The morality police are back on the streets of Iran: Here’s everything you need to know about “The Guidance Patrol”

On Monday, July 17, it was reported by media outlets all over the world that the morality police in Iran had returned to the streets. 

This branch of the Islamic Republic’s police force had seemingly for the most part been pulled back after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini last September. 

The regime’s authorities announced on Sunday, July 16 that a new campaign would follow through on forcing women to wear the hijab—the mandatory Islamic headscarf—ten months after Amini’s arrest and death in police custody instigated widespread protests throughout the country. 

So what is the morality police and why have they been brought back? Were they even abolished to begin with?

Here’s what we know about the latest developments on the ground in Iran.  

1) The “morality police” is essentially a religious vice squad 

The Guidance Patrol is an Islamic religious police force in the Law Enforcement Command of the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

The morality police, as it is widely known, was implemented circa 2005-2006 when special police units formally known as Gasht-e Ershad—or Guidance Patrols—were tasked with enforcing Sharia Law, which imposes strict hijab laws for women. 

The morality police was formed as a successor organization to the older Islamic Revolution Committees, and reports to the Supreme Leader, Ali Hosseini Khamenei.

2) Last year, Mahsa Amini was detained by the morality police and she died in police custody 

Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, was detained by the morality police when she was visiting the capital city Tehran with her brother on September 13, 2022.

Three days later, Amini died in hospital while still in police custody. Reports came out that officers had beat her with a baton and banged her head against one of their vehicles while taking her to what they called a “re-education center.” 

Iranian authorities blamed her death on an underlying health condition—something Amini’s father vehemently denied. A coroner’s report also disputed the idea that Amini died from blows to her head and limbs. 

3) Scores of Iranians demonstrated in outrage against the morality police in the aftermath of Amini’s death

Many Iranians expressed indignation and outrage at the death of Mahsa Amini. Widespread protests against the morality police and the wider clerical establishment engulfed the country. 

Over the past ten months, hundreds of people have been detained and killed in crackdowns by the authorities. The regime has condemned the protests as foreign-fueled riots. 

It has also been reported that a number of protestors have been executed after what the United Nations has labeled as “sham trials marred by torture allegations.”

Videos of the protests have been posted on social media via Iranian activists living abroad such as Mahsi Alinejad. The images showed women and girls burning their hijabs in open dissent. 

Many women and girls continue to disobey the imposed dress code in defiance of the regime. 

4) By October, the morality police had largely disappeared from the streets 

In the weeks after the death of Amini, the Guidance Patrol was not visible on the streets of Iran. 

There could be different reasons for that, Jasmin Ramsay, who is the Deputy Director for the Center for Human Rights in Iran (based in New York City), told me last December for The Globe and Mail

“One [reason] could be that it’s not safe for them to be on the streets in the face of so much anger directed on them,” she said. 

5) In December, there were reports that the morality police had been disbanded 

During a religious conference in the city of Qom last December, it was reported by international media outlets that Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri said that the Iranian morality police was being “abolished.”

International media prematurely called the “announcement” a victory for Iranians who have been protesting against the government—particularly since the death of Amini in police custody. 

Montazeri’s comment came in response to a reporter who asked if the country’s morality police were being disbanded. The attorney general was quoted by an Iranian state media outlet as saying: “Morality police have nothing to do with the judiciary. It was abolished from the same place it was launched.”

6) But human rights groups say that this was actually a propaganda tactic by the regime

Ramsay also said that when tensions get high, the regime typically relaxes the rules. “[In the past] sometimes they had the morality police take to the streets to a lesser extent when people get upset.”

She continued: 

“They’ll focus more on [breaking up] parties or they’ll put girls in custody and then bring them back. It’s a way to subdue people.”

Ultimately, Sharia Law is still in place, Dr. Nina Ansary, Director of the World Affairs Council of America, said in a conversation I had with her late last fall. “So whether the morality police are [physically present] is irrelevant.”

7) In recent months the regime has installed surveillance cameras to capture women breaking the country’s hijab laws 

Even though the morality police may have been hidden from public sight for the most part since the death of Amini, they never really left Iran. 

Instead they turned to artificial intelligence to enforce the dress code as authorities struggled to contain the demonstrations.

In April, Reuters reported that in a further attempt to rein in the rising number of women not abiding by the compulsory hijab laws, the regime were installing cameras in public places “and thoroughfares to identify and penalize unveiled women,” as announced by the police. 

“After they have been identified, violators will receive “warning text messages as to the consequences,” police said in a statement at the time. 

The statement said the strategy was to “prevent resistance against the hijab law,” and was carried by the judiciary’s Mizan news agency as well as other state media. The statement also said that “such resistance tarnishes Iran’s spiritual image and spreads insecurity.”

8) Just days ago, it was officially confirmed that morality police patrols would resume across the country “to deal with [people who] insist on disobeying the norms”

On July 16, police spokesman Saeed Montazerolmahdi said in a statement that the morality police would be back on the streets in order to “deal with those who, unfortunately, ignore the consequences of not wearing the proper hijab and insist on disobeying the norms”.

Montazerolmahdi continued: 

“If they disobey the orders of the police force, legal action will be taken, and they will be referred to the judicial system.”

9) Many believe that the morality police doesn’t hold the same power over the people it once did

Some Iranians don’t think the morality police have the same hold it did before the death of Mahsa Amini. 

A university student identified only as Ismaili expressed doubt that the officers would be able to impose the dress code as they had before Amini’s death.

“The number of people who do not obey is too high now,” she told Reuters news agency (via BBC). “They cannot handle all of us, the last thing they can do is use violence and force against us. They cannot do it.”

The reformist newspaper Hammihan warned that the resumption of patrols could “cause chaos” in society, while reformist politician Azar Mansouri said it showed the “gap between the people and the state is widening.”

10) Iranians have been boldly posting on social media condemning the return of the morality police 

Late Saturday, police arrested Mohammed Sadeghi, a young up-and-coming actor in a raid on his home for urging women to defend themselves if they were accosted by the morality police. 

Sadeqi claimed in an Instagram post that the state had “declared a war” on them and advised women to carry “machetes” to fight back. “Trust me, people will kill you,” he warned officers. He posted a video in response to another online video showing a woman being detained by the morality police.

“Believe me, if I see such a scene, I might commit murder,” he said, as per the BBC

Within hours, Sadeqi partially live-streamed a raid by plainclothes security forces on his home in Tehran where he was forcibly arrested. 

The BBC reported that the judiciary’s Mizan news agency said Sadeqi  was accused of “instigating violence through unconventional and unlawful comments online.”

11) Human rights activists vow that even though the physical presence of the morality police may be back, Iranian women will not go back to how things were ten months ago

Women have played a leading role in the demonstrations, and on Monday, both Pourzand and Iranian American human rights lawyer Gissou Nia told Global News. Nia said that they will continue to do so.

“Iranian women and Iranian civil society are not going back to where they were 10 months ago,” Lily Pourzand told the media outlet. Pourzand fled Iran more than two decades ago because she feared persecution for her work in support of women’s rights.  

Pourzand’s parents—her mother was a human rights lawyer and her father a well-known journalist—were imprisoned by the regime. 

Her mother was eventually exiled and her father was tortured in prison before “his death under suspicious circumstances,” as per Global News on July 18. 

Pourzand believes Sunday’s announcement to be a sign of “fear” from the Islamic regime in the aftermath of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement.

“They know that they cannot control [us] anymore,” she said. “They know that there are too many women now, [and] that they want the same thing. They want freedom.”

Pourzand said that many of the leaders have been murdered, and many of them have been forced into exile. “So it’s not a one-night movement. It has a history, it has its own roots and they’re not going to give up the fight.”

Cracks in the system, built on “gender apartheid,” are growing and the regime knows it, Pourzand added. “Iranian women rise on their own, they’re each other’s shoulders.”

Also read:

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has been published by The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.

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