Last update: 2021-02-25 10:21:55
Iranian society underwent significant changes after the 1979 revolution. These social transformations encompassed the role of youth in the socio-political spheres, the redefinition of public space, the empowerment of civil society, and new forms of political activism. These changes are due to generational shifts, the universalisation of education, widespread services, and a new mentality towards politics, religion, and individual rights. Today, the Iranian population counts roughly 82 million citizens, half of whom are under 30 years old. People are mainly concentrated in large urban conglomerates, cities that have swallowed up the suburbs without ensuring better living conditions for their inhabitants. Rural areas and peripheral regions still suffer from a state centralization that seems unable to consider their needs. This has widened existing gaps between the centre and the provinces, not just as a geographical distinction but also in terms of opportunities. The Iranian youth are highly educated, but access to the job market remains unbalanced across gender and social levels and, in provinces like Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and Sistan Baluchistan the level of unemployment is consistently higher than it is elsewhere. The youth did not experience the revolution or the Iran-Iraq war, but they acknowledge the unfulfilled promises of the elite in providing political participation, job opportunities, social and gender equity, fewer social restrictions, and reduced political interference in individual life. Youth resentment towards the political establishment, however, expresses itself differently across social and geographical levels.
Iranian society presents multiple manifestations that cannot be reduced within rigid categories. The elements that define the main disparities or similarities between social groups are education level, geographic location, access to the job market, income, wealth distribution, and access to opportunities. Students and women have historically played an important role, both by engaging in the revolutionary debate through university campuses and by participating in mass mobilisation that occurred between 1977 and 1979. In the four decades that followed the revolution, students and women changed their relationship to political power, now supporting and strengthening the official pro-system narrative, now challenging it and asking for change. It is interesting, therefore, to investigate the role of these two categories of post-revolutionary citizen as they relate to their activism in the public sphere.
Iran has a long tradition of student activism, particularly in big cities like Tehran, Tabriz, Isfahan, and Shiraz. Before the 1979 revolution, university campuses provided a favourable ground for spreading revolutionary ideas and served as an important place for meetings and sit-ins. At that time, student associations endorsed mostly leftists and Marxist ideologies and, therefore, it is not accidental that one of the first actions taken by the Islamists in the aftermath of the revolution was to “Islamise” universities and the schooling system. The Cultural Revolution, or Enqelab-e farhangi, was implemented during the first three years following the revolution. It aimed not only at revising academic courses and books and purging dissident professors, but also mainly at countering possible secular, leftist, and Marxist opposition on university campuses.
Alongside leftists’ students groups, there was also an association of Muslim students that became increasingly active from 1979 onwards. Iranian Muslim students welcomed the foundation of the Islamic republic and joined its cause, supporting the suppression of internal and external potential threats. In particular, the group called Daneshjuyan Mosalman Piru Khatt-e Imam, (Muslim Student Followers of the Imam (Khomeini)’s Line), took over the United States embassy in Tehran in November 1979, displaying devotion by supporting and protecting the identity of the Islamic republic. Moreover, Ayatollah Beheshti founded the student’s organisation of the Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat-e Hozeh va Daneshgah (Office for Strengthening Unity Between Universities and Theological Seminaries, also simply referred to as DTV), whose members were particularly active in the embassy takeover and during the 444 days of the hostage crisis. The DTV oversaw patrolling of the university’s campus, eradicated opposition, and spread Islamist propaganda. As a result, while originally a place of dissent, the university became a pro-system space where student activism supported the survival of the newly established Islamic Republic.
In the first two decades after the revolution, a demographic boom and the process of urbanisation boosted higher education enrolment, but schools and universities were also accessible to anyone, regardless of social background or place of origin. Literacy rates grew significantly, along with the concept of socio-economic emancipation through education.
Moreover, if access to a university education was previously a privilege of the upper-class, in post-revolutionary Iran the student body’s composition changed, and a flood of lower-middle-class pupils entered university campuses and dormitories. This is not a negligible factor, as this group of students would provide essential support to the pro-government Basij volunteers who were working within universities.
The Islamisation of university life gradually continued after the Cultural Revolution, and control tightened over students’ and professors’ behaviour, courses, interactions between genders, and cultural production. Student activism was acceptable to the political establishment only as much as it contributed to this plan. The DTV was the only student organisation in place until the end of the 1980s. Nevertheless, universities remained crucial venues for gatherings, the exchange of ideas and information, and access to resources and libraries, and thus they still served as a space for political mobilisation.
Those socio-political forces that questioned the political shift from ideology to pragmatism initiated by Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was President of the republic between 1989 and 1997, were gradually excluded from the political scene. But also, the DTV gathered leftist Islamists who perceived ongoing political transformation as deviancy from Khomeinist principles.
From the early 1990s onwards, religious intellectuals, scholars, and journalists promoted a new discourse that advocated for tolerance, popular participation, and rule of law in a more inclusive and democratic system. Members of the DTV welcomed this call and endorsed Khatami’s candidacy for the presidency in 1997. Students began to ask for pluralism, participation, democracy, and women’s rights, and their contribution to the election of Khatami was essential. In other words, in the mid-1900s, student activism fully emerged and reflected the transformation of Iranian society and politics.
First, it represented the rise of a new, educated generation that criticised the unfilled promises of the revolution and the illiberal aspects of the republic. Second, the Rafsanjani era had shifted from a leftist-oriented discourse based on social justice towards a capitalism-based form of consumption and development. According to some “followers of the Imam,” this was deviancy from the Revolution’s principles.
During the reformist presidency (1997-2005), student’s associations grew, thanks to partial cultural and social openings promoted by President Khatami. Newspapers, journals, and NGOs flourished alongside public debate over topics like democracy and civil rights. This debate fostered student’s activism, even though universities and the public sphere generally remained under strict governmental control. There were pro-system groups, such as the Islamic Association of Students and the student members of the Basij militia, which confronted the DTV. In 1999, when the police violently broke in to suppress a pro-reformist student protest in a dormitory at Tehran University, two key elements surfaced. On the one hand, the political class had failed to respond to the needs and ambitions of the youth. Expectations of further social liberalisation, which were promoted by the reformist front, were frustrated by the actions of unelected institutions that constantly blocked initiatives and changes. On the other, a sense of betrayal pushed many students to renounce political participation by boycotting the 2005 elections.
Women also played an important role in Iranian history. Despite having participated in the mass demonstrations of the late 1970s, the legal status and social conditions of women did not improve after the revolution. One of the first protests occurred due to the reimposition of the mandatory veil, which was a symbol used by the political elite to spread Islamic morals and ethics. Gender separation, early marriage, different job opportunities, exclusion from the workplace, and discriminatory family laws, among others, were the problems that women faced in the early days of post-revolutionary Iran. Too often the West has looked at women’s freedom and emancipation through an erroneous lens, measuring these factors according to the imposed Islamic dress code (i.e., the mandatory veil), which is considered to be a symbol of oppression in a male-dominated society. While this view is not fully incorrect, it reveals an enormously limited capacity to look beyond the problem of a compulsory dress-code, and therefore to acknowledge the other significant struggles that Iranian women face.
Of course, there are recurring demonstrations against the mandatory veil, even though this phenomenon should not be considered widespread among the Iranian female population. On the other hand, women in Iran have been fighting for years to overcome gender discrimination, the denial of their rights, restrictive family laws, and beyond that, their societal representation as mere parental figures and housekeepers. Women have, therefore, developed different types of activism, despite cultural, gendered, and political barriers. Female participation in secondary education grew from 26% in 1990 to 67.4% in 2018, providing women with access to ongoing intellectual debates. From the mid-1990s on, the importance of gender issues entered political discussions. Newspapers, journals, and intellectuals tackling women’s issues and the empowerment of civil society encouraged women's participation. Although there were no major changes in the discriminatory laws related to women, there was a growing awareness of the need to voice opposition to institutionalised gender inequality.
In 2006 the “One million signatures” campaign was launched to promote women’s rights, gender equality, and change discriminatory laws against women. The campaign was conducted through face-to-face interaction, public seminars, conferences, and door-to-door meetings. The idea was to promote a bottom-up movement that would target the community and engage in a non-violent form of activism to address women’s rights and raise consciousness about their condition. With the rise of neoconservatives beginning in the early 2000s, however, the campaign was targeted by constant harassment, arrests of activists, and the closure of public spaces for dialogue and meetings, which somehow had all been tolerated under Khatami’s presidency.
It is worth saying that women, like all other groups in Iranian society, do not represent a monolithic bloc. Some pro-system women collaborate with the state to preserve women’s role in public and private life. Muslim women activists aim to protect the religious representation of devoted women, and to support traditions and laws concerning women’s dignity. For instance, they often mention Fatemeh, the daughter of the Prophet and the wife of Ali, as a point of reference. Some more conservative women also benefitted from top-down Islamisation, as they were able to move beyond their traditional role. They had access to the public sphere, could go to work, and were able to attend universities while feeling socially and morally “protected” by institutions. There are certainly many other aspects that must be investigated to fully comprehend both the feminist movement and women's forms of activism in Iran, which are beyond this essay’s purview. Here, it is important to frame more generally women’s roles in the Islamic republic as agents of change.
Women’s activism is possible through formal or informal networking, female engagement in the public sphere, (even limited) participation in politics, and intellectual debate. More importantly, several aspects of their orientation—whether traditionalist, Islamist, or secular—sometimes converge and raise common concerns. In 2013, for instance, diverse groups of women Islamists and secular activists met to “brainstorm around women’s demands,” demonstrating shared objectives: equal rights between men and women, the removal of discriminatory laws, and the increase of female representation in politics. New social media and digital platforms echoed this meeting, and not by chance, then-newly appointed President of the Republic Hasan Rouhani addressed the urgent need to improve the status of women. However, despite some female appointments to the vice presidency and at the local level, Rouhani’s efforts to improve and protect women's rights were not appraised positively.
Limitations of women’s activism in Iran have two sources: the first is that the phenomenon is often limited to the middle-class from urban areas, whereas other social classes and rural areas remain excluded. The second is that pressure from above has dissuaded women from active participation in the public sphere. In this context, individual choices are crucial, and they can gradually break down gendered expectations and stereotypes. For instance, the age of marriage for women (and men) increased in both rural and urban areas. Women may want to marry later, live alone, have no kids, overlook gender separation, and work in several sectors. All these choices represent a new conception of the role of women in Iranian society. Asef Bayat argues that the form of female activism in Iran is (and should be) accomplished through everyday practices, by resisting the dominant ideology, and through the ability to overcome constraints through daily actions and behaviours.
With the rise of a second generation of conservatives beginning in 2002, spaces for organised student movements and female activism have declined, due to pressure from security forces and judiciary actions to limit and counter scholars, journalists, and activists. Besides the arbitrary arrests that occurred during a prolonged climate of securitisation, several campaigns lost intensity and members, access to public spaces was restricted, and certain themes disappeared from public conferences, resulting in more limitations for women, activists, and reformist intellectuals. Censorship increased while room for debate diminished. Associations of Basij students and professors flourished and imposed more control over the university.
Despite these evident restrictions, the controversial re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 provoked several demonstrations, beginning in the capital and spreading out to the peripheries of the country. Paola Rivetti, who has long studied the practice of social movements in authoritarian contexts, claims that the Green Wave benefited from previous forms of activism that were able to create important networks and thus made the 2009 demonstrations possible. Protests in 2009 contested illiberal policies and restrictions on popular representation. Making a political claim, the Green Wave represented a serious risk to the Islamic Republic, and therefore it was violently suppressed. Demonstrators were guided by reformists leaders (Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi) who were then excluded from political competition and placed under house arrest. The political leadership of these protests showed that there was still the possibility of making changes to an autocratic system from within, and there were still individuals who were attempting to do so.
A Widespread Discontent
Notwithstanding repression from security forces in 2009 and the reduction of avenues for dissent and public debate, political demonstrations in Iran never ended. If the Green Wave advocated for political changes, in the last few years protests have been driven mainly by economic needs and demands. In 2018 and 2019, several protests spread throughout the country, from small urban areas to peripheral regions. Tehran and university campuses appeared to be less involved by these demonstrations. The high cost of living and basic goods, delayed payment, youth unemployment, subsidy reductions, and air pollution have been the main reasons for protest. Different categories of workers (from industrial workers to teachers to truck drivers) criticised job insecurity, the precariousness of contracts, and bad working conditions. Educated young people from the lower-middle classes complained about the high rate of youth unemployment, which mainly affects women. Several social groups gathered in the streets of Ahvaz in the Khuzestan province to protest inefficient environmental policies and the scarcity of drinking water. In several provinces, people have also criticised Iranian involvement in regional conflicts in the Middle East and the allocation of important funds for military missions abroad.
These recent protests are usually very active for a few days or weeks, but then they are constrained or even repressed by security forces, which is what happened in November 2019, when the internet was shut down for days and there was no media coverage of the ongoing repression. This form of activism is limited by its disorganised nature. There is no political leadership (the reformists themselves have condemned the protests), the popular claims are manifold and different social groups are involved. It is therefore difficult to think that these sporadic grassroot protests from below and without an organisational structure will be able to trigger political and economic changes. At the same time, they can shed light on which social groups are suffering the most from economic difficulties.
Students in Tehran have demonstrated on some occasions, but this phenomenon has remained marginal. In 2016, women launched a campaign to “Change the Male Face of Parliament,” aiming to reduce unequal gender representation in the political system and increase the presence of female figures. Their goal was to leverage reformist candidates for election to the 2016 parliament. The political spectrum, however, is unbalanced in favour of neoconservative factions that could prevail at the presidential elections scheduled for June 2021, due to the revived U.S. sanctions since May 2017, the geopolitical crisis in the region, and economic problems, and thus the grip on grassroots activism and social mobilisation intensifies.