Iran’s morality police and the hijab law

Reports that Iran’s morality police may be abolished denounced by Iranian activists as a “PR stunt”

A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in Turkey against the Iranian regime
A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in Turkey against the Iranian regime
(Image credit: Ozan Kose / AFP)

Reports that Iran’s notorious morality police may have been abolished have been met with caution and scepticism as experts accuse the country’s regime of making “empty promises” to quell protests.

Responding to a question from a reporter over whether the country’s morality police – sometimes referred to as the “guidance patrol”, which is responsible for enforcing the country’s hijab laws – was being disbanded, Iranian Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri said that the morality police “has nothing to do with the judiciary” adding that “it was abolished by those who created it”.

The remarks were made during what The Washington Post called “a conspiracy-theory-laden speech blaming the anti-government unrest on Western countries” with the paper adding the comments “appeared to be referring to the relative absence of the morality police on the streets since protests against Iran’s clerical leaders broke out”.

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‘Empty promises’

The so-called “guidance patrols” have been a “familiar sight” on the streets of Tehran since 2006, said France 24, when they were introduced during the presidency of the ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But clerical leadership had been strictly enforcing hijab rules “well before then”, said the broadcaster. Strict hijab laws have not always been in place in Iran, however – wearing the hijab became obligatory for all Iranian women in April 1983.

Montazeri’s remarks did not constitute “an official confirmation of disbandment” said The Washington Post, which said its dissolution “would require higher-level approval”.

Indeed, “hasty clarifications by state media” soon followed, said CNN, with government-controlled news outlets “keen to downplay” Montazeri’s comments. And from Iranian activists too, there was significant online “pushback” with many denouncing the alleged move as a “PR stunt” from the Iranian regime designed to silence protesters.

“When dictatorships know they’re in trouble they begin promising their citizens they will change who they are,” wrote Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC, on Twitter. He added that such “empty promises tend to embolden, rather than quell, popular demands for fundamental change”.

‘No guarantees it would halt unrest’

If Iran’s morality police were scrapped it would certainly “be a concession to the protesters”, said the BBC. But there are “no guarantees it would be enough to halt the unrest” that has rocked the country since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody in September.

One Iranian woman told the BBC World Service’s Newshour programme that dismantling the morality police would not end the protests. “Even the government saying the hijab is a personal choice is not enough. People know Iran has no future with this government in power. We will see more people from different factions of Iranian society, moderate and traditional, coming out in support of women to get more of their rights back.”

“Even if the morality police stop patrolling the streets, that alone would have no bearing on the hijab laws that govern women’s dress,” said Jason Rezaian in The Washington Post, who wrote that Iran has “plenty” of other agencies that “could enforce hijab if ordered to do so”.

And there is a danger that the news of the morality police’s alleged abolishment has “sucked up all the oxygen in the global conversation about Iran”, continued Rezaian. Thousands of retail businesses are participating in a three-day strike to protest against the regime. Meanwhile, the mass trials of protesters are under way and “beginning to lead to death sentences”. “These events are much more important – and much less noticed – than the non-story of the morality police.”

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 Sorcha Bradley is a writer at The Week and a regular on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast. She worked at The Week magazine for a year and a half before taking up her current role with the digital team, where she mostly covers UK current affairs and politics. Before joining The Week, Sorcha worked at slow-news start-up Tortoise Media. She has also written for Sky News, The Sunday Times, the London Evening Standard and Grazia magazine, among other publications. She has a master’s in newspaper journalism from City, University of London, where she specialised in political journalism.