Manaksha Memon describes an ongoing turmoil
It has been more than 12 weeks that protests are held in Iran without any break. The agitation for Iran abolishes morality police has spread practically all over the cities and towns of the Persian plateau and it has shown no sign of abating despite the best efforts of the clerical regime. In the latest attempt to defuse the crisis the clerical regime has given allowed a huge concession by abolishing the hated morality police whose self-righteously-driven ideological actions triggered the current turmoil when a young Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini died in its custody. Right from the outset it was noted that the protest movement had a feminist character but as it progressed further it has also united citizens of different classes and ethnicities around a shared desire to see the end of the clerical regime. Though this spate of process is not the first faced by the regime as it has countered numerous protest movements before but it had succeeded in suppressing each one with a combination of severity and deft exploitation of divisions within the opposition.
Keeping in view the past record of such records many observers are of the opinion that the clerical regime will ultimately survive the tumult. It is observed that the regime has constructed very strong tools for dealing with such protests and it would be difficult to dislodge it. However, they are also of the opinion that though protests may ultimately taper off but the reasons for them will remain and they will keep on bothering the regime for years to come. On the other hand, some observers also point out that the resilience and unity shown by the regime’s opponents have consigned the old pattern of episodic unrest to the past. Iran has entered a period of rolling protest in which the Islamic Republic must defend itself against wave upon wave of public anger. This movement without a name, without a leader, is diverse and adaptable. It has harnessed a vast and hitherto underexploited resource – the latent dissatisfaction of women at their second-class status – and turned it into a mighty asset.
It must also be kept in view that the first success it achieved was that since the early days of the revolution, significant numbers of women in cities across the country are going about their business without any form of hijab at all. Besides the social radicalism that female protesters bring to the movement, its other novelty is its youthfulness. From older Iranians – the ones who stay at home worrying about their protesting children, or who reluctantly accompany them, hoping to steer them out of harm’s way – one often hears the phrase the fear has evaporated. It appears that Iranians have not much to lose as most of them have spent much of their lives watching inflation rise, the rial tank and their prospects of marriage, a flat and a car recede. To them the access to the world outside Iran’s borders is virtually denied while sanctions continue to inhibit growth and spending power. Moreover, the hard line authorities impede access to the internet and more and more economic power accrues to regime figures and their families.
One manifestation of complete alienation of the Iranians recently emerged when the Iranian players taking part in Qatar Football World Cup chose not to sing their national anthem. However, it was too much for the authorities and then what happened was that the team dutifully sang the anthem before their remaining two group games. It must be kept in view that before these protests began, everyone was able to get behind the national football team, a unifying force in an otherwise polarised society but Iran’s elimination from the tournament on 29 November was greeted with jubilation by many back in Iran, where one reveller was reportedly shot dead by the security forces for hooting his car horn in celebration.
Other players who defied the official dictates include a female climber who competed in an overseas competition without hijab and a table tennis player who has withdrawn from the national team in protest at the crackdown. The impact of the protests in deep and wide compelling the 79- year old former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami making rare public comments praising anti-government protesters and urging the authorities to heed their demands before it is too late. He added that the beautiful slogan of woman, life, freedom showed Iranian society was moving towards a better future while criticising arrests of students in the security forces’ crackdown.
The protests however have resulted in something important in the context of Iranian polity as the clerical regime has scrapped its morality police after more than two months of protests. The Iranian attorney general said that the morality police have nothing to do with the judiciary and consequently have been abolished. His comment came at a religious conference where he responded to a participant who asked why the morality police were being shut down. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that overthrew Iran’s US-backed monarchy, there has been some kind of official monitoring of the strict dress code for both men and women but under president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the morality police, known formally as the Gasht-i-Ershad or “Guidance Patrol”, was established to spread the culture of modesty and hijab.
The units were set up by Iran’s Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, which is today headed by President Ebrahim Raisi. They began their patrols in 2006 to enforce the dress code which also requires women to wear long clothes and forbid shorts, ripped jeans and other clothes deemed immodest. The hijab became mandatory in 1983. Morality police officers initially issued warnings before starting to crack down and arrest women 15 years ago. The squads were usually made up of men in green uniforms and women clad in black chadors, garments that cover their heads and upper bodies. The role of the units evolved but has always been controversial even among candidates running for the presidency.
Clothing norms gradually changed, especially under former moderate president Hassan Rouhani, when it became commonplace to see women in tight jeans with loose, colourful headscarves. But in July this year his successor, Raisi, called for the mobilisation of all state institutions to enforce the headscarf law. The announcement of the units’ abolition came a day after it was mentioned that both parliament and the judiciary are working on the issue of whether the law requiring women to cover their heads needs to be changed. Raisi said in televised comments that Iran’s republican and Islamic foundations were constitutionally entrenched but there are methods of implementing the constitution that can be flexible.
Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia also employed morality police to enforce female dress codes and other rules of behaviour. Since 2016 the force there has been sidelined in a push by the kingdom to shake off its austere image. In September, the Union of Islamic Iran People Party, the country’s main reformist party, called for the hijab law to be rescinded. The party, created by relatives of former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, demands authorities to prepare the legal elements paving the way for the cancellation of the mandatory hijab law. Recently it also called for the Islamic republic to officially announce the end of the activities of the morality police and allow peaceful demonstrations. TW