Iranian universities are turning into a major battleground amid anti-government protests

Dozens of students demonstrated outside the Law School of Allameh Tabatabei University in Tehran on October 19, chanting “dishonourable, dishonorable”, as a government official addressed a conference inside.

When government spokesman Ali Bahadori-Jahromi later came out, he was confronted by around 100 students. The official IRNA news agency said the official “appeared among the protesting students” and “spoke with them”. IRNA accused the protesters of chanting “inappropriate and immoral slogans”.

It was the latest protest at an Iranian university since nationwide protests erupted following the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died shortly after being arrested by police in the Iranian manners for allegedly violating the country’s hijab law.

Security forces carried out a violent crackdown on protesters across the country, killing dozens of people, injuring hundreds and arresting several thousand people.

As scattered anti-government protests rage across Iran for a fifth week, universities have become a major battleground between protesters and authorities.

“The driving force behind the protests now are the universities, which provide the fuel for the survival of the protest movement,” says Washington-based political analyst Ali Afshari, a former student leader who was imprisoned in Iran for his activism.

Numerous demonstrations took place in universities, notably in Tehran, where many students refused to attend classes. Protesting students chanted “woman, life, freedom” and “death to the dictator” during the rallies. Some female students removed and burned their headscarves.

Students also broke social taboos by holding hands and singing together. Meanwhile, some art students covered themselves in red paint to protest the state’s deadly crackdown on protests.

On October 8, female students at the all-female Al-Zahra University in Tehran chanted “Raisi lose yourselves” and “mullahs lose yourselves” when hardline president Ebrahim Raisi visited the campus.

Authorities violently suppressed university protests, beating and imprisoning dozens of students.

The most violent incident occurred at the prestigious Sharif University of Technology in Tehran on October 2. More than 30 students were arrested after security forces raided the university.

Monitoring groups outside Iran have documented the detention of more than 200 students over the past month, although they believe the actual number is higher.

Tara Sepehrifar, senior Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the protests at Iranian universities are a “testimony to the resilience” of students mobilizing in the face of “very restrictive circumstances”.

“Despite great risk to their safety, every demonstration, sit-in, protest echoes major progressive demands, while emphasizing their immediate demands such as the release of detained students and at the same time pushing the boundaries of campus by removing the scarves and mixing up the gender-separated dining rooms,” Sepehrifar told RFE/RL.

Universities and students have been at the forefront of the struggle for greater social and political freedoms in Iran. In 1999, students protested the closure of a reformist daily, prompting a brutal raid on Tehran University dormitories that left one person dead.

Over the years, authorities have arrested student activists and leaders, sentenced them to prison terms and barred them from studying.

Some university professors and lecturers expressed their solidarity with the protesters.

In a September 29 joint statement, more than 200 university staff called for the release of detained student protesters and criticized the government’s crackdown on peaceful protests.

In a rare act of protest, Encieh Erfani resigned from his post at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences, located in the northwestern city of Zanjan. Erfani, assistant professor in physics, resigned while she was abroad.

“The protesting students were chanting ‘the streets are soaked in blood, our teachers are silent’,” she told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda. “So I tendered my resignation.”

She said the protests were the result of students’ “piled up anger” at Iran’s clerical establishment, which has stifled free speech and severely limited internet freedoms.

A Sharif University student, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals, told RFE/RL that authorities closed the university after students staged protests.

“But the prevailing atmosphere is not calm, and as soon as the university reopens, there is a strong possibility of clashes and protests,” the student said.

Student protesters called for the release of Mohammad Nejad, who is studying aerospace engineering at Sharif University. Nejad, who was arrested on September 21, is being held in a prison outside Tehran.

“My dear student Mohammad Nejad is among the best students in the faculty of aerospace”, lecturer Mahdi Salehi wrote on Twitter October 19. “Mohammad has no place in prison.”