The “morality police” came for me exactly 13 minutes into my lecture on gender and sexual politics in post-revolutionary Iran. Four sets of auditorium doors swung open simultaneously. In they came, boots pounding, weapons clanking. The Tehran lecture hall erupted in confusion as the komiteh, as the morality police are known, filled the room.
Audience members ran every which way. I should have been shredding my lecture notes, running from the lectern into the nearby street. But the sight of a dozen bearded men in dark green uniforms rooted me to the floor. Two of the thugs climbed the steps to the stage; one raised his hand above my head, and then everything went black.
When I came to, in the back seat of a car, their voices reverberated in my aching skull. “You are a ruined woman who is here to ruin our country”, one growled at me. I was accused of trying to foment a revolution.
Fifteen years later, the streets of Iran have erupted in protest. Chants for “woman, life, freedom” reverberate throughout a country that has brutally repressed all three for more than 40 years.
On Feb. 11, 1979, the shah of Iran was officially overthrown, ending centuries of monarchical rule. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and a group of Islamic clerics arrived shortly after and immediately began to remake Iran into the antidote to “the West” and the immorality of its lifestyle. At the top of the Islamists’ target list: women wearing miniskirts or heavy makeup and any display of sexuality. Women’s bodies have always been their obsession. An assault on women’s personal freedoms has always been their goal.
The revolution was perhaps best exemplified by the Khomeini quote that was painted across buildings and billboards in Tehran: The Islamic Republic is not about fun, it is about morality. There is no fun to be had in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The morality police were formed to ensure that it stayed that way.
The komiteh walk the streets day and night, sometimes in pairs, often in groups of four. They can be seen wearing green uniforms or in the case of women, black cloaks from head to toe, patrolling the streets for immorality: strands of hair falling from loosened veils, couples holding hands, young people playing loud music in their cars as they talk, laugh or trade texts in traffic jams. They bully young people engaging in behaviors they deem immoral — a shifting list that can range from nail polish to making out in the park.
Disguised in plainclothes, they raid parties, raves, warehouses to round up dozens — or at times hundreds — of “immoral” Iranians. Sometimes, those arrested are taken to holding centers; the women will be questioned about their virginity. Other times, they face public floggings. Young people regardless of family ties or socioeconomic background face the same punishment, and usually one or two nights in jail — just for being young.
When they came for me, I was placed under house arrest for 33 days. I was restricted to my apartment — only it wasn’t my apartment anymore. Everything had been removed except for a bed, a plastic card table and two folding chairs. I spent my days in what seemed like endless interrogation sessions. Why was I writing about a sexual revolution? Was I a feminist? Who had sent me to Iran? In the end, I was lucky: Stripped of my Iranian citizenship and sent back to the “immoral West”, I simply wasn’t worth their time.
Normally, dissenters resist the regime as they have for decades, sliding their headscarves back, wearing tighter and brighter outer clothing. But when Mahsa Amini was killed while in morality police custody, Iranians took to the streets in more than 40 cities, much as they did during the Green Revolution in 2009. The protests have continued for nearly two weeks.
It might seem easy to imagine that this round of demonstrations will end as the last ones did: with Iranians killed and spirits crushed. But the reality is not that simple. With each subsequent protest, more Iranians from more varying backgrounds join them. The protests against compulsory veiling of 2018, for example, brought together young feminists with women from older generations. If, in the early years of the revolution, authorities were able to put down street protests by bringing in devout supporters from rural areas, starting in 2018, the protests broke out far from Tehran and featured more rural men and women disenchanted by a regime that has them living under the crushing effects of sanctions and unemployment.
The courageous resistance in Iran will build on itself. With each chapter, Iranians take greater risks for their freedom. The komiteh make up the regime’s right arm now, perhaps, keeping an unhappy populace in its place. But it also is the root of the Islamists’ ultimate demise. No country, no matter how long it tries, can repress its citizens forever.
Pardis Mahdavi is provost of the University of Montana and the author of “Passionate Uprisings: Iran’s Sexual Revolution”.