17 July 2023

Iran’s morality police return as authorities reinforce hijab rule

Authorities announce new campaign to force women to wear the Islamic headscarf, after policing was scaled back following mass protests last year.

Iran has redeployed its morality police, who force women to wear the hijab, nearly a year after the death of a woman in police custody sparked nationwide protests.

The morality police had largely stopped patrols following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini last September, as authorities struggled to contain mass demonstrations that posed one of the boldest challenges to Iran’s theocracy since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Their reintroduction comes as many women have continued to violate the country’s strict dress laws, despite a heavy crackdown on the protests. 

In Tehran on Sunday, morality police officers could be seen patrolling the streets in marked vans. Footage circulating on social media meanwhile showed female police officers, clad in all-black chadors, berating and arresting women whose heads were uncovered.

As part of their bid to deter Iranian women and girls from removing their hijab, Iran’s Islamic rulers have also resorted to a series of new draconian measures in recent weeks. Local media reported on Friday that a woman who had been arrested for defying the law had been imprisoned for two months and forced to wash the bodies of dead women in the central city of Varamin.

Other women detained by the police have reportedly been told they must see a psychiatrist every fortnight for at least three months in order to be examined. They must be declared “free of anti-social behaviour” before the sessions can end, the Etemad newspaper reported.

While the morality police withdrew, authorities took other measures to enforce the law. These included the closure of businesses whose staff do not conform to the rules, and installing cameras in public places to identify and penalise unveiled women. In what was reported to be the first sentencing that relied on evidence from CCTV cameras, one woman was sentenced to two months in prison and a two-year travel ban last week.

She was also ordered to undertake mandatory health checks after the judge ruling on her case said her behaviour to flout the dress laws was a symptom of a “disease” that “must be treated”, the Human Rights Activists in Iran non-governmental organisation reported.

General Saeed Montazer al-Mahdi, a police spokesman, said on Sunday that the morality police would resume detaining women seen without the hijab in public. Al-Mahdi said President Ebrahim Raisi and religious groups had demanded the force return after protests largely subsided earlier this year due to a heavy crackdown by security forces that saw more than 500 people killed and nearly 20,000 detained.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has previously claimed that the number of women who oppose the mandatory hijab in Iran is “very few and a handful.” However, an official survey in 2021 found that more than 70 per cent of Iranian women are against being forced to wear the item of clothing.

The battle over the hijab became a powerful rallying cry last year, with women playing a leading role in the protests. The demonstrations quickly escalated into calls for the overthrow of Iran’s clerical rulers, whom the mostly young protesters accuse of being corrupt, repressive and out of touch. 

Recently, HUNGER highlighted a number of Iranian activists fighting for women’s liberation amidst the regime. Those women are Mahsa Alimardani, who discussed the importance of Iranians having access to fair and just internet, Diana Nammi, who has dedicated her life to ensuring women’s safety in her home country and Shadi Sadr, an Iranian lawyer, journalist and human rights advocate. 

  • Writer Chris Saunders

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