The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Dissolving Iran’s morality police won’t change much of anything

A woman walks in Tehran on Tuesday. (Majid Asgaripour/West Asia News Agency/Reuters)
3 min

“Abolish” is a big word. If you’re using it, you had better be sure you’re using it right.

That’s why I’ve been reluctant to repeat, retweet or even comment on the news this week that Iran “abolished” — according to an embarrassing number of headlines — its infamous morality police.

The initial reports were based on the comments of Iranian Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, who alluded to the shuttering of the notorious police force in a response to a question at a news conference. On Monday, another government official closer to the specific committee that oversees hijab enforcement apparently confirmed the closure.

It’s very tempting to take this dissolution and run with it as a sign of change in Iran. The morality police were not only behind the detention and death of Mahsa Amini that set off nationwide protests; they have long been reviled. My very first report for The Post back in July 2012 was about their unwelcome annual reemergence to enforce full-body coverings for women during the hot Tehran summer. At first glance, the morality police’s disbanding looks like a big concession to protesters specifically, and a sea change in Iran generally.

But there’s a catch: Even if the morality police stop patrolling the streets, that alone would have no bearing on the hijab laws that govern women’s dress. Plenty of other agencies exist that could enforce hijab if ordered to do so. In fact, the moral enforcement spokesman also reportedly said Monday that government officials are already busy weighing the creation of what would be a Morality Police 2.0 — taking advantage of “newer, more updated and detailed methods” to impose hijab and other draconian values.

Nothing is getting “abolished” here. Slavery is abolished. Child labor is abolished. Should Iran’s supreme leader one day come out and say women can dress however they like, that will be abolition (and even that would fall short of protesters’ demands of an end to the regime). Right now, though, in the Islamic republic, the hijab is at most getting a makeover, all because of one official’s offhand response at an in-country news conference.

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Unfortunately, those of us outside the country let that distract us; the news of the morality police, at least momentarily, sucked up all the oxygen in the global conversation about Iran. Meanwhile, actually consequential things are unfolding there. Look at the three-day strike of thousands of retail businesses underway right now, or at the mass trials of protesters that are beginning to lead to death sentences. These events are much more important — and much less noticed — than the non-story of the morality police.

To be fair, independent media is in a difficult spot. Iran is not the same as, say, Ukraine, where international press is not only freely admitted but also welcome and wanted; hardly any foreign journalists are allowed in the Middle Eastern country, and those who do gain entry compromise themselves in the process. Yet Western readers still clamor for a comprehensive picture of the protests in Iran — and criticize the media when it can’t provide one. On the morality police, the outside press got a morsel of a satisfying story and, eager to compensate, went overboard.

The real takeaway here is that the outside world cannot be too cautions interpreting events in Iran. Because our putting stock in the closure of a shoddily created unit of nonprofessionals who arbitrarily impose rules rooted in arbitrary interpretations of sharia law underscores a fundamental problem with our understanding of life in the Islamic republic right now: We don’t have one.