Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1294, (5 - 11 May 2016)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1294, (5 - 11 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Moral pressure on Rouhani

The decision to deploy 7,000 morality police in Tehran is partly aimed at applying pressure on the camp of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, writes Mahan Abedin

Al-Ahram Weekly

As the summer season approaches, the Iranian judicial and police authorities, particularly in the Tehran metropolitan area, are preparing to confront increasing infractions related to the country’s Islamic dress laws.

While this has been a preoccupation since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the decision to deploy up to 7,000 undercover agents to combat un-Islamic behaviour marks a significant departure from the norm.

Notwithstanding the new undercover force’s wide remit, which includes monitoring sexual harassment, noise pollution and vehicle-related incidents, there is little doubt that the bulk of its work will be focussed on violations of the hijab or female dress code.

Despite evidence of increasing levels of hijab-related infractions, including documented instances of deliberate and calculated violations of the law, the new initiative has drawn fire from government supporters for its potential to produce “adverse effects”.

Furthermore, the administration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and its supporters are fearful of the new undercover force’s potential to undercut their cultural outreach programmes and, by extension, their political prospects in the run-up to next year’s presidential elections.

The Iranian authorities have been struggling for nearly four decades to fully apply the Islamic dress code, in particular the hijab, or Islamic headscarf, for female citizens. By law Iranian women are required to dress modestly from head to toe and to cover their hair in public.

On the issue of hijab enforcement there is a perennial struggle between the authorities and some segments of the female population, particularly amongst some young women in the affluent suburbs of Tehran. The latter are keen to push the boundaries by, for instance, wearing the headscarf in the loosest possible way.

Whilst instances of so-called “mal-veiling” (bad hejabi in Farsi) are not strictly speaking against the law, nevertheless they draw a response from the country’s morality police (Gashteh Ershad) in so far as they are interpreted as a deliberate snub to the country’s dominant cultural and religious values.

What is illegal, of course, is the removal of the head covering altogether (kashfeh hejab), which until recently had been extremely rare to the point of non-existent. But recent Internet-based campaigns such as “My Stealthy Freedom,” which encourage women to abandon the veil, albeit momentarily, have worried the authorities, even though there has been no evidence of kashfeh hejab beyond isolated incidents.

It is important to note that hijab enforcement and related Islamic norms and standards on dress and public conduct are foundational tenets of the Islamic Republic. The various organisations tasked with promoting and policing this issue, ranging from the state broadcaster to the judiciary and elements of the law-enforcement agencies, view the hijab as a strictly religious and legal matter that is above and beyond politics.

There is no evidence of any political motive in the acts of mal-veiling and attempts to suppress them, but it is reasonable to assume that harsh crackdowns by the morality police risk stoking resentment and alienation amongst segments of the urban youth demographic.

The judicial and law enforcement bodies appear to have heeded these concerns by framing the new morality squad as a purely monitoring and intelligence-gathering force. The new force has no powers of arrest and, by definition, the undercover agents cannot undertake any form of public intervention.

Tehran Police Chief Hossein Sajedinia has boldly claimed that “public demand” led to the formation of the undercover force and that the initiative is designed to enhance “psychological and emotional security” in society.

Despite these assurances, news of the new morality police immediately sparked opposition both from the government and elements of civil society. Not surprisingly, the issue quickly escalated into a new front in the political battle between supporters and opponents of Rouhani’s administration.

At the social level, many Iranian civil society activists reacted angrily to the news of the deployment of the undercover morality police by drawing attention to the considerable resources dedicated to it. Some argued that the resources would be better spent by deploying undercover agents against corrupt officials.

At the political level, the Rouhani administration wasted no time in decrying the new stealth initiative. Rouhani himself led the charge by warning that the latest morality-centred intervention could undermine “people’s dignity”.

Rouhani’s vice president for women and family affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, vowed that the government would “review the proposed force” as, according to her, many citizens have complained about it. Incidentally, the government cannot determine the operational decisions of the Tehran police force.

The fears of the government and the broad centrist-reformist coalition that underpins it may not be entirely misplaced. It is reasonable to assume that beyond introducing new methods of combating immorality and public disorder, the establishment views the initiative as an effective means to counter recent political gains by the centrist-reformist coalition.

At a tactical level, it is noteworthy that the plainclothes morality force will only operate in the Tehran metropolitan area. From an electoral point of view this is a critical area and one where Rouhani’s allies won all 30 seats in the recent parliamentary elections.

By curtailing socio-cultural freedoms in the nation’s capital, and triggering a concomitant depressive effect on the centrist-reformists’ natural constituency, the establishment may be attempting to forestall further political gains by Rouhani loyalists.

At a more wider level, and in view of the experience of former president Mohamed Khatami’s reformist administration from 1997 to 2005, the establishment is attempting to decouple reformist political gains from socio-cultural liberalisation.

The underlying message is that the Islamic Republic is determined to hold on to its foundational ideological and cultural values, irrespective of shifting political sands.

The writer is an Iranian political analyst and director of the research group Dysart Consulting.

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