Iran: mass strike starts amid mixed messages about abolishing morality police

<span>Photograph: EPA</span>
Photograph: EPA

Iranian shopkeepers and lorry drivers staged a walkout in nearly 40 cities and towns on Monday after calls for a three-day nationwide general strike from protesters as the government declined to confirm a claim by a senior official that the morality police had been abolished.

Iranian newspapers instead reported an increase in patrols, especially in religious cities, requiring women to wear the hijab, and shop managers being directed by the police to reinforce hijab restrictions.

The confusion may be partly due to mixed messages being sent out by a divided regime as it seeks to quell the protests.

Iran has been rocked by 11 weeks of unrest since a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, died in police custody after being arrested by the morality police.

The show of strength in the shop strike satisfied protesters since it demonstrated discontent with the government was still rife in major cities like Tehran, Karaj, Isfahan, Mashhad, Tabriz and Shiraz. Kurdish Iranian rights group Hengaw reported that 19 cities had joined the strike movement in western Iran, where most of the country’s Kurdish population live.

Political prisoners called for the three-day protests to be supported. Posters also appeared in streets urging that the strike be respected.

Government officials continued to claim the protests are over, but also admitted many shops had been shut, blaming intimidation that they said would lead to criminal charges.

At the same time senior politicians, including the president, Ebrahim Raisi, and parliament speaker, Mohammad Qalibaf, said they will visit Tehran universities on Wednesday to debate reforms with the striking students, a tactic that has previously backfired.

In a sign that the government is not relaxing the hijab rules, the semi-official Tasnim News Agency reported on Monday that an amusement park at a Tehran shopping centre was closed by the judiciary because its operators were not wearing the hijab properly.

The reformist-leaning Ham-Mihan newspaper said that morality police had increased their presence in cities outside Tehran, where the force has been less active over recent weeks.

The controversy of whether the force had been shut down arose when the attorney general, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, was asked about the morality police at a conference, at which he said: “The morality police have been shut down from where they were set up”.

He added they “had nothing to do with the judiciary” and “the judiciary would continue to monitor behavioural actions at the community level”.

Iran’s official authorities have not yet formally reacted to the controversy. Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, was asked about disbanding the morality police during a visit to Serbia on Sunday, saying “In Iran, everything is moving forward well in the framework of democracy and freedom.”

Related: ‘We walked in front of the police with no veil’ – voices from Iran’s women-led uprising

A journalist from Tehran told the Guardian: “The security forces and the police are all focused on suppressing the protests, so they don’t have the resources to use to deal with women without veils. The guidance patrol in the form we used to see in the streets has completely disappeared and does not exist. On one of the days of demonstrations in Tehran, I passed through the IRGC guard forces without a hijab. They only looked at me. Their looks were furious, but they had no other interaction.”

She also added that Basij paramilitary forces were still active at night, and probably more so outside Tehran.

In Rasht, a women’s rights activist says that she had not seen the so-called guidance patrol forces and cars in the last two and a half months.