Portrait of Iranian youth

Article published on July 9, 2003
community published
Article published on July 9, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Why the young will take power.

At a time when the ‘free world’ is busy congratulating itself on having freed the Iraqi people, Iran is in turmoil. The USA actually seems to have the third pillar of its ‘axis of evil’ in its line of sight. In Tehran, while the authorities are reasserting their mistrust of the ‘Great Satan’, some people are preparing to commemorate the 4th anniversary of the July 9th 1999 riots. At the time, a hardening of the legislation of the freedom of the press provoked a revolt by students in Tehran. The demonstrations had been suppressed very violently (five were killed, two of whom were thrown from balconies, 200 people arrested and doctors were beaten up for wanting to take care of the injured). Since then, the SMCCDI (Student Movement Co-ordination Committee for Democracy in Iran, better known as ‘Daneshjoo’) that grew up from the demonstrations, has become a full-scale organisation with much foreign support.

Attention is focussed today on young Iranians: will they decide to get this revolution for democracy in Iran that so many wish for started? We present the youth of today (and students in particular) as a generation who want to install democracy on Cyrus’ land (ref: le Monde June 30th). Analysis of the youth of Iran is, however, mainly part time or partial. On the one hand, the little that comes from the country is fleshed out and difficult to verify; on the other hand, studies directed from abroad are strongly slanted. Moreover, it is not practically possible to carry out representative surveys on these issues in order to have an idea of the opinion of Iranians.

Getting rid of the ‘zoom effect’

We in the West are often victims of the ‘zoom effect’: a few mediatised student movements (mainly the SMCCDI) are presented as if they were representative of all young Iranians. A few figures can, however, clarify things. 60% of the 70 million Iranians are under 25: almost half the population has never known anything but the Islamic Republic. The nostalgia for the time of the Shah that is often present among the young is difficult to explain. Next, out of 70 million Iranians there are about 1.5 million students: the number is sizeable (almost the same as the number of students in France) but relatively modest compared with the number of young people of university age. Student movements are only, therefore, representative of one section of youth. From Paris or New York we only hear about young people who speak a language that is accessible to us: the SMCCDI has understood this very well and sits happily in the index of action of Western NGOs. Sit-ins, media coups, mass demonstrations accompanied by press releases in English and ‘home’ videos. So many assets in terms of communication that find an echo in the West while more traditional counter demonstrations organised by conservatives often pass by in silence.

The young people in Tehran that I am in contact with through the internet often tell me about the evenings they organise together: they listen to Tarkan or Britney Spears, they drink vodka orange and play teenage games. But in a country where annual income is not more than 1,750 dollars a year per head, how many young people live that way? It seems that we are much more sensitive to the distress of people that look like us. But it is essential to get rid of this ‘zoom effect’ that consists of attaching the concerns and values of a minority to youth as a whole.

A young Iranian today grows up in an atmosphere where a Muslim identity is well asserted ( as opposed to the time of the Shah when Islam faded behind ‘Iranianness’). His childhood has been marked by war (an eight-year war against Iraq, many wounds of which are still open). He is poor (more than half of Iranians live below the poverty line) and one of his principal concerns is finding work. This is someone involved and who has developed a sense of participation in public life (in Iran you can vote at 16 and women are very active in social and public life).

The young are on the move and nothing will stop them

If young Iranians are not all ‘daneshjoo’, they still want to act. Iranian society has experienced a number of influences which are not without effect on mentalities.

It is certainly in the area of art and culture that you note the most sizeable liberal advances: ‘The Apple’ by one Samina Makmalbaf, 18, truly demonstrates Iranian feminisme; ‘The wind will carry us’ by Abbas Kiarostami, a homage to the heretical poet Forough Farrokhzad (whose erotic poetry is censured); the first Iranian rock concerts at the capital’s campus. They are examples of a progressive cultural opening up (even if a black list of artists remains the reality). In the same way, faced with the trafficking of foreign films, the guardians of the revolution, powerless, have been forced to tolerate their possession (for personal use) in order to concentrate on suppressing the sale of these films. Parables flourish with impunity across the capital. Besides these cultural advances, individual liberties are also progressing: the sight of female hair, synonymous with lashes at the start of the 1980s, now can been seen peeking out from the veil. While it had been impossible from the time of the revolution for an unrelated man and a woman to go out together, young couples now flaunt themselves freely in public places.

Certain figures equally let us think that Iranians are sensitive to the great politcal stakes in their country: the particularly high rates of participation and the comfortable score that carried Mohamad Khatami to the presidency in 1997 are proof of that. He was then the challenger in the election opposing the protégé of the revolution’s guide. In choosing him, the population wanted to show its opposition to the hard wings of the regime. Reduced to impotence by a constitution that gives the last word to the guide, Khatami saw his popularity fall. His power retracted last year at the local elections where the participation rate bordered on 20% and showed a true boycott of the polling booths. A boycott that, beyond partisan considerations, called into question the regime in its entirety.

Moreover, the repression of Iranian nationalism by supporters of the Islamic revolution has had a boomerang effect. It is today that they sing ‘Ey Iran’ and that students take to the streets.

If the Mullah has made concessions in the last few years, it is still totalitarian and tyrannical as the events of July 9th 1999 showed. Stuck in a political impasse (since democratic routes have proved ineffective), the young only seem to have revolt as their last resort. So revolt there will be. Maybe even revolution. But contrary to the hopes of the West and the Iranian Diaspora, it will be neither a return to the imperial regime or a secular Western democracy: the peculiarity of giving people freedom is the power to construct for themselves progressively their own way of functioning politically.

Those who wish sincerely that the Iranian people can one day live in peace with itself can trust Iranian youth. Just as the writer Hafez, a famous Persian poet wrote: “ after desperation there is always hope, dawn is at the end of a dark night".