Amid conflicting reports that Iran is considering disbanding its morality police after months of protests sparked by the death of a young woman in their custody, the role played by the unit has come under increased scrutiny.
Iran's attorney general hinted that the operations of the morality police, known as the Gasht-e-Ershad, had been suspended and said there would be a review of dress code enforcement, which forms a major part of the unit's duties.
Who are the morality police?
The Gasht-e-Ershad, which translates as "guidance patrol", is a unit of Iran’s police force established in 2005 under former hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
After he succeeded the reformist president Mohammad Khatami, Iran's Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution adopted a resolution on "strategies to develop a culture of chastity" that paved the way for the creation the morality police.
What do the morality police do?
The morality police are often made up of and backed by the Basij, a paramilitary force initially mobilised to fight in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The Basij has a presence in every Iranian university to monitor people's dress and behaviour, as that level of higher learning is where Iranian male and females meet for the first time in a mixed educational environment.
A typical morality police unit consists of male and female officers who patrol in a vehicle or station themselves in busy public spaces. Their remit is to check for violations of rules governing behaviour and clothing that are based on the Iranian clergy's strict interpretation of Islamic law.
In particular, the unit enforces the dress code for women that includes covering their heads. Offenders are either given a warning or taken to "correctional facilities" or a police station where they are lectured on how to dress or act morally before being released to their male relatives.
Why are they important now?
The role of the morality police came under increased scrutiny after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian-Kurdish woman, died in their custody days after she was arrested in Tehran in mid-September.
Amini had been held for allegedly breaching the dress code. Her death unleashed a wave of nationwide protests that have grown into calls for the downfall of Iran’s clerical rulers.
Since September, there has been a reported decline in the number of morality police officers across Iranian cities and an increase in women walking in public without headscarves, contrary to Iranian law.
Have they been disbanded or not?
An Iranian politician on Sunday said Iran’s government was “paying attention to the people’s real demands”, state media reported, a day after a top judiciary official suggested that the morality police had been shut down.
Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri on Saturday said the morality police “had been closed”, semi-official news agency ISNA reported. The agency did not provide details and state media has not reported the purported decision.
Mr Montazeri provided no further details about the future of the morality police nor whether the closure was nationwide and permanent. But he added that the judiciary would “continue to monitor behaviour at the community level”.
When asked about Mr Montazeri’s statement, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian gave no direct answer. ‘‘Be sure that in Iran, within the framework of democracy and freedom, which very clearly exists in Iran, everything is going very well,’’ he said during a visit to the Serbian capital Belgrade.