In April 2016, news about Iran deploying thousands of undercover agents to enforce rules on dress cast the spotlight on the media. This police force, also known as the morality police, is a significant feature of daily life in several Muslim countries. They patrol not only in Iran, nor since 2016, but in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Malaysia and many others.
In 1990, President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s administration merged parallel state institutions, including the security and military apparatuses. Iran’s Parliament passed a law requiring the government to combine the four forces to form modern police. It included the Islamic Revolutionary Committees, shahrbani (the urban protection order agency), the gendarmerie, and the judicial police. The new force, named Law Enforcement Force of the Islamic Republic of Iran (NAJA for the Iranian initials), became operational in April 1991.
NAJA is affiliated with the Interior Ministry. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, designates the Interior Minister -who only is responsible for logistical issues-, the chief of staff of NAJA, and the higher echelons of police officers. The organization is an armed force subordinated to Iran’s Supreme Leader, who is also the Commander in chief of Iran’s armed force.
The guidance patrol, also fashion police or morality police, was established in 2005 as part of the NAJA. Iran has had various forms of morality police since the Islamic Revolution, which took place in 1979. Now, the Gasht-e Ershad is the agency tasked with enforcing Iran’s Islamic dress code and conduct in public. Their focus is on ensuring the hijab. They were able to admonish suspects, impose fines and arrest them, but under the reforms of 2016, they lost the power to do any of these things. Instead, seven thousand undercover agents were deployed the same year to report any transgression to the police, who will decide whether to take action or not.
The former President, Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021), expressed himself against the guidance patrol. He was a moderate Islamic politician who encouraged personal freedom in opposition to President Ebrahim Raisi, a fundamentalist and principlist politician. In the last months, activism against the hijab has grown, increasing the number of arrests and violence against women who don’t respect the Islamic dress code.
Mahsa Amini was arrested by Tehran’s morality police last September 14 while visiting the capital with her family. According to Human Rights Watch, she was with her brother in front of the Haghani metro station when the guidance police arrested her for what they described as an “improper hijab”. They did not offer any other explanation than the vague argument of the hijab. Police told the brother that his sister was going to a Greater Tehran police precinct for an orientational and educational class. Some hours later, he learned that his sister had been taken to a hospital. Mahsa’s brother went to the headquarters, where many women who left the building were saying “they killed someone in there”. They all started shouting.
A day after the arrest, Iran’s Police Information Center declared that Mahsa had collapsed from a heart attack while in custody. The next day, a video that showed Amini entering the “orientation class” and falling went viral. The video, without audio or date, was provided by the police cameras and showed a woman that police identified as Mahsa Amini, who gets up from her seat and talks to a woman before falling. Then, it cuts to medics arriving and carrying her to the ambulance. Also, the Iran Human Rights Center tweeted a photo where she was lying unconscious on a hospital bed. She had tubes in her mouth and nose and bruises all over her face. Former and current Parliament members and the president called the authorities to clarify the incident. Amini went into a coma in the hospital and died on September 16.
Recent incidents of police abusing their force against women for not respecting compulsory hijab laws have drawn widespread criticism. After the incident, protests took place in Tehran and around the country. Authorities launched probes into the death of Mihsa Amini following a demand of President Ebrahim Raisi. Amnesty International asked, via Twitter, that “allegations of torture and other ill-treatment in custody, must be criminally investigated”. Human Rights Watch has stated that “a woman dying after being arrested because of how she was dressed is evidence of outrageous depravity”. Organizations and people are showing their desire for a more respectful treatment of women in the Islamic culture, according to their human rights.
Many women had taken off their hijabs and cut their hair to demonstrate their support for the anti-hijab movement and their repulsion for Amini’s death. Not even the restrictions have stopped them. Crowds chanted “death to the dictator” and “death to Khamenei”, referring to Iran’s Supreme Leader. Many officials, celebrities, and athletes have not only condemned but also called for an end to the practice of detaining women for not observing hijab rules. Security forces have been deployed to disperse the crowds around the hospital where she died and other hot spots in Iran’s capital.
The UN has expressed alarm at Iranian authorities due to the protests that are taking part in the region. More than seventy people died, many of them presumably killed by the police after they opened fire to ease the crowds. Death toll rises as the crackdown intensifies.