The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Students in Iran are risking everything to rise up against the government

A photo obtained by AFP shows a motorcycle on fire amid unrest in Tehran on Oct. 8. (AFP/Getty Images)
6 min

Universities have been the beating heart of Iran’s anti-government uprising, but the cost for students protesting in the Islamic Republic has never been higher, according to current and former activists.

“They are getting killed, arrested, banned from campus, long prison sentences,” said Nasim Sarabandi, a former student leader of the 2009 Green Movement protests for electoral reform, who fled Iran more than a decade ago to escape persecution. “I once thought it was too much to handle, what happened to me. But look at what [authorities] are doing … years later, how much of an expense the students are paying, what a sacrifice they are making.”

The price paid by this generation of Iranian students demanding their rights is rising day by day. And as the repression deepens, they are giving up on the fight for reform — for years a rallying cry of student movements. The young men and women who have risked their lives and futures in demonstrations over the past several months want nothing less than the end of oppressive clerical rule.

Campus actions have taken place nearly every day since mid-September, following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody after she was detained for an alleged clothing violation. Iran’s clerical leaders, and the fearsome security services that back them, have responded with a wide-ranging crackdown. Security forces have killed more than 500 people and arrested some 19,000, according to the activist news agency HRANA. Two men have been executed in connection with the protests.

“The regime maximizes pressure on students to an extent that you cannot walk, dress, talk or even laugh in a way that doesn’t match their standards,” said a student activist with the Progressive Students of Isfahan union, founded in 2018 in defiance of Iran’s ban on independent unionizing.

“We are well aware that as soon as protests stop, they’ll go back to their maximum pressure again. … Our main purpose is to eliminate this system altogether,” the student told The Washington Post. Like others interviewed for this story, he spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals.

HRANA has documented protests at 144 universities and, as of Wednesday, the Volunteer Committee to Follow Up on the Situation of Detainees had confirmed the arrest of 685 university students. At least 44 have been sentenced, often to multiple years in prison. More than half remain behind bars and at least one student faces charges that could merit the death penalty, the committee said.

The university activist in Isfahan, in central Iran, said his union has received continuous reports from across the country of plainclothes police kidnapping students on campus and of indiscriminate beatings by volunteer forces. Volleys of tear gas, sound bombs and pellet bullets fired at student protesters have caused skull fractures and eye injuries.

Tactics of repression: How Iran is trying to stop Mahsa Amini protests

The Post could not independently confirm these accounts, but they are consistent with the findings of rights groups and U.N. experts.

An untold number of arrested students have faced abuse, torture or sexual assault in detention, the activist said. Others have been sentenced to months or years in prison in hastily held trials lacking due process, or banned from university dorms and campuses and barred from traveling abroad.

One fed-up woman in Tehran told The Post she quit school after being threatened by her university for boycotting classes in protest. She dreams of continuing her studies abroad, she said, but that will require paperwork now difficult to acquire. One man in Tehran, in between protests and coursework, said he is caring for a friend struggling to finish his thesis while battling suicidal thoughts that developed after authorities broke his arm in jail.

University students have long been agents of activism in Iran — during protests against press restrictions in 1999 and again during the Green Movement in 2009. Part of what’s different this time, activists said, is that years of suppression leading up to the uprising pushed university organizing underground. While the regime’s response has been comparatively quicker and more violent, there is no core student leadership to crush. The decentralized nature of the protests is central to their endurance.

“As much as the oppression has spread, the activism has spread,” said Sarabandi, who was repeatedly jailed and threatened.

After the 1979 revolution, Iran banned student organizing outside of the state-backed Islamic student associations. For many years, however, some of these associations had lively debates, elected national boards and advocated for reform.

This changed after the 2009 presidential election, when the reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, backed by student movements, lost to hard-line incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had the support of Iran’s supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Mousavi was widely popular, and Ahmadinejad’s win set off massive demonstrations, known as the Green Movement, against the allegedly rigged election.

The Tehran man, a 37-year-old completing a PhD in cognitive science, took part in the 2009 protests. Then pursuing his undergraduate degree, he attended seminars and rallies on campus, where he met other like-minded students. Basij police forces beat him during protests, he said, but he was never detained.

These days “are much scarier,” he said. He has been beaten and shot with pellet bullets in recent months and considers himself “lucky” to have avoided arrest. He says he is haunted by the image of a young woman being brutally beaten by security forces. He was helpless to stop them.

Experts explain what exactly Iran's morality police do, and why women are risking their lives on the front lines to protest the unit. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

Sarvenaz, 27, the female university student in Tehran, who is pursuing a master’s degree in psychology, said she boycotted classes for weeks, but returned ahead of exams on Dec. 9, the day after the first execution tied to the uprising.

“That day I felt very bad about myself, going back to the oppressive atmosphere at our university,” she told The Post. She gritted her teeth through the security inspection at the entrance, where guards checked that women were veiled and that banned students didn’t enter. In one class, a debate broke out over why she and others had been absent.

“I went back home and cried the whole way,” she said. “Then I realized that I can never be a student in Iran again because I cannot tolerate this level of oppression and pressure.”

She says she will keep protesting.

Mehdi Arabshahi, another student leader in 2009 who was imprisoned several times and now lives in exile in Virginia, said he was “very worried about the students in prison now because the conditions are much harder, the sentences much longer.”

“They are very radical and they are very brave,” he said. “When I was a student activist, the dominant paradigm was a kind of reform in Iran. But these days the dominant paradigm is a kind of revolution, or regime change.”