Navigating Tehran’s Subways: The Disturbing Reality
For many commuters in Tehran, utilizing the subway system has become synonymous with navigating what locals grimly refer to as “tunnels of horror.” The corridors and entrances of Tehran’s subway stations are patrolled by hijab guards—women clad in black chadors and green sashes. Their explicit role is to identify and confront women not adhering to the mandatory headscarf rule. While the purpose of these squads is apparent, the responsibility for their deployment has been shrouded in mystery, until now.
Classified Revelations: Unveiling Government Links
The revelation of a classified Interior Ministry document has pulled back the curtain on the Iranian state’s direct ties to the hijab guards. This revelation, coupled with legal actions against the reformist newspaper that dared to publish the classified information, has exposed a government cover-up, reigniting public fury over the heavy-handed enforcement of the hijab law in the Islamic republic.
Government Denials and Public Backlash
Despite persistent government denials of any connection between the state and the hijab guards, recent developments have contradicted these claims. Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi, as recently as November 22, asserted that these squads were not under his ministry or the morality police, notorious for their severe treatment of hijab violators. Vahidi maintained that the guards were voluntary, operating out of religious faith and independently of state authorities.
Unmasking the Reality: “Popular Groups” or Government Agents?
Vahidi went so far as to describe the hijab guards as “popular groups,” emphasizing their voluntary nature and framing their actions as part of an Islamic duty to promote virtue and prevent vice. However, skepticism and public outcry ensued, challenging this narrative and calling into question the autonomy of these groups.
Lingering Tensions Over Hijab Law
The controversy surrounding the hijab guards unfolds against the backdrop of heightened tensions over Iran’s hijab law. The authorities, responding to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody in September 2022, strengthened the hijab law. Amini’s death, following her detention by the morality police for alleged improper hijab wearing, sparked nationwide protests and a wave of demonstrators’ deaths.
Legislative Measures and Empowered Agencies
In response to ongoing public anger, the parliament approved an updated version of the hijab law around the anniversary of Amini’s death. The revised legislation includes harsher penalties, with violators facing prison sentences of up to 10 years. Additionally, three intelligence agencies—the Intelligence Ministry, the Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Organization, and the Intelligence Organization of the Judiciary—were empowered to take action against hijab law violators.
Emergence of Hijab Guards Amid Suppression Efforts
As the authorities sought to suppress the Women, Life, Freedom movement that gained momentum after Amini’s death, reports surfaced about the appearance of hijab guards in subways. These incidents fueled public resentment, with concerns growing over the increasing presence of morality enforcers in public spaces.
Tragic Incidents Fuel Public Outcry
Tragedies further intensified public anger. The death of Armita Garavand, a 17-year-old, following an alleged encounter with “morality” enforcers in a Tehran subway station on October 1, brought outrage to the forefront. Conflicting reports suggest she was assaulted by the morality police, while others point fingers at the hijab guards.
The Document that Unraveled the Deception
On November 26, Etemad newspaper’s publication of a “highly confidential” document bearing the Interior Ministry’s seal pierced through Vahidi’s denial of state involvement with the hijab guards. Dated June 9, the document detailed the guards’ responsibilities, instructed on their deployment in public places, and outlined a broader strategy for dealing with hijab violators, including photographing them for police arrest.
Government and Hijab Guards: A Coordinated Effort
The document further clarified the apparent link between the government and the hijab guards. The Headquarters for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a government institution instrumental in shaping Iran’s morality laws, confirmed that over 2,800 guards were deployed. Coordination extended to state bodies such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Basij forces, the Tehran municipality, and the Prosecutor’s Office.
Legal Action Against the Truth: Muzzling the Press
The government’s response was swift and severe. The Public Prosecutor’s Office filed criminal charges against Etemad for publishing the classified document. This legal action to muzzle the press, combined with Vahidi’s claims of the guards’ autonomy, triggered a wave of criticism from political circles and media outlets.
Calls for Accountability: Dismissing Vahidi?
Amid the scandal, calls for accountability resonated. The reformist Voice of Iranians party accused Vahidi of being a “liar” in a letter to the judiciary. The letter argued that Vahidi’s misleading statements were a more significant transgression than the alleged hijab violations, echoing the public sentiment for truth and accountability.
In the midst of this unfolding controversy, Iran finds itself at a crossroads, grappling with the consequences of government deception and the public’s demand for transparency and justice.