The story so far: Iran’s Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri on Sunday hinted at the suspension of the country’s morality police after widespread protests following the arrest and death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini swept across the country.
According to the local ISNA news agency, Attorney General Montazeri said, “Morality police have nothing to do with the judiciary,” and have been abolished. He was responding to why the morality police were being “shut down”.
It is, however, unclear if the attorney general’s statement conveys the government’s stand on the matter. Some experts have pointed out that this does not amount to the abolition of the morality police.
The attorney general’s comments have not been confirmed by any other Iranian official.
Moral policing in Iran
Iran’s morality police, formally known as Gasht-e-Ershad (Guidance Patrol), were established under hardliner President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to “spread the culture of modesty and hijab”, the mandatory female head covering. They began patrols in 2006.
The Guidance Patrol frequently detains women, even for minor offences like showing a few strands of hair from under the hijab. They are released only after a male relative’s assurances.
Under Sharia law – the Islamic law that governs Iran – women are required to cover their hair and wear loose-fitting clothes. Although Sharia requires both men and women to dress modestly, the law is strictly implemented for women and men are rarely targeted for non-compliance. There is no definitive rulebook of what is and what is not allowed, but generally acceptable guidelines dictate that women in Iran not wear shorts, ripped jeans, or any other clothing that exposes the shape of the body.
The hijab was made mandatory for women in 1983, a few years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Morality police officers used to issue warnings to women before they started arresting them for dress code violations around 15 years ago. Men in the morality police squads are usually seen in green uniforms and women are clad in black chadors – garments that cover their heads and upper bodies.
Even if the Guidance Patrol is abolished, Islamic laws in the country would still hold that the hijab is mandatory for women. The morality police are only the enforcers of the law.
During the 2009 presidential election, reformist candidates – who wanted wearing hijab to be a choice exercised by women – debated the need for Gasht-e-Ershad, but no substantial changes were made. Iranians have also elected two reformist Presidents — Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and Hassan Rouhani in 2013 – but they failed to make any substantial reforms due to involvement of the clerical establishment.
Iran’s political setup
In 1979, protestors overthrew the U.S.-backed monarchy in Iran and established Islamic rule in the country, with Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini as the Supreme Leader.
Iran’s legislation has both elected and unelected branches, and the latter has more control over the country’s affairs. The President, parliament (Majles/Majlis) and the Assembly of Experts are directly elected, while the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council and the Expediency Council are appointed by the Shia clergy. The clergy hold the final authority in all critical matters related to State. The Supreme Leader is the country’s most powerful person, considered both its political leader and spiritual guide.
The Guardian Council has 12 members – a combination of six religious experts directly appointed by the Supreme Leader, and six Islamic legal jurists nominated by the Chief Justice (in turn appointed by the Supreme Leader). They vet all presidential candidates, as well as Bills passed by the Parliament, for compliance with the Islamic constitution.
In case of disputes between the Guidance Council and the Majles, the unelected 45-member Expediency Council, which advises the Supreme Leader, has ultimate adjudicating powers. This council is appointed entirely by the Supreme Leader.
The protests and Mahsa Amini
Ms. Amini travelled from Kurdistan to Tehran to meet her relatives , when she was detained by the morality police for violating hijab rules on September 13. She was out in public with her brother when she was detained.
She was taken to a “re-education centre”, and three days later, she died after she was rushed to a hospital. The police said that Ms. Amini suffered a heart attack at the centre, but her family disputed the claim. Her brother told the local media that screams could be heard from inside the detention centre after which an ambulance arrived at the scene. He was allegedly told by a person coming out of the centre that a woman had been killed by security forces. Unverified videos and photos shared on social media showed a woman, believed to be Ms. Amini, with bandages around her neck. The authorities too released another video showing a woman speaking to another before she stumbles and collapses on a chair, but its veracity was not confirmed by the family.
The death led to protests that engulfed the entire nation, with women removing their hijabs and chopping their hair as a mark of protest against years of oppression in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
(With inputs from agencies)