Reflections on Iranian student life

indepth1When one thinks of Iranian students, the first thing that springs to mind is 1979, the year of the “student-driven” Islamic Revolution. The US embassy in Tehran was invaded, and 55 American consulate staff were held as hostages for 444 days. It was an international crisis which did ineradicable damage to President Jimmy Carter’s popularity, and set the tone for Iran’s international position for years to come.

Time moves on, but our image of Iran remains fairly stagnant, entrenched by the West’s depiction of power-hungry Islamic extremists. The last 10 years have been hectic for those in Iran, beginning in 2005 with the disastrous reign of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A deeply unpopular and belligerent president, through his influence the country’s Western relations became increasingly strained with every passing year, leading to Iran ultimately being completed estranged from the wider world. So where do Iranian students lie now? If they aren’t the Quran thumping, zealot descendants of the US embassy attackers, what is life for them like?

Religion permeates every sphere of life in Iran, and universities are no exception. Whether it be private or public, students can feel the ubiquity of the state-sanctioned religious interpretations. Every morning upon entering university, students are subjected to appearance checks by Basiji, or religious trainees. This is to ensure that every student is complying with the Iranian religious standards for dress, which entails a special type of hijab for women and little to no makeup. Their strife may soon come to an end, however; the state is beginning to relax religious laws. A type of detente is taking place, as the government attempts to placate a generation of angry young people, who have grown weary of political oppression.

This has led to students taking each written law with a pinch of salt, unconcerned with strict adherence. It has now become more common and acceptable for unmarried women to be seen in public with men who are unrelated to them. While this has always been done in practice, police dole out punishments more frequently; verbal warnings, however, are still frequent. University cafes and restaurants remain segregated, with students retreating to the courtyards to eat with friends of the opposite sex.

Segregation is even imposed in the lecture hall; compulsory religious and sexual education classes are taught by and for only women or men. These classes are graded, so it is possible to fail. These tests serve to determine whether each student has successfully been indoctrinated with the moral teachings surrounding conversing with unrelated members of the opposite sex, and whether they have been discouraged from using contraception when married.

This practice follows in line with Iran’s complex and confusing application of its strict religious laws. Currently, the government seems to be opting for a more pragmatic interpretation, in an attempt to stem the wave of anti-government action. This action reached a climax in 2009 with the Green Revolution, a large-scale demonstration decrying the political victory of Ahmadinejad. Talking to students, it was clear that any projection of the anti-government sentiment was only possible if the university administration agreed to it. In the case of one student, their university head wholeheartedly supported the protests and accommodated for mass student action on campus. However, these demonstrations led not to a change in government, but to a harsh crackdown, imprisonment and the death of some protestors.

Last year, things began to change. Ahmadinejad was defeated in a general election and Dr. Rouhani took over, widely seen an intentional move by those in power allowing a relatively liberal candidate to win. Under Rouhani, the use of the religious laws has relaxed and life for students seems to have improved minorly. In every other sense, during the past year, life for Iranians has been as hard as ever. The internationally imposed penalties and embargos has crippled the internal market for goods and the price of standard produce has dramatically increased.

For now, anti-government sentiments in university are resigned to notice boards, where leaflets are pinned under the cover of darkness. The recent draconian crackdown and the older generations memory of the execution of 100,000 people in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution means that politics, while constantly the topic of debate, rarely attracts students to publicly pledge allegiance to opposition parties. The only political image being represented on campus is the government perspective, with hardline religious students promoting Islamic holidays and encouraging others to a take more active role in Islam.

The complexities and intricacies of Iranian life are incredibly different to discuss and describe in a mere short article. Life is difficult, and the state oppressive. People’s experiences differ so much that its almost impossible to gain a well-rounded understanding what it is truly like. Undoubtedly, however, the freedom of speech that we in Ireland may take for granted would be like gold dust in Iran, a world of things unsaid and inalienable rights denied.

Illustration: Natalie Duda