Déjà vu All Over Again

They’re ba-ack. Still trying to resist the tide of social change in Iran, the Nezam has deployed vigilantes—hejabban (“hejab guardians”)—to public places to police women’s fashion.  For the past year since the Women, Life, Freedom protests that rocked Iran, Tehran has puzzled over how to enforce increasingly unpopular traditional notions of female modesty without reigniting civil unrest. Regime officials recognized that the Nezam’s approach to mandatory hejab needed updating, but as usual consensus eluded them: reformists argue that enforcing the dress code is a losing battle and out of date; conservatives of pragmatic views seek to decriminalize hejab and soften its enforcement, so as to not aggravate public opposition; and, as always, hardliners insist that draconian enforcement alone will ensure the preservation of Islam. As a consequence, legislation to codify a new approach to mandatory hejab remains bottled up in the Majles; a “first draft” was kicked back to the MPs by the Guardian Council and, given the unpopularity of mandatory hejab, it may not see light of day until after the Majles election scheduled for March.  In the meantime, hejab guardians—ostensibly pious, private citizens—have appeared in Tehran metro stations and at the Mashhad airport, filming women passengers and admonishing those whose adherence to the dress code is too lax.

Vigilantes are a repeating phenomenon in the Islamic Republic. They tend to emerge from the shadows at times of social change when the Nezam has not reached a consensus on how to deal with it. In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, vigilantes helped Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini push aside rivals and consolidate power. Gangs of young men and teenagers, usually reporting to a well-connected cleric, informed on and beat up communists and other leftists, as well as liberals and Western-oriented Iranians who failed to conform to Islamic norms.  Once the Islamic regime was well established, the gangs tended to be absorbed into revolutionary organizations such as the komitehs and the IRGC.

After the war with Iraq, a new and better organized vigilante group emerged—the Ansar-e Hezbollah (“supporters of the party of God”). Composed mainly of young war veterans and led by an IRGC brigadier general, Ansar-e Hezbollah members tended to be drawn from the poorer, religious, and less educated segment of society that, after serving at the front, found itself marginalized and with few prospects in an Iran that was focused on reconstruction and commerce and led by a president who favored Western-educated technocrats over revolutionary zealots with little expertise. The Ansar-e Hezbollah enjoyed high-level patronage, including funding from the Foundation for the Oppressed and Disabled, and the endorsement and possibly the guidance of Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a notoriously reactionary cleric and regime functionary. The group spent the 1990s disrupting lectures by professors deemed too liberal, roughing up reformist politicians, and joined police in a notorious attack on a university dormitory that sparked major student unrest in 1999. As the Nezam stymied reform and rightwing populist President Mahmud Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, the Ansar-e Hezbollah receded from the public square.

Now, after years of relative quiescence (vigilantes never quite disappear in Iran), a new wave of rightwing vigilantes in the form of the chador-clad hejabban are patrolling public places in Tehran and Mashhad. As reported in the PersuMedia Daily Summary, the hejab guardians appeared with little prior fanfare in mid-November at the latest.  It is possible that they were active earlier and mistaken for the morality police, who were redeployed to the streets last July to crack down on hejab violations.  When an encounter with the morality police on the Tehran metro put a teenage girl into a fatal coma on 1 October, the morality police were pulled off the streets and their activities suspended—officials no doubt did not want a repeat of the Mahsa Amini protests.  Enter the hejabban. They are perhaps less brutal than the male-dominated vigilantes of the 1990s and early revolutionary years; they tend to form “tunnels of fear” at metro stations and other public places, in which women must run the gauntlet, and those with slack hejab are rebuked and filmed. There apparently is little or no physical contact, but the intent is to intimidate. And, like previous vigilantes, the hejab guardians enjoy high-level patronage: despite claims by the hardline mayor of Tehran Alireza Zakani and Interior Minister Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi that the guardians were nothing more than conscientious private citizens fulfilling their Islamic obligation to “enjoin good and prohibit evil,” subsequent confidential documents published by the Iranian media showed that as far back as June the Interior Minister defined the responsibilities of the hejab guardians and authorized their deployment to public locations. Officials subsequently admitted that 2,800 hejab guardians had been deployed, their operations coordinated with the IRGC, the Basij, the Tehran municipality, and other government offices. 

The resort to enforcement by vigilantes is yet another sign of the slow rot of Islamic Republic. Iran is well past the early years of the revolution, when vigilantes filled the vacuum produced by the absence of effective, robust government institutions. If there is one institution that works well today in the Islamic Republic, it is the security forces. The experience of other states that have employed vigilantes suggests it is a symptom of divided government and failing legitimacy. That was the finding of two academic studies of state-supported vigilantism—one an examination of the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s, the other an Israeli scholar’s research of settler vigilantism in the occupied West Bank. As the study of South Africa argues, “vigilantism indicates that a state faces a legitimacy crisis so severe that its structures are breaking down.” Both studies also associated vigilantism with situations in which sovereignty is contested, elite competition is rife, and state authority is based on multiple circles of power. The situation in the Islamic Republic may not be that dire—it faces no opposition as well organized as the United Democratic Front or Hamas—but it suggests all the same that the Nezam is less sound than it appears.

Competition among elites, and ambiguous or insufficient legal codes also tend to foster vigilantism. In South Africa, control of policy oscillated among hawkish security officials and more dovish politicians, causing the bureaucracy, deprived of clear guidance, to sit on its hands.  The lack of consensus on how to manage hejab (as well as the MPs’ reluctance to be associated with unpopular legislation just months before an election) has put the new legislation on hejab in limbo, kicked back to the Majles for revision after the Guardian Council refused to approve it as drafted. As noted in the PersuMedia Daily Summary, Iranian legal scholars condemned the Interior Ministry’s most recent crackdown on bad hejab as illegal and a violation of citizens’ rights. In a legal environment so nebulous, the resort to vigilantes helps those invested in the policy to enforce it with little or no accountability. As one scholar quoted in the Israeli paper framed it, “the state can have it both ways – seeing its goals achieved … while distancing itself from the dirty work’ of targeting civilians.” It is perhaps no coincidence that Interior Minister Vahidi emphasizes the security threat posed by women defying the hejab laws.

Finally, conservative elites who fear their position and power are threatened by social change and new policies often turn to vigilantism to impede or prevent such change and retain their privileges. The Ku Klux Klan comes to mind. In South Africa, authorities encouraged the traditional African bourgeoisie, who saw the revolutionary movement as a threat to their own conservative values and sources of patronage, to activate their patronage networks to divide the opposition and resist the demand for change. Iranian observers see a similar pattern in the use of the hejabban. One reformist paper flatly accused the Tehran municipality of employing the vigilantes to “play people off against each other,” while a pro-hejab think tank scholar said the use of the hejab guardians showed the advocates of strict hejab to be a fearful minority. No doubt the Paydari Front and other hardliners in the Nezam see the enforcement of strict hejab as a means to divide the change-oriented modern middle class from more pious working class and rural Iranians who otherwise might unite with the middle class over shared economic grievances. An added advantage is that it serves as a wedge issue among the broad principlist movement, making those conservatives favoring compromise look weak and aligned with reformists—thus helping the hardliners strengthen their hold on their hardline base. Just as Israeli scholars discovered that Israeli settler violence against Palestinians between 1987 and 2002 tended to crescendo during Oslo Accords peace negotiations, suggesting an intent to undermine the talks, Iranian hardliners can mobilize backers of strict hejab when support for more pragmatic policies begins to gain momentum. 

The Nezam’s—or at least the Ministry of the Interior’s—sponsoring of vigilantism is not so much a sign that regime elites are determined whatever the cost to enforce Islamic values as it is evidence of what Fars News called the “desperation, nervousness, and disharmony” of the political establishment regarding the issue of hejab and women’s rights more broadly.  They know the issue is a lose-lose proposition for the Nezam but cannot face the implications of relinquishing a policy intrinsic to the Islamic identity of the regime and associated with the revolutionary founder Khomeini. Understandably, the Majles dithers, unable to define a legal remedy acceptable to all and unwilling to take the fall for a manifestly unpopular policy. So, the “men of order” like Vahidi, egged on by hardline ideologues seeking political advantage, step in to enforce the rules and uphold the traditional social order (it is striking that Iranian vigilantes have targeted “uppity women” in all three waves of vigilantism we discussed earlier.)  But such actions do not resolve the problem, they merely suppress it for a time—while increasing popular resentment with each wave of extralegal enforcement. It is the sort of approach to maintaining the upper hand that the Israelis call “mowing the grass.”  It is no little irony that the Islamic Republic, which defined itself in opposition to what it condemned as the imperialist oppression of Indigenous peoples in South Africa and Palestine, should find itself four decades after the revolution aping the methods of the “settler colonialists” to hold onto power.


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