The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Iran’s universities have become the center of a national uprising

Students protest outside Tabriz University of Medical Sciences in the northwestern Iranian city on Oct. 22. (Twitter/AFP/Getty Images)
6 min

In Iran, sharing a meal can be a revolutionary act. University dining halls, which for decades have been gender-segregated spaces, have become a new front line in the country’s uprising.

Students chanting “woman, life, freedom” are risking expulsion, assault and arrest in a struggle to eat lunch together. When authorities have closed campus cafeterias in retaliation, students have congregated outside for protest picnics.

The cafeteria revolts are a small but symbolic part of the anti-government unrest that has swept Iran for nearly two months, now the longest-running demonstrations against the leaders of the Islamic republic. As street protests have ebbed and flowed, university students have maintained the movement’s momentum.

Students from universities across Iran talked to The Washington Post about their role in the protests, amid constant surveillance and the threat of arrest. They spoke on the condition they be identified by their first names, fearing reprisals from the state.

“They are not only protesting gender segregation, they are negating gender segregation,” said Mohammad Ali Kadivar, an assistant professor at Boston College, who went to university in Iran. “Students are not just asking to dine together, they dine together. Or they try to.”

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Security forces have repeatedly raided campuses and faced off with student protesters. Last month, armed forces stormed Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, known as the MIT of Iran, and arrested hundreds of students.

The head of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s most feared security force, warned Saturday that it would be “the last day of riots,” foreshadowing a further crackdown.

But it didn’t stop the protests. On Tuesday, some university students went on strike and organized sit-ins, holding up placards with the names and faces of detained classmates and professors.

More than 130 universities have participated in protests nationwide and nearly 400 university students have been arrested as of Wednesday, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), based in Washington. Overall, thousands of people have been detained and hundreds killed, according to rights groups, though reporting restrictions make exact figures difficult to verify.

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Hamed, a 25-year-old student at Guilan University in Rasht, a northern city along the Caspian Sea, said rules around gender segregation were enforced sporadically in the past: Some teachers, for example, let students sit together in class, while others separated them.

Now, he said, everyone is on edge, as he and his classmates have defied rules against gender mixing in the dining hall.

“As the protests continued, more and more university guards and later plainclothes forces were sent to camouflage among us,” he said. “They take photos and videos and spot certain students who seem to be more active and arrest them outside the university.”

Hamed shared a text message he received warning students not to participate in protests.

At Razi University in Kermanshah, a predominantly Kurdish city in the west, 20-year-old Nastaran told The Post the protests had not spread yet to the dining halls “because [students] are still afraid.”

“If the protests go on in this volume, we soon will,” she added.

Protests have persisted because Iranians have “a shared pain” of loving their country while “being deprived of the most basic rights of living and wanting a brighter future,” she said. “Unfortunately, the government has no strategies whatsoever in facing such protests. Their only tools are oppression.”

Nastaran said she has seen children younger than university age roaming around campus and taking pictures of students. Unmarked ambulances, which rights groups say have been used to transport detainees, are parked outside of campus, she said.

The Post, which does not have accreditation to report inside Iran, could not independently verify the students’ accounts.

Iran has what students referred to as a “starring system” for alleged bad behavior, in which several strikes can mean a permanent expulsion or campus ban.

University students have long been the “torchbearers” of pro-democracy movements in Iran, said Foroogh Farhang, a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University. While studying as an undergraduate in Iran, she was suspended from her university in the aftermath of pro-democracy protests in 2009.

Universities are considered relatively progressive, Farhang said, but also pull students from diverse backgrounds.

Universities represent “the multifaceted quality of Iranian society,” she said.

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Iranian students take a standardized test at the end of high school that largely determines where and what they will study. This process is meant to provide equal access to higher education — though there are constraints on what women can study and how they can participate in campus life.

Many of these restrictions were put in place after the 1979 revolution, when Shiite revolutionaries ousted Iran’s Western-backed shah and set up a theocratic security state.

Tehran further tightened its grip after the 2009 Green Movement, when millions of Iranians took to the streets to protest election fraud and demand political reforms. University students were key leaders of those protests, and many were arrested, tortured, permanently expelled and forced into exile, said Manijeh Moradian, a professor at Barnard College.

In response, the government imposed new limits on the number of women who could study certain topics at universities, shut down student organizations and expanded the presence of pro-government groups on campuses.

Iran’s ultraconservative president, Ebrahim Raisi, clamped down further this spring, imposing stricter hijab and dress codes for women.

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The contradiction of widely accessible higher education alongside deep political, social and economic discontent helped make universities central to this uprising, Moradian said.

“There’s this vast expansion of education, of free public education, of all these young people with expectations, with hopes that they can have jobs. And when those hopes are dashed, you get rebellious,” she said.

Students rose up in 2009 to demand democracy and fair elections, but this time students are “rejecting the Islamic republic as a failed experiment,” Moradian said. Due to “a combination of internal corruption and mismanagement and maximum-pressure sanctions,” she added, this generation has seen “declining living standards [and] every effort of reform closed off.”

That has left students like Saber, 21, who studies science at the University of Tehran, at a crossroads.

“What I would like to see is a bright future for Iran,” he said. “But if I want to be realistic, I need to say that there is also a serious crisis of hope among people. … My friends have left to Europe and North America.”

Every effort, in the dining halls and beyond, he said, is part of a broader struggle for freedom.

“This segregation is much more the regime’s attempt to show off their power rather than having anything to do with religion or beliefs,” he said.