After 10 weeks of trying to beat down a relentless agitation against the compulsory wearing of the headscarf triggered by the death in custody of a Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish student, who was detained for not wearing her hijab properly, the Iranian regime has appeared to blink first. The announcement that the Gasht-e-Ershad or morality police will be disbanded came from the country’s attorney general, and has not been confirmed by officials in the relevant ministry or the police under which it functions. As a result, it is not clear if this “vice & virtue force” has actually stopped functioning. This is why the women agitating on the streets since September 16 have not called off their protests yet. Moreover, there is no concession on the headscarf yet. Still, the announcement signals that the authoritarian clergy, which has kept a tight grip over the Iranian people since seizing power in 1979, may be considering a concession, one of the few that it has made, in the hope that it will lower the heat that the regime has been facing.
Iranian women have been at the forefront of fighting for their rights since the 1980s, and the clergy has pushed back each time. But this time, social media has amplified each act of protest, such as women cutting off their hair, or discarding their headscarf in public and walking bare headed. The images have travelled around the globe in real time, and won them world-wide support. The turning point may have come when the Iranian team at the football World Cup put up a powerful display of solidarity by not singing the national anthem at the start of their kickoff match. While the Iranian authorities have resorted to their default position that this is all an American conspiracy to destabilise the regime, unlike in the past, they have been wary too of carrying out a full crackdown on what is clearly a leaderless, organic movement.
It remains to be seen if withdrawing the morality police, set up during the Iran-Iraq war, would help the regime. The women of Iran, who have shown tremendous courage in battling a surveillance state, may continue to push for more freedoms, including the freedom to not wear a hijab, and other rights. The politics of Iran seesaws between conservatives and reformists, but all under Iran’s Guardian Council of clerics and the supreme leader who sits at the apex of this body. They have the final say on all matters that deal with national politics and governance. Prime Minister Ebrahim Raisi is a conservative and is close to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He likely sees himself as a future supreme leader. The regime has been determined so far that it will not make any political concessions but the protests have challenged its authority and weakened it. If the Gasht e Ershad is truly on its way out, Iranians, both men and women, may feel powerful enough to push for more change.