Iran has abolished the vice squad, according to an announcement by the attorney general in state media, after months of protests sparked by the death of a young woman who was being held by the force for allegedly violating the country’s strict Islamic dress codes.
The decision, reported by state news outlets late Saturday night, appeared to be a major victory for feminists who have been trying to dismantle the force for years, and for the protest movement threatened by the death of young woman Mahsa Amini, 22, in September was kindled . The unrest has been one of the biggest challenges to Iran’s system of authoritarian clerical rule in decades, and the decision to abolish the morality police was the government’s first major concession to protesters.
The vice police “were abolished by the same authorities that installed them,” said Attorney General Mohammad Javad Montazeri’s statement, according to state media reports. But he went on to suggest that the judiciary would continue to enforce restrictions on “social conduct”.
He also pointed out that the authorities are reviewing headscarf regulations. However, it was not clear if the authorities intended to relax the hijab law, which remained in effect.
The Vice Police’s primary role was to enforce laws related to Iran’s conservative Islamic dress code, introduced after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and recently reaffirmed by the country’s new ultra-conservative president. The dress code for women became an ideological pillar of the ruling clerical establishment, central to its identity.
The restrictions require women to cover their bodies in long, loose clothing and their hair in a headscarf or hijab. Despite mass protests, long black robes and chadors, a black head covering that reaches to the chest, became the norm for women.
More on the protests in Iran
Cities across Iran have been engulfed in demonstrations sparked by the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, while in police custody.
When Ms Amini died in custody after being arrested by vice squads on a street in Tehran, the ensuing nationwide protests initially focused on Islamic dress codes.
The protests, now in their third month, have been led by women and young people calling for an end to clerical rule and more social freedom, capitalizing on years of pent-up anger. The protesters chanted “Woman, Life, Freedom”, tore off their hijabs, burned them in street bonfires and cut their hair in symbolic acts of defiance.
university students chanted “Murder after murder, to hell with the morality police!”
But the protests soon grew to encompass the full spectrum of dissatisfaction with Iran’s ruling establishment, making it unclear whether the protesters would be happy with the concession.
Fed up with political repression, censorship, corruption and economic mismanagement, demonstrators have called for an end to the Islamic Republic. They are targeting Iran’s most powerful man, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, squarely, and want to remove him from power.
In recent years, Iranian women had become bolder within the restrictions of the dress code, embracing brightly colored robes, barely covering their hair with loose wraps, and in some cases even letting their headscarves fall on their shoulders and baring their hair. Although morality police still roamed the streets, enforcement seemed patchy.
Women’s rights activists have been pioneers in creating greater flexibility around the hijab, defying the law with protests that have seen them baring their hair in videos posted on social media or in the streets. But after the election of a new uncompromising president, Ebrahim Raisi, last year, the government cracked down.
In the months before the protests began in mid-September, videos of vice squads dragging women into vans bound for re-education centers – in one case while the woman’s mother was asking her to stop – had sparked new outrage among Iranians.
In September, the US imposed sanctions on the vice squad.
The security forces have responded to the protest movement with a crackdown that has left hundreds dead, and the government has threatened harsh penalties for dissent, including executions.
Human rights groups say at least 300 people have been killed, including 50 minors, since the protests began, and the United Nations said about 14,000 people have been arrested. According to the government, at least 30 members of the security forces were killed.
Emma Bubola contributed reporting from London.