The white-and-green Guidance Patrol vans, used by Iran’s morality police to monitor and arrest women who defy the Islamic dress code, have in recent days disappeared from the streets of Tehran.
For the past decade a symbol of the Islamic republic’s crackdown on women, the vans are not even visible outside the morality police centre in central Tehran.
Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman of Kurdish ethnicity, was this month bundled into one of these vehicles. She later died in custody, triggering the biggest street protests across the country since the 2019 unrest over fuel prices. At least 41 protesters have died, according to state television. Hundreds of people have been arrested, local agencies report, including political activists and journalists.
Such is the outrage over her death that people from across the Iranian political spectrum have called for an end to the official policing of women’s clothing. “Guidance Patrol will most probably be withdrawn from the streets,” said Saeed Laylaz, a reformist analyst. “The Islamic republic will have a major setback over the hijab in practice and will have no other choice but to give more social freedom to the urban middle-class youth.”
For more than a week, young protesters, many the same age as Amini, have poured on to the streets in towns and cities across the country chanting anti-regime slogans such as “We don’t want the Islamic republic” and “Death to the dictator”.
University students have demonstrated on campuses and female protesters have burnt their scarves. Others faced riot police without wearing their hijab, showing little fear. While the protests have now subsided, Iranians on social media still share pictures of women killed during the protests.
For young people struggling with massive economic problems such as poverty and inequality, these patrols had become a lightning conductor for their rage, Emad Afrough, a sociologist told the state news agency IRNA.
“We have launched something which has no human, moral, logical and even legal justification,” he said. “The way a [police]man throws a woman into the car is inhuman and un-Islamic.”
The wearing of the hijab is one of the defining images of the theocratic regime. In the wake of the Islamic revolution in 1979, revolutionaries forced women to wear scarves in public. In 1983, the hijab officially became obligatory for women. The violation of this rule was punishable with up to 74 lashes. Later, jail sentences and fines replaced flogging.
Hardliners under former president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad made the police responsible for “promoting social security” in 2006 when they launched the Guidance Patrol – a label later changed to Moral Security Police, though people continue to refer to them as the Guidance Patrol. Many police officers were loath to assume this responsibility because they said it was not their job to deal with women’s hair and clothes.
The enforcement of the rules on the hijab have intensified in the past year since, with the election of Ebrahim Raisi as president, hardliners took over all arms of the state. They hoped that the stronger enforcement of the rules over the hijab could slow the modernisation of Iran, an increasingly secular society.
But, noted Jalal Rashidi Kouchi, a member of parliament, “the police have been damaged because of the Guidance Patrol” with “no results but losses for the country”.
The women they arrest have to give written commitments not to violate the law again and to attend hour-long classes on morality. Car owners also receive text messages to go to the morality police centre if there are women in their cars without scarves. Their cars are then impounded for up to two months.
It is unclear how many police officers work in Guidance Patrol but their presence, in busy squares, parks and outside metro stations, makes women feel insecure. Amini was arrested in a park shortly after she got out of a nearby metro station in central Tehran. Her family allege she was beaten up in the van. The authorities deny this and say she had a pre-existing condition.
It is unclear what comes next, though the Islamic republic is not expected to revoke the law on the hijab.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has not commented on the latest protests but two months ago he defended the obligation to wear the hijab. The fact that Iranian women occupy half of university seats, he said, makes clear that the Islamic hijab is not an obstacle to women’s progress.
Conservative organisations have however called for an end to the police’s role in enforcing the rules. “How can a force in charge of order and security be in charge of holding hijab classes?” asked the Headquarters to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice.
“Religious beliefs are not created by batons, arrests and Guidance Patrol. We cannot force people into paradise,” Gholamreza Nouri Ghezeljeh, a reformist member of parliament, told Shargh daily newspaper.
But he was dismissive about the introduction of fines. “As if one can decide about paradise and hell with money,” he said. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022