Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Intramural politics

It's spring and the hardliners in Iran want to ensure that women don't use the warmer weather as an excuse to violate the national dress code. Or is it a summer jobs program for teenagers?

Influx of morality police to patrol the streets of Tehran
Police in Tehran are deploying 7,000 undercover morality agents tasked with a fresh crackdown on women defying strict rules on the wearing of the hijab, among other offences deemed un-Islamic.

Every spring, as the temperature rises and with it the desire of people to go out, the authorities in Iran tighten their grip on social norms, increasing the number of the so-called morality police deployed in public places.

They target anything from loose-fitting headscarves, tight overcoats, shortened trousers for women and glamorous hairstyles to necklaces for men. Walking dogs has also been added to the long list of activities that upset the authorities.

It is not clear if the announcement is a response to the recent launch of the Android smartphone app Gershad, which enables users in Iran to circumvent the morality police vans based on information about their locations collected by other users…

The news prompted a great deal of reaction online in Iran. “I wish we were living in a country where instead of undercover agents targeting morality, we had undercover agents targeting corruption of the officials,” tweeted one user. Another user said: “From now on, if someone is stalking you in the street, it’s not the thief, it’s the undercover morality police.”

An Iranian environmentalist and journalist tweeted: “In the whole country, we only have 2,600 conservationists protecting the environment, while in Tehran alone 7,000 people have been hired to police people’s hijab.”…

[President] Rouhani has made clear that he is opposed to such crackdowns but the police operate under the direct control of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Rouhani’s administration is at odds with hardliners over a number of domestic issues and some critics believe these crackdowns are also aimed at undermining his efforts to bring greater social freedoms.

Who are Islamic 'morality police'?
News that Iran has deployed thousands of undercover agents to enforce rules on dress has cast the spotlight on an institution that is a major feature of daily life in several Muslim-majority countries.

Police forces tasked with implementing strict state interpretations of Islamic morality exist in several other states, including Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Malaysia.

Many - especially those with an affinity with Western lifestyles - chafe against such restrictions on daily life, but others support the idea, and growing religious conservatism has led to pressure for similar forces to be created in countries that do not have them.

Name: Gasht-e Ershad (Persian for Guidance Patrols), supported by Basij militia

Who they are: Iran has had various forms of "morality police" since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but the Gasht-e Ershad are currently the main agency tasked enforcing Iran's Islamic code of conduct in public.

Their focus is on ensuring observance of hijab - mandatory rules requiring women to cover their hair and bodies and discouraging cosmetics.

They are empowered to admonish suspects, impose fines or arrest members of the public, but under reforms that come into force this year, will soon no longer be able to do any of these things.

Instead, 7,000 undercover Gasht-e Ershad agents will be deployed to report suspected transgressions to the police, who will decide whether to take action.

The Gasht-e Ershad is thought to draw a lot of its personnel from the Basij, a hard-line paramilitary unit; it also includes many women.

What people think: They are mainly seen as a scourge for urban women - usually from wealthier social groups - who try to push the boundaries of the dress code.

This includes wearing the headscarf as far back on the head as possible, or by wearing looser clothing, especially in the heat of summer, although men sporting "Western" hairstyles are also at risk.

Fear of encountering them has even prompted the creation of Android app that helps people avoid Gasht-e Ershad mobile checkpoints.

President Hassan Rouhani has expressed opposition to the Gasht-e Ershad, but Iran's constitution gives him little sway over the security forces.

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