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Women standing in front of veiled mannequins at Fajr International Fashion And Clothing Festival
For decades, Iran's government has promoted what it considers the 'Islamic dress code'Image: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto/picture alliance
SocietyIran

Who are Iran's 'morality police'?

Monir Ghaedi
December 4, 2022

Iran is reportedly mulling disbanding its "morality police" after months of protests following the death of Jina Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for allegedly wearing her hijab incorrectly. Who are they? What do they do?

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Back in mid-September, Iran's so-called morality police arrested 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini in Tehran for wearing what they deemed inappropriate clothing. They then took her to a police station, where she slipped into a coma. Three days later, on September 16, she died in hospital. Amini's death sparked widespread anger, leading to anti-government rallies that almost three months later continue to embroil dozens of cities across the country.

An Iranian lawmaker said Sunday that Iran's government is "paying attention to the people's real demands,'' state media reported, a day after an official suggested that the country's morality police had been shut down.

So, what exactly is the "morality police" force and what are they tasked to do?

Image of a group of young women from behind, holding their headscarf in their hand.
Protests erupted in Tehran and other cities soon after Jina Mahsa Amini's death, leading to another anti-government riotImage: UCG

What does the 'morality police' do?

"Gasht-e-Ershad," which translates as "guidance patrols," and is widely known as the "morality police," is a unit of Iran’s police force established under former hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Wearing the hijab became mandatory in Iran in 1983. It was not until 2006 that the unit began patrolling the streets, tasked with enforcing the laws on Islamic dress code in public. 

According to Iranian law, all women above the age of puberty must wear a head covering and loose clothing in public, although the exact age is not clearly defined. In school, girls typically have to wear the hijab from the age of seven, but that does not mean they need to necessarily wear it in other public places.

A major part of Iran’s social regulations are based on the state's interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, which requires both men and women to dress modestly. However, in practice, the "morality police" have in the past primarily targeted women.

There are no clear guidelines or details on what types of clothing qualify as inappropriate, leaving a lot of room for interpretation and sparking accusations that the "morality" enforcers arbitrarily detain women. 

blurred photo of Jina Mahsa Amini
When arrested, Jina Mahsa Amini was wearing what is widely considered conventional by Iran's standards: A long, plain black dress with a black and white headscarfImage: Social Networks/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

Morality police squads have in the past been made up of men wearing green uniforms and women in black chadors, garments which cover the head and upper body. Those detained by the "morality police" are given a notice or, in some cases, are taken to a so-called education and advice center or a police station, where they are required to attend a mandatory lecture on the hijab and Islamic values. They then have to call someone to bring them "appropriate clothes" in order to be released.

Morality police also enforce dress code

In addition to cracking down on hijab violations, the government also promotes its version of Islamic dress code in schools, national media and public events.  

However, many Iranian women find ways to defy the ultraconservative dress codes — pushing the boundaries by wearing tight-fitting garments and using the headscarf as a colorful accessory, exposing a lot of hair. Again, there are no hard-and-fast rules on how much hair can be revealed.

A 2018 survey published by Iran's parliament showed that between 60 and 70% of Iranian women do not follow "the Islamic dress code" strictly in public.

Under Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s ultra-conservative administration, the "morality police" increased its presence in big cities. In response, thousands of women went out in the streets without a headscarf, with some sharing videos of themselves online to encourage others.

In an unprecedented move, hundreds of religious women began to speak up against compulsory hijab wearing online. Even some conservative figures, including members of parliament, began criticizing the law and the police force, saying that it has had a negative impact on public attitudes toward the hijab and religion in general. 

Activists have fought against compulsory hijab wearing for decades, with several of them currently in prison.

Oslo-based NGO Iran Human Rights said Tuesday that at least 448 people had been "killed by security forces in the ongoing nationwide protests." Thousands have been arrested, including prominent Iranian actors and footballers. Actor Hengameh Ghaziani published a video of herself on Instagram where she removed her head covering. She was detained and later freed on bail, local news agencies reported. 

No details have been provided on the implementation of the decision to disband the "morality police" force or what it means for the requirement of women to wear headscarves.

Edited by: Nicole Goebel and J. Wingard

This article was updated on December 4, 2022, to reflect new information about the status of the morality police.

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