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Iran's President Hassan Rouhani has instructed the ministries of interior, justice and intelligence to step up efforts to find the culprits behind a gruesome chain of acid attacks on women in the historic city of Isfahan. He condemned what he termed "inhuman acts" and called for bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Thousands attended demonstrations on Wednesday in front of the parliament in Tehran, and by the Justice Department in Isfahan demanding investigation. The attacks, which began over two weeks ago, appear to be by hard-line Islamist zealots trying to enforce the dress code. One banner read "down with Iranian ISIL".

Acid attacks are rare in Iran and if politically motivated they could be the most alarming message so far against Rouhani's attempts at softening the tone on

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani has instructed the ministries of interior, justice and intelligence to step up efforts to find the culprits behind a gruesome chain of acid attacks on women in the historic city of Isfahan. He condemned what he termed "inhuman acts" and called for bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Thousands attended demonstrations on Wednesday in front of the parliament in Tehran, and by the Justice Department in Isfahan demanding investigation. The attacks, which began over two weeks ago, appear to be by hard-line Islamist zealots trying to enforce the dress code. One banner read "down with Iranian ISIL".

Acid attacks are rare in Iran and if politically motivated they could be the most alarming message so far against Rouhani's attempts at softening the tone on the Islamic dress code. That is why he has hit back by calling for detailed investigation. He knows that on this call he will have full public support.

The attacks seem to follow a new law pushed through by hard-liners in Parliament last Sunday, encouraging people to take a more active role in "propagating virtue and preventing vice" - correcting those who in their view do not adhere to Islamic rules. The law empowers private citizens to give verbal or written notices on social issues. Opposition from moderates allied to Rouhani triggered intense debate and slowed down the pace of the legislature.

Confrontation with clergy

The debate has even brought the president in direct confrontation with hard line clergy who insist the dress code must be fully observed.

"Hijab is the symbol of women's piety," said Ayatollah Sayed Yousef Tabatabaei-Nejad in a Friday Prayer in Isfahan. "Anyone who deviates from it is deviating from Islam," he said.

The attacks seem to follow a new law pushed through by hard-liners in Parliament last Sunday, encouraging people to take a more active role in 'propagating virtue and preventing vice' - correcting those who in their view do not adhere to Islamic rules.

Rouhani, usually on the side of caution, responded directly this time.

"The dress code should not be the only subject about which we propagate virtue," he said in a speech in the northern city of Zanjan. Women of Iran are pious and know how to dress. "A few people should not assume they are the only moral compass in the country."

Photos of women with burnt disfigured faces posted on social media websites have caused serious concern. They are reporting as many as 15 women affected and one killed. Officials claim only eight were affected.

"My entire body was burning," writes a victim, "but when I took some of my clothes off to cool down passers by didn't think of helping me, instead they kept telling me off for forgetting the dress code."

Photos of a girl called Soheila Jorkesh were traded widely on social media. Her father told the BBC that the attack caused extensive acid burns on her face, forehead, both hands and legs. "She has lost her complete eyesight on her right eye."

Officials were quick to denounce the attacks claiming it had nothing to do with Islamic rules. Minister of Justice, Mostafa Poor-Mohammadi, called it a "terrorist attack". The head of police in Isfahan, Abdul-Reza Aghakhani said "psychological problems" are the main cause of such crimes. Ayatollah Movahedi Kermani condemned the "ugly acid attacks" calling for maximum punishment.

Hard-line Islamists have denied the attacks were perpetuated by their action.

"Anti revolutionary elements are trying to exaggerate this bill to give a bad name to Islam," the conservative woman member of parliament, Fatemeh Olia told Mehr News Agency. Others are blaming western propaganda for discrediting Iran and creating insecurity. Hard-line Keyhan newspaper using a headline "Acid on Virtue" says it is the work of "the fox", an expression often used for British meddling in Iran.

"It was the BBC that first used acid attacks and the dress code side by side," says a Keyhan editorial.

Too frightened

Yet people in Isfahan and other major cities of Iran are haunted by these attacks. Reports from Isfahan say that women are too frightened to venture out and those who do, come out in cars with windows kept shut. Media reports are contradictory. Some speak of a chain of attacks while others speak of random attacks of a socio psychological nature. All this indicates the nervousness with which the society is confronting these attacks.

"Propagating virtue and preventing vice" has always been a means by which fundamentalist Islamists have put pressure on women and stood against reform. Many of the hard-line clergy have repeatedly advocated it in their speeches and encouraged men to take the message to women.

Yet, the acid attacks are the most violent interpretation so far of the Islamic dress code in the Islamic Republic. They mark a new stage in hard line attempts at popularising repressive methods and confronting reform. We must wait and see how the judiciary and intelligence react in arresting and punishing the perpetrators. One thing is clear, however; the social impact of the attacks has been such that the authorities have little choice but to condemn. This will in turn help Rouhani in blocking the approval of a law that gives a free hand for more violence against women.

We must also wait for women activists' response. In the past they have driven successful campaigns to confront forced Hijab, the latest of which was a web site called Stealthy Freedom full of photos of women taking off their scarves to show their hair. Today one of the messages on this site says, "you may burn my face but you will not change my mind".

Dr Massoumeh Torfeh is former director of strategic communication at the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) and is currently a research associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, specialising in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Source: Al Jazeera