As tens of thousands of Iranian students returned to university this month after a two-year absence due to the coronavirus pandemic, many were greeted with new restrictions.
The measures, including stricter hijab rules for female students, have sparked protests at at least two Iranian universities. Students called the new restrictions unprecedented and blamed them on the government of ultra-conservative President Ebrahim Raisi, who came to power in August.
Critics said the measures appear to be aimed at tightening the government’s grip on universities, which have been the scene of political protests in the past. Anti-government sentiment has grown in recent years in Iran, where the economy has been crippled by US sanctions and years of economic mismanagement.
The university transformed into a “military base”
Dozens of students from Tehran’s prestigious Amir Kabir University staged a rally on April 24, where students blasted the new restrictions and warned that they would not allow authorities to impose “ideas of the stone age” to the institution. Protesters also said the university had been turned into a “military base”, with security guards on motorbikes roaming the campus and enforcing the measures.
The rally took place after a university student recently received an official warning from university authorities about the length of her sleeves and socks. Another student was barred from entering campus because her coat was deemed too short.
Similar restrictions were reportedly imposed at other Iranian universities, including the Tabriz University of Medical Sciences. An amateur video uploaded on April 28 appears to show a student protest at the university.
The University of Tehran’s student union, meanwhile, warned in an April 13 statement against what it called “frequent disciplinary measures that undermine the dignity of students.”
According to a dress code imposed following the 1979 Islamic revolution, women must cover their hair and body in public. Many women have resisted the hijab rule and pushed the envelope by exposing their hair under headscarves and wearing short coats. The dress code is enforced more strictly in government buildings and higher education institutions. But before the new measures, the atmosphere in the universities would have become more relaxed in recent years.
Swedish-based Iranian political activist Mahdieh Golrou, speaking to RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, said the new measures are a signal to students that the authorities “have complete control over their appearances and ideas”.
An anonymous student from Amir Kabir University told Iranian news site Ensafnews.ir last week that “imposing these restrictive measures seems to be the policy of the new university officials ‘appointed after the government came to power’. current government”.
University students told Ensafnews.com that security guards roamed the campus on motorbikes enforcing the new rules.
“When we hear the sound of motorbikes at university, we worry that the security guards will alert us to our appearances,” said another unnamed student, adding that she had received a warning for not having fully covered her hair.
“I can’t believe this is [happening] in college because it didn’t exist before the coronavirus [pandemic],” she says.
On April 27, the university’s football team refused to participate in a local tournament because security guards prevented female students from attending.
Women have been banned from attending football matches for decades. Iran’s clerical establishment has rarely allowed women into football stadiums.
Golrou, who was sentenced to prison in Iran and prevented from continuing her studies because of her activism, said the new measures are even “tougher” in the provinces.
“Students are scrutinized for their nail polish, the length and color of their socks,” she said. “[Authorities] failed to [fully] apply these policies in society, so now they hope to at least apply them in universities.
“Concerned about potential protests”
Golrou said authorities appeared determined to prevent protests at universities amid growing anti-government sentiment.
“Students with a history of political activism have been summoned since universities reopened and told not to engage in such activities,” she said. “It shows that the ministries of education and intelligence are concerned about possible protests.”
Alireza Moini, an official at Amir Kabir University, blamed the recent protest on foreign Persian-language media which he said had encouraged students to disobey the law. He provided no evidence to support his claim. Moini also said the presence of motorcycle security guards is nothing new on campus.
“Regarding the hijab [rule], [students] must abide by the laws of the Islamic republic,” Moini told the semi-official ISNA news agency on April 24.
The new restrictions in Iranian universities come after the dismissals of three prominent university professors in Tehran in January. The reported dismissals have fueled fears of a new purge against dissident academics.
For years, authorities have been accused of ousting prominent university professors for political reasons. They have also imprisoned and prevented student activists from going to university.
The pressure on students peaked under hard-line former president Mahmud Ahmadinejad, whose administration forced dozens of professors into retirement and barred dozens of university students from studying.