Confusion over Iran’s religious police over women dropping hijab

CAIRO (AP) — Confusion over the status of Iran’s religious police increased as state media cast doubt on reports of the force’s closure. Despite the uncertainty, for weeks it has looked like enforcement of the strict dress code will be scaled back as more women take to the streets without the mandatory headscarf.

The conflicting messages have sparked speculation that Iran’s clerical-led leadership is considering concessions to defuse widespread anti-government protests, which are entering their third month. The protests were triggered by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was arrested by the religious police.

Another three-day nationwide strike called by protesters began Monday. About a third of the shops in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar were closed, witnesses said. In response, Iran’s judiciary chief Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehi ordered the arrest of anyone who supported the strike or attempted to intimidate stores into closing.

Established in 2005, the Morality Police are tasked with enforcing Iran’s restrictions on public behavior and strict dress codes — particularly for women, who are required to wear the hijab or headscarf and loose-fitting clothing.

Outrage erupted after Amini’s death in police custody in mid-September after she was arrested for allegedly breaking the dress code. Since then, the protests have escalated into calls for the removal of Iran’s spiritual rulers.

On Saturday, Iran’s chief prosecutor, Mohamed Jafar Montazeri, said the religious police had been “closed down” in a report published by the semi-official news agency ISNA. He was also quoted as saying that the government is reviewing the mandatory hijab law.

“We are working quickly on the hijab issue and are doing our best to find a thoughtful solution to deal with this phenomenon that is making everyone’s heart ache,” he said, without giving details.

But late Sunday, the Arabic-language state-run newspaper Al-Alam published a report suggesting that Montazeri’s comments had been misunderstood. According to the report, the religious police are not connected to the judiciary, to which Montazeri belongs. She stressed that no official had confirmed the closure of the religious police.

It also referred to Montazeri’s further statement that “the judiciary will continue its monitoring of behavioral responses at the community level.”

The hard-hitting news website said the vice squad “has not yet been terminated and closed”. But it added that “its mechanism might change, a point that was discussed before the riots”. The site is close to the Basij, the feared paramilitary force under the powerful Revolutionary Guard dedicated to protecting Iran’s clergy-led system.

The status of the force could not be confirmed. Officials have avoided comment. When asked by journalists in Belgrade about Montazeri’s testimony, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian did not give a direct answer.

Nevertheless, fewer moral police officers have been seen in Iranian cities for weeks. Across Tehran, it has become common to see women walking the city streets without wearing the hijab, especially in more affluent areas — but also to a lesser extent in more traditional neighborhoods. Sometimes unveiled women walk past anti-riot police and Basiji forces.

The anti-government demonstrations showed little sign of stopping despite a violent crackdown that left at least 471 people dead, according to rights groups. According to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that monitors the demonstrations, more than 18,200 people have been arrested.

Protesters say they are tired of decades of social and political oppression, including dress codes. Women have taken the lead in protests, taking off their headscarves.

Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said informal relaxation of the hijab law could be the government’s current policy.

“Instead of changing the hijab law, the Islamic Republic will most likely not enforce the law for the time being to ease tensions with society,” Alfoneh said.

Meanwhile, residents said security was tightened at the Grand Bazaar on Monday, the first day of the strike. There have been two previous strikes at the bazaar in solidarity with protesters. A shopkeeper who was open Monday said he had been warned by authorities not to join the strike after closing during a previous strike.

Others said they just couldn’t afford to take part.

“I cannot close my shop, although I support the cause of the protests,” said the owner of a headscarf shop, speaking on condition of anonymity for his safety.

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