Students in Iran refuse to back down from protests sparked by death of young woman

Iran's ongoing crackdown against protestors continues as nationwide demonstrations sparked by the death of a 22-year-old woman in police custody are now in their seventh week. Nick Schifrin and producer Zeba Warsi have been speaking with students there and report that despite Iran’s attempts at suppression, the protests persist.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, the U.S. called for Iran to lose its position on a U.N. commission that promotes female empowerment as punishment for Iran's ongoing crackdown against protesters.

    Nationwide demonstrations are now in their seventh week sparked by the death of a 22-year-old woman in police custody.

    Nick Schifrin and producer Zeba Warsi have been speaking to students in Iran and report that, despite Iran's attempts at suppression, the national protests persist.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It is Iran's civil rights movement, and it's led by students.

    They break through the fear that kept them compliant, break through the wall that separated men from women, and chant one word: "Freedom."

    At Iran's most elite universities, they vow never to give up. They don't want reform. They want revolution, this university student told us, asking to be kept anonymous.

  • Student:

    Change the regime. Woman. Life. Freedom.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Female students fuel the demonstrations by burning what was once a regime pillar, the mandatory headscarf. They are leaderless and mostly nonviolent, which they contrast with the crackdown: "You are amoral," they chant. "I am the noble woman."

    But the regime fights back. Across the country, police exhibit no restraint. Students run for their lives. Two weeks ago, the family of 16-year-old Nika Shakarami accused the police of detaining and murdering her after she protested.

    At her grave site, the crowd chanted, "Death to Khamenei."

  • Student:

    The government agents shot directly to those who came to participate in the funeral ceremony. They use any method to find the protesters in our schools and universities. Forces in military uniforms attacked the students with batons and guns and threw tear gas.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Students post blurred videos to protect protesters' identities. Many of the students who spoke to us did so on the condition we don't show their face and alter their voice.

  • Student:

    Some of them were chanting, and the police officers, the men with motorcycles came. There were like 20, 30, and they started to shoot us.

    What did we do? They don't care. They just started to shoot us, and a lot of people got shot in front of me, including me. I got shot, but it was just paintball.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Students and teachers told us protesters have been expelled, and teachers are pressured to rat student demonstrators out.

    The U.N. and human rights groups say hundreds, if not thousands of students have been detained and dozens killed.

  • Student:

    From one side, they were shooting us. From another side, they were waiting to arrest us.

    We experienced all these moments because of what? What was our fault? We were just asking for our basic human right, for the freedom of our friends, who did nothing wrong.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, in a photo-op, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei met students in Tehran. He later said he had no issues with student protesters, but call them emotional and negligent in their understanding and manipulated by the West.

    Another student told us, he's missing the point.

  • Student:

    We're protesting for a better life, of course. A lot of choices were taken away from us, especially women, under this regime. It's not just about hijab. It's about the choice of living however we want.

    We want to choose our own religion and we want to wear the clothes we want.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This student says the protests are the only thing anyone discusses. They help each other to avoid Internet censorship and to keep the faith.

  • Student:

    I guess we're kind of hopeful, too, because, before these protests started, a lot of students my age were planning on emigrating.

    And I guess — at least I'm speaking for myself — that I'm kind of hopeful that I can stay here. We are fighting so we don't have to leave our country behind, we don't have to leave our family behind. And we're fighting so we could build our lives here. A world without Islamic Republic is a better world for everyone.

  • Sanam Vakil, Chatham House:

    This was a generation that hasn't been politically very active or hasn't mobilized, and their response is quite fierce. They're very angry. And they're looking to push back, not just on social issues, but clearly political ones as well.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Sanam Vakil is a Middle East analyst at Chatham House. She says previous protests have lasted longer. The 2009 Green Revolution went on for nine months. But none of them had demonstrators as diverse.

  • Sanam Vakil:

    And we have seen dissent emanating from students, labor activists, as well as ethnic groups. So it does bring together really critical cleavages that, should they over time continue to cooperate and organize and mobilize, will be important and put pressure on the regime.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Iranian universities have long hosted calls for democratic change. In 1979, university students played a crucial role to evict the monarchy and create the Islamic Republic. In 2022, it's not only students. It's also their teachers.

  • Teacher:

    They are destroying Iran, yes. So, we want them to go. That's what we want.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And have you felt this way for a while, but are only now willing to speak out, even give this interview?

  • Teacher:

    As long as I remember, I always want, and I couldn't do anything because I was alone. Now I feel we are united.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    She teaches at a high school, where her students write "Death to the dictator" on classroom walls. But management is divided.

  • Teacher:

    Principal called police upon all the students to be arrested.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And do you encourage your students to protest?

  • Teacher:

    I did. And it was so dangerous, because maybe some of them go and call other ones, and security will come for me if they do such. But they didn't.

    Otherwise, I would be arrested by now. And I'm proud of them. I won't stop doing that, stop protesting and fighting back until I get my rights, and, also, the regime, the regime will change. When the regime change, I will stop.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, for now, analysts say regime change is unlikely. And so this moment has become a movement.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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