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The morality police in Iran have returned to enforce headscarf rules for women

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

In Iran, the morality police are back on the streets, and officials are promising strict enforcement of mandatory Islamic headscarf rules for women. This comes 10 months after the death of a young Kurdish woman who was detained by the morality police for allegedly wearing the hijab improperly. NPR's Peter Kenyon is following this story from Istanbul. Peter, what do we know about this announcement?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, it came out Sunday when a police spokesman said patrols and police vans would be returning to the streets following calls by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and other officials for a return to strict enforcement of the Islamic dress code. The spokesman said legal action will be taken against women who ignore warnings and, quote, "insist on breaking norms." He didn't offer any further details about what that meant.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, remind us of the young woman who died in police custody last fall and the impact her death had in Iran.

KENYON: Yes. Mahsa Jina Amini died on September 16 of last year, just four days shy of her 22nd birthday, after she was detained by the morality police. And now the police claim she fell ill and died while in custody. But that story was widely disbelieved, and her death triggered mass protests that started in Kurdish northern Iran, but quickly spread all across the country.

At first, the protesters demanded justice for Mahsa Amini, but within a short time they were demanding the complete overthrow of Iran's cleric-led government. So as unlikely as it may sound, the morality police essentially then vanished from the scene for months. Some had hoped they had been abolished, in fact. But Sunday brought confirmation that's definitely not the case.

MARTÍNEZ: And you've been reporting on the ways Iranian women have been continuing to rebel against the mandatory headscarf. Tell us about that.

KENYON: Well, that's right. Women have been steadily pushing for the right to make the hijab rules optional, a matter of choice among Iranian women, and not a mandate handed down from the government. Public spaces, shopping malls and commercial businesses have been one focus of this. Whereas store and restaurant employees once routinely warned women to put on the hijab or they'd be forced to leave the premises, that is happening less and less frequently. And women continue to ignore the strict dress code, particularly in the capital, Tehran, and other major Iranian cities.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. So clearly, the authorities probably not happy about that, which may explain why the morality police are now back on the streets. But what makes this issue of the headscarf continue to be so important in Iranian society?

KENYON: Well, this has been an issue for a long time, and it is extremely important, especially for Iranian hardliners. And as it happens, they effectively run the country now. The Raisi government is packed with hardliners. Hardliners also control the parliament and much of the judiciary. But despite their control of these levers of official power, the desire for greater freedoms among the Iranian population continues unabated.

Hardliners have come in for some unpleasant surprises. They were shocked by the sweeping mass protests that swept the country last fall, especially when the demand of the demonstrators started to focus on ending the current regime. And then they remain concerned about the flouting of the dress code. It's continuing despite a brutal crackdown that left more than 500 people dead, nearly 20,000 in custody.

This latest announcement suggests that the regime really has no new ideas, no new approach to dealing with the issue, simply the continuation of threats and force. And there's no sign that Iranian women and their supporters are prepared to accept that. So we will have to see how big and how widespread this deployment turns out to be and then what the results are.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, that's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thanks for your reporting.

KENYON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.