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Protests in Iran: The Courageous Role of Students and Teachers

Author: Clara Margotin

Editors: Ruth Lucas and Prachi Saraf

(Bakhan, 2022)

On the 16th and 17th of January 2023, the Eiffel Tower in Paris lit up and displayed the slogan “Femme, Vie, Liberté” (“Women, Life, Freedom”), as well as the hashtag “#StopExecutionsInIran”, in support of protesting women in Iran. On the 16th of January, more than 5,000 protesters gathered and marched to the EU Parliament located in the French city of Strasbourg, to express their support for the ongoing demonstrations in Iran. The continuing Iranian revolt, which started in July 2021, has recently resurfaced due to a new wave of repression, arrest, and imprisonment of activists by the ruling regime.

Protests against the Iranian government erupted on the 15th of July 2021, in response to harsh water shortages imposed on the population by Tehran. After the issue not being addressed nor resolved, demonstrations intensified based on the ongoing economic crisis, the systematic violation of Iranian women’s human rights, as well as the numerous internet and social media cut-offs. The popular movement, which rallies numerous young people and mostly takes place on university campuses, culminated following the assassination of Mahsa Amini, 22, by the Iranian morality police. Amini, who had not placed her hijab correctly on her head, and who was wearing skinny jeans, got arrested on the 16th of September 2022 by the Iranian Guidance Patrol for not respecting the principles of the Sharia Islamic Law. Despite the police denying its responsibility for Amini’s passing, the family affirmed that she had been violated by security forces, which resulted in her death while still in detention.

Amini’s death led to the intensification of demonstrations across Iran, which eventually resulted in even harsher repression by the government, the morality police, and other security. The oppression of protesters takes the form of frequent and arbitrary arrestations, physical and psychological torture, sexual assault, as well as numerous imprisonment and trials which have sometimes led to the death penalty. According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), Iranian security forces have arrested more than 19,300 people since the start of the protests in 2021. Moreover, the Norway-based Iran Human Rights (IHRNGO) organisation declared in early January 2023 that at least 481 individuals have been killed by Iranian security forces and police since the onset of the revolt, including 64 children. Most of them had been imprisoned by the police and then condemned to capital punishment by the Supreme Court of Iran. As explained by IHRNGO, such figures highlight the danger Iranian protesters are currently being exposed to, especially in areas such as Sistan and Baluchistan province where the number of arrests is intensifying with now more than 100 protesters having been taken for custody.

Despite all the risks that it entails, Iranians are persisting with protests and are resolute to force the current government to resign. Amongst them, students and university staff have shown a certain level of courage and determination. Indeed, following Amini’s death in 2022, the Coordination Council of the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association called for several days of strikes aimed at expressing their support for the young woman and her family. The Council had then declared that “The death of Mahsa Amini showed that members of different social strata are strongly opposed to the mandatory hijab, which does not even hold religious validity”. After challenging the government’s imposing of Shariah Islamic Law and pointing out its absurdity, the Council has also added that “It is to be expected that the students of Iran, especially the courageous women, insist on their legal and inherent rights, and continue to appropriately demand them”. These declarations, in addition to the multiplication of teachers’ strikes and students’ sit-ins, led to a wave of arbitrary arrests in May 2022, which resulted in the imprisonment of numerous university staff and students across the country.

Following this, teachers and students decided to carry on opposing the Iranian government and even called for further strikes in late 2022 over low wages, the lack of budget in the education sector, and their colleagues’ arrests. The Iranian government has since emphasized monitoring university campuses, school premises, and teachers’ and students’ behaviour, which they perceive as particularly threatening to the regime. Teachers are being asked by the authorities to watch their students, to report on the ones who appear as potential “troublemakers”, and seem to “risk arrest if they refuse”. This has raised anger amongst teachers, who declared that “Some of the country's schools have been turned into military bases to suppress the protesting people. Many of the arrested youth are high school students, who have never been to university but have gone through the experience of solitary confinement in prison”. The government has indeed been particularly harsh with protesting students and has, according to HRANA, arrested more than 637 students for representing dangers to national security since the start of the revolt.

Despite the very harsh repression which led to the weakening of protests, the Iranian population, and especially university students, are still determined to overthrow the government and bear the costs of doing so. As stated by Nasim Sarabandi, who had himself fled Iran because of his political activism as a leader of the 2009 Green Movement protest, “[students] are getting killed, arrested, banned from campus, long prison sentences”. Iranian students have now taken the lead in the ongoing protests, which should be carefully followed.

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