The country’s morality police disappeared from the streets late last year as the authorities tried to calm anti-government protests. Now, patrols are once again watching for violators.
Iranian police officers patrolling the streets of the capital, Tehran, on Sunday. It was unclear whether the authorities were again deploying the morality police, or were requiring the regular police to take on that role. Credit: Wana News Agency, via Reuters.
By Vivian Yee and Leily Nikounazar
Iran is once again deploying police officers on the streets to enforce its conservative dress code for women, which many have flouted since the protest movement that rattled the country began last fall, according to state news media and social media posts.
Months into the protests, Iran quietly withdrew the morality police from the streets in an apparent concession to try to calm the nationwide upheaval against the government. The protests began last September after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, died in custody after the morality police accused her of violating the dress code and arrested her on a Tehran street.
A spokesman for Iran’s police force, Gen. Saeed Montazer al-Mahdi, said on Sunday that effective immediately, police officers would begin patrolling to “deal with those who, unfortunately, regardless of the consequences of dressing outside the norm, still insist on breaking the norm.” He added that the patrols would “expand public security and strengthen the foundation of the family.”
He said the police would first warn people caught breaking the hijab law governing dress, which requires women to cover their hair and wear long, loose clothing that hides the shape of their bodies. Those who still refuse to comply, he said, will be prosecuted.
It was unclear whether the authorities were again deploying the morality police — a force that an official said in December had been dismantled — or were requiring the regular police to do what the morality police had once done.
The mass antigovernment demonstrations focused at first on the mandatory hijab law, then expanded to encompass a variety of grievances, including other social restrictions, corruption, soaring inflation, a perpetually limping economy and political repression. The movement morphed into the biggest challenge in decades to Iran’s entire system of authoritarian clerical rule.
Women tore off their head scarves and burned them, dancing in front of the flames. Many refused to put them back on even after the protests dissipated amid a violent government crackdown, in which thousands of protesters were arrested, hundreds killed and at least seven executed. University students chanted, “To hell with morality police!”
For months, the government largely looked the other way as bare heads proliferated across Iranian cities, hemlines got shorter and more Western-style clothing appeared in the streets.
But the hijab is too important a symbol of Iran’s ultraconservative Islamic system of government for its clerical leadership to let go entirely, and while some conservatives called for compromise, others urged the government to do more.
Earlier this year, the authorities began shutting down businesses that they accused of serving customers who were not wearing the hijab, and announced they would use surveillance cameras to track women who were violating the dress code, among other enforcement measures.
In recent weeks, several celebrities have faced prosecution for breaking the law, including Azadeh Samadi, an actress who appeared unveiled at a funeral two months ago, according to local news reports. She was banned from social media and ordered to see a psychologist to secure written proof that she was not a sociopath.
Another woman caught driving without a hijab in Varamin was sentenced to a month of washing and preparing corpses for burial, the reports said.
After Sunday’s announcement, it was not long before the promised patrols appeared to re-emerge. That evening, several photos of police officers and the white vans they use to transport detainees to law enforcement centers were published on Gershad, an application and Twitter account initially created by antigovernment activists that crowdsources user reports of police patrols so people can avoid those areas. Users had spotted the vans around Tehran, Iran’s capital, as well as in the cities of Kermanshah and Shiraz.
Gershad said on Twitter that one user had sent in a photo on Sunday of two women police officers standing by a white van outside a mall in eastern Tehran. They warned passing women about wearing their hijabs improperly before entering the mall, it said.
State news media pushed back on such reports in an apparent attempt to downplay the new measure.
Tasnim, a semiofficial news agency, said that “under no circumstances” would the vans of the morality police return to the streets, though it acknowledged that police would once again enforce the hijab law.
If a video appeared on social media purporting to show police officers forcing people into vans, Tasnim said, “it is either fake or from an archive.” The report went on to suggest that the purpose of such videos would be to undermine the government.
Yet, marked with the morality police’s logo or not, the vans are widely viewed with fear and anger by many Iranians. One such video sparked outrage on social media when it went viral over the weekend. It showed a woman in a chador — the long black cloak commonly worn by conservative Iranian women and female officers of the morality police — pulling a woman who was not wearing her head scarf toward a van.
“Help, help,” the woman who is being pulled shouts in the video.
But Javan, a newspaper affiliated with Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, declared the video “fake” on Monday, saying it and others like it “were distributed to create confrontation between women and the government.”
For many Iranian women, the broader confrontation over the hijab is already resolved — decisively in their favor. There is no going back to the days before the protests, they have said repeatedly in recent months.
Shiva, 44, a translator in Tehran who asked to be identified only by her first name to avoid legal repercussions, said she expected the new crackdown to play out differently in different neighborhoods, depending on how socially liberal they already were.
“How long will we endure this push and pull?” she said. “The taboo of the veil has been broken in our society. On the other hand, the regime is brutal.”
In one indication of how inflamed the hijab issue has become, Iranian news media and social media alike were abuzz on Monday about the violent arrest of Mohammad Sadeghi, a theater actor who had been vehemently criticizing the new crackdown on an Instagram livestream at the moment of his arrest.
“If my friend, my sister and my mother want to wear clothes in a certain way, that has nothing to do with you,” Mr. Sadeghi said, addressing the government and calling for resistance.
Soon after, the police raided his home, setting off a tussle during which he tried to escape out a window while screaming for help. It was no good: Mr. Sadeghi was soon taken into custody.
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