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Campus hijab crackdowns lead to calls for exam boycotts

Students at Tehran’s University of Art have called for a nationwide boycott of exams “on behalf of all who will not bow their heads” – a reference to the Iranian regime’s crackdown, as part of its enforcement of the Islamic dress code on campuses, on women students refusing to wear the hijab or headscarf.

The boycott call to all students, as end-of-year exams get underway, was publicised by the International Confederation of Iranian Students on 18 June. It comes as the University of Art student body signalled its defiance in the face of stricter enforcement of the headcovering regulations.

Heavy-handed treatment by the regime, as well as campus authorities, has galvanised students from other universities to protest in support of the University of Art, an indication, one student said, that the regime’s actions against women students will only backfire.

On 14 June an unknown number of students at the University of Art began a sit-in to denounce the compulsory hijab, with student groups reporting that food and water was cut off and students prevented from using the toilets.

On 15 June clashes broke out with security forces at the campus, with several students injured, according to social media reports that cannot be independently verified.

Arrests were made by male plainclothes agents two days later, according to student council reports, with no information about the students’ whereabouts provided to families.

In the past week state security forces including plainclothes agents detained more than 10 students who were engaged in a peaceful sit-in at the university’s National Garden Campus and forced them into a van on 17 June.

Several students were held for hours, the Centre for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) group said in a statement on 19 June.

“Some of them are first-year students from other provinces who are so new to the city that they didn’t even know how to get back after they were released,” according to information received by CHRI in Washington DC.

Barred from classes

Current tensions date back to 30 May when some 40 female students at the university were temporarily barred from attending classes for their alleged “failure to fully observe” the Islamic dress code which the university has insisted should include a black coif covering of the head, forehead, chin and chest, called maghnaeh in Iran.

The student confederation reported on 12 June that university authorities warned that appearing at the university without the head covering would lead to full suspension.

Students at the University of Art issued a defiant statement to the institution and authorities on 17 June. “After your renewed emphasis on gender apartheid and the obligation to attend the university in a maqhnaeh, after shutting off the water and using violence against our friends who were only staging a sit-in for equality in the National Garden Campus, we reiterate that we will not turn back,” it said.

“The wound that opened wide in September [2022] is still bleeding. And we are standing, hand in hand, for freedom,” the students said, referring to the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini (22) in September 2022. She had been detained for improperly wearing the hijab. Her death sparked countrywide protests that endured for months.

“University students at the Art University and across Iran are being jailed, banned and flunked for peacefully protesting repressive and discriminatory forced hijab rules,” said Hadi Ghaemi, CHRI executive director, this week.

CHRI reported earlier this month that in a crackdown on peaceful protests beginning in November 2022, University of Art female students were banned from campus. On 7 November 2022, a large number of students at the university’s Film and Theatre Department were given zero grades for all their courses and exams to pressure them into ending their protest action.

At the University of Art and other campuses, students have also reported the increased presence of security officials. The student council has warned government and university officials about creating a ‘garrison’ atmosphere on campuses with the stepped-up presence of security personnel.

Strict enforcement of hijab

While street protests have largely died down in recent months, sporadic outbreaks are ongoing. Campus protests have continued too as university authorities, with the backing of security officials, have enforced even stricter hijab rules on female students.

In late May, campus protests broke out at several universities across the country when students were suspended and street protesters were executed.

Earlier this month the Student Union Council of Iran reported that campus accommodation for a number of female students at the University of Tehran in the Iranian capital had been cancelled after they refused to wear the hijab.

The security office of one of the dormitories insisted women students had to observe the rules even when they were inside their rooms, a move the student council called “one of the most shameless” by the Art University’s authorities.

The council also reported stricter monitoring of women students, largely in connection with head coverings, and the imposition of a 10 pm curfew on entering and leaving dormitories.

As the exam season, now underway, approached, exam grades were used as a threat. Some universities threatened to bar students from exams if they did not comply with the dress code.

At Shahid Beheshti University, female students were warned their course credits for the year would be ‘cancelled’, and they would fail the year.

At the Islamic Azad University, in Tehran, the student union reported on 19 June that security officials appeared during the exam sessions and were heard warning invigilators “several times” to make sure students were wearing the hijab, and that they should “remove the answer sheet” from students who did not comply.

The university’s student union criticised this, describing it as security interference in educational matters. It said in a statement this week, security had no right to attend the exam sessions or meet with exam supervisors whose duty is to keep the exam environment calm.

“With their constant hijab reminders, they disrupt the order of the exam session and affect the students’ concentration,” the student statement said. There was no justification for the disruption other than to put “more pressure on the students and suppress them as much as possible”, the statement added.

Declarations of solidarity

Following this week’s incidents at the University of Art, statements of solidarity were issued by student groups from at least a dozen universities. They vowed to continue protests against the repressive policies.

The institutions included Allameh Tabataba’I, Tarbiat Modares, and Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, as well as KN Toosi University of Technology, Sahand University of Technology in Tabriz, Esfahan Il University, University of Science and Technology and Soura University.

“We students have joined hands and we will not be silent,” students of Tehran University’s Fine Arts campus said in a statement of solidarity this week.

Students at the Farabi Faculty of Tehran University said in a statement directed at university administrators and security agencies: “The era of student submission to suppression is over.

“It has proven that intimidation, suspensions, deportations, arrests and killings do not weaken the unity and solidarity of the students,” it said. “A small scratch on the body of the students of the University of Arts is enough for students around the whole country to be “overwhelmed with anger and rage and pour into the streets”.

Another student statement expressing solidarity with the University of Art, said: “The policy of maximum repression that has intensified in a coordinated manner in universities around the end of the academic year, like other forms of repression, will ultimately fail.”

Alumni of the University of Art in their statement this week said the university’s current students “do not stand alone”.

“Today it is our duty to stand beside you and say ‘no’,” the 20 June statement said, adding: “We are standing hand in hand for freedom.”

The hashtag with ‘no’ in Farsi was trending on social media in Iran this week.

University disciplinary committees

On 16 June at least 80 students from Azerbaijan Shahid Madani University in Tabriz in Iran’s northwest were summoned by the university’s disciplinary committee in connection with their alleged support for the University of Art protests and were issued restraining orders, the student council reported.

“The Disciplinary Committee of Azarbaijan [Shaid] Madani University has issued ‘final verdicts’ for 20 students, for temporary suspension and suspensions for half a year. Some 25 students are waiting for the meeting of the disciplinary committee and its verdict, and 35 students have been summoned for the hearing,” the council report noted.

“University officials and committees are operating as extensions of the Islamic Republic’s system of repression to crush the peaceful activism on campuses that has surged ever since the protests of the ‘Woman Life Freedom’ movement,” said CHRI’s Ghaemi, earlier this month.

CHRI has described universities’ disciplinary committees as conducting “sham hearings wherein students and professors are treated as guilty with no chance of proving themselves innocent”.

CHRI has identified over 720 students by name who have been arbitrarily arrested by state security forces since September.

Many students were released after being held for months without access to a lawyer and are now facing suspensions and ‘banishment’, a form of punishment traditionally meted out by Iranian courts where a person is sent to a remote village or city far from their home for an extended period of time to isolate them from their communities, CHRI said.

“The banishment of students by university committees is a new trend in the state-led bid to crush dissent in Iran,” CHRI said.


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