Twenty-year-old Melina is one of a new generation of Iranian students eager for change, and she says nothing, not even a crackdown on anti-regime demonstrations, will stop her going out on the streets to protest.
The protests would continue until “we have the freedom to choose a democratic, secular system under which there will be no discrimination”, said Melina, an electrical engineering student in Tehran.
For the first time in years, Iran’s universities have re-emerged as a central focus of protests following the death in custody of a woman arrested for allegedly violating the Islamic dress code. These protests have spread across the country and, despite crackdowns, are continuing.
With many students refusing to go to class, universities across the country have only partially reopened at the beginning of the academic year. Students in one institution, Ferdowsi University in the city of Mashhad, have called for a referendum on whether Iran should be run by an Islamic establishment.
Protesters’ slogans include “We don’t want an Islamic republic” and “Woman, Life, Freedom” — embodying what they hope to achieve under a secular government. Iran’s high school students have also joined the protests, posting videos that show them removing their headscarves, writing slogans and singing songs to show their solidarity with the protesters.
“The student movement has been [ barely] alive even under suppression and intimidation, but these protests have brought it to life again,” said Abdollah Momeni, a former student leader who spent five years in jail for holding “illegal” gatherings after the disputed 2009 elections.
At least 41 people have been killed in crackdowns since the protests began, according to state television, although Amnesty International puts the figure at 52. Separately, reports that a senior police officer had raped a teenage girl in the southeastern city of Zahedan led to protests and a brutal crackdown. Amnesty said at least 82 people were killed there in late September.
After protests at dozens of universities at the weekend, security forces raided the prestigious Sharif university in Tehran and arrested more than 30 students, said the students’ association. The regime, it said, wanted to” suffocate student protesters’ voices” and make an example of Sharif. Iran’s higher education ministry blamed the Sharif protests and their “radical slogans” on the overseas opposition.
Unlike previous student movements, whose leaders engaged with the Islamic republic through established university organisations, this generation of protests appears to be leaderless. “We are our own leaders,” said Melina, dismissing the idea that students needed a distinguished figure to tell them what should be their demands in the protests.
For young protesters, particularly those from the urban middle class that populate university lecture theatres, Mahsa Amini’s death in custody made it clear it was time for the Islamic republic to go, said Hamid-Reza Jalaeipour, a sociologist, who described Amini’s death as “a blade scarring Iranians’ spinal cord”. Authorities have promised a full investigation into her death, but many Iranians believe she was beaten by the morality police.
The reawakening of university students’ protest spirit follows slow progress in political reforms, convincing many there is little point in either negotiation with authorities or engaging in elections. With hardliners now controlling all arms of the state, turnout in last year’s presidential election that saw hardliner Ebrahim Raisi elected was just 48.8 per cent.
Despite the protests and the anger, analysts caution that the Islamic republic is not on the verge of collapse. “The Islamic republic may not be a democratic state but . . . has its deep roots and vast networks from the richest segments of the society to the most remote villages,” said Jalaeipour. “Those who seek regime change still form a minority. The majority of Iranians are not willing to pay the costs.”
The protests were similar to the civil unrest in France in May 1968, said Saeed Layalz, a reformist analyst. This “will not lead to overthrowing of the political establishment but can lead to deep developments”, he said. “It’s mainly the youth in the protests, who are mostly single and have no leader and they don’t have a clear demand.”
This idea that the Islamic republic is too big to fall is prevalent among many Iranians. Some students and professors fear protests could end up in more suppression and disillusionment.
“This radical atmosphere today will help hardliners go for their plans to further purge pro-reform professors and suppress students,” said Azam, a university professor. “How long can students refuse to go to classes? My experience says not too long.”
Despite the protests, Hamid-Reza Taraghi, a hardline politician, said there would be no retreat on the principles of the Islamic republic, but there could be other reforms, such as changing the way the obligatory hijab or headscarf is enforced or allowing students to have free debates inside universities.
“There are 4.5mn students in the country. Even if 50,000 of them seek to overthrow the system, it is not a high figure,” he said.
Nonetheless, the protests serve as a warning to hardliners who are preparing the country for the eventual successor of Iran’s 83-year-old supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Many slogans have targeted him and his second son, Mojtaba, a 53-year-old cleric seen as a possible successor to his father.
“The students’ protests will help make the system more cautious in its future decisions such as the succession,” said Momeni. “Even if the Islamic republic survives, this new movement will have its achievements and we shall see its impacts on people’s lifestyle, women’s clothing and the future leadership.”
For Yasamin, a 23-year-old restaurant cashier who has been taking part in the protests, the students offer hope for a different future.
“Students are giving more credibility to what is a genuine people’s movement and possibly an educated person will emerge from these protests as a leader at the right time,” she said.
She, too, has resolved to carry on protesting.
“For now, I am determined to go ahead and see who has more power: us or the Islamic republic? This country is mine, it’s my right to live a good life here and nobody can take this away from me unless they kill me.”