TEHERAN - An official involved with enforcement of Iran’s strict Islamic dress code for women confirmed Monday that the country’s morality police force had been shut down, the first concession by the government in nearly three months of protests set off by the death of a woman being held by the unit.
However, officials have made clear that the laws requiring women in public to cover their hair with a headscarf, or hijab, and their bodies with long, loose clothing remain firmly in place, leaving open questions about whether and how those laws may be enforced moving forward.
The senior official, Ali Khan Mohammadi, spokesperson for the committee that oversees enforcement of moral values, said Monday that the morality police had been abolished. The first word that the unit, which was charged with enforcing the dress code, had been disbanded came over the weekend from the country’s attorney general, Mohammad Javad Montazeri.
Mr Mohammadi said that senior government officials will now decide whether the morality police will take another form, adding that there were “newer, more updated and detailed methods” to promote the hijab and morality.
The unit 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 the custody of the morality police at the time of her death.
The protests quickly morphed to encompass a broad range of discontents and calls for an end to 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 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.
Disbanding the morality police is not likely to appease the protesters, whose demands have gone far beyond just doing away with the mandatory headscarf and who have kept up confrontations with the security forces across the country for nearly three months.
Q: Who are the morality police and what laws do they enforce?
A: In the early years after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that brought the clerics to power, the government established a special arm of the police, officially named the Guidance Patrol, tasked with regulating female dress and behaviour. Over the years, this unit operated under various branches of the armed forces and in 2006 was rebranded as 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.
The force dealt out arbitrary penalties ranging from verbal notices 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.
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 hardliner, the morality police reemerged as a fixture in city squares and shopping centres, 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.
After Amini’s death, the US government imposed new sanctions on the morality police for abusing women and protesters.
Q: Has Iran changed the strict Islamic laws governing women’s dress?
A: The abolishment of the morality police has raised the question of whether the Iranian government might now decide to loosen the Islamic dress code for women or, at least, ease up on enforcement by some other means aside from the morality police.
Since Amini’s death, morality agents have rarely been seen and many women are appearing in public every day without the hijab in an act of civil disobedience. But 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.
In his comments Monday, Mr Mohammadi confirmed that “the work of the morality police and social safety, which were operating under the security forces and by the order of the judiciary and prosecutor’s office, has been terminated for now”. He emphasised that the authorities were considering “newer, more updated and detailed methods” for enforcing morality laws.
When Mr Montazeri said over the weekend that the morality police had been shut down, he added that the judiciary would continue to monitor social behaviour, leaving open the possibility that the mandatory hijab law would continue to be enforced.
A day earlier, Mr Montazeri had 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.
Mr Raisi said in a televised interview Saturday 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.
Appearing on 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 on the 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,” he said. “Hijab is our flag and we will not let it fall.”
The differing tenor of these statements suggests a disagreement within the ruling establishment over how to enforce the hijab law, or whether to continue enforcing it at all.
Q: How does disbanding the morality police affect the protests and the Iranian people?
A: Until now, the government’s response to the protesters has been to denounce them and use violence to deter them. Abolishing the morality police is the government’s first major concession to the protesters since the movement began.
But it is not clear that the change will have much impact: Scrapping the force might be seen as a measure of the government’s desperation in the face of mass protests.
Many Iranians insist that the move is only 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 about 14,000 people have been arrested.
“For ordinary Iranians, the morality police are now irrelevant,” said Mr Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Centre for Human Rights in Iran, an independent organisation based in New York. The recent wave of unrest effectively disbanded the unit, he said, as it probably had to be armed and redeployed to combat violence in the streets.
On social media, activists have said that the action is too little too late.
“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 after 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. NYTIMES