The Iranian student movement has succeeded in establishing itself as a powerful social actor after it declared solidarity with the widespread protests that stormed the country in December 2017, January 2018, November, and December 2019. The student movement has come to realize the nature of structural and chronic crises inflicting the Iranian regime, so it declared its support for demands raised by social movements such as those of women, workers, teachers, and retirees. The students’ interest in social challenges such as those of child labor and environmental problems has kept their movement one of the relevant and effective civil powers in Iranian society despite the crackdown, arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and high bails required for detained students.
“Truth has been gradually uncovered to the Iranian people since 2017. It is now manifested in the historic chant of ‘Reformists and Fundamentalists: Game is over’ which was raised in successive protests,” Mujgan, an experienced Tehran-based student activist told Majalla. “We have to change our mindset and people who had relations with the reformists have had to cut ties with them. The people have grown frustrated with reformists,” she added to explain the nature of the present student movement.
The student and social activist pointed out that, “Chants of living and economic demands emerged for the first time in 2017, while the people were not suffering from the fallout of sanctions, hiking prices, and uncontrollable inflation. These protests and movements swept across all economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in 2017, 2018, and 2019, while the Green Movement was raising middle-class demands revolving around cultural and lifestyle changes. In parallel, a number of alternative leftist policies have been integrated into social movements.”
She went on to say, “Marxist trends have prevailed on most student and intellectual movements, and Orthodox Marxism has thrived in Iran since 2017, as leftist powers gained a voice.”
Emergence of Leftist Movement
In 2019, the website of “Khabaronline” published an interview with Ibrahim Fayaz, a professor of sociology in Tehran university, in which he said, “Marxists started to have a say and leverage in universities nowadays, where students’ mobilization associations and reformist groups have lost any meaningful influence. Reformist and mobilization groups in universities don’t focus on humanitarian and justice demands, but Marxists lead students in raising these calls.” These comments support Mujgan’s narrative.
Speaking to Majalla, another student activist, Sasan, commented that “Reformist rhetoric prevailed in students’ circles from 2005 to 2013 while Marxist ideology didn’t enjoy any influence among students at the time. Women’s movement was in harmony with student movements, as a dispute over women’s rights wasn’t substantial. Mainstream rhetoric in university was not about opposition or hardline leftist trends and theories, but it revolved around reformists and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard, and Karroubi, with no other alternative for student movements. Supporting and adopting statements by (political activist) Sadegh Zibakalam or (former professor of philosophy) Bijan Abdolkarimi, was the furthest point reached by students then.”
Sasan added that the core of the leftist stream started to evolve within intellectual circles in Tehran during the last 5 to 10 years. It was led by a small group that included writer, journalist, and translator Morad Farhadpour who translated books in collaboration with writer and philosophy researcher Saleh Najafi, writer and art critic Babak Ahmadi, and writer and translator Omid Mehregan. “Translation of books on Marxism has started since the mid-1990s, but Marxist rhetoric was absent in social movements and was limited to intellectual meetings in cultural coffee shops and private cultural events.”
Mujgan argued that “Reformists have lost their legitimacy and position in society, intellectual circles, student leadership and media due to many reasons. First is increasing awareness resulting from social networking and self-produced content which has led to a detachment from supporting the last political instrument of the regime. Second is the increasing turnout to Marxist leftist trends inside Iranian intellectual circles. Thus, students known as reformists are no more accepted inside the current student movement, and “feminism as adopted by reformists” doesn’t resonate with students.”
“Student movement before post-reformist era consisted of three separate conflicting entities which were: unionist, student, and Islamic associations. Each of them adopted an obvious and distinctive ideology, but neither of them deviated from the republic’s regime and kept acting within its space. These three associations were active in distinct arenas but shared common political horizons,” remarked Mujgan.
The activist added that the Office for Strengthening Unity (Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat) and the Islamic Society of Students are disbanded now, as she explained, “Both organizations came to lose hope in political reform of existing governance pillars and civil society affiliated with the Islamic Republic and its print media such as “Shargh”, “Etemad” and other newspapers. Consequently, both groups withdrew from the student movement and now we notice a rivalry between Islamic Society of Students and the unionist association.”
According to the Iranian activist, the Student Association brings together students unaffiliated with any political streams or parties and aims at organizing conferences, sessions, and workshops via inviting experts to participate. Union association includes orthodox leftist students with the aim of introducing student economic demands such as lunch cards, dorms expenses, and tuition.
Mujgan recalled, “Cooperation between student and union associations has begun two years ago due to leftist atmosphere prevailing in intellectual circles, which has revealed various common grounds between both groups inside the student movement. More harmony can be seen in the theory and practice of student movement, which resulted in welcoming some feminist groups.”
On another side, Sasan added to Majalla, “Scientific groups in universities started many years ago to organize reading sessions for books on feminism. Also, there has been ongoing cooperation between students of various universities and specializations to publish feminist magazines.”
Recent History of Feminism
The feminist movement before 2009, especially the One Million Signature, which was a campaign against discriminatory laws launched in September 2006, “suffered from structural dysfunction. However, its harmonious members were able to intellectually cooperate with people who belonged to the left since before the revolution and people who were reformists after the revolution. That resulted in translating many literary works and publishing magazines.”
Mujgan added that “This fruitful cooperation was subjected to some problems in the past years. As a consequence, numerous feminist trends emerged such as political feminist streams which adopt neo-liberal rhetoric calling to oust the Iranian regime, one of its prominent figures being Masih Alinejad. On the other hand, the socialist feminist stream is active in theoretical aspects as they focus on writing articles and translations about student groups affiliated with leftist trends.”
According to Mujgan, feminist activism in Iran was not focusing on women’s causes solely, but it went to support and cooperate with laborers and students, and environmentalists. She noted that another feminist movement comprises the first generation of women activists after the revolution, who adopted reformist policies and tolerance. This group is trying to introduce the idea that all feminist challenges and problems are “unpolitical” and “merely social and cultural”. But they don’t have supporters among students and are withdrawing from the scene.
The most influential actors are both political and socialist feminist groups, as they adopt political and more radical demands, in contrast to the reformist feminists who are said to belong to the regime. The two powerful groups better recognized the radical inclinations of the feminist movement. “They don’t seek to change civil society via superficial means or sham democracy that is authoritarian at its core.”
The experienced student activist explained that the feminist groups were focused on finding a foothold and on ensuring the constitutionality and legitimacy of their cause and detaching themselves from the feminist movement which doesn’t gain the support of the student movement that is distinguished for raising the ceiling of student and political demands. “Nevertheless, this has changed after the emergence of feminist campaigns such as ‘White Wednesdays’ and ‘My Stealthy Freedom’”, Mujgan noted.
Remarkably, Mujgan believes that “The reformist feminist movement viewed the political tackling of problems as hindering any possible social transformation. That had made the student movement move alone in its path until the leftist feminist movement joined forces. Although leftist feminism is starting to cooperate with the student movement and gaining its support, there is no coordination with these leftist feminists on one side and reformist or socialist feminists on the other.”
“Leftist feminists have spontaneously launched and developed their activism away from the main structure of feminist groups,” she concluded.
Meantime, activist Sasan revealed to Majalla, the role of the student movement and its ties with feminism as he said, “We had a student gathering in the main campus of Tehran University in summer of 2019. It was an official holiday, but we protested against the obligatory hijab (head cover) policy. That gathering was one of the few protest movements organized by feminist activists. But feminism doesn’t gain required support and we still have to do more to activate their existence in universities.”
Oral reports and narratives circulated by student unions and activists refer to the fact that women's issues and demands are not a priority in the student movement’s demands. Many female student activists say that the voice of their male counterparts is heard more than theirs, which means that the female students’ demands don’t gain much legitimacy and support.
In a concluding note to Majalla, Sasan said that “the patriarchal culture is concealed behind ‘superficial’ enlightening practices. The prevailing rhetoric doesn’t pay attention to radical change. Obviously, this can be seen all over social Iranian circles even among progressive university movements.”
Detentions of student and feminist activists have been on the rise following the outbreak of COVID-19 and the closure of universities all over the country. The crackdown included summoning some activists and sentencing them to long terms in prison as well as other punitive rulings. Two of them are Ali Younesi and Amir Hossein Moradi, two outstanding students who won gold and silver medals in the International Astronomy Olympiad. Younesi and Moradi have been imprisoned in Section 209 of Evin prison for 10 months without charges.