Encieh Erfani says that more must be done to support students in Iran who are risking their lives to protest against oppression
On 13 September 2022 the religious morality police of Iran’s government, who are required to enforce Iran’s Islamic code of conduct in public, arrested Mahsa Amini in Tehran for not wearing the hijab in accordance with government standards. After three days in a coma in a hospital in Tehran, the 22-year-old died, with officials noting cardiac arrest as the reason. The suspicious circumstances around her death were met with outrage and were followed by waves of protests throughout Iran that are still continuing today.
While official statistics of the number of those arrested is not available, it is thought that protests have been held in 129 universities, with more than 400 students having been arrested.
Large-scale demonstrations in Iran against the government are not new. In November 2019 protests broke out across the country as part of the wider Iranian Democracy Movement, leading to calls to overthrow the government in Iran and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. They were quickly shut down by the government.
This time, however, students and the public have continued their demonstrations, which have seen women cut their hair in public, remove their mandatory hijabs and, in some cases, even set them on fire. Since the beginning of the autumn term, the intensity of the protests at universities has remained high.
The protests were initially so large that universities were forced on 23 September to move classes online. Due to a clampdown on access to the Internet by the government, however, classes returned in early October to being held in-person but many students refused to attend.
Indeed, despite the threat of suspensions and even dismissals, students at most universities are still not attending classes. Lecturers have been told they must hold classes even if there is only one person in attendance. In fact, some have even taught empty lecture halls. Students are now being threatened that they will fail courses if they do not attend.
A ‘bloody day’
According to Iranian law, the armed forces are prohibited from entering universities and educational centres. They can do so, however, upon the request of the president of the university “in emergency situations” and with approval from the health minister and the minister of science, research and technology, currently Bahram Eynollahi and Mohammad Ali Zolfigol, respectively.
On 2 October the protests turned to bloodshed as plain-clothed officers attacked students at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. An unknown number of students were injured while some were arrested and transferred to an unknown location. The violence against the students increased to such an extent that Zolfigol visited the university where, instead of calming the situation, he threatened to expel the students.
In a statement, the Islamic Association of Sharif University described 2 October as a “bloody day” for the university and “another disgraceful stain on the record of governance”.
The international community needs to do more and that starts with providing support for students who are risking their lives for a better life
At the same time as the attack at Sharif University, other universities including Tabriz University were also assailed by police. On 12 October Negin Abdolmaleki, a 21-year-old medical engineering student at Hamadan University of Technology, suffered bleeding to the head after she was hit by a baton. She died after returning to her student dormitory. The government then threatened her family and informed students that Abdolmaleki had died from eating canned fish that had passed its expiry date. On 24 October officials announced the cause of Abdolmaleki’s death as “alcohol poisoning”, denying the existence of injuries that she had sustained.
On 20 October the Iranian Ministry of Science, Research and Technology announced that the military will have an office at some universities – a move that has shocked some in the country. Recently, the oppression of students has been extended to raids in student dormitories, with many students arrested in the night by plain-clothed officers. Some have been offered release but with a bail that many families cannot afford. Most of the released students have lost the right to enter the university, their dormitory or to attend classes.
The aggression shown by the police has increased sharply with the use of firearms and tear gas. On 3 November security forces shot and killed Yaser Narouie, a 25-year-old medical student at Zahedan University of Medical Sciences, in the street in front of the university.
Except in a handful of cases, faculty members have not joined the students in their protests. Many faculty have also not resigned or gone on strike but continue to teach their courses. They have not even published a statement in support of the students. I felt otherwise and on 23 September – the day universities begin in Iran – I resigned from the physics department at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences in Zanjan.
I now call on my former colleagues to do the same. I would also like to see the presidents of the universities that allow oppressive forces to enter universities being banned from the international community. This would mean they cannot publish their work in scientific journals, travel to international conferences or spend time at institutions outside of Iran.
In the wake of the attack on Sharif University, several universities outside Iran have condemned the violent treatment of students. But the international community needs to do more and that starts with providing support for students who are risking their lives for a better life.