Iran’s ayatollahs cornered by hijab, re-education centers and morality police

Protest in the streets of Tehran for the death of the young Mahsa Amini, 22, while she was arrested by the Iranian regime’s morality police. WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS. (WANA NEWS AGENCY/)

The city of Tehran has a curious border in its geographical center: the Grand Bazaar, where carpets are sold, businesses of all kinds are cooked and Iranians throb. To the south, everything is blacker. The women are covered from head to toe in their chador. To the north the colors appear. On the famous Valiasr street (the longest in the Middle East, they say) the hijab that covers the head and shoulders appears in all shades. And the kind of “overalls” that women wear due to the religious imposition of the ayatollahs’ regime passes to browns and beiges. Arriving at the traditional northern Tajrish bazaar, overlooking the mountains, the girls wear scarves in the style of Sofia Loren riding a scooter through Rome in the 50s and let them fall naturally on the shoulders. The “overalls” are stylish and bought at Mango.

All this is turned upside down when the rumor begins to circulate that The Gasht-e Ershad, the morality police, created by the regime to “promote virtue and prevent vice,” is turning around. They are the ones who impose the “correct” use of clothing on women. In those cases, the girls take out long black scarves from their bags and begin to cover themselves as much as possible. They all button up their coats so that nothing is exposed or shows the shapes. The shopkeepers get furious, they lose customers. If they find any “irregularity”, the police, older women with bitter faces dressed entirely in black and even with black gloves – who are of course accompanied by the “basijis”, the paramilitary militia -, the person is arrested and taken to re-education centers. They are true prisons in which they must attend classes where they are taught how to dress according to the norm and that many times they lead to beatings and floggings. Those arrested are released once they have endured several hours of talk and propaganda and whenever an adult male member of the family goes to look for them.

Protests in Tehran.
Protest on a highway on the outskirts of Tehran with the burning of the scarves that the yatollah regime imposes on Iranian women (Twitter)

“It would be hard to find an average Iranian woman who doesn’t have a history of interaction with the morality police and re-education centers. That’s how present they are,” explained Tara Sepehri Far of Human Rights Watch. “And the result is one of deep terror because of the treatment they received when they were confronted with them.”

The repression is permanent and when the Basijis arrive it is because, in general, They have already received precise information from one of the thousands of informants that swarm Tehran. That is what happened last week when they took Mahsa “Jina” Amini, a 22-year-old girl from a family of Kurdish intellectuals. She was arrested by Gasht-e Ershad officers around 6 pm on Tuesday, September 14, near Tehran’s Shahid Haqqani metro station. She was accompanied by her brother Kiaresh. They took her to give her, supposedly, an “informative class” but in reality she received a series of blows to the head and ended up in the emergency room of Kasra Hospital, where she was pronounced dead two days later..

It is not the first time this happens. Nor the first to launch protests in the streets with deaths and injuries. Although it is different in the sense that It produced a strong shock in the heart of the Iranian Shiite clerics where there still seems to be some consciences that weigh these deaths. They had to come out to admit that “there were excesses” and that this time “there will be consequences.” President Ebrahim Raisi called on Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi to “investigate the cause of the incident with urgency and special attention.” Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sent a person to offer condolences to the family. An unprecedented attitude.

Iranian Morality Police, Gasht-e Ershad
An Iranian morality police patrol, the Gasht-e Ershad, in the streets of the northern neighborhoods of Tehran. (Telegram)

The protests began in Saqquez, the city inhabited by the Kurdish minority, on the border with Iraq, where Jina Amini was born and lived and her family is well known. It soon spread throughout Iran and the world. Scenes like those recorded in Nouruz were experienced, the Persian New Year that is celebrated in March of each year and that the Shiite revolution of 1979 could not banish. That day, people jump over the fire defying the devil or evil in a ceremony that has more than 3,000 years of tradition and origins in Zaratruism. Now, big fires were lit again in the streets and the girls danced around them while throwing their hijabs that the morality police force them to wear.

The regime’s militiamen went out to repress and have already left 12 dead and dozens wounded. Any peaceful protest in Iran is answered with bullets. There have been numerous similar protests in recent years that have all ended the same way. For example, that of the so-called “blue girl” in September 2019. Sahar Khodayari set herself on fire as an act of protest and died of her injuries a week later. Khodayari had faced legal proceedings for trying to attend a football match at the Esteghlal stadium, whose shirt is blue. And like then, now the protests are motivated by pain, not by mere grievance. The pain opened the way to a new and broader mobilization. A photo of Jina Amini’s parents desperately waiting for news in the hospital emergency room, widely shared on social media in Farsi, united many in that pain. And he put Iran’s repressive apparatus back in the limelight, raising the question of responsibility and impunity enjoyed by the country’s clerical elite.

The system had never been so in question. On the streets they changed the name of the Gasht-e Ershad, vice police, to Ghatl-e Ershad, murder police. And there were even “escraches”, signs and protests at the doors of the “reeducation” centers that are recently created.

Iranian Morality Police, Gasht-e Ershad
The Iranian morality police, the Gasht-e Ershad, acting in a checkpoint in a neighborhood in northern Tehran. This woman was taken to a “re-education center” where she received lessons in morality and how to wear the compulsory jihab.

The first of these establishments was opened in 2019, explained Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, adding that “Since their creation, which is not based on any law, the agents of these centers have arbitrarily detained countless women under the pretext of not complying with the state-forced hijab.”

These places act as detention centers, where women – and sometimes men – are detained for failing to meet “state modesty standards.” Inside the facility, detainees are given classes on Islam and the importance of wearing the hijab, and are then forced to sign a pledge to abide by state dress code before being released. “They are treated like criminals, booked for their offense, photographed and forced to take classes,” Ghaemi added in an interview with France24.

Iran already dictated to women how they should dress long before the creation of the current Islamic Republic. In 1936, the pro-Western ruler Reza Shah banned the wearing of veils and scarves in an effort to modernize the country. Many women resisted. Then, the Islamic regime that overthrew the Pahlavi dynasty made the hjyab compulsory in 1979, but the norm did not become law until 1983. Since then, there have been several movements against the compulsory wearing of the headscarf, such as the the “Street Girls of the Revolution” in 2017 and the annual protests in the National Hijab and Chastity Daywhich is celebrated on July 12.

Protests over the death of Mahsa Amini
Mahsa Amini, pictured left, was a 22-year-old student of Kurdish origin who was beaten by Iranian morality police (left) and died two days later sparking widespread protests (center).

A survey conducted by a parliament-linked research center in 2018 showed that the position of people who believe that the government should enforce the wearing of the hijab is in the minority. And a 2014 report by the Iranian Students’ News Agency had shown a 15% increase, to 55%, of those who believe that the hijab should not be compulsory. There has also been a rhetorical shift among the country’s leaders, who advocate “education” and “correction” against the forced application of Islamic valuesaccording to recent work by researcher Sepehri Far.

All of this adds to the discontent over the handling of the pandemic that left almost 150,000 dead, a paralyzed economy and skyrocketing inflation. The harshest slogans can be heard on social media as women burn their scarves or cut their hair in protest. The demonstrators chanted “We are the children of war, come to fight, we will defend ourselves” and “death to Khamenei” (the supreme leader). “This time the protesters are not just asking for justice for Mahsa Amini,” Ghaemi said. “They also ask for the rights of women, their civil and human rights, a life without religious dictatorship.”

“We already know that there were many protests and so far the regime remains as firm as ever. We also know that we have a serious lack of leadership to channel these protests. But the novelty is that what you see on the street and talking to people is that they reached such a point of exhaustion that they are willing to do something else to end this pulse of death”, is the observation of Tara Kangarlou, author of “The Heartbeat of Iran”, who wrote in a column published last week in several European newspapers.

Iran, protests.
A group of women escapes police repression following the protests over the death of Jani Amini after being arrested in Tehran by the police of morality and good customs. (twitter)

And this is precisely revealed by one of the rare nationally representative polls that Gallup did last year. He says that “Iran is a country beset by anger and sadness.” Respondents were asked what emotions they had felt the day before. The responses were overwhelming: 34% experienced anger, 36% pain, 40% sadness, and 43% stress. In response to Amini’s death, journalist Omid Tousheh captured the national mood and transcribed it in a tweet: “Pain, anger and despair pour out of the door and the walls.”

Now it will be necessary to see if these feelings caused by the death of Jani Amini lead the Iranians to a new attempt at profound reforms. or if everything ends in despondency and despair as has happened other times. The fires are still lit and the handkerchiefs are in the air.


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