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Iran's strike coincided with crackdown at home

Iranian women walk on a street amid the implementation of the new hijab surveillance in Tehran, Iran, April 15, 2023. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS/File Photo

DUBAI, April 23 (Reuters) - The same day Iran launched its first ever direct attack on Israel it embarked on a less-noticed confrontation at home, ordering police in several cities to take to the streets to arrest women accused of flouting its strict Islamic dress code.

Iranian authorities insist that their so-called Nour (Light) campaign targets businesses and individuals who defy the hijab law, aiming to respond to demands from devout citizens who are angry about the growing number of unveiled women in public.

But activists and some politicians say the campaign appears aimed not only at enforcing mandatory hijab-wearing, but also at discouraging any wider dissent at a vulnerable moment for the clerical rulers.

Under Iran's sharia, or Islamic law, women are obliged to cover their hair and wear long, loose-fitting clothes. Offenders face public rebuke, fines or arrest.

The laws have become a political flashpoint since protests over the death of a young woman in the custody of the country's "morality police" in 2022 spiralled into the worst political turmoil since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

In a show of civil disobedience, unveiled women have frequently appeared in public since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Security forces violently put down the subsequent revolt, which called for the government's downfall.

As Iran's drone and missile assault unfolded on April 13, Tehran Police chief Abbasali Mohammadian went on state TV to announce the new campaign.


"Starting today, Police in Tehran and other cities will carry out measures against those who violate the hijab law," he said, while hundreds of police swept onto the streets of the capital and other cities.

Social media users posted pictures of a heavy morality police presence in Tehran and videos of police violently arresting women they alleged were improperly dressed, including plainclothes security forces dragging young women into police vans.

Morality police vans had largely vanished from the streets since last year.

The campaign rapidly drew public expressions of unease.

Concerned about what they say could be a deepening rift between the establishment and society at large, some politicians have criticised the intensified crackdown.

"... right at a time when national solidarity is more crucial than ever, the same ugly scenes (witnessed during the protests) are intensifying with more violence against Iranian women and girls! What kind of policy is this?," reformist politician Azar Mansouri posted on social media platform X.

Former Labour minister Ali Rabeie posted on his X account: "I really don't understand when Iranian people feel good and are proud about confronting Israel, suddenly a group (of decision makers) push the society towards confrontation with the establishment?."

Some others suspect the campaign had a political motive.

A human rights activist in Tehran said the move was aimed at "injecting fear into society to prevent any anti-war protests and quell domestic dissent when the rulers are at war with Israel".


"It is no coincidence that on the very day of the attack on Israel, police flooded the streets. They were concerned about the resurgence of unrest," said the activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.

The prospect of a war with Israel, after a series of tit-for-tat retaliation between the arch foes, has alarmed many ordinary Iranians already facing an array of problems, ranging from economic misery to tightening social and political controls after the nationwide unrest in 2022-23.

A former moderate government official said the clerical rulers had adopted a tougher stance against voices calling for political and social changes, fearing that such views could gain traction at a time when Iran is under external pressure.

"That is part of the rulers' strategy to consolidate their grip on power when the country faces threats from its arch enemy Israel," said the former official.

An Iranian politician, a former lawmaker, said "it is not just about cracking down on women who violate the dress code. In the past days, we have witnessed a clear crackdown on any sign of dissent".

Journalists, lawyers, activists, human rights advocates and students have been arrested, summoned or faced other measures in the past days, according to opposition news websites.

Those websites said the primary charge against those arrested was "inciting public opinion". On April 14, the intelligence unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards warned against any pro-Israeli posts by social media users, state media reported.

© 2024 Reuters. All rights reserved


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