Why are young people in Iran participating in the uprising?

Photo of a school strike organized by activists, teachers and students in Sanandaj, capital of Kurdistan province and the second biggest city of Rojhilatê (Iran Kurdish region). On the chair is written: Empty Class, District 2, Sanandaj. Picture: CCITTA via Twitter

This article is based on a contribution to the online teach-out “Solidarity with the Women, Life, Freedom uprising in Iran” organised by Cambridge UCU, Cambridge University Students Union, Cambridgeshire NEU, Cambridge and District TUC and MENA Solidarity Network on 7 December. Watch a video and read another article from the teach-out here

By Hamidreza Vasheghanifarahani, Child Rights Activist and Researcher

For many observers, the participation of adolescents in the Mahsa Jina Amini revolution has been a surprise. However, I believe that a closer look at the context of Iran and the daily life politics for a young person, shows that this participation is actually at the core of the uprising by its very nature. In the last three months, parallel to observing and contemplating the different forms of adolescent participation, I had discussions with many young people and teachers to find out more. More specifically, I was trying to formulate a response to these two questions: why these young individuals are so eager about participating in this revolution, and how do they relate themselves to it and its main demands: Woman, Life, Freedom? 

In this short piece of writing, I share some of these observations and the concerns that some of the adolescents have shared with me.

Forms of Participation

Adolescents, in addition to participating in the uprising by accompanying their parents in taking the streets, have mainly taken schools and social media as the main sites for showing their solidarity and engagement with the movement. Their actions include, but are not limited to:

  • Removing forced hijab (in their school uniforms) in school and on their way to school
  • Refusing to repeat ideological slogans related to the Islamic Republic in schools
  • Singing and chanting songs and slogans in classes, school yard and nearby streets, demonstrating their demands
  • Holding memorials for children and adolescents who lost their lives
  • Removing pictures of Khamenei and Khomeini from the first pages of their books
  • Posting their paintings and artworks on social media
  • Demonstrations inside and outside schools
  • Refusing to attend classes
  • Removing photos of Khomeini and Khamenei from classrooms and replacing them with artworks or photos of young people killed by the regime.
  • Forcing the visiting authorities of the Ministry of Education to leave their school
Sarina Esmaeilzadeh’s classmates hold a memorial for her after she was beaten to death by the regime’s security forces in September.

Why do adolescents participate in the uprising?

When I was discussing with adolescents, they noted several issues that contributed to their enthusiasm about the uprising and their moral responsibility feeling about it.

Many of them noted that they are witnessing discrimination in education as an institution. For example, one twelfth-grade student living in Kurdistan noted that “90 percent of seats in top universities go to graduates of private and non-public schools.” His concern is backed up by statistics showing that 80 percent of the top 3000 candidates in university entrance exams are from the first three richest deciles of the country’s population. While many students do not use terms such as financialization and commodification of education, they are experiencing it in their everyday life. When they reach the age of taking the university entrance exam, it becomes evident, as a student notes, “how the limited facilities and quality of their public school have left them unqualified for a good performance on the university entrance exam” -an exam which is more than an exam and determines almost their destiny.

Many students mentioned the “harsh disciplinary atmosphere” in schools, from forced hijab to other issues such as physical inspection, lack of privacy, and mandatory participation in ideological events. Interestingly, some students noted that despite the general atmosphere of schools, they also have had teachers “who have informed them about their rights as children and students”, including the right to free, inclusive and quality education, the right to participation, and the right to being protected against any form of abuse.

Another reason that has contributed to the anger of students is the ideological curriculum. This includes not only praising the Supreme Leader, faking facts about the progress of the regime in science, medicine and more recently “defeating Covid-19”, but also representing girls in school textbooks as mothers, housekeepers and responsible for domestic labour. These examples show that they are fed up with the regime’s propaganda, more specifically when it comes to gender roles.  

In addition, students are witnessing their peers, parents, neighbours and relatives being beaten, detained or even killed. This has raised empathy on a national scale. Any girl can see that she or her friend could be Nika Shahkarami, or Sarina Esmailzadeh, only two of the teenagers who were killed by the regime forces, among many. 

In a wider historical context, students have also witnessed discrimination against themselves and their peers. Baha’i students after finishing high school cannot enter universities. In Balochistan, the southeastern part of the country, many children cannot go to school due to not having an ID or because of the spatial distance, lack of facilities or poverty. The right to be taught (in) their mother tongue for Kurd, Balouch, Turk, Turkmen, Arab and many other ethnicities is not recognized in practice and only is an empty promise on paper. Even some teachers and activists such as Zara Mohammadi, a Kurdish female teacher and cultural activist, are prosecuted, imprisoned and charged only because of teaching the Kurdish language and literature to children and promoting this right. Also, LGBTQIA adolescents and young adults are stigmatised in the formal education system and thus this uprising has allowed them to raise their voices. 

Many students are also directly witnessing and experiencing the environmental crises caused by mismanagement, fraud and discriminatory approach of the Islamic Regime. Most of the big cities in Iran have the problem of air pollution which causes several days of school closure every fall and winter and many cases of casualties. Many areas have a problem with drinking water, from Balochistan and Khuzestan to the mountains of Zagros and even north of Iran. This problem is the result of using water for industrial purposes, such as steel and industrial agriculture. Steel industries are located inside the country, instead of being established near the seas, since provinces which have coastlines are mainly populated by non-Shia and non-Fars ethnics. Also, while in many rural areas farmers have no right to use water resources, industrial agriculture companies consume water on large scales without any accountability. Even when students do not experience such crises directly, they have access to news on social media and see photos that are posted by people from other areas of the country.

Above all of these, financial and economic hardship which is a direct cause of market-oriented and neoliberal policies is a very apparent issue. On one hand, adolescents see and experience this hardship and on the other hand, the fraud inside the regime has become more apparent than at any other time. Let us just take one example of many cases. Recently it turned out that the ruling elite has embezzled more than 2.5 billion dollars from the Steel Industry of Mobarake during the past decade, despite the regime’s claims of economic hardship as a result of international sanctions.

In addition, we can list the generous budget for Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (one of the regime’s armed forces, which also acts as the main intelligence, economic, political agent of the regime, inside and outside the country, to sustain its power), for the Shia Hawza (Clergy Schools) and other ideological and religious organisations as well as the costs of war against the Syrian people. The undemocratic allocation of the state’s budget has left insufficient funding for schools, public health and the environment. Any student who looks forward to their future in Iran will eventually ask themselves, does this land remain liveable if the Islamic regime continues this way? 

Students replacing photos of Khamenei and Khomeini with a photo of Nika Shahkarami, a 16 year-old girl who was killed by security forces.

The regime’s reaction 

During the last three months, the Regime has tried to suppress students and young individuals whether at schools or in the streets. Security and plain-clothed forces have attacked several schools. They have also inspected the schools’ CCTV footage to identify students. There are several reports of arresting students and teachers and school staff who showed solidarity with students and refused to cooperate with security forces. Recently, several adolescents have undergone unfair and extrajudicial trials, facing charges of “waging war against God,” or “Moharebe”. Moharebe is amongst the most frequent criminal charges used by the regime, and according to Shari’a law and the criminal code of the Islamic regime of Iran usually results in death penalty or long jail terms including life imprisonment.

Amir Mohammad Jafari (who has been brutally tortured), Arian Farzam Nia and Mahdi Shokrollahi are three teenagers, each of them sentenced to 25 years of imprisonment in a recent trial. Parmis Hamnava, a 15 year old girl from Balochistan is another victim who was beaten by security forces because during their school inspection they found that Parmis had removed photos of Khomeini and Khamenei from her books. Sadly, Parmis died after four days of hospitalisation. Since the start of the uprising at least 70 children and adolescents have been killed by the regime and many have been arrested and tortured. During this period many activists and child rights defenders including Samaneh Asghari, Mina Jandaghi, Niloufar Fathi, Atefeh Charmahalian, Saeed Shirzad, Sarvenaz Ahmadi and Mahsa Gholamalizadeh have also been arrested. After many weeks of solitary confinement and interrogation, some of them have been released on heavy bail and are awaiting trial, but some are still in custody. 

What you can do:

  • Take urgent action to stop the execution of arrested protesters in Iran. Write to the Iranian embassy calling for a halt to all executions and for the release of those arrested and subjected to unfair trials.
  • Pass a resolution in your union branch condemning the repression of the uprising
  • Join protests against repression called by Iranian activists outside Iran

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