It was a moment that few faculty and students will forget at Isfahan University of Technology in central Iran. Hundreds of students – male and female – marched side-by-side through the tree-lined streets last month, clapping and chanting the word that can now be heard at every Iranian protest across the world, from Vancouver to Berlin to Tehran: “Azadi, azadi, azadi.” Freedom, freedom, freedom.
At the university protest, though, the students used another slogan that struck a deeper chord among Iran’s clerical establishment: “Husayn, Husayn, where are you? Yazid is now IRGC,” they chanted, referring to Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
By invoking the names of two historical figures from one of the darkest chapters in early Islamic history – when the Prophet Muhammad’s beloved grandson, Husayn, was assassinated at the hands of a tyrannical ruler named Yazid, in Karbala, Iraq, in 680 AD – the students were telling authorities that the Iranian government now symbolizes Yazid’s oppressive rule – and they were appealing for Husayn to help.
Tehran has used the powerful Karbala narrative often in the past to criticize contemporary issues, such as U.S. hegemony and militarism in the Middle East. The fact that the students have now repurposed this slogan is a damning indictment of how deep-rooted frustration is in Iran.
Crippling U.S. sanctions, coupled with economic mismanagement and corruption, have led to a shrunken Iranian economy that hasn’t seen any substantive growth over the last decade. In 2022, the inflation rate exceeded 50 per cent and prices continued to increase steadily while household purchasing power fell and the GDP growth rate slowed. High oil prices have also stifled growth.
A 19-year-old industrial engineering student at Isfahan University of Technology told The Globe and Mail that she took part in her school’s protests because she was too afraid to join the ones in the streets. She said it was a decision she made after years of hope for political and social reform by government officials failed to materialize. The Globe is not identifying her or other sources because they fear reprisals from the state.
The university protest was one of hundreds that erupted across the country since mid-September after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s “morality police” for allegedly wearing hijab incorrectly. According to Human Rights Activists in Iran, at least 339 people have been killed by security forces in the crackdown that followed. With the protests now in their eighth week, some reports put the number of arrests at 15,300, including more than 40 students.
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Hearing about Ms. Amini’s death triggered outrage, but not shock, the engineering student said, adding that while she has never interacted with the morality police herself, some of her friends have and say they have experienced verbal and physical brutality.
Sousan Safaverdi, a political science professor at Islamic Azad University’s central Tehran campus, which also saw protests, attests to the negligence of Iran’s government in heeding calls for change.
“The students are saying: ‘You should see us. We are here. Maybe we are different, but we exist and we are here,’” Prof. Safaverdi told The Globe. “The government has a responsibility to see the needs of people and hear these voices. Freedom to think is important – to have respect for people who are different from us.”
If the protesters talk about freedom, she said, “this freedom should not be defined only for those who conform to our model.”
The call to ban the mandatory hijab is symbolic of a lot of the needs that most Iranians have, she added. “In most cases, these needs are being ignored by the people in charge.”
Prof. Safaverdi also gives credit to the women-led nature of the movement, saying women have become the face of the protests, and that their calls for justice and accountability have been “a source of light” and hope.
In an article published last month on an independent digital news website she founded, Zanan Diplomacy (Diplomatic Women), she called out authorities – male and female – for questioning the righteousness or religiosity of Iranian women who don’t adhere to mandatory hijab, saying it violates Islamic teachings.
“No one is allowed to insult the dignity of a human being, according to the teachings of the Prophet of Islam – especially a woman’s – because insulting the dignity of a woman is considered improper. The Prophet’s narrations show us that he did not insult the dignity of people who wore hijab or didn’t, nor did he insult those who believed in religion or didn’t believe.”
The Prophet Muhammad was pure in his morals and teachings, she added. “He was soft spoken and not forceful even toward his enemies, and so that form of etiquette must be continued. Also, some women mistreat other women who don’t veil in an acceptable way – and put labels on them – which is wrong.”
Other Iranians point to the impact of U.S. sanctions, which have drastically constrained Tehran’s ability to finance humanitarian imports, including life-saving medicines, according to a 2019 Human Rights Watch report.
“People are frustrated after decade-long crippling sanctions and also a political and social system that is becoming more backward,” said Barzin, a Tehran-based journalist for an economic daily newspaper. The Globe is identifying him only by his first name because he fears state reprisals.
“I feel responsible for being more active in politics, because the alternative – which is to do nothing and let the conservatives run the country – has become very dangerous.
“I wish the hardliners understand that they can’t manage the whole country by themselves and they need to let other groups and segments of society engage in the political process and govern the country,” he said.
A 32-year-old journalist in Tehran who has participated in previous public protests said that Iran is facing a new moment.
The current protests are part of a broad revolutionary movement from the younger generation of Iran, she said, in which young people are fearless of police forces and ready to sacrifice their lives for change.
The protests may be suppressed in the end, she added, but their effects will remain on younger generations of Iranians.