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Politics and Economy:
Student Protests in Iran: A Long History
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In June of 2003, NOW talked with author and literary scholar Azar Nafisi. She was in Iran during and after the revolution of 1979. A professor of English, angered and frustrated by the harsh restrictions placed on women, she resigned her university position in 1995, but was determined to keep teaching. For two years, in secret, seven of her best students came to her living room and quietly studied what were considered subversive Western authors — Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James And Vladimir Nabokov. Nafisi wrote READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN about her underground study group and life under the reign of the Ayatollahs.

David Brancaccio's November 2004 interview with Roya Hakakian brings NOW back to the subject of revolution in Iran. Hakakian talks about her own memories of "storming the palace...for all the right reasons." The struggle for freedom in Iran has affected the lives of many over the past several decades, but perhaps none more visibly than the students who have taken to the streets time and again.

In Iran in the summer of 2003, student demonstrations escalated into mass protests over the privatization of the university system. The protestors called for the overthrow and even death of Iran's religious and political leaders. Thousands were arrested over 4 days of protest in June. The children of the revolution are behind the push for change — nearly half of Iran's population was born after the Shah was overthrown in 1979. It was student demonstrations that led the way to the 1979 revolution — will they now lead to another? Below is a brief account of the important dates in Iran's student movement history and of gender-related restrictions put in place after the 1979 revolution.

Students' Day: December 7, 1957
This emblematic incident took place during then Vice President Nixon's visit to Iran. Nixon's arrival Iran was met by waves of protest from the student activists. Two students threw stones at his car and they were subsequently chased by a soldier and shot. (Also, at least one other student was killed on this day.) This incident became the symbol of the anti-shah students movement for the rest of the era. Since then, every year on December 7, students have staged demonstration on campuses all over the country.

Through the 70's, lectures and classes were all boycotted by the radical students on the December 7 anniversary. Students who showed up for class might well have been terrorized by extremists or outcast socially. Ironically, in contrast to today's students in Iran, at the time students were living under good conditions (subsidized education, good educators, etc) — they enjoyed many personal freedoms. What they were really protesting was the one thing they didn't have — political freedom.

1979 Overthrow of the Shah
In 1941 Shah Mohammed Reza took power and Iran became firmly aligned with the West. Over the next 30 years, there was a buildup of resistance to Reza and his regime of modernization. The economy was worsening and the opposition was staging massive demonstrations. Central to these demonstrations were groups of Islamist students. The Shah fled the country in January 1979. In February 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile and was proclaimed Emam (leader) and a fundamentalist theocracy was installed.

Gender and the 1979 Revolution
Clothing — Soon after the revolution observing the Hejab and wearing the veil became mandatory for all Iranian women. On March 7, 1979 Khomeini decreed on that women were required to wear the chador. Ironically that ruling came one day before International Women's Day (there had been planned celebrations all across Tehran to mark this, which quickly became massive protests and demonstrations demanding women's rights.)

Education — On May 21, 1979 the Ministry of Education banned co-education. All education institutions were ordered to segregate all classes. On June 3, 1979 the Ministry of Education barred married women from attending ordinary high schools. Such women had to continue studies on their own and take special exams to get degrees. Since the minimum marriage age for women was 13, this led to decreasing education levels for women.

July 1999 Student protests
Khomeini died in 1989, his position as Supreme Leader was taken by the former president Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In 1997 a landslide election brought in moderate president Khatami. Despite the rift between Khatami's liberal circle and Khamenei's fundamentalist views, the Islamic Republic's strict impositions were not relaxed. In July of 1999 Tehran experienced 6 days of student demonstrations, called by the press "reminiscent of scenes of the 1979 revolution" and "the worst unrest the Islamic Republic has ever faced." The protests began as rumors began to circulate that parliament was considering further restrictions on freedom of the press and considering closing the reformist newspaper SALEM. The protests that started in Tehran and spread to other campuses — eventually there were student uprisings in 22 cities in Iran. The Islamic Republic cracked down and nearly 2000 students were arrested.

2002 to the Present Day
Crowds came out in force to protest the death sentence of Hashem Aghajari, a professor at Modarres University in Tehran and prominent reformist. The professor was sentenced to death after he made a speech saying that people should not blindly follow religious leaders; he criticized the clergy's monopoly on interpreting the Koran. This sparked over two weeks of student demonstrations demanding revocation of the death sentence. More than 10,000 people gathered outside Tehran University on Students' Day 2002, many were beaten or arrested by security forces.

As of 2003, Iran faced worsening economic conditions: Inflation is running at 13.4%, Unemployment is officially at 12.5% but it thought to actually be at least double that. Currently, anti-regime protests in Tehran have spread to other cities — Isfahan, Shiraz and Ahvaz. The U.S. has supported protests, angering Iran's foreign ministry and parliament. Protests began to oppose a proposal to privatize Tehran University but then swelled into a more general protest against Iran's economic problems and lack of reforms that had been promised by President Khatami.

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Azar Nafisi, Biography:
Azar Nafisi is director of the Dialogue Project at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and is internationally recognized for her advocacy on behalf of Iran's intellectuals, women, and youth. A literary scholar by training, Nafisi was an assistant professor of English at the University of Tehran from 1979 to 1982 and later spent seven years as an associate professor of English at Tabatabai University in Iran.

She was expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the veil and left Iran for America in 1997. She has written for THE NEW YORK TIMES, THE WASHINGTON POST, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL and THE NEW REPUBLIC, has appeared on countless radio and television programs, and is the author of ANTI-TERRA: A CRITICAL STUDY OF VLADIMIR NABOKOV'S NOVELS. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children.

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