What Would Disbanding the Morality Police Mean for Iran?

Iran’s attorney general said this weekend that the morality police in charge of enforcing the Islamic Republic’s stringent dress code had been shut down. If true, it would be the first attempt at a concession by the government after nearly three months of protests that have erupted across the country, although its likely impact remains unclear.

The force, known as the Guidance Patrol, has been one of the triggers that set off the protests following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September in the custody of the morality police, who had arrested her for what they said was inappropriate dress. The protests quickly morphed into broader demonstrations demanding an end to the Islamic Republic itself.

Since the start of the uprising, the morality police have disappeared from the streets of Iran, prompting questions about their whereabouts and the status of the so-called hijab law they are responsible for enforcing.

The shutting down of the force was referred to by Attorney General Mohammad Javad Montazeri on Saturday.

It remains unclear whether the force has in fact been shut down. And it is unlikely such a move would appease protesters who continue to clash with security forces in cities across the country night after night.

Who are the morality police and what laws are they charged with enforcing?

In the early years of the Iranian revolution, the government established a special branch of its police force tasked with regulating what women wear and the hijab law. Over the years this unit has been renamed and operated under various branches of the armed forces. In 2006 it was rebranded as the morality police. The hijab law requires women in Iran, including visitors, to cover their hair and bodies in public.

Women wearing head coverings at a bazaar in Tehran in June.Credit…The New York Times

Over the past decade the officers, and the mandatory hijab law, have become a searing symbol of the Islamic Republic’s control of crackdown on women. They have been posted in cities across the country, where they patrol the streets in white-and-green vans. Among their duties: discouraging many forms of colorful entertainment or dress; penalizing car owners who are caught driving women with uncovered hair; and raiding and shutting businesses and concerts where people are deemed to be behaving in un-Islamic ways.

The morality police’s approach was arbitrary, with penalties ranging from a verbal notice to a fine and arrests.

Iranian women have been challenging the hijab law since its inception by wearing fashionable coats and scarves in a way that showed their hair. The defiance of women to maintain agency over their hair and bodies turned the hijab law and the morality police into a continuing point of contention.

More on the Protests in Iran

  • A Women-Led Uprising: Casting off their legally required head scarves, Iranian women have been at the forefront of the demonstrations.
  • Show of Support: From World Cup soccer players to movie personalities, high-profile Iranians are increasingly making public gestures of support for the protests.
  • Suppressing Protests: Witness accounts and a Times video analysis reveal how Iran’s security forces are co-opting ambulances to infiltrate demonstrations and detain protesters.
  • Struck Blind: Across Iran, hundreds of protesters have suffered severe eye injuries inflicted by the metal pellets and rubber bullets that security forces fire to disperse crowds.

The morality crackdown relaxed slightly under reform-leaning administrations following the election in 2013 of Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s relatively moderate president.

But with the election last June of President Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-liner, the task force re-emerged as a fixture in main squares and shopping centers, hauling women deemed to be “badly veiled” off in vans to police stations. Arrested women are forced to write statements, vowing to never violate the stringent dress code, and they must attend a course at a re-education center on how to comply with the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code.

Following the death of Ms. Amini in September, the U.S. government imposed new sanctions on Iran’s morality police for allegedly abusing women and protesters.

Have the morality police really been disbanded?

The status of the force remains unclear.

Since the death of Ms. Amini, the task force has reportedly disappeared from public places across Iran. But in its place Basij militia forces have been beating and arresting women on the streets who are defying the hijab law, videos posted on social media show.

While attending a religious event on Saturday, Mr. Montazeri, the attorney general, responded to a question about the morality police’s whereabouts by saying that the authorities “who created it had shut it down.”

On Friday, Mr. Montazeri said Iran’s Supreme Council was working with the judiciary to review the hijab law and was expected to reach an agreement within 15 days, and had suggested that “the judiciary is not seeking to shut down the Social Security Police.”

But, he added, “after the recent incidents, the security and cultural institutions are looking for a prudent solution to the problem.” Mr. Montazeri added that the judiciary was drafting a bill “related to the field of chastity and hijab.”

The next day, Mr. Raisi said in a televised interview that “there are methods and mechanisms for the implementation of the law that should be reviewed,” according to IRNA, Iran’s state-run news agency.

Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, when asked over the weekend about the morality police at a news conference in Belgrade, Serbia, where he was on an official visit, did not deny that the force had been abolished, but said, “In Iran, everything is moving forward well in the framework of democracy and freedom.”

One state television channel, the Arabic-language Al Alam, appeared to walk back the attorney general’s comments on Sunday, reporting that they had been taken out of context, and emphasized that “no official in the Islamic Republic of Iran has confirmed the reports of the Guidance Patrol being abolished.” Other state channels said the government was not backing down from the mandatory hijab law.

“We will not retreat from the hijab and chastity policy, otherwise the retreat will be equal to giving up on the whole Islamic Republic” Hossein Jalali, a member of Parliament’s Committee of Culture, said on Monday at gathering by pro-hijab women in the city of Qom. “Hijab is our flag and we will not let it fall,” he added.

When asked on Monday about the status of the unit, a spokesman for Tehran’s regional police force, Colonel Ali Sabahi, told a reporter from Shargh daily to refer back to the attorney general. He added that the police would have a statement “when it was appropriate” to do so.

Protesters clashed with the police at a demonstration in Tehran in September following the death of Mahsa Amini.Credit…EPA, via Shutterstock

How would disbanding the morality police affect the protests and the Iranian people?

Abolishing the morality police would signify the government’s first major concession to the uprising — an indication that it has been feeling pressure from the protests.

But many Iranians insist that such a move would only be an effort by the government to divert attention from a crisis that has left at least 400 people dead, including 50 minors, according to rights groups. The United Nations has said that about 14,000 people have been arrested.

Activists took to social media to dismiss the announcement of the abolition of the morality police or the hijab law, saying that the actions were coming too late and the demands of the protesters had moved far beyond the hijab law to target the entire system.

“For ordinary Iranians, the morality police are now irrelevant,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, an independent organization based in New York. The recent wave of unrest effectively disbanded the unit, he said, as it had to be armed and redeployed to combat the violence in the streets.

“Their grievances now run far deeper than just the morality police or the hijab law — this is not why hundreds are still putting their lives on the line,” Mr. Ghaemi said. “This has evolved into something much bigger that is questioning the entire political system.”

Scrapping the morality police could have made a difference immediately following Ms. Amini’s death, he said. But at this stage its effectiveness had paled, only amounting to a desperate attempt to detract from protesters’ broader demands for an end to the Islamic Republic’s rule.

Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting.

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