Campus canteens become focus of anti-government protests

The sight of women students and high school girls removing their headscarves during ongoing protests in Iran have become common in recent weeks, but in a new show of defiance, university students are refusing to maintain segregation rules on campus despite threats of expulsion and increased security intended to stop demonstrations.

Gender segregation has been enforced in universities for decades with male and female students sitting on opposite sides of classrooms and lecture halls. They eat in separate canteens or at different sittings.

Now, defiance of gender segregation in university canteens has become a form of civil disobedience, particularly after many students were forced to sign declarations that they would not join the protests which began on 16 September when Mahsa Amini died in police custody in Tehran after being arrested by the morality police for wearing her headscarf ‘too loosely’.

Canteens are being ‘reclaimed’

Students at several universities are ‘reclaiming’ their university canteen and posting videos on social media of male and female students eating together, sometimes taking their food trays out into the outdoors. Videos of mixed dining outdoors also show many female students without their headscarves.

In early October, female students at Allameh Tabataba’i University in Tehran without headscarves were filmed eating with their fellow male students in the university canteen in defiance of segregation rules.

When Sharif University of Technology in Tehran reopened on Saturday 22 October, after being closed since protests on 2 October during which the university and its protesting students came under siege by security forces, it became the site of another ‘canteen reclamation’ when a number of female students entered the men’s dining hall after removing their hijabs, according to Iran’s semi-official Tasnim News Agency.

The university’s Islamic Association of Students said they had demanded mixed entry to the main canteen in a letter to the university authorities.

Cafeteria staff refused to serve food to male and female students together, prompting students to take their food trays outside to eat together, according to viral videos.

In a video tweeted on Tuesday 25 October, Adel Ferdosipour, a well-known television football commentator who teaches English at the university, is shown joining the students eating outdoors, in a gesture of support.

A new flashpoint

The de-segregated dining is a new flashpoint between students and Basij plain clothes militia agents on campuses and, on Sunday 23 October, Basij flipped over tables to block the doors to the canteen as a crowd of students gathered at lunchtime. The students eventually broke in through the windows and one of the doors, watched by a large number of professors and university employees.

Tasnim News Agency reported: “After shouting some rude and destructive slogans, some rioting students started breaking the windows of the canteen, throwing them towards the students inside the canteen which resulted in the injuries of some students and security.”

Social media videos show a huge crowd of both male and female students shouting ‘Azadi’ (freedom) as they entered the canteen.

Via Twitter, students reported having cleaned up the mess the following day amid concerns about how the university would retaliate.

The university authorities have already temporarily suspended a number of students – thought to number around 33 – for taking part in campus protests earlier this month including during the 2 October campus siege. The university has said it will conduct detailed investigations and refer those cases to the university’s disciplinary committee.

Many universities, including Sharif University, have reacted by closing campus canteens and cafeterias.

But that has only angered students further. On Wednesday 26 October, Iran Human Rights Monitor posted a video clip of security forces and Revolutionary Guards on the Sharif University campus attacking students. The video could not be independently verified, but student groups said the clashes occurred when Basij ordered them to return to classes. Students at Sharif have been boycotting classes for several weeks.

In the city of Qom, home to many religious seminaries, the University of Qom canteen was closed to stop male and female students entering together. According to social media reports, security officials tried to beat students as they entered, but many managed to push through to buy food.

Video footage shows male and female students in Qom eating outdoors in large numbers following a standoff with Basij.

In a separate incident on Monday, students at the University of Qom disrupted a speech by Iran’s government spokesman Bahadori Jahromi who visited the university, which is based in a city normally regarded as a regime stronghold.

Tara Sepehri Far, senior Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the protests at Iran’s universities are a “testament to the resilience” of the students in the face of “very restrictive circumstances”.

“Despite great risks to their safety, each demonstration, sit-in, protest is echoing the broad progressive demands, while insisting on their immediate ones, such as the release of detained students and, at the same time, pushing the boundaries on campus by removing headscarves and mixing the gender-segregated dining halls,” Sepehri Far said in a radio interview.

Campus protests continue

Protests in over 100 cities appeared to be gathering momentum this week, with Wednesday marking the 40th day since the death of Amini. Exile group the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) reported demonstrations in at least 58 universities on Wednesday.

They include the University of Tehran, Sharif University of Technology, Allameh Tabataba’i University, Tehran University of Art, University of Science and Culture in Tehran, Iran University of Medical Sciences, University of Tabriz, Ahvaz Jundishapur University of Medical Sciences, Ardakan University in Yazd, Yazd Faculty of Art and Architecture, Yasouj University, Mohajer Technical University of Isfahan, Isfahan School of Dentistry, University of Mazandaran, Hamedan University of Medical Sciences and Razi University in Kermanshah.

Students at the University of Mazandaran confronted security forces and Basij, chanting “Free all political prisoners”, according to the Paris-based secretariat of NCRI.

Clashes with Basij forces were also reported at Shahid Beheshti University, Tarbiat Modares University, the Islamic Azad University and Hakim Sabzevari University on Wednesday after students defied orders to return to classes, and amid reports that Iran’s intelligence agencies have tightened security around campuses.

At Tehran’s Alzahra University, a women’s university attended by the daughters of many top regime officials, students burned their headscarves. Videos showed some being beaten by campus security.

The Coordination Council of Iranian Teachers’ Trade Associations on 22 October had called on all teachers and students to refuse to attend classes on 23 and 24 October – its fifth weekly call for a boycott and strike which has been supported by students.

The union has also asked school principals to participate in the strikes, calling on them not to stand against the strikers and to help prevent attacks by plainclothes agents on students.

During the past days the regime’s agents have intensified violence against protesting children at schools and arrested teachers and cultural activists.

In a meeting with a group of academic elites and outstanding scientific talents on 19 October, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the country’s enemies have focused on universities with the aim of throwing a wrench into Iran’s progress.

Accusations of foreign influence

“Universities are a key pillar for the country’s progress. Enemies of the country’s progress value any opportunity that can harm, close or cripple universities. Universities are one of the largest obstacles standing in the way of the arrogant [foreign] powers’ domination,” Khamenei was quoted by official media as saying.

Tehran Public Prosecutor Ali Salehi said this week that 315 defendants have been indicted and convicted for their involvement in the “recent riots” in the capital, with the official IRNA news agency quoting him as saying that four of the protesters were accused of “waging war against God”, which in Iran may be punishable by death.

Salehi accused the arrested protesters of gathering and colluding with the intention of acting against the security of the country, propaganda activity against the system and the disruption of public order.

University World News Asia Editor Yojana Sharma contributed to this article.