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Iranian students stand up to regime

Shabnam von Hein
October 6, 2022

More and more Iranian students, including schoolchildren, are joining the protest wave. Iranian security forces are resorting to increasingly brutal measures to quell the demonstrations.

Iranian students remove their headscarves during a protest in early October 2022
Iranian students remove their headscarves during a protest in TehranImage: SalamPix/ABACA/picture alliance

Every day, new pictures and videos of Iranian protesters from all parts of the country are shared online, despite moves to restrict internet access. Students have also joined the protests and many have been arrested and jailed.

On Tuesday, videos were posted of demonstrations at Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Iran's second-largest university, calling for the release of their fellow students, especially those from the elite Sharif University of Technology in the capital Tehran. Students there were arrested on Sunday evening after staging a peaceful campus protest.

Police and security forces surrounded the campus and fired on students with shotguns. Numerous videos posted online show students being hunted down. Several lecturers were beaten with batons. It is not yet known whether any individuals were killed or injured in the crackdown. Iranian media, meanwhile, report that at least 37 students were arrested.

Riot police officers ride motorcycles in a street in Tehran, Iran
Riot police have been used to supress protests in Tehran and across the countryImage: Wana News Agency via REUTERS

"This is supposed to intimidate other students," 50-year-old Maryam from Tehran, whose real name has been withheld for security reasons, told DW. She has two children, both of whom are studying. "Every time they leave the apartment, my heart starts racing and I feel nauseous until they return," she said.

"We are not doing well; we are sad and angry. The death of Mahsa Amini was a shock for us, she could have been my daughter."

Deadly violence

This protest wave was initially sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died after being arrested by Iranian morality police for allegedly breaching the country's strict rules on head coverings. The exact cause of Amini's death remains disputed.

Iranian security forces have attempted to suppress rallies with brute force. Until Tuesday, at least 154 people have been killed in connection with the protests, according to NGO Iran Human Rights (IHR), many of them by gunshots.

In late September, human rights organization Amnesty International reported that Iranian authorities are making deliberate use of lethal force, and said they "have mobilized their well-honed machinery of repression to ruthless crackdown on nationwide protests." 

Iran: Protests spread to colleges, schools

"This show of solidarity among students for [other Iranian] protesters could pose a challenge for the state leadership," says Iran expert Hamidreza Azizi of Berlin's German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), who was an assistant professor at Tehran's Shahid Beheshti University from 2016 to 2020.

Iran, a country of 84 million, has over 200 universities and academies. Traditionally, students have played a key role in Iranian protest movements, for instance "during the 1979 revolution, and also later, for example during the protest waves of 1998 und 2009," said Azizi.

"Students supply intellectual backing and have the potential to mobilize different sectors of society, because they, too, come from different parts of society."

Iran's leadership is well-aware of the students' potential for protest, through so far, there is no organized student movement. Following nationwide protests in 2009, all independent student organizations were shut down and leading members arrested.

"On top of that, new rules concerning the localized assignment of university places were pushed through," said Aziz. "The idea is to keep many young people studying close to home to keep them under their family's supervision, instead of living in student accommodation in constant contact with others." 

Iranian Protester writing slogan on the wall in farsi
An Iranian protester writes "Death to the dictator!" on a wall in TehranImage: SalamPix/ABACA/picture alliance

"Student residences, especially those in Tehran, are among the first places to be monitored; in 1998 and 2009, security forces stormed student residences and randomly arrested residents," said Aziz. "Students may not be organized, but they cannot be underestimated, just like school protests."

School protests

In Iran, boys and girls are taught separately from the very first day right up until graduation. Even so, Iranian schools impose strict dress codes on girls. Countless videos have circulated online showing schoolgirls burning headscarves and shouting "death to the dictator." Boys' schools, too, have been gripped by strikes and protests in solidarity with Iranian girls. "Unfortunately they have not been coordinated," Iranian journalist Moloud Hajizadeh told DW.

Hajizadeh has been arrested numerous times for covering the suppression of Iranian protest movements. Most recently, in January 2021, she was sentenced to one year in jail. Yet just before starting her jail sentence, Hajizadeh fled Iran. She now lives in Norway.

"These protests are occurring in isolation from each other and do not last very long," said the journalist.

"Students have always been at the forefront of important protest movements in Iran; [now] they will have to leave their walled-off campuses, where can be easily encircled, and join others in the streets, taking a leading role even."

Only then, she said, "will the protest movement take on a new dimension, with enough power to bring about big changes."

This article was translated from German.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Iranian security forces raided a student residence at Sharif University in Tehran on Sunday. The raid was actually on the university campus.