By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
Promoting virtue and preventing vice proved to be the death of Ali Khalili, a young Iranian seminary student who eventually succumbed to injuries sustained when he tried to stop a group of men from harassing and kidnapping two women.
Now lawmakers are debating ways to protect citizens like Khalili who take it upon themselves to defend the values of the Islamic republic. But by giving citizens legal license to take Islamic law into their own hands, critics warn, Tehran could be institutionalizing violent acts such as the recent spate of acid attacks targeting women -- apparently because they were deemed to be in violation of Iran's strict Islamic dress code.
The bill winding through the conservative-dominated parliament would strengthen punishments for those who injure or kill people carrying out their Islamic duty to promote virtue and prevent vice, and would give injured vigilantes of Islamic justice the same benefits and legal protections afforded to "martyrs and disabled veterans."
In addition, it expands the definition of public areas to include shared spaces of apartment buildings, hospitals, and hotels, as well as automobiles. The spate of acid attacks that took place in the central city of Isfahan are believed to have targeted improperly veiled women drivers.
Khalili unintentionally became the poster boy for the bill when, in 2011 at the age of 19, he stepped in to issue a verbal warning to the group of men he encountered in a neighborhood in eastern Tehran.
He later told Fars news agency that a fight ensued, leaving him in critical condition after he was stabbed in the neck.
At his funeral, attended by some well-known hard-line figures, Khalili was referred to as a "martyr" of the Islamic duty of promoting virtue and preventing vice.
Six months later, on October 10, parliament approved the draft bill. The legislation calls for the creation of a 17-member body to oversee the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, and grants the hard-line Basij militia greater powers of enforcement.
It also states that no individual or body has the right to prevent the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice in society; says those acting against private citizens who enforce Islamic laws will face tough punishments that cannot be delayed, reduced, or suspended; and notes that individuals should enforce Islamic principles by verbal and written notice and not resort to criminal activities such as "insult, assault, or murder."
The bill comes amid a power struggle between Iran's President Hassan Rohani and religious conservatives who are critical of the president's social stances and policies and want to see greater control over citizen's lives, particularly women.
Rohani has denounced the proposed legislation, saying on October 22 amid widespread outrage over the acid attacks that the bill could lead to tensions in society.
"Rue the day some lead our society down the path to insecurity, sow discord and cause rifts, all under the banner of Islam," Rohani said to a crowd in the northwestern city of Zanjan.
He also said that vice should not only be seen in the way women dress, while issues such as corruption and unemployment are overlooked.
"The sacred call to virtue is not the right of a select group of people, a handful taking the moral high ground and acting as custodians," Rohani said.
Other critics have warned that the legislation could further interfere in the public lives of Iranians, who are already being closely watched and pressured by morality police. Pressure groups that patrol streets, as well as members of the Basij paramilitary force, could be encouraged to step up their harassment of young women and men over their appearance and behavior.
Protestors against the Isfahan acid attacks suggested that the pending legislation may have contributed or encouraged the violent incidents, although officials have denied any link.
"Remove the bill for the protection of those who propagate virtue and prevent vice from the parliament's agenda," read a hand-written sign seen at a rally in Tehran.
Some 250 Iranian rights activists, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, have also made a connection between the bill and the acid attacks.
"Acid throwers in the streets and lawmakers who approved the bill for the protection of propagators of virtue and preventers of vice are seeking to normalize violence against women in Iran," they said in a signed statement on October 30.
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