Overview: University Unrest
by GOLAB P.
28 Oct 2009 05:55
Happy Student Day to you the student who is:
an agent of a foreign adversary!
a threat to public safety!
a fake intellectual!
[ feature ] Since Iranian universities reopened in September, opposition protests have been reported -- and many times documented -- across the country, including in Ahvaz, Gilan, Shiraz and Isfahan. In many of these cases, a visit by a pro-government speaker has triggered the protests.
The rallies are generally called by fliers distributed from days before, and usually end without violence. Last week, Tehran University students booed offstage (and hurled a shoe at) Ahmadinejad's former Cultural Minister, Saffar Harandi; Qazvin University students passed out cups of green-colored sherbert amongst demonstrators; and Azad University saw protests in several branches, including South Tehran and the city of Karaj outside the capital.
The student movement in Iran has its roots long before the 1979 revolution, but the first major government offensive against students that I am old enough to remember took place on the night of July 9, 1999. Earlier that day, students at the University of Tehran clashed with police as they protested the closure of the reformist-run Salaam newspaper. Late that night, once they were back indoors, their dormitories were raided by militiamen. Clashes persisted for another two days on North Amirabad Avenue.
All political factions within Iran had to react. Abdollah Nouri (the impeached interior minister), Mousavi Lari (the interior minister of the time), Mostafa Moin (minister of higher education) and Hadi Khamenei (the leader's brother), visited the protesting students. The leader made a speech in which he compared the assault on the dormitories to people going into homes without permission. He famously said, "Even if some rip my photos, do not react," prompting the audience to burst into tears.
That year, the final exams, which take place at the end of July, were pushed back three months and the University of Tehran was closed and the dormitories emptied.
I entered university after the events of that summer. The shadows of the catastrophe still loomed large. Older students would tell stories of those days, pointing out broken doorknobs, missing windows, and other memorabilia of the demonstrations. The student movement had died down, but not completely. It was just silent, cautious, scared, awaiting the next opportunity.
Only a few weeks before the tenth anniversary, the same dormitories were attacked. This time around, it wasn't unexpected. After the controversial election and the mass protests that followed, students were once again at the forefront of the demonstrations. We were all expecting another assault on the dorms.
And unfortunately, we were not wrong. Norooz website reported that five students had been killed that night and later silently buried.
Once again, this took place during exam season, and once again, the university was closed and exams did not resume until the end of September. Over the next few months, the constant barrage of verbal attacks on the universities were one reason many thought that the schools may remain closed for good. But the university doors did open, and the students picked up right about where they left off.
The first reports of university protests during the new school year began at the University of Tehran, which has for decades been at the forefront of the student movement (students from Amir Kabir University would dispute this claim). At the beginning of the new school year, the president of Iran usually visits the University of Tehran. President Mohammad Khatami visited almost every year, as did Ahmadinejad for the first three years in office. Last year, his office had announced that he would be attending the ceremonies as well. But he was a no show, and sent his deputy instead.
This year too, it was rumored that he would be attending. He did not. Instead, Kamran Daneshjou, the minister of Higher Education and the man who oversaw the disastrous June election at the interior ministry, made a visit. It was September 28, only five days after the beginning of the new school year. The amphitheater, where the ceremony was held, was tightly sealed off to keep students out. Those on the outside, however, made sure their voices were heard. They staged one of the first student demonstrations of the new school year.
A day before Daneshjou's visit, when it was still expected that Ahmadinejad would attend, the director of the law enforcement unit at the University of Tehran was dismissed. A week before that, Mowj, the reformist-led website, reported that the head of University of Tehran's campus security was dismissed and replaced by someone by the name of Khosravi from the ministry of intelligence. The law enforcement office had been independent of the security office before that. But under the supervision of Khosravi, they are both now directly under the watch of the intelligence ministry.
Since then, a succession of demonstrations have become a staple of university life. Widespread protests have also taken place in universities across Iran, including Ahvaz, Gilan, Shiraz and Isfahan. In many of these cases, a visit by a pro-government speaker has triggered the protests.
Another noticeable change this academic term has been the increased number of visits by pro-government speakers. Safar Harandi, the minister of culture under the first Ahmadinejad administration, was at the University of Tehran on October 19; Naser Gharehbaghi, a leading right-wing theorist, was at the University of Tehran and Amir Kabir university on the same day. Javad Larijani was at Sharif University of Technology on October 4.
In each case, the presence of pro-government forces and their use of derogatory language, have provoked a fresh set of demonstrations. Given the number of student deaths, and the number of beatings friends and classmates have endured, the students have shown a great deal of restraint.
Aside from the University of Tehran, the Azad University of Tehran, Sharif University of Technology and Amir Kabir University of Technology have also been the site of constant unrest. Students chant slogans in support of Mousavi and Karoubi, Ayatollah Sanei, and against Ahmadinejad and the Basij.
The student body represents radically different aspirations, from a total change in the political system, to a desire for slow, gradual change within the frameworks of the current government, more in tune with the aspirations of Mousavi and Karoubi. In my opinion, those seeking gradual change have dominated the movement so far, because the key figures of this movement are student activists who formed the core of Mousavi's campaign (some, including Shahabeddin Tababaie and Mohammad Reza Jalayipour, are still in prison).
On campus, there have so far been no reports of arrests. Students have, however, been suspended. For example, six students from Sharif University have been suspended for one semester. On Wednesday, October 22, a letter signed by almost 6,000 Sharif students was released, asking for their classmates' suspension to be revoked.
Off campus, students have been under much more direct attacks.
On October 2, 2009, 17 student activists with a student organization called Tahkim Vahdat (Office of Strengthening Unity) were arrested while gathered at Tehran's Jamshidiyeh Park. Fifteen were released the next day, but two remain in custody. Both students being held are enrolled at the University of Tehran.
On October 22, the house of Shahbeddin Tabatabayi, where his father-in-law was holding a prayer, was raided and 71 people were arrested; 52 were released, but 19, including four student activists, are still in custody.
Students -- from both sides of the political spectrum -- have also been involved in some form of resistance. The Greens at the University of Tehran's faculty of engineering sneaked into their classrooms and painted them green during a late night session. The pro-government Basij forces have been distributing leaflets and brochures ridiculing the other side. The big difference is that while one side goes to great lengths to hide its identity, those on the pro-government side plaster their names all over the leaflets.
The scale and intensity of the demonstrations have also been disputed by both sides. But what matters more than the size of these protests is that they continue, and so far do not appear to be on the wane.
Students remain a reminder to their elders that this struggle is far from over. Upcoming events include November 4 (13th of Aban, the day that the U.S. embassy was raided by students in 1979 and the day the Shah's forces attacked students a year before that, in 1978) and December 7, known as Student Day in Iran.
Student Day in Iran is celebrated in memory of three engineering students who were killed by the Shah's forces during a demonstration in protest to Richard Nixon's visit to Tehran in 1953, after the coup that ousted Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq. Usually, the president visits the Unviersity's engineering faculty and gives a speech. We will have to wait and see if Ahmadinejad will dare to show up, and if he does, if the ceremony will be open to students.
These events should also be a reminder that the state's long, brutal quest to silence the student movement, a movement that has been at the forefront of political movements in Iran long before the revolution, has been unsuccessful. Students have always had more access to the outside world, and have represented a unique slice of every resistance movement to take shape within Iran, whether Marxist, Islamist or Reformist.
These students have now forged that permanent bond with the students of generations past, all united under one flag, for one cause, albeit bearing different names and labels.
And the dilemma of silencing the student movement once and for all, as the Iranian authorities have found, is that the student body is continuously changing. Brutalizing the student population one year, does not guarantee that they will remain silent forever, because by the very nature of a school, it is dynamic and fluid. Tired, weary students walk out one door, only to be replaced by a fresh batch of enthusiastic youth ready to the change the world.
They have yet to achieve that aim, but that has never stopped them from trying.
Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau