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The history of Iran's so-called morality police

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

There are fewer protesters on the streets of Iran today. Security forces are cracking down on the anti-government demonstrations that followed the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. The young Kurdish woman died earlier this month while in the custody of Tehran's Guidance Patrol, more commonly known as the morality police. We wanted to learn more about the morality police and their place in Iranian society. Professor Roxane Farmanfarmaian teaches international politics of the Middle East and North Africa at the University of Cambridge. We asked her about the modern history of the Guidance Patrol.

ROXANE FARMANFARMAIAN: It was established formally in the early 1990s after the Iran-Iraq War. But, in fact, the compulsion to wear the veil had already become something that was required inside Iran before that and had come in after the revolution in 1979. And between 1979 and 1990, when the morality police was formally set up, there was a great deal of pressure on women, often by just people in the streets or by random members of the police forces. And they were often harassed and attacked for not correctly wearing the hijab.

SUMMERS: You mentioned that much of their focus is on women and how they dress. Are there other areas that the morality police focus on?

FARMANFARMAIAN: Well, actually, when the leader of the revolution, the cleric Khomeini, came in, he ensured that Islamic dress and modesty was something that everyone should practice. And, in fact, that has been something that is part and parcel of the doctrine of Islam. So they do have a mandate to have a look at how men present themselves. And, in fact, this is one of the ironies of the whole picture in Iran, because back in 1936, the shah's father banned veils as something very un-modern. And, in fact, police beat women who wore them at that time. And then, you know, 40 years later, it went through a complete reversal. And the cleric that led the revolution, Khomeini, mandated that the Islamic dress code was now required.

SUMMERS: Today, on a practical level, how much control does the Guidance Patrol have on the day to day lives of people in Iran, and particularly the women who live there?

FARMANFARMAIAN: Well, it has varied over time, and that variability reflects the nature of the political doctrine that's held by the president. If it's a reformist president and party that's in power, there will be less strict rules that are imposed. What the women face are fines. They could receive lashes - up to 74 lashes. And although it's illegal, often they also suffer beatings or knife attacks or even acid thrown at them by officials and by bystanders.

SUMMERS: You know, there have been protests and struggles about police brutality in a number of countries, including here in the U.S. So I'd like to ask you, what makes the concerns about the Guidance Patrol different?

FARMANFARMAIAN: Well, the morality police or Guidance Patrol are completely focused on women. And it is an example of how the states will take women's rights and abuse them. And in this particular case, where a young woman died as a result of simply not wearing her veil correctly, that was a trigger for the people of Iran who are already feeling a great deal of grievance against the way that the state has been handling their economic futures and their ability to feel a sense of liberty and exercise their rights. It is for that reason that the morality police have become such a target of the upset that we're seeing sweep through the country.

SUMMERS: That was University of Cambridge professor Roxane Farmanfarmaian. Thank you so much for joining us.

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

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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