What Would Disbanding the Morality Police Mean for Iran?

Iran’s attorney general said this weekend that a special police unit responsible for enforcing the country’s strict Islamic dress code for women had been shut down. If true, it would be the first concession by the government in nearly three months of protests.

The force, officially named the Guidance Patrol, was one of the main triggers for the protests that began in mid-September, after the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, who had been arrested over dress code violations and was in custody at the time of her death. The protests quickly morphed to encompass a broad range of discontent over the system of authoritarian clerical rule that has been in place for the past 43 years.

Since the start of the protests, the morality police seem to have mostly disappeared from the streets, prompting questions about their status and the status of the so-called hijab law they are responsible for enforcing, which requires women, including foreign visitors, to cover their hair and bodies in public with long, loose clothing.

Attorney General Mohammad Javad Montazeri made his remarks about the force being shut down on Saturday during a news conference after a religious event. But the status of the morality police is still in question, absent a government confirmation of the closure.

And even if the force has been disbanded, it seems that would be unlikely to appease the protesters, whose demands have gone far beyond just doing away with the mandatory head scarf, or hijab, and who have kept up confrontations with the security forces across the country for nearly three months.

Who are the morality police and what laws do they enforce?

In the early years after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that brought the clerics to power, the government established a special branch of the police tasked with regulating female dress and sexual conduct. Over the years, this unit operated under various branches of the armed forces and, in 2006, it was rebranded the morality police.

Over the past decade, the morality police and the hijab law have become searing symbols of the Islamic Republic’s control of women’s lives. Morality agents have been posted in cities across the country, where they patrol the streets in white-and-green vans.

Among their duties: discouraging bold forms of entertainment or dress, penalizing drivers who allow women to travel in vehicles with uncovered hair, and raiding and shutting businesses and concerts where people are deemed to be behaving in un-Islamic ways.

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

The force dealt out arbitrary penalties ranging from a verbal notice to fines, arrests and beatings.

Iranian women have been challenging the hijab law since its inception, often by wearing fashionable coats and scarves that exposed some of their hair. Their defiance has turned the hijab law and the morality police into a continuing point of friction.

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.

Enforcement of the morality codes relaxed slightly after the election in 2013 of Hassan Rouhani as president.

But with the election last June of President Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-liner, the morality police re-emerged as a fixture in city squares and shopping centers, detaining women deemed to be “badly veiled” and carting them off in vans to police stations. The supposed violators were forced to sign statements vowing to never disobey the dress code again, and they were required to attend a re-education course.

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

Have the morality police really been disbanded?

The status of the force remains unclear.

Since the death of Ms. Amini, morality agents have rarely been seen. But, in their place, other security forces including the notoriously brutal Basij militiamen have beaten and arrested women deemed to be defying the hijab law, videos posted on social media show.

While attending a religious event Saturday, Mr. Montazeri, the attorney general, responded to a question about the status of the morality police by saying that the authorities who created it had shut it down.

But, he added that the judiciary would continue to monitor social behavior, leaving open the possibility that the mandatory hijab law would continue to be enforced.

The comments came one day after Mr. Montazeri said the judiciary was working with other authorities to draft a bill “related to the field of chastity and hijab,” and was expected to reach an agreement within 15 days.

The next day, Mr. Raisi, the president, 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.

Other statements from Iranian officials have not served to clarify the current situation with regard to the morality police.

Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, asked over the weekend about the morality police at a news conference in Belgrade, Serbia, did not deny that the force had been abolished and only said: “In Iran, everything is moving forward well in the framework of democracy and freedom,”

On Sunday, one state television channel, Al Alam, appeared to try to walk back the attorney general’s comments, claiming that they had been taken out of context.

“No official in the Islamic Republic of Iran has confirmed the reports of the Guidance Patrol being abolished,” the report said.

However, other state channels simply said the government was not backing down from the mandatory hijab law without indicating one way or another the status of the morality police.

The various statements could suggest a disagreement within the ruling establishment on the range of issues surrounding how to enforce the hijab law, or whether to enforce it at all.

Appearing Monday at a pro-hijab rally in the holy city of Qom, Hossein Jalali, a member of Parliament, said the government was not backing down.

“We will not retreat from the hijab and chastity policy, otherwise the retreat will be equal to giving up on the whole Islamic Republic,” he said. “Hijab is our flag and we will not let it fall.”

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?

Until now, the government’s response to the protesters has been to denounce them and use violence to deter them. Abolishing the morality police would be the government’s first major concession.

But it is not clear that doing so would have much effect: Scrapping the force might be seen as a measure of the government’s desperation in the face of mass protests.

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.

On social media, activists said that the actions were too little too late and that the protesters’ demands had moved far beyond the hijab law to include the downfall of the ruling system itself.

“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 likely had to be armed and redeployed to combat 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 of the protesters. “This has evolved into something much bigger that is questioning the entire political system.”

Abolishing the morality police could have made a difference immediately following Ms. Amini’s death, he said. But at this stage it only amounted to a desperate attempt to detract from protesters’ broader demands for an end to authoritarian clerical rule.

If anything, he said, the moves of the government may serve to embolden more protesters, who have called for a three-day strike and nightly protests through Wednesday this week.

Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting.

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