In Tehran’s Revolution Square, two women clad in long black full hijab approach another woman, dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and a hijab, or head scarf.

She tries to walk away, but one of the women in full hijab grabs her by her sleeve and pulls her back, yanking her onto the ground. She is surrounded, wrapped in a blanket and bundled into a white van.

The scene is from one of many videos that have been circulating widely on social media in recent weeks, showing incidents of the latest crackdown by Iran’s so-called morality police.

But this time, another enforcement group is more visibly working alongside the regime – and they are also women.

Sky News has analysed dozens of videos showing incidents of authorities’ renewed campaign targeting women for not properly wearing their hijab in accordance with the regime’s strict sharia law.

“Before this new wave of attacks started, I was planning to get rid of some of my longer clothes, because I don’t feel comfortable in them,” said Leila, an Iranian woman in her 20s living in Tehran. She spoke to Sky News on condition of anonymity.

“Now, I find myself wearing those even though I hate them, because I think I wouldn’t feel safe going out of my house wearing something that I could potentially lose my life over, or that I could get arrested for.”

‘Ambassadors of Kindness’

What’s notable about this recent spate of arrests is the increased presence of women in full hijab, considered by Iranian leaders as the most modest form of dress, working with authorities.

They are part of a new enforcement group, dubbed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as “Ambassadors of Kindness”, who are helping enforce harsh regulations and silence dissent, one expert said.

Some young Iranians are calling them “bats”.

Leila was recently in the street when she spotted the police and stopped to cover her hair. She was then approached by a woman wearing a full hijab who told her she should “be afraid of God, not the police”.

“The truth is that when someone is wearing full hijab I am afraid that she might be with the police,” she said.

It’s not the first time the IRGC has employed women to help them. But Hadi Ghaemi, director of New York-based Centre for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), says they’ve increased in number, as have the physical presence of morality police, white vans and police cars, which are used in the arrests of women on the street.

“They’re not armed, but they’re meant to go intimidate women by politely and kindly warning them. Then if the woman doesn’t listen, they call over security forces,” said Mr Ghaemi.

“What’s really scary is the way [authorities] are recommending citizens turn on citizens.”

War at home

As Iran launched its first ever attack on Israel, it intensified this less-noticed war at home.

Three days before it flew missiles into Israel, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, said that women in the Islamic Republic must obey the dress code, regardless of their beliefs.

Then on Saturday 13 April, Tehran’s police chief Abbas Ali Mohammadian said people who ignored prior warnings faced legal action.

Not long after his statement was released, videos showing white police vans on the streets of cities across Iran went viral.

Iranian authorities say their Nour (Persian for ‘light’) campaign targets businesses and individuals who defy hijab law and responds to demands from devout citizens who are angry about the growing number of unveiled women in public.

“The level of brutality is very, very high right now,” said Masih Alinejad, an Iranian American journalist and activist.

“This time they are more emboldened. You can see it on their faces and see it from the huge number of them.”

In one video analysed by Sky News, at least six officers wearing yellow vests appear to be arresting one woman outside a train station in Tehran. She resists but fails to break free, and is ushered into a white van.

In another video posted the same day authorities announced their campaign, footage shows a cluster of white police cars, vans, and men in uniform in Tehran’s Valiasr Square.

Sky News was able to verify the precise location of the videos and the date each clip first appeared online.

Women and girls arrested

Morality police vans had largely vanished from the streets of Iran since last year, when widespread protests erupted across the country in the wake of the death of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish-Iranian woman who died while being detained for improperly wearing her hijab.

Police now appear to be back out in force, as a draconian ‘hijab and chastity’ bill is also currently making its way through the country’s parliament. One group of students reported new facial recognition software installed at a university dormitory.

But while street protests have died down, resistance to the regime’s hardline policies has not.

Iranian authorities released footage purporting to show members of the public being rude to, and lashing out at, morality police.

But this has backfired, said Ms Alinejad: “Now that video is going viral because people are so proud of the young women.”

Mina, another Iranian woman, had her car confiscated for three weeks last year because of her hijab. But she remains defiant.

“We fight not only to have the right to choose coverage, but to have the right to choose a lifestyle,” she said.

Another video showed the arrest of a woman for allegedly not wearing her hijab in Haft Tir metro station in Tehran.

But a crowd surrounded her, chanting “free her” and calling the police “dishonoured.” Not long after the noise began, the police released the woman.

The ‘war against women’

As these videos went viral, so did talk about Iran’s “war on women”. Since 12 April there has been a steady rise in the number of times the Farsi for ‘mandatory hijab’ (حجاب اجباری) was used across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

On 11 April the phrase was used 585 times – but by 22 April it was mentioned in almost 10,000 posts, according to social listening platform Talkwalker.

The hashtag #IRGCTerrorists was also repeatedly used to accompany posts about discrimination against women. This peaked on 16 April, when more than 234,000 posts used this hashtag.

Farsi for ‘War against women’ (جنگ_علیه_زنان) then surged the following day and was used almost 30,000 times. Some 42% of these posts came from Iran itself.

What is next for the women of Iran?

“The anger among Iranians is much stronger and heavier than before,” Mina said.

“I don’t think they are going to give up that fight. The flame of revolution is still burning in Iran.”

Some women, she said, are willing to risk imprisonment: “They would rather get arrested but not live in humiliation and not live under these barbaric officers walking in the streets.”

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