″Gershad″ app in Iran

Outmanoeuvring the morality police

A new app is helping Iranians circumvent the country’s strict authorities. No sooner was the Gershad app launched, however, than the Islamic republic outlawed its use. By Jessie Wingard

The Ershad are commonly sighted on busy streets across Iran where they chastise locals into conforming to the country's strict dress and behavioural codes. Women failing to cover their heads appropriately with a scarf, donning an inappropriate hairstyle, or wearing excessive make-up can be penalised, while males wearing fashionable, Western-style clothing can also be reprimanded.

Locals failing to conform to the Gasht-e-Ershad's requests are often forced into the back of a minivan and taken to a correctional facility where they are lectured on how to be the perfect citizen, fined, or even prosecuted.

A group of unidentified software creators developed the novel Gershad android application in a bid to combat such public bullying. Through a statement on their website, the developers of the Gershad app write that in 2013, of the 3 million women who were detained across Iran by the morality police, 207,000 of them were forced to write formal letters of apology to the state – while 18,000 were prosecuted.

Social media, the developers added, is full of photos of women being beaten up by the Gasht-e-Ershad and, by developing the app, they claim they "are finding a low-risk way to protest against this injustice."

Evading detection

Last week the Gershad app was an instant hit on the Google Play store as local android users rushed to download the anti-patrol software to their mobile phones. Such was the popularity of the new software, that the high demand for downloads was detected by the authorities who promptly banned and blocked it less than 24-hours after its release.

Gershad app (source: Gershad)
Digital compass and early warning system: a new app is helping Iranians detect the presence of the state morality police, allowing them to take the necessary evasive action

Gershad relies on local users to pinpoint a patrol's location on the app's city maps for various locations. As the number of users pinpointing the same reference increases, others will be alerted to their presence with a symbol on the map, the developers posted on their webpage. App users are then assisted in avoiding the checkpoints by selecting an alternative route.

When the amount of users pinpointing the reference decreases, the icon disappears from the map.

Internet censorship in Iran is rife. Locals often circumvent restrictions through proxy servers to access "outlawed" social media sites, such Twitter and Facebook.

Poking fun at the authorities

But, the ban has not stopped locals praising the novel app. As one local commented on Twitter, "While the rest of the world creates apps to be close to police in order to get protection, we [Iranians] have to create apps to help us distance ourselves from the authorities in order to be safe."

Another reacted in a similar vein: "How desperate are we [Iranians] that we have to create apps out of fear for the police and to stay out of their way on the streets?"

A tongue-in-cheek comment from this user in Mashhad, Iran, read: "so far, we have used the [morality police] as a reason to get our dates to come home with us and now this app has ruined our plans."

A woman also weighed in on the debate, saying, "Why do we need the Gershad app, the men already tell us to come into their houses because there are police everywhere outside."

One troubling concern for the app's more than 1,000 users is that patrols will access the technology to set traps for credulous users.

The app's server is located outside of the country and is reportedly being run by a private company. Security for Gershad users is paramount and is being protected through encrypted SLL protocol.

Jessie Wingard

© Deutsche Welle 2016

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