Iran’s so-called morality police have faced fresh criticism after a video showing female police officers violently scuffling with a young woman whose hijab was loose went viral and prompted public outrage.
Government officials and legislators in Iran have denounced the treatment of the officers shown in the clip, which has been making the rounds on social media since early Thursday and has been viewed millions of times.
In the video, believed to be recorded on a mobile phone, a young woman and her friends can be seen arguing with a number of male and female police officers in a park apparently over the hijab.
She is then seen flanked by two female officers who are ordering her verbally and physically to “stay in the corner” after she fearlessly criticises the police officers’ attitude.
The situation next becomes tense as the officers and the young woman exchange insults.
One of the female police officers is heard calling her “animal”, while the young woman responds with words roughly translated as “ignorant” and “shameless”.
The female police officer is then seen attacking the young woman and beating her furiously. Loud screams are heard afterwards as the young woman’s friends try to intervene and protect her.
Soon after the video went viral, Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, the interior minister, ordered a “comprehensive inquiry” into what he referred to in an official statement as “the unconventional encounter of the morality police officer”.
The statement said the incident occurred after the young woman used “profanity” against officers who were trying to prompt her to abide by the law.
Masoumeh Ebtekar, vice president for women’s affairs, criticised the police in a tweet, saying she “condemned” the violent behaviour “no human deserves”.
The Islamic republic’s law obliges women to completely cover their hair and wear loose garments to hide most of their body and skin.
In practice, Iranian women with strong religious beliefs wear the hijab regardless of the legal compulsion to wear the garment.
However, women who consider themselves as somewhat less than religiously observant do not comply with the law’s strict requirement.
The video emerged just months after an unprecedented protest campaign against Iran’s hijab regulations, in which women stood atop utility boxes with uncovered hair and waved their headscarves from sticks.
In one case, police were criticised when an officer carelessly pushed a female protester down a utility box, causing a leg injury.
Thursday’s incident, however, was not a protest but the latest episode in a recurrent struggle between a section of Iranian women with the country’s “morality police”.
The plan to assign police to enforce the hijab law was proposed when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency opened the way for religious conservatives to keep in check what they call the “bad hijab”.
President Hassan Rouhani did not do away with the morality police but reduced its power and his centrist government repeatedly criticised the use of force in promoting the hijab.
‘Loss for both sides’
Reacting to the footage that was shared online, Shahindokht Molaverdi, the president’s special assistant for citizenship rights, called for a “change in approach” concerning the hijab.
Tayebeh Siavashi, a reformist legislator, said in a series of tweets that what the morality police do is “a loss for both sides”.
She referred to the incident as a sort of violence that has taken away the “minimum safety” women had gained in recent years.
It is unclear how strong Rouhani’s say is when it comes to the police. In Iran, police are part of the armed forces whose commanders are not picked by the president.
Numerous videos similar to the one that has gone viral have been posted online in the past. But the reaction to the most recent clip has easily been the strongest.
“It comes down to how much people are aware of what’s going on in the real world; how much power they have with information and ways to share it; and also, how much they’re willing or are motivated to act on it,” said an Iranian political observer who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity.
“I honestly think the awareness situation was different even two years ago.”