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Iran's 'morality police' are again enforcing the country's strict dress code

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Iran, the so-called morality police will resume patrolling the streets and enforcing the country's strict dress code. This comes 10 months after a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, died in police custody. She had been arrested for allegedly miswearing her headscarf, and Amini's death launched nationwide protests that went on for months and posed the biggest challenge to the Islamic Republic in recent years. We're joined now by Sanam Vakil, the director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House. Welcome.

SANAM VAKIL: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: Well, thank you for being with us. So let me ask you - I mean, in the last 10 months, women in Iran have been moving about their lives outside, many without wearing mandatory head covering. How are these women reacting to this most recent news now?

VAKIL: Well, there has been an indication over the past few months that the political establishment in Iran was seeking to gradually reinforce the country's hijab rules, and they have been empowering law enforcement, increasing surveillance, using technology, pressing and fining women in cars for not veiling properly and also businesses. So there has been somewhat of a buildup to the morality police coming back on the streets.

CHANG: Wow. So businesses are getting fined or otherwise punished for, say, turning a blind eye to women defying the dress code recently.

VAKIL: Yes. And we've been operating sort of in a ambiguous space where there hasn't been a whole-scale crackdown. There's been, of course, this buildup. And at the same time, women have been sometimes flouting the rules, sometimes completely ignoring them. It's been very ambiguous. And this is - the expectation was that the ambiguity would continue.

CHANG: Well, do you think that the resurgence of the morality police will mean more protests and demonstrations in the coming days?

VAKIL: It certainly could see a public uprising - spontaneous, perhaps. But I have to say the regime has been very heavy-handed over the past 10 months. It has sentenced people to death, including just a few days ago. It has arrested over 20,000 people. Over 500 people were killed through these protests. So whether protests happen or not, I think this is going to be part of the tussle between the political establishment and Iranian society, and it's going to be much more of a process. But it's very clear that the Islamic Republic wants to reinforce its position, and it doesn't see any compromise on Islamic law and on women's veiling as in the cards right now.

CHANG: Is widespread enforcement of the dress code for women all that realistic at this point when so many women all around Iran have been walking around flaunting the dress code and many of them, including some who have spoken directly to NPR, have said that they are never going back to the way things were?

VAKIL: Yeah. You're right. This is a dangerous move, I think, for the political establishment, and there's a lot of discontent. People see this as very shortsighted. It would have been really easy for the state to turn a blind eye or to give people space to choose, and I think this is part of what women were agitating for - dignity and choice. And the reimposition of these Draconian measures that could be implemented or could be not implemented - that's the problem; we just don't know - could spark further unrest. And certainly, it's not going to build back bridges with disenchanted and very frustrated Iranian citizens.

CHANG: Sanam Vakil, the director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House in London. Thank you very much.

VAKIL: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gabriel J. Sánchez
Gabriel J. Sánchez is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. Sánchez identifies stories, books guests, and produces what you hear on air. Sánchez also directs All Things Considered on Saturdays and Sundays.
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.