A senior Iranian official said this weekend that Iran had abolished the morality police, the state media reported, after months of protests set off by the death of a young woman who was detained by the force for supposedly violating the country’s strict Islamic dress laws.
The morality police “was abolished by the same authorities who installed it,” Attorney General Mohammad Javad Montazeri said on Saturday during a meeting at which officials were discussing the unrest, according to state media reports.
It was unclear whether the statement amounted to a final decision by the theocratic government, which has neither announced the abolition of the morality police nor denied it. But if the force is abolished, the change will be unlikely to appear protesters who are still clashing with other security forces and have become so emboldened that some are calling for an end of the Islamic Republic.
The morality police is overseen by the Iranian police, not the attorney general, and there were suggestions on Sunday that the government might be trying to play down the significance of Mr. Montazeri’s remarks.
One state television channel, the Arabic-language Al Alam, said that the comments had been taken out of context, and other state channels said the government was not backing down from the mandatory hijab law.
Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, when asked about the abolishment of the morality police at a news conference in Belgrade, Serbia, where he was on an official visit, did not deny it, but said, “In Iran, everything is moving forward well in the framework of democracy and freedom.”
For his part, Mr. Montazeri said on Saturday that the judiciary would still enforce restrictions on “social behavior.” Days earlier, he said that the authorities were reviewing the law requiring women to cover their bodies in long, loose clothing and their hair with a head scarf or hijab, and would issue a decision within 15 days. But it was not clear whether the authorities were planning to relax the law.
Mr. Montazeri’s comments appeared to suggest the government was making its first major concession to the protest movement ignited by the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, in September in the custody of the morality police. The unrest has become one of the biggest challenges in decades to Iran’s system of authoritarian clerical rule.
But the government’s silence after Mr. Montazeri’s remark left analysts puzzled, with some suggesting he had inadvertently drawn attention to a decision the regime wanted to keep quiet for fear of being seen backing down, and others concluding it reflected internal debate at a moment of crisis .
There have been many reports from residents of Iran that the morality police have scarcely been seen on the streets since the protests erupted nearly three months ago, and women have increasingly been appearing in public with their hair uncovered. But other security forces, including the notorious Basij militiamen, have been beating and arresting women who go out with their hair uncovered, videos show.
More on the protests in Iran
- A Women-Led Uprising: Casting off their legally required head scarves, Iranian women have been at the forefront of the demonstrations.
- Show of Support: From World Cup soccer players to movie personalities, high-profile Iranians are increasingly making public gestures of support for the protests.
- suppressing protests: Witness accounts and a Times video analysis reveal how Iran’s security forces are co-opting ambulances to infiltrate demonstrations and detain protesters.
- Struck Blind: Across Iran, hundreds of protesters have suffered severe eye injuries inflicted by the metal pellets and rubber bullets that security forces fire to disperse crowds.
And for all the symbolism, the announced abolition of the morality police would probably do little to appeal to the ordinary Iranians who have been flooding the streets since Ms. Amini’s death to demand sweeping change.
On Sunday, Iranian women and activists took to social media to dismiss talk of disbanding the force as a propaganda tactic by the government to distract from the larger demands of protesters for an end to the Islamic Republic’s rule. The concession would be too little, too late, many said.
Shadi Sadr, a prominent human rights lawyer who has fought for women’s rights in Iran for decades, said on Twitter that scrapping the morality police would not be big news because “hijab is still compulsory and enforced by other means such as expulsion from university or school .”
The protest will not end, she said, “until the regime is gone.”
A member of the Iranian Parliament, Jalal Rashidi Koochi, said that abolishing the morality police would be “a praiseworthy action but late.”
“I wish we had seen this action before all these events took place,” he added, “because we can see how some policies and behaviors damage the nation’s stability and the public’s trust in the government.”
Gissou Nia, a human rights lawyer who leads the board at the US-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, said the demonstrations had evolved since the early days after Ms. Amini was killed.
“The bottom line,” she said, “is that the protests are now about challenging the entirety of the system, and the extreme gender discriminatory laws that mandate compulsory hijab and restrictions on women’s rights to marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance are all still in place.”
Abolishing the morality police could have a major effect on the state’s ability to control what women wear. Their primary role has been to enforce the laws related to Iran’s conservative dress code, which was imposed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and recently invigorated by the country’s new ultraconservative president.
The dress code for women became an ideological pillar of the ruling clerical establishment, and is central to its identity.
Iranian women have been challenging the dress code since its inception, embracing colorful robes, barely covering their hair in loose wraps and, in some cases, letting their head scarves drop onto their shoulders. The enforcement of the code has always been uneven and arbitrary, ranging from warnings to fines and to arrests.
When Ms. Amini died after being arrested by the morality police on a Tehran street, nationwide protests soon followed. “Woman, life, freedom,” protesters have chanted. Women have torn off their hijabs, burned them in street bonfires, and have cut their hair in acts of defiance. And university students have chanted, “Killings after killings, to hell with morality police!”
The demonstrators, fed up with political repression, censorship, corruption and economic mismanagement, have been taking direct aim at the most powerful man in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader.
Before the unrest, women’s rights activists had managed to carve out some flexibility around the hijab, defying the law by exposing their hair in social media videos or in the street. But last year, after the election of a hard-line president, Ebrahim Raisi, the government cracked down.
In the months before the protests began, videos of the morality police dragging women into vans bound for re-education centers — in one case, while the woman’s mother begged them to stop — stirred fresh outrage among Iranians.
The crackdown by security forces against the protest movement has left hundreds dead, and the government has threatened harsh punishment for dissent, including executions.
Rights groups say that at least 400 people have been killed since the protests began, including 50 minors, and the United Nations has said that about 14,000 people have been arrested. The government says at least 30 members of the security forces have been killed.
In September, the United States imposed sanctions on the morality police.
The tensions have even seen into the World Cup in Qatar, where Iranian players tried to find a middle ground between protesters’ urging them to use their platform and a government intolerant of dissent. The team declined to sing the Iranian national anthem before its opening game, though days later, it appeared to grudgingly go through the motions before another match.
Emma Bubola contributed reporting from London.
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