Iranian attorney general's remark that the morality police has been "put to a standstill" has whipped up a storm, fueling speculation that the controversy-ridden force may have been disbanded amid month-long protests.
Mohammad Jafar Montazeri said Saturday that the morality police force “has nothing to do with the judiciary" and was "put to a standstill from the same place it was set up", referring to the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution, an influential government body.
The top prosecutor, however, hastened to add that the judiciary will "continue to oversee" the observance of "behavioral patterns at the community level", a subtle signal that the mandatory dress code may remain in place whether or not the morality force survives.
The remarks, understandably, triggered an avalanche of reactions, with many reckoning that it was an obituary for the morality force that has been at the center of the storm since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in their custody in mid-September.
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Amini's death, after being detained by the morality police allegedly for not complying with the mandatory dress code, sparked sweeping protests across Iran, and waves of condemnation from Western governments.
The incident also brought to the fore the long-running debate about the usefulness of the morality police, with both reformists and conservatives in Iran weighing on reforms or complete dissolution of the force that is no longer seen on the streets.
Curiously, the attorney general's comments came barely two days after he said the issue of the hijab was under review by the judiciary, parliament and a top cultural body and the decision will be made in 15 days.
"We are working speedily on the issue of the hijab and doing our best to evolve a wise solution to deal with this phenomenon that hurts everyone's heart," Montazeri said on Friday.
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Morality police and hijab
While Montazeri's latest remarks made headlines worldwide, with many hailing it as a thumping victory for protesters amid unrest, Iran's state media quickly stepped into caution against jumping to conclusions.
Al-Alam, the state-run Arabic news channel, in a report on Monday said "no official authority" has confirmed the shutting down of the morality police, decrying media outlets who portrayed it as the Islamic Republic's retreat on the mandatory dress code.
Student News Network (SNN), a state-run news agency, took issue with "misleading headlines" declaring that the mandatory Islamic dress was "still a law" in Iran.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who is on an official visit to Serbia, was asked to react to the prosecutor general's remarks. The top diplomat's response was deft: "Everything is moving forward well in the framework of democracy and freedom."
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Hassan Bonyanian, a cultural commentator and formerly a member of Iran's Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution, said it's "necessary to have an official mechanism" for those flouting the hijab rules, but added that it should be "complemented by cultural efforts to convince people that hijab is good for them."
Bonyanian, speaking to Anadolu Agency, stressed it is a "delicate matter" and those responsible for implementing mandatory dress code rules "must be extra careful about their behavior."
The attorney general's remarks, incidentally, coincided with a meeting between senior reformist figures and Iran's top security official Ali Shamkhani on Sunday, in which participants reportedly presented proposals for short- and long-term reforms to "narrow the gaps" between the government and people.
Disbanding the morality police, according to prominent reformist Azar Mansour, who participated in the meeting, was one of the topics that figured in discussions, which came two weeks after many leading reformist figures held separate meetings with Shamkhani and judiciary chief Mohseni Ejei.
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Mohammad Ghanbari, a security affairs analyst, told Anadolu Agency that the issue of morality police "is still under review" despite Montazeri's revelation but it's "more likely that the force will be phased out".
"Disbanding it without proper review and revaluation will send a wrong signal to those who Iran has blamed for supporting anti-Hijab protests," he said.
Disbanding morality police
Known in the local parlance as "Gasht e Ershad" (guidance patrol), Iran's morality police was formed 16 years ago during the tenure of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, a hardline president who later fell out with the clerical establishment in Tehran.
Although hijab was deemed compulsory right after the 1979 Iranian revolution, it was not until 2006 that a separate police unit was designated for the task of enforcing the Islamic dress code in public places.
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According to observers, the morality police force became largely inactive during the time of Hassan Rouhani, who was not particularly fond of them. But, under Ebrahim Raisi, they made a comeback.
"A few incidents were reported this summer that triggered angry protests, but the issue of Mahsa Amini caught the imagination of the world," Ghanbari said, adding that the violence and rioting that followed initially peaceful protests "undermined the cause".
Remarkably though, President Raisi has since September repeatedly spoken about "flexibility" in the approach of morality police, while parliament speaker Baqar Ghalibaf was among the first senior officials to call for reevaluation in its method and approach.
Last month, Ghalibaf again insisted that reforms can be introduced, but before that "security should be fully established in the country", he said, conditioning reforms or dissolution of the morality force to restoration of peace and security in the country.
Pertinently, the protests, which first began in Amini's hometown in western Kordestan province in mid-September before spreading to other major Iranian cities and towns, have lately been marred by violence.
Iranian Interior Ministry's top security body in a report earlier this week said a total of 200 people, including protesters and security forces, have been killed since mid-September, pinning the blame on Western states for "fomenting unrest" and "supporting rioters."
Foreign-based NGOs, however, have put the number of fatalities in the months-long unrest at more than 450, with the US and European Union imposing a slew of human rights-related sanctions on Iranian officials and entities and sanctioning the morality police.
It remains to be seen whether the morality police will be disbanded, and more importantly, whether the Islamic Republic will give up on the mandatory dress code. The latter, according to observers, looks very unlikely.