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An Iranian woman walks in the street on a rainy day in Tehran on Dec. 4.ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Human-rights activists are calling out the comments made by Iranian Attorney General Mohammad Javad Montazeri earlier this week on the abolishment of the morality police as a propaganda tactic, citing the strategic timing of his remarks.

Iranian advocates are also warning that international media reports on the AG’s remarks about the morality police being disbanded may be a disservice to what is happening on the ground in Iran, as authorities continue to intensify their crackdown on dissent.

On Sunday, Mr. Montazeri – who is also a cleric and judge in addition to being the country’s Attorney General – spoke on the abolishment of Iran’s morality police during a meeting to discuss the protests. Global media outlets were quick to report on the abolishment and claimed the decision to be a major victory for women and feminists, who have tried for years to dismantle them – more profusely since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini this past September.

The Attorney General’s vague comments on doing away with the morality police were reported to be the Iranian government’s first major concession since the protests began in September, ignited by the death of Ms. Amini while in the custody of the morality police. Ms. Amini was accused of flouting Iran’s strict dress code demanding women wear the hijab, and her death sparked protests that have spiralled into the biggest challenge to the regime since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The Attorney General also suggested that the regime was reviewing the decades-old law requiring women to wear a hijab or headscarf to determine if it needed any changes. He added the judiciary would still enforce restrictions on what he called “social behaviour,” and he said that the authorities were reviewing hijab regulations.

Iranian activists warn it would be wrong to assume the Attorney General’s recent remarks represent a monumental shift. “The comment from Montazeri amounts to an observation made at a press conference without any further detail, and is not an official proclamation by anyone that actually controls the morality police,” Gissou Nia, chair for the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, told The Globe and Mail.

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Local media were quick to report that the Attorney General’s comments had been misinterpreted.

“It’s also important to note that in the same comments he also said that the judiciary would continue to ‘monitor behavioural actions at a community level.’” Jasmin Ramsey, deputy director for the Center for Human Rights in Iran, told The Globe.

This sounds like the AG means the hijab mandate will still be enforced, just through different methods. In early September, even before the mass protests began, it was reported that Iranian authorities were planning to look at facial-recognition technology to enforce President Ebrahim Raisi’s crackdown on the hijab laws.

While Mr. Montazeri’s comments gave some credence to the possibility that the morality police’s days may be numbered, Iranian women’s rights advocate and historian Dr. Nina Ansary says any “change” regarding the morality police will make no difference to the enforcement of the dress code.

“When [founder Ayatollah] Khomeini came to power and undertook a cultural revolution from 1980 to 1983 in order to Islamize Iranian society, there was no morality police – but that didn’t mean that Islamic dress code was not forcefully imposed and enforced,” she said.

The mandatory hijab law is still in effect, as are the all the gender discriminatory laws, she added.

“Shariah law is still in place,” Dr. Ansary said. “So whether the morality police are there or not is irrelevant.”

Any change to the dress code in Iran would have to go through Parliament, Ms. Ramsey explained.

“We basically haven’t seen the morality police on the streets since October,” she said. “There could be different reasons for that. One could be that it’s not safe for them to be on the streets in the face of so much anger directed at them.”

Ms. Ramsey sees a number of strategic reasons for Mr. Montazeri’s remarks.

“When tensions get high, they typically relax the rules,” she said. “[In the past] sometimes they had the morality police take to the streets to a lesser extent when people get upset. They’ll focus more on [breaking up] parties or they’ll put girls in custody and then bring them back. It’s a way to subdue people.”

The Attorney General could also be deflecting international attention from the mass strikes, which are also hurting the beleaguered regime’s economy, Ms. Ramsey added.

“This is the second round of strikes that we’ve seen since the protests broke out,” she said, referring to the planned three-day national strike by the merchant class that began on Tuesday. “It’s no coincidence that Montazeri’s comments came right ahead of the strike. The merchant class has a major influence in the country. The strike brings forth a whole new level of protest.

“I’ve never seen anything like it before in Iran.”

Dr. Ansary, who is also director of the World Affairs Council of America, believes the Attorney General’s remarks also have a lot to do with the timing of last month’s vote at the United Nations Human Rights Council to establish a fact-finding and investigative mechanism for human-rights violations by the Islamic Republic undertaken during protests.

“There is also the UN vote on Dec. 14 where all members of the UN Economic and Social Council are set to vote on whether Iran should be expelled from the Commission on the Status of Women,” she told The Globe.

Ms. Ramsey also believes Mr. Montazeri’s remarks suggest that there may be cracks in the regime.

“Killing hundreds of people – including children – and imprisoning 18,000 people isn’t working,” she said. “The strikes and unrelenting protests prove that what they’re doing isn’t working.”

On Dec. 8, Iran carried out the first known execution of a prisoner arrested in recent protests. Twenty-three-year-old Mohsen Shekari was hanged after being found guilty by a Revolutionary Court of “moharebeh” (enmity against God), according to state media.

Many women are still going out in public without the hijab, Ms. Ramsey added.

“Either as a form of protest by walking into a crowd without a headscarf or eating at a restaurant without one,” she said. “So the change is already happening, whether the government wants it or not.”

Dr. Ansary emphasized that the people of Iran are long past asking for the mere disbandment of the morality police.

“All concessions are no longer sufficient. People are not taking bullets in order to abolish a mandatory veiling law or the people who police these laws,” she said. “This is a full-blown revolution. The only solution is the removal of the Islamic Republic.”

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