The death of a 22-year-old girl who was in the custody of the so-called “morality police” in Iran has sparked a strong wave of protests across the country.
Mahsa Amini was arrested last week for allegedly failing to comply with strict regulations on women’s veiling.
Witnesses said Amini was beaten inside a police van after being detained in Tehran.
Police denied the allegations, saying the woman “suffered a sudden heart problem.”
Mahsa Amini’s case has brought into the spotlight the role of the morality police, known as Gasht-e Ershad (Guidance Patrols in Persian).
The force is an important presence in the daily life of Iran and is charged with implement the strict interpretations of Islamic morality.
Iran has had various forms of “morality police” since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but Gasht-e Ershad is currently the main agency tasked with enforcing the Islamic code of conduct in public.
They are in charge of arresting people – mainly women – who violate the conservative dress code to “promote virtue and prevent vice”.
Their main focus is on ensuring the observance of the hijab, the veil that covers the hair, and discouraging the use of cosmetics.
The patrols generally consist of a van with male agents accompanied by women dressed in chadors – a veil that covers the head and the whole body – who stand in crowded public places, such as shopping malls, squares and subway stations.
The agents have the power to stop women not wearing hijab or wearing it incorrectly, evaluating if they show too much hair, if their clothes are too short or their pants are too tight, or if they wear too much makeup.
The codes also prohibit the wearing of ripped jeans, brightly colored outfits and dresses that expose the knees.
Lessons and fines
Detainees are notified or, in some cases, taken to a “correctional center” where they are given a lesson on how to dress and behave “morally”.
They are usually released the same day and handed over to a male relative.
Sometimes the punishments for breaking the rules they may also include a fine, imprisonment, or flogging.
The Gasht-e Ershad is made up of and backed by the Basij, a paramilitary force that was initially mobilized to fight the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
The Basij has a presence in all iranian universities to monitor people’s dress and behavior, since it is in higher education centers that Iranian men and women meet for the first time in a mixed educational environment.
But decades after the Islamic Revolution, rulers continue to face problems enforcing the rules.
a policeman speaks
In a rare interview, a morale police officer spoke anonymously to the BBC about his experience working on the force.
“They told us that the reason we are working for the morale police units is to protect women,” she said. “Because if they don’t dress appropriately, then men could be provoked and harm them.”
He said they work in teams of six, made up of four men and two women, and focus on areas with heavy foot traffic and where crowds gather.
“It’s weird, because if we’re just going to guide people, why do we have to pick a bustling place where we potentially might have to arrest more people?”
“It’s like we’re going hunting.”
The officer added that his commander would scold him if he doesn’t identify enough people who violate the dress code, and that he finds it particularly difficult when people resist arrest.
“They expect us to force them into the van. Do you know how many times I cried while doing it?
“I want to tell you that I am not one of them. Most of us are ordinary soldiers doing our compulsory military service. I feel so bad”.
For several years, Iranian women began to organize protest campaigns on social networks by sharing photos and videos of themselves publicly flouting hijab laws.
The internet protests have inspired various movements including “My Hidden Freedom”, “White Wednesdays” and “Revolution Street Girls”.
As the AFP agency reports, Mahsa Amini’s case has provoked rare criticism from senior officials about the conduct of the morality police.
Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf said on Tuesday that the conduct of the police force must be investigated.
“To prevent these cases from recurring, the processes and method of implementation in orientation patrols (…) must be investigated,” he said, according to the state news agency IRNA.
Likewise, the Organization for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, affiliated with the government and created to encourage good behavior and prohibit immoral activities, pointed out that the police unit “should not arrest people for violating the dress code.” .
“You must change the way you see this issue,” the influential organization said in a statement, stressing that opposes “the arrest and trial of ordinary people” for dress code violations.
“The criminalization of those who do not wear the veil and the arrest, filing of cases and prosecution of people that only lead to social tensions (…) must be modified by law,” he added.
Iran is not the only country where it wields a force that polices Islamic moral values. It also exists in Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Malaysia, among others. (YO)