
A woman in a morality police van cries after being arrested in Tehran in 2008. (Photo: Reuters)
Feb 13, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Much like drivers can help their fellow commuters have a smooth ride home by reporting accidents and ticket traps with popular mapping application Waze, citizens in Iran are using a new smartphone app to help others avoid another kind of police encounter.

This week, an anonymous group of developers released Gershad, an Android app that allows users to report locations of Iran’s Gasht-e-Ershad, which functions as morality police across the country, in major cities including Tehran and Mashhad. With the crowdsourced information, Iranians can plan alternate routes to avoid a fine or even arrest.

Gasht-e-Ershad, or “Guidance Patrol,” is made up of volunteers who stop residents for violating the government’s Islamic values. They hand out warnings, force citizens to write statements of apology, and issue fines to those they feel are in violation of the theocracy’s legal cultural code, from wearing too much Western-influenced clothing to spending time with members of the opposite sex. The developers’ biggest motivation was helping out Iranian women, who are often targeted for not wearing their hijab properly.

“For years, the morality police have been causing disturbances for Iranian women,” the anonymous developers told Reuters. “Avoiding them in the streets, metro stations, and in shopping malls is challenging and tiresome.”

From 2013–14, the nation’s morality police issued nearly 3 million warnings to women for hijab violations alone, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. More than 200,000 of these women were forced to write statement of apology, while nearly 20,000 were taken to court for their violations. Women have also been detained for wearing nail polish, bright colors, or tight pants.

While conservatives say the guidance patrol helps Iran maintain its Islamic values, the thousands of people who downloaded and hundreds who positively reviewed the Gershad app suggest a growing desire for more freedom of expression.

Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, urged the morality police not to interfere with citizens’ daily lives when he assumed office in 2014. While patrol numbers have decreased under his moderate leadership, women and men alike have continued to face detainment and arrest.

Simply using the app would be considered a violation. Authorities blocked Gershad within a day of its release, but many Iranians are able to bypass that roadblock through VPNs (virtual private networks), according to Reuters. Some citizens have expressed concern about police accessing their personal information or setting up traps, but Gershad developers say their network is highly protected, with its servers located outside of the country, and that they’re working to vet each report of morality police sightings.