Confusion over Iran’s religious police as women drop hijab

it has appeared for weeks that enforcement of the nation’s strict dress code has been scaled back, with more women seen in public not wearing the required headscarf.

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A woman walks through Tajrish bazaar in northern Tehran, Iran.

A woman walks through Tajrish bazaar in northern Tehran, Iran.

Vahid Salemi / AP

Confusion over the status of Iran’s religious police has increased as state media cast doubt on reports the force had been shut down.

Despite the uncertainty, it has appeared for weeks that enforcement of the nation’s strict dress code has been scaled back, with more women seen in public not wearing the required headscarf.

The mixed messages have raised speculation that Iran’s cleric-run leadership is considering concessions in an effort to defuse widespread anti-government protests that have been going on for three months. The protests were sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the religious police.

During another three-day nationwide strike called by protesters in recent days, about one-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 encouraging the strike or trying to intimidate shops into shutting down.

The morality police, established in 2005, enforces Iran’s restrictions on public behavior and strict dress codes — particularly on women, who are required to wear the hijab, or headscarf, and loose-fitting clothes.

In mid-September, there was an eruption of outrage after Amini’s death while in the moraility force’s custody after she was arrested for what authorities said ws failing to meet the dress code.

Since then, the protests have grown into calls for the ouster of Iran’s clerical rulers.

Last weekend, Iran’s chief prosecutor Mohamed Jafar Montazer, said in a report published by the semi-official news agency ISNA that the religious police “had been closed.”

He also was quoted as saying that the government was reviewing the mandatory hijab law.

“We are working fast on the issue of hijab, and we are doing our best to come up with a thoughtful solution to deal with this phenomenon that hurts everyone’s heart,” he said, providing no details.

Arabic-language state outlet Al-Alam later suggested that Montazeri’s comments had been misunderstood.

The hard-line SNN.ir news website said the morality police “has not come to an end and has not closed.” But it also said, “Its mechanism would possibly change, a point that was under discussion before the riots.”

The site is close to the Basij, the feared paramilitary force under the powerful Revolutionary Guard, which is dedicated to protecting Iran’s cleric-led system.

For weeks, fewer morality police officers have been seen in Iranian cities. Across Tehran, It has become common to see women walking the city’s streets without wearing the hijab, particularly in wealthier areas but also to a lesser extent in more traditional neighborhoods. At times, unveiled women walk past anti-riot police and Basiji forces.

The anti-government demonstrations have shown few signs of stopping despite a violent crackdown in which, according to rights groups, at least 471 people were killed. More than 18,200 people have been arrested, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group monitoring the demonstrations.

Protesters say they are tired of decades of social and political repression, including the dress code. Women have played a leading role in protests, stripping off their headscarf.

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