In Depth

What does Iran’s morality crackdown mean?

Police raid yoga class and hundreds of restaurants amid mounting civil unrest

Hundreds of Iranian cafes and restaurants were shuttered by police during Ramadan as part of a wide-ranging crackdown by the country’s religious police, authorities in Tehran have confirmed.

The sweeping closures during the holy month, which ended on 3 June, came amid accusations that establishments were breaching “Islamic principles”, such as playing forbidden music, and indulging in “debauchery” - a term often used to mean mixed-gender gatherings or lax adherence to the country’s strict modesty dress codes, imposed in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

How are authorities cracking down on “un-Islamic” behaviour?

The Islamic regime’s draconian morality laws became international news last month following a raid in which religious police broke up a private “unlicensed”, mixed-gender yoga class in the city of Gorgan and arrested 30 people for taking part.

Technology is being harnessed increasingly by the regime to ensure compliance with behaviour and dress laws. Earlier this month, The Daily Telegraph reported that special cameras had been installed along rural highways “to take photos of those female drivers who remove their hijab once they leave the town centres”.

A new text hotline has also been introduced to allow concerned citizens in Tehran to report neighbours committing “cultural crimes and social and moral corruption”, such as hosting a mixed-sex dance party or “posting immoral content on Instagram”, says The Guardian.

“People would like to report those breaking the norms but they don’t know how... We decided to accelerate dealing with instances of public immoral acts,” said Mohammad Mehdi Hajmohammadi, head of Tehran’s guidance court. 

Why now?

There are several reasons why the regime is choosing to flex its muscles now. The first is simple: from the perspective of the ruling clerics, Iranians are desperately in need of a moral tune-up.

The past several years have seen indications of growing dissent among the population, particularly the young and city dwellers. These acts of defiance include “increasing pre-martial relations, parties in which the young mingle with the opposite sex, consumption of alcohol and the daily resistances of Iranian girls against compulsory dress codes in public”, reports Al Jazeera.

In addition, women are continuing to organise public protests against modest dress laws, particularly the mandatory wearing of the hijab, despite heavy-handed police repression.

A senior cleric recently complained that Iranian women were “nowadays appearing almost naked on our streets”.

Such concerns have seen the morality police reportedly hiring an additional 12,000 female officers in order to counter “a perceived uptick in defiance of the country’s mandatory veiling laws”, says The Times of Israel.

Along with the increasing influence of the outside world through media and the internet, the growing frustration with the conversative strictures of life in Iran may also be a result of a weakening of religious faith. A 2017 WIN/Gallup survey indicated that one in five Iranians identifies as atheist or “not religious”, and the true number could be higher.

Even among those who identify as faithful Muslims, there is a thirst for change, says Al Jazeera, which reports that “a considerable number of Iranians have chosen a third path… remaining religious while adopting modern pastimes and decorum”.

However, a very public crackdown on supposed immorality also serves a political purpose, as a useful distraction from Iran’s myriad domestic problems - chiefly the economy, which has slumped since the US restored punishing sanctions against Iran’s lucrative oil industry last year.

Since then, strikes and street demonstrations over the soaring cost of living, unpaid wages and shortages of basic goods and utilities have become a frequent occurrence, in a worrying sign of social instability.

The recent spate of “unusually strict social diktats” handed down by clerics - such as ordering men not to “look directly” at female passers-by during Ramadan - are the result of the regime’s “frustration with growing civil discontent and economic pain caused by US sanctions”, argues The Daily Telegraph.

Addressing a group of regional governors earlier this year, Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri issued a blunt warning about the dangers of failing to suppress the unrest. “What should worry all of us is the wrath and hatred of the public against the authorities and the system that can not deliver to them,” he said.

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