What Western media got wrong by claiming Iran abolished its morality police
How one official’s vague claim was mischaracterized — and was this a diversion tactic by an embattled regime
Over the weekend, news spread in numerous reputable media outlets that the Islamic Republic of Iran had dismantled its controversial morality police.
Wikipedia even changed its entry, with the edited text suggesting the force had officially been disbanded.
But these reports all rested on a vague statement made by one Iranian official, one who in the same breath said his department is not responsible for the morality police.
Not only is it unconfirmed that the morality police have been disbanded, but statements by officials since have made it clear that sharia law — and its restrictions on women's dress — will continue to be enforced.
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The morality police came under the scrutiny of Western media as of Sept. 16, the day 22-year-old Iranian-Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini died after being detained by officers for not wearing her hijab properly.
The circumstances of Amini's death, and the force's involvement, have since triggered protests against the police and the Iranian regime that have swept across the country and the world.
What did media outlets claim?
The New York Times for instance, reported it as being an "apparent victory for feminists."
Who did the claim come from?
The original claim came from a vague comment made by one regime official — someone who is not in charge of Iran's morality police.
At a press conference, Iranian Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri was asked why the morality police, which in Persian is called Gasht-e-ershad, has not been seen on the streets in recent days.
Montazeri said the following: "The morality police has nothing to do with the judiciary system. The same source that created it in the past — from that same source it has been shut down. Of course, the judiciary system will continue its surveillance of social behaviours across society."
While reports suggest the morality police is not seen prominently on the streets, the regime has continued its violent crackdown on Iranian protesters. It has employed multiple military forces, including members of the country's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its plainclothes agents, to brutally crack down on protesters. According to one human rights group, 500 Iranians have been killed, including at least 60 children — and more than 18,000 people have been detained.
What does that tell us?
The top prosecutor's comments include a few important points the media should have taken into consideration.
Firstly, the attorney general admitted the morality police does not fall under the purview of the country's judiciary. And he also did not specify who exactly allegedly shut down the morality police — or when and how it was shut down. Instead, his comments were "vague and non-transparent," as BBC Persian reported early on.
Notably, Montazeri said the enforcement of the country's Islamic sharia laws would continue by means of "social surveillance" — demonstrating that whether the morality police exists or not, Iranian women will still be subjected to the same punitive legal system dictating the Islamic dress code.
Has the regime made false claims about the morality police before?
Yes. Late in 2017, IRGC Brig. Gen. Hossein Rahimi, who also heads the Greater Tehran police, claimed that Iranian women would no longer be jailed for not wearing the hijab. Rahimi said women would instead receive lessons to "reform their behaviour."
But in 2018, police in Tehran arrested 29 women for taking part in the "White Wednesdays" campaign, where women across Iran protested the mandatory hijab by climbing onto telecom boxes, taking off their headscarves and waving them on a stick.
A number of these women and their mothers are still imprisoned.
And while the morality police is the arms-length body that physically enforces the Islamic dress code, the country's strict mandatory hijab law — which came into effect in 1979 — remains in place.
What has the Islamic Republic said since the press conference?
Iranian state media forcefully pushed back on the top prosecutor's comments, insisting it is the Ministry of Interior that oversees the morality police — not the judiciary.
Montazeri was also quoted in Iranian state media rebuking reporting by the international media, saying that "no official authority in the Islamic Republic of Iran has confirmed the closure of the morality police."
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Why did media outlets mischaracterize this vague claim?
Iranians on social media quickly expressed their dismay at the way international media reported the news, many suggesting it stems from an inherent misunderstanding of what the protests in Iran stand for.
"I think it simply underscores that the global community wants a neat resolution to this story and is not realizing that the Iranian people want a full overhaul of the system — not just the morality police," Gissou Nia, an Iranian-American human rights lawyer at the Atlantic Council told CBC News.
And Western institutions, including the media, have had a poor understanding of the Iranian regime for a long time, said Iranian-Canadian human rights activist and lawyer Kaveh Shahrooz.
"Instead of listening to democracy and human rights activists, these institutions mistakenly listened to analysts who told them that Iran's regime is basically normal and can be trusted," Shahrooz said.
"Iran's regime is not normal; its official statements are often lies designed to mislead the world. Our media should not take them at their word and must exercise extra caution when reporting on Iran."
Why some Iranians say this is a diversion
Iran has seen an unprecedented wave of anti-regime protests for almost three months, beginning after Amini's death in custody.
This week, protesters organized strikes across different cities in the country.
Many activists argued on social media that Montazeri's comments were a form of misinformation and, in fact, a tactic employed by the Iranian regime to stop the ongoing protests in Iran.
"International media outlets must learn that when dictatorships like the Islamic Republic are in trouble, they spread propaganda, as the Iranian regime did in 2017 and as they did today," prominent Iranian-American activist Masih Alinejad said on Twitter. "This is their modus operandi."