Kashf-e hijab was the name of a decree passed on 8 January 1936 by Reza Shah Pahlavi, the first Shah of the House of Pahlavi, who ruled Iran from 1925 to 1941.
Pahlavi, who wanted to modernise and secularise Iranian society, similar to what Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was doing in Turkey, banned women from donning both the traditional Islamic veils covering the whole body (chador) and the headscarves (hijab). The ban was strictly enforced, with the police ripping the veils of the women who dared to wear them and walk the streets.
More than four decades later, soon after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Iran passed a law in 1981 mandating that women wear the hijab in public.
And 41 years after the passing of this law, Iran had erupted into protests in October this year against the brutality of the regime in enforcing the hijab law via what is known as the "morality policy," or the Gasht-e Ershad (Guidance Patrol). The uprising had been ignited by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in custody of the morality police.
Weeks after Amini's death, Iran’s public prosecutor announced on Sunday, 4 December, that the country's morality police has been disbanded, as per international media reports.
What are the origins of this paramilitary group, the Gasht-e Ershad? What exactly do they do, and how do they function?
The Long History of Iran's Morality Police
Various forms of "morality police" have flourished in Iran since the 1979 revolution. As mentioned above, Iran under the Pahlavis banned the use of the hijab. This was, among others, one of the many reasons that made the Iranian people hostile toward their government. During the revolution, many women wore hijabs to show their defiance to the regime.
The irony is that Ayatollah Khomeini, the first leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who banned taking off the hijab in public after he came to power, had used the hijab as a symbol of the revolution, praising women for protesting "in modest garb to express their disgust with the Shah's regime."
"You ladies here have proved that you are at the forefront of this movement. You have a great share in our Islamic movement. The future of our country depends on your support," he had said. Little did the women know that the new regime was going to be not too different from the previous one, denying what women were fighting for the in the first place: a choice.
The first organised morality police in post-revolution Iran was a paramilitary volunteer militia called "Basij," which was formed to encourage volunteers to participate in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).
Basij, which is now one of the five forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, had, and continues to have, its presence in every Iranian university to monitor the dress codes and behaviour of students, given that a university is a setting where Iranian men and women meet for the first time in a educational environment.
Even groups that were not under the Iranian government's control have sought to act like the morality police. One such group is "Jundallah," a Sunni militant organisation fighting for equal rights for Sunnis in Iran, that was designated by the United States as a foreign terrorist organisation in 2010. According to Reuters, the Jundallah would patrol the streets to "combat bad hijab" and even institutionalised their own morality police.
How the Gasht-e Ershad Works
The Gasht-e Ershad patrols usually use a van with both a male and a chador-clad female crew.
Their job is to stand and observe people in busy public places like shopping centres and subway stations, after which they detain women for, among other dress code "violations," not wearing hijabs in a manner that they perceive to be "proper." What is proper and what isn't often depends on the patrol agents on the scene. It could be anything ranging from too short a hijab to too much makeup.
The detained women are then taken if not to the police station, then to a "correctional facility," or a "re-education centre" where they are told how to dress. They are then usually always released on the same day to male relatives who bring the "proper" clothes for them.
In Amini's case, she was taken to a police station for allegedly not wearing a hijab properly, and her family was told that she would be released after a "re-education" session. Amini, however, was transferred, in a coma, to a nearby hospital. A CT scan of her head showed a bone fracture, hemorrhage, and brain edema – all signs that she died due a strong blow to the head.
The targets of the Gasht-e Ershad are usually women from the wealthier social groups in the urban areas, who are more likely to defy the strict dress code with some form of western clothing. Even men with western hairstyles are at the risk of being whisked away by the morality police.
Fear of running into the Gasht-e Ershad has even led to the creation of an Android application that helps people avoid the morality police's checkpoints. The data that the application needs to be successful is crowdsourced. Users point out the location of the patrol vans on maps and when a large number of people do the same, an alert shows up marking the spot for other users.
(With inputs from Reuters, the BBC, and The Guardian.)