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What Iran has planned for its morality police

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Protesters in Iran are calling for a three-day strike this week. This comes after nearly three months of protests over the death of a 22-year-old woman who was in the custody of the country's so-called morality police. The status of that patrol unit is now unclear. An Iranian government official over the weekend created confusion about whether the unit has been suspended. Joining us now is Nahid Siamdoust. She's a assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies at UT Austin. Thank you so much for being with us.

NAHID SIAMDOUST: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Are we seeing any evidence on the ground that the morality police aren't operating anymore?

SIAMDOUST: Yes. In fact, since the death of Mahsa "Jina" Amini, people have not seen the morality police in action on the streets. And so the question that was posed to the secretary, the prosecutor-general in the middle of a press conference was precisely because of that, because people have seen the morality police basically disappear from the streets. And so a reporter asked him, what is the status of the morality police? And the response in the statement that has been so widely publicized was in response to that in which he said, you know, the unit that established it at first has now disbanded it.

MARTIN: OK, so have more questions on that. But let's just take a second to define the morality police for those who don't know. I mean, this is a unit that goes around enforcing rules like what women should be wearing, right?

SIAMDOUST: That's right. So a few years into the revolution, 1983, the law on hijab was formalized. And starting from there, really in a more systematic way, these committees, these patrols started, you know, going around the streets and enforcing hijab rules. In 2005, that was systematized. And so the force was put under the auspices of the police. That was really supposed to represent a sort of reform where it was more systematically done than by, you know, vigilante groups or less centrally directed groups. And the ante was upped, really, with the election of President Ebrahim Raisi about a year ago, where he said, we will bring greater morality to the streets. And so women started experiencing greater arrests and, you know, harassment by the morality police on the streets.

MARTIN: But - so now we've got this top prosecutor saying that the morality police have been suspended. But it's my understanding that the Iranian government hasn't confirmed or denied that fact.

SIAMDOUST: That's right. I mean, this has been - you know, everybody knows - we know that the conversations have been taking place even before, you know, the killing of Mahsa "Jina" Amini. But for sure, since her killing and, you know, the revolutionary uprising that has started in Iran, they just haven't been on the streets, even though, of course, you know, security forces have gone around injuring and killing protesters. But the morality police as such, as a patrol, hasn't been on the streets. And so although the conversations have been around, there really hasn't been any kind of official statement about the status of the morality police. So if nothing else, it is the first time that we hear officially, publicly from, you know, the prosecutor-general, any official of the Islamic Republic about the disbandment of the morality police.

MARTIN: Why wouldn't the government want to publicize this?

SIAMDOUST: Well, it's not clear that they know what they're doing. And, you know, I just want to caution us against thinking that this - you know, because there have been many headlines telling us that it's gone, and perhaps this means freedom over hijab. Nobody knows. And I'm not sure that that means at all because it seems like they're trying to figure out what to do. And in the same press conference, the prosecutor-general also said, you know, the judiciary will still oversee people's behaviors on the streets. There have been other statements from, you know, MPs and other officials saying, we will go even harsher on the hijab. So it just seems like it's a moment when they're trying to figure out how to enforce the job and to what extent. But yeah.

MARTIN: So the - so we should just parse that out. Disbanding the morality police would not necessarily mean at all that the laws around - that govern what women can wear would change. It also could mean that just another security unit would take over that particular task.

SIAMDOUST: That's right. That's exactly it. So we just have to pause and wait and see what happens for now. It is not clear what this - you know, it was also a spontaneous, you know, statement in the middle of a press conference. So this was not an official and intentional sort of press conference just about the morality police. It sort of just came out. And now, you know, the cat is out. We know they're thinking about this, and they're trying to figure out what to do. Although previously, we - you know, on the same day that the statement came out, a group of reformists met with a member of the Supreme Council for National Security who's in charge of making policies about the morality police. And the - you know, the group of reformers pushed for disbanding the, you know, laws over hijab in general. And they did not receive a positive response. So it's just all being negotiated at the moment.

MARTIN: But as you point out, it's no longer sufficient for protesters to even see the disbandment of the morality police. It's structural for them. They want the laws overturned completely at this point.

SIAMDOUST: That's right. You know, the protesters were never really asking for concessions. We don't really hear that in the slogans, right? They want a wholesale change of this regime. And so that is not - you know, this would not be enough by any stretch of the imagination. And so these protests will be ongoing.

MARTIN: Nahid Siamdoust, assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies at UT Austin, thanks so much for your perspective this morning. We appreciate it.

SIAMDOUST: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.