09/23/2022, 11.57
IRAN
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Tehran, Mahsa Amini murder: the 'morality police' instrument of repression and death

The death of the 22-year-old Kurdish woman turns the spotlight on the Gasht-e Ershad, which monitors compliance with Islamic norms. Since the Islamic revolution of 1979, the clampdown on customs has been increasing 'step by step'. The hijab symbolises the protest for freedom and rights, especially for women. Demonstrations continue, at least 40 cities involved. Over 30 people killed in clashes. 

Tehran (AsiaNews) - The death of 22 year old Mahsa Amini has (re)turned the spotlight on Iran's notorious "morality police" squads that, since ultra-conservative President Ebrahim Raisi came to power, have tightened controls on compliance with traditional Muslim customs. Especially for women and beginning with the obligation to wear the hijab, the Islamic veil, which has long represented a battle for freedom and rights for the more secular and reformist side. And which in the case of the young woman from Iranian Kurdistan spotted as she was leaving a metro station in Tehran, where she was on a short holiday, turned into the cause of her arrest and beating - denied by the police - that led to her death.

The tragic event triggered a wave of protests the likes of which has not been seen in the Islamic Republic for some time, with a substantially new element: the presence of women on the front line  in the struggle for freedom and rights, against which the civil and religious authorities have applied an iron fist with arrests, censorship, interruption of communications and blocking of the Internet. All this has not prevented the spread of videos and images of the demonstrations in more than 40 cities, and of the related clashes, which caused the death of at least 31 people in a few days.

Demonstrations also reached neighbouring Turkey, where in Istanbul about a hundred people gathered at the Iranian consulate to show solidarity and condolences to the victim. Some women present also made symbolic gestures of protest: cutting their hair and burning their hijab. From New York comes the news of the last-minute cancellation of an interview with President Ebrahim Raisi by the well-known journalist Christiane Amanpour. The latter allegedly refused to veil her head, as imposed by the Iranian delegation. 

The compulsory headscarf and the morality police: the two knots around which Mahsa's story developed. The Gasht-e Ershad (this is the name in Farsi) are a special unit with the task of ensuring respect for Islamic traditions and customs, even going so far as to arrest and flog those who do not respect the rules or are dressed in an 'improper' manner. Tara Sepehri Far, an expert on the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch (Hrw), confirms that "it is difficult to find an average Iranian woman or family who has never had to deal" with a morality patrol, because of "how present they are" on the streets of small and large towns. 

Usually a team consists of six people, four men and two women, and they are given wide latitude in enforcing the law, arrested and taken to newly opened detention, or 're-education' centres. They are responsible for verifying the application of Sharia law, in particular the obligation for women to cover their heads, wear long and inconspicuously coloured clothes. Mahsa Amini allegedly ran into the mesh of a patrol because 'a lock of hair' was coming out of her hijab and this was also the signature of her death sentence. 

In a rare, and strictly anonymous, interview with the BBC, a member of the morality police states that the task of these squads is to 'protect women', because if they do not dress appropriately they 'provoke men and risk consequences', even serious ones. On many occasions, the source explains, it seems 'they are to go out to hunt' and arrest 'as many people as possible', a directive imposed by the authorities and which, not infrequently, is a source of unease. '[To those arrested] I want to say,' 'that I am not one of them. Most of us are simple soldiers, doing compulsory military service' he concludes. 

The struggle for the imposition of the veil began in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution and was fuelled, not without generating misunderstandings about how it should be applied, by the supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini himself. A process that "did not happen suddenly overnight", explains 78-year-old activist Mehrangiz Kar, but "has been increasing step by step", first with women offerin veils on the streets and then, since 1981, with the first laws instituting its compulsory wearing together with clothing in line with Islamic precepts. A 1983 parliamentary law sanctioned caning and, even more recently, imprisonment. 

The institutionalisation of the infamous morality squads is finally due to the ultra-conservative former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who after his electoral victory in 2004 imposed a further squeeze by giving 'formal' value to the body called upon to watch over customs (and women). Over time, his thugs have become more and more the object of discontent and a symbol of repression, going so far as to arrest one woman for wearing garish lipstick, another for a pair of flashy boots deemed 'too erotic'. All seasoned with punishments, even cruel ones.

Until the rise to power of the current President Raisi who, on 15 August last year during his first weeks in office, introduced a new list of restrictions, such as the Chinese-style video surveillance system. And gave a broad mandate to Gasht-e Ershad to enforce sharia-inspired rules, to the extreme consequences as the tragic story of the young Kurdish girl shows. Hadi Ghaemi, director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, is sure of this: "This time the protesters," he says, "are not only demanding justice for Mahsa Amini, but also women's rights, civil and human. A life without a religious dictatorship". 

 

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