The return of the so-called morality police to the streets of major Iranian cities has brought back fear and stress for women who choose to ignore the requirement that they wear the hair-covering hijab. But it has also been met with resistance by men and women alike, while lawmakers have questioned the effectiveness of the hard-line approach to enforcing compliance.
Iranians who spoke to RFE/RL’s Radio Farda said the presence of the morality police — officially known as “guidance patrols” that usually include male officers and women wearing black chadors — is not as visible as it was before the patrols were scaled back after nationwide protests first broke out against the hijab law last autumn.
I really don’t know where they want to get with this method, but in my opinion, if they want to continue this way, confrontations will start again.”
“Before, when we went on the street, they had a stationary vehicle, or a vehicle that was moving on the street,” Leila Mirghaffari, a women’s rights activist who lives in Tehran, told Radio Farda on July 17, a day after the return of the morality police was announced. “They haven’t yet dared to encroach like before. But they are present, mostly in main squares.”
Mirghaffari described the decision to redeploy the morality police, coming after the monthslong protests had largely wound down, as a distraction aimed at creating “fear and terror” among the population.
“It creates mental and emotional problems for us. It’s stressful, and it occupies our thoughts and those of our families,” Mirghaffari said. “When we want to leave home and come out to the street, at any moment we may travel a route where morality police patrol and are stationed to arrest people.”
Nevertheless, Mirghaffari and others suggested, the patrols are largely ineffective and have even given new life to resistance against the authorities’ efforts to enforce the country’s strict Islamic dress code.
Some Tehran residents who spoke to Radio Farda said that many women simply put on a hijab when they spot the morality police before quickly removing them once out of sight. And in some cases where women have been harassed or threatened by morality police, fellow citizens — male and female alike — have pushed back.
Almost immediately after the authorities announced on July 16 that the morality police patrols would resume, residents of the northern city of Rasht took to the streets to protest an attempt to arrest three women for allegedly violating the hijab requirement.
The situation reportedly escalated into clashes between demonstrators and police, who used tear gas to disperse protesters, some of whom were chanting against Iran’s clerical establishment.
“I really don’t know where they want to get with this method, but in my opinion, if they want to continue this way, confrontations will start again,” said a male Tehran resident who requested anonymity while answering questions on WhatsApp.
“Personally, if I see them taking a girl into a van, I will step forward and shout so as not to let them take them. That’s how things are, and I think most people now are like me. They don’t want the Mahsa incident to happen again and for another innocent girl to be killed.”
The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September, soon after she was arrested for allegedly violating the hijab law, sparked the nationwide protests that lasted months and prompted a crackdown that led to the deaths of more than 500 people. Amini’s death became the cause célèbre for thousands of women and men who took to the streets to show their opposition to the hijab law.
Amid the protests, there were reports that the authorities had disbanded the morality police, although other reports indicated that they never really went away in some cities. But the issue also prompted the clerical establishment, which views the hijab as key to its interpretation of Islam, to introduce revisions to the country’s Chastity and Hijab Law that would introduce stiffer penalties for noncompliance, including up to three years in prison for repeat offenders.
While the hijab has been compulsory in public for women and girls over the age of 9 since 1981, shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution ushered in the clerical establishment, the requirement is often flouted, particularly in urban areas.
The Chastity and Hijab bill, which is awaiting parliamentary approval, has been fodder for intense debate — with some lawmakers saying it does not go far enough to make women comply with the hijab requirement and others questioning the effectiveness of forcing women to comply.
Following the announcement that the morality police patrols would resume in many Iranian cities, lawmaker Vali Esmaili, who heads the parliament’s social commission, said that the body would unlikely be involved in the effort.
He also said that before resuming the patrols, “we should first look at the state of society to see if such actions have been effective in the past 43 years.”
The Chastity and Hijab bill also proposes penalties, including the confiscation of automobiles, against drivers or passengers of vehicles in which women are not in compliance with the hijab requirement.
“When I’m driving, I have to wear a hijab,” a woman who resides in Tehran told Radio Farda following the redeployment of the morality police, explaining that she has had her vehicle impounded four times for failing to wear the hijab. “But when I get out and move away from the car, I take off my head scarf. Many times, I just put it in my bag. Sometimes, when I see that the conditions are bad, I keep it around my neck, but I am still without a hijab in the street.”
The woman said that she has not personally seen any morality police since they returned to the streets of Tehran. But she has heard eyewitness accounts of the presence of marked morality police vehicles in the northern city of Shahriar, in Tehran Province, where she said most women wear head scarves and those who do not could be seen without a hijab not far from the morality police.
WATCH: Masses of demonstrators are turning out throughout Iran, where some are shouting down police enforcement of strict religious dress codes for women.
“There are the odd ones out who are without a hijab, and they were 100 or 200 meters away from the morality police,” she recalled being told of the current situation.
She said that even before the morality police returned to the streets, her experience in dealing with them showed that they were reluctant to enforce the hijab requirement.
“It’s pretty clear that they’re tired of this matter, but it seems like they have orders from above,” she said.
That is far from the norm, according to the activist Mirghaffari, who painted a dark picture of the morality police, whose involvement in human rights violations has led to Western sanctions.
“The morality police are truly violent. They are really repressive. They have no humanity,” said Mirghaffari, who added that she has been arrested by the force several times. “The morality police are really trained for savagery and for causing distress to the point that someone like Mahsa Amini could be killed. And they have no fear at all.”
Others who spoke to Radio Farda were incredulous that the authorities would reintroduce the morality police amid public frustration over Iran’s dire economic situation.
“The issue is not the hijab. The real issue is the terrifying inflation and high prices,” said the man who answered questions by WhatsApp. “But they are only fixated on the hijab. They are playing with everyone’s nerves, whether man or woman, whether with a hijab or without, they are bothering everyone.”
The renewed protests, which included women carrying placards bearing the “We won’t go back!” slogan that became popular during anti-hijab demonstrations, suggests that efforts to force women into compliance will be met with continued resistance.
“Look, our girls are fighting and know that there is no way back for us and we are not going back, and our answer to them wanting to forcibly put a hijab on us is, ‘No!'” said Mirghaffari. “This is a big step we have taken to reach our other desires and we will never go back.”