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Iran prosecutor general says morality police 'shut down'

Some Iranians voice scepticism towards Montazeri's remarks and say move 'not enough' to meet people's demands
An Iranian policeman speaks with a woman siting in a police car after she was arrested because of her "inappropriate" clothes in Tehran, 23 July 2007 (AFP)

Tehran, and Istanbul, Turkey - Iran's Prosecutor General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri has said that the morality police unit has been scrapped after more than two months of nationwide anti-government protests.

Some Iranians have met Montazeri's statement with scepticism however, as it remains unclear if the move marks a tangible policy change.

"[The] morality police has nothing to do with the judiciary and was shut down by the same place that it had been launched from in the past," Mohammad Jafar Montazeri was quoted as saying by the IRNA news agency on Saturday evening.

The prosecutor was reportedly responding to a question on why the morality police "was being shut down". 

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There has been no other confirmation that the operations of the morality police patrolling units have been terminated.

'We have seen [this] before ... where the authorities and candidates make popular remarks as such to temporarily satisfy people's grievances'

Shima Vezvaei, journalist based in Tehran

Montazeri's statement comes as Iran grapples to contain the unrest sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody in September, after she was arrested for allegedly "improperly" wearing her headscarf.

"I think a comment from [Prosecutor General] Montazeri is not nearly enough," Shima Vezvaei, an independent researcher and journalist based in Tehran, told Middle East Eye.

"We have seen such reactions and statements before, particularly during election debates where the authorities and candidates make popular remarks as such to temporarily satisfy people's grievances and buy their participation or even silence their protesting demands."

Some Iranians however have expressed concern that Montazeri's comments hide the myriad ways the state could still exercise control over "morality" in the public space.

The prosecutor general's statement included a remark that "the judicial system will continue its surveillance on behavioural activities in society".

"He still said the judicial system will be involved in 'surveillance', which is an obscure comment," Vezvaei said.

'If they were serious'

The protests, encapsulated by the slogan "woman, life, freedom", were "never just about scrapping the morality police, but to abolish policing on women in all aspects," said Vezvaei.

"With that being said, I think to officially take a small step back and acknowledge one of the main demands of the people and the issues that initially gave rise to a wide but connected range of demands is an achievement for the movement, and it's an unprecedented moment in the women's rights movements in Iran in general."

'My generation has already abolished the hijab law. If you come [out to] the streets, you can see that many young girls do not cover their hair'

- Mohaddeseh, 21, a student

Rania, 25, a student of textile manufacturing at the University of Amir-Kabir in Tehran also voiced measured optimism, saying while the move was "great" it was not still enough.

"We need urgent reforms in domestic and foreign policy too. On domestic politics, for instance, the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] must go back to the barracks and stop its economic activities," she told MEE.

Meanwhile, Sogand, a 24-year-old Iranian who has taken part in the protests, called for the downfall of the Islamic Republic.

"We don't care for this decision. If they were serious about making reforms, they would have freed political prisoners and have closed down the undemocratic institutions like the Guardian Council," she told MEE.

On social media, meanwhile, reactions by Iranians have also been strident.

"I cannot be optimistic about Montazeri's statement. If the morality police has been really abolished, they would have declared it as a constructive and formal move," tweeted Pooria Asteraky, a reformist political activist.

Former political prisoner Atena Daemi said on Twitter that the announcement was meant to "deceive" the protesters.

Hijab reform

On Friday, Montazeri announced that the parliament and the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution would review the country's stance on mandatory hijab and release a report within two weeks. 

In a speech in the religious city of Qom, Montazeri stressed that any decision on the hijab issue should be based on a "planned approach".

The move to apparently scrap the power of the morality police is an indication that authorities are looking for a way out of the crisis, but some Iranians believe that the protests had already rendered the patrol unit redundant.

"My generation has already abolished the hijab law. If you come [out to] the streets, you can see that many young girls do not cover their hair, so we actually didn't need such [an] abolition of [the] morality police," Mohaddeseh, 21, a student of mathematics, told MEE.

Iran protests: What is the endgame?
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On Saturday, President Ebrahim Raisi said in televised comments that Iran's republican and Islamic foundations were constitutionally established "but there are methods of implementing the constitution that can be flexible".

As early as September, reformist politicians in Iran have publicly demanded the elimination of the morality police, locally known as Gasht-e Ershad, or "Guidance Patrol".

Two leading reformist newspapers demanded on their front pages the removal of the police branch responsible for implementing laws related to women's hijab.

Under the headline "the demand for shutting off Gasht-e Ershad", Etemad published an open letter by a former legislator, Elias Hazrati, in which he urged Raisi to abolish the Islamic morality police.

"I demand that you ... order the removal of Gasht-e Ershad to heal the pain of millions of Iranians," Hazrati wrote. "According to many lawyers, the formation of this police branch has no legal basis."

The morality police was established in 2006 under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to "spread the culture of modesty and hijab".

Clothing norms and restrictions gradually relaxed, especially under former moderate president Hassan Rouhani. But in July, his successor, Raisi, called for the mobilisation of "all state institutions to enforce the headscarf law".

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