Iran morality police redouble crackdown on women amid tensions with Israel

Videos shared on social media purportedly show dreaded unit enforcing hijab rules deploying in force, sweeping women off the streets and into notorious vans

A woman walks past a banner depicting launching missiles bearing the emblem of the Islamic Republic of Iran in central Tehran on April 15, 2024. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)
A woman walks past a banner depicting launching missiles bearing the emblem of the Islamic Republic of Iran in central Tehran on April 15, 2024. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

PARIS, France — Executions of convicts, arrests of dissidents and a resurgence in patrols enforcing the obligatory wearing of hijabs: Iran is stepping up repression at home as tensions flare with its arch-foe Israel, activists say.

Iranians in the Islamic Republic have endured increased repression since nationwide protests were sparked from September 2022 by the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for allegedly flouting the mandatory dress rules for women.

But the crackdown has entered a new phase as fears of a regional conflict surge, with Israel launching an apparent strike on Iran on Friday in retaliation for a missile barrage the Islamic Republic fired at the Jewish State.

Activists have reported that the dreaded white vans of the “morality police” have returned to city squares across Iran, picking up women deemed to have violated the rule of obligatory hijab in force since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Tehran police chief Abbas Ali Mohammadian openly announced the latest crackdown on April 13, with local media saying it was codenamed “Nour” (“light” in Persian).

Multiple videos posted on social media – under the hashtag “jang aliyeh zanan” (“war against women”) – have shown women being bundled into vans by male police in body armor accompanied by female police agents dressed in the Islamic chador.

Streets turned into ‘battlefield’

“The Islamic Republic has turned the streets into a battlefield against women and youth,” 2023 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and jailed rights activist Narges Mohammadi wrote in a message from Tehran’s Evin prison and published by her supporters on social media.

In one video filmed close to the Tajrish metro station in northern Tehran, a woman collapses on the ground after being apprehended by the police, telling bystanders who then seek to revive her that her phone was confiscated.

Another includes what appears to be the sound of police using electric shock against women who had been rounded up and put into a van.

“Amid increasing dissent at home and international attention focused on regional tensions, the Islamic Republic is grabbing the opportunity to intensify its campaign of repression against dissent,” said the director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, Hadi Ghaemi.

Iranians protest 22-year-old woman Mahsa Amini’s death after she was detained by the morality police, in Tehran, September 20, 2022. (AP/ File)

“Without a firm international response, the Islamic Republic will be emboldened to intensify its violence against women and its egregious violations of human rights,” said Ghaemi.

Hundreds were killed, according to rights groups, and thousands arrested, according to the United Nations, in the crackdown on the 2022 protests that represented one of the biggest challenges to the Islamic republic.

‘Opportunity to tighten grip’

Among those arrested in recent days was Aida Shahkarami, the sister of Nika Shahkarami, 16, who died during the 2022 crackdown, her mother Nasrin wrote on social media.

Aida was detained “for not wearing the mandatory hijab,” Nasrin Shahkarami wrote on social media.

Nika Shahkarami was found dead during the protests, with some family members accusing the security forces of killing her.

Dina Ghalibaf, a journalist and student at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University, was arrested after accusing security forces on social media of putting her in handcuffs and sexually assaulting her during a previous arrest at a metro station, according to the Norway-based Hengaw rights group.

Executions, which activists say are used by Tehran as a means to instill fear into society, have also continued apace, with at least 110 people executed this year alone according to the Norway-based Iran Human Rights (IHR) group.

Screen capture from an undated video purportedly showing a woman being arrested and bundled into a van by Iran’s morality police. (X. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Among those executed in recent days were a married couple, Esmail Hassaniani, 29, and his wife Marjan Hajizadeh, 19, who were sentenced to death for drug-related charges in a joint case and hanged in Zanjan central prison on April 11, according to IHR.

“The regime will without any doubt use this opportunity to tighten the grip inside the country,” said IHR director Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam.

“They still haven’t managed to take the control that they had before September 2022. They may have the opportunity to do so now, if all the international attention goes to the escalating tension with Israel.”

An alleged Israeli strike overnight Thursday-Friday hit air defenses near the Natanz nuclear site in Iran.

The round of unprecedented direct attacks on each other’s territory was kicked off by an April 1 strike on what Iran said is a consulate compound in Damascus that killed several members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp, including a top officer. Though Israel has not taken responsibility for the strike, Iran responded on April 13-14 by lobbing over 300 cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and armed drones at Israel.

Iranian worshippers chant slogans during an anti-Israeli gathering after Friday prayers in Tehran, April 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Nearly the whole barrage was shot down by Israel, with help from the US, UK, France and Jordan. An Israeli girl who was the only victim in the attack was badly injured by falling shrapnel; the targeted Nevatim air base also suffered light damage, according to Israeli officials.

Israel reportedly responded by attacking an air defense station near Isfahan in central Iran.

The violence comes against the background of the war in Gaza that started on October 7 with the devastating cross-border attack by Palestinian terror group Hamas that killed 1,200 people in Israel, mostly civilians.

Israel responded with a military campaign to destroy the Iran-backed Hamas and free the 253 hostages abducted from the country during the attack.

Over the same period, other groups in Iran’s sphere of influence have lobbed rockets, missiles and drones at Israel from Iraq, Yemen, Syria and most notably Lebanon, where the Hezbollah terror group is based.

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