Internet chatting between unrelated men and women is against Islam and forbidden, ruled Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a fatwa, according to Al Arabiya
, a Saudi newspaper which monitors the Iranian media.
Khamenei, who is Iran's top political and religious authority, was responding to a question emailed to his office. "Given the immorality that often applies to this, it is not permitted," he answered.
Nevertheless, a minority of young people in urban areas discreetly live their not much different than their Western counterparts
. Those who flaunt their independence by dressing "immodestly" can face the wrath of Guidance Patrols, or religious police.
Iran's leaders make use of modern technology. Khamenei, who is referred to as the "Supreme Leader," has his own website
President Hassan Rouhani's staff maintains Facebook and Twitter accounts for him. So does Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif.
Rouhani and his minister of culture Ali Jannati are both on record as favoring less policing of citizen's private lives, according to Al Arabiya.
The regime's leadership seems divided — both on political and religious grounds — over how much Internet freedom to grant the citizenry.
Several young people contacted by Fox News
said they viewed the chat fatwa as part of a pattern to keep people from communicating directly rather than primarily a religious ruling to preserve modesty.
"It's not the social sites that scare them, it's people connecting," said a 34-year-old female photographer living outside Tehran. "That's always been their fear."
A 54-year-old medical technician calling himself Ali Reza told Fox News, "These moves are all in an effort to create a society in which we are watched by Big Brother."
And a 37 year-old coffee shop owner in Mashad going by the name of Sam saw the fatwa as a diversion. "So now instead of having a population of people asking, 'Where's my freedom?' or 'Where's my vote?' you have people asking 'how can I meet a girl online without breaking the law?'" he told Fox News.
Iran has blocked certain instant messaging applications and many popular websites — sometimes including Gmail and Skype — which are reachable only through third-party proxy servers.
CNN reported last summer
that the government is trying to steer people to use a high-speed government-controlled intranet that opponents have dubbed "halal" or permissible under Islamic religious law.
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