Iran’s morality laws- why so serious?

As Iran is dragged back into the headlines for crackdowns on mixed-sex interaction and Instagram use, takes a look at why

Iran has made the news for all the wrong reasons in the past few months, as well as occasionally for the right ones. Whilst the nation has finally been allowed at least partially back into the international fold, taking part in discussion with the EU and USA, it is by no means at the end of its cycle of reform.

This has been shown in the backlash to the electoral victory by ‘moderates’ during the election to the Iranian Majlis, back in February. This was perceived as a victory for the current president, Hassan Rouhani, who has held the office since 2013 on a platform of improved economy through improved relations with the West. He has been notably active in the field of individual rights, pushing for free access to information, as well as appointing women to higher positions in the foreign office than ever seen before.

a two-year long sting operation targeted Instagram users

Sadly, Rouhani is not the one in control of the morality police. He promised to crack down on their activity during his election campaign, and whilst a Guardian report from June 2014 did point to a lessened presence, that did not mean that they were gone, only better hidden.

The morality police have been back in the news prominently in recent months, making a number of high profile arrests that have been broadcast in global media. One particular case saw the arrest of 8 individuals for “working in ‘un-Islamic’ online modelling networks” according to the Middle East Eye. Part of a two-year long sting operation, it targeted Instagram users in particular, as this was not blocked by the government, unlike Facebook, and thus was perceived to be a relatively safe space.

Similarly, 30 students celebrating their graduation were arrested and each sentenced to 99 lashes for holding a mixed party, as under law, dancing conducted by males and females is not legal. As well, on the 18th of April, the government announced a massive undercover operation by 7,000 officers in Tehran who had the ability to enforce the legally prescribed dress code set out for women which dictates that their heads must be covered. Whilst they were also expected to enforce laws relating to dangerous driving and pollution, the fact that they are serving undercover is unprecedented in recent years.

President Hassan Rouhani has massive support after the Iran Elections Image: World Economic Forum

President Hassan Rouhani Image: World Economic Forum

It’s also worth noting that Rouhani cannot impact on the actions of the morality police; he is not their leader – that role is reserved for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. Whilst Rouhani might be a relative moderate, pushing for further integration with the world economy and wider personal freedoms, Khomeini does not appear to share his view. With a stricter view on the role of Islam, and need to protect the ‘Revolution of 1979’, he has massive clout both in the political sphere and in the day to day lives of ordinary Iranians.

Rouhani has been criticised for signing off on a huge number of execution orders

Ultimately, despite the moves made by Rouhani and his government, he is only able to make small changes. Much as he might seek to ensure better protection of personal freedoms, it is unlikely he will see much change in this field. That he has managed to achieve as much as he has in terms of international integration is somewhat surprising, and points towards at least a degree of support from Khomeini and his supporters, despite the apparent façade of anti-American sentiment.

At the same time, Rouhani has himself been criticised for signing off on a huge number of execution orders, many for drug related offences. Whilst fewer than those conducted by his predecessor, the question of whether Rouhani has any real power in domestic politics remains to be seen. He has, after all, openly criticised the Iranian media for its reporting, and whilst censorship laws have become more stringent under his leadership, analysis has shown that he likely has very little control, despite his apparently strong position.

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