Irani Youth Passive on Politics, Push Social Restrictions to Limit
Patricia Nunan
02 Mar 2004, 18:21 UTC

VOA News

In the controversy surrounding Iran's recent parliamentary elections, the country's young people largely stood on the sidelines. There were no student protests, as Islamic conservatives prevented thousands of reformist candidates from running for election, and conservatives took control of the parliament.

It is late Thursday in northern Tehran - party night for the city's young people. Dozens of boys and a few girls in their teens and 20s are talking, flirting and just hanging out in front of a shopping mall.

Most of the young men are wearing blue jeans and jackets, and some of them have baseball caps. But many of the women are pushing the fashion limits.

Women in Iran are required to wear headscarves. But some of the girls' headscarves almost appear to defy gravity - pinned to a ponytail, and barely resting on their heads.

Women also have to wear abayas - smock-like shirts with hems that fall beneath the knee. But peaking out beneath them are combat pants and laced-up army boots - similar to the fashions worn by many teenagers on the streets of London or New York.

About a dozen young people, men and women alike, have taken over two tables in a nearby coffee shop. For their protection, they only give their first names. Among them are 21-year-old Hamid and his 17-year-old girlfriend. To Hamid, living in Iran is about living with restrictions. Hamid says, if he goes out with his girlfriend in public, they might be stopped by the police. If they get in trouble they will not be able to go out again, he says.

One of the young women, 17-year-old Shohreh, agrees. She says young people are constantly being watched. Even sitting in a group in the coffee shop, she said, they are afraid that someone will come around to check on them, and that they will get in trouble when they leave to go home.

Asked where they think young people can live more freely, the group lists the city of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, as well as Europe and the United States. Shohreh said women in America have more rights. And, she added, she feels that women in Iran have no value.

That is far different from the generation of these young people's parents. Many of them took to the streets in 1979 to topple the government of the Shah of Iran and bring on the Islamic Revolution. The new government in Iran demonized the United States, and dozens of U.S. diplomats were held hostage for a year and a half.

Now, 22-year-old Mohammed says, Iran's young people simply do not accept what their government tells them about the United States. He said the most recent evidence of the difference between what the Iranian government says about America and what the young people see was the aftermath of the huge earthquake in southern Iran in late December.

After the earthquake, said Mohammed, Americans helped Iran, even though the Iranian government does not like the United States. He says that exposes what he calls the Iranian government's propaganda, which tells young people that everything in America is bad.

Some of this group's complaints may be typical teenage rebellion, but their anger has the potential to be much more. Roughly 70 percent of Iran's 69 million people are under the age of 30, and approximately 50 percent are under age 20, making them a huge source of energy, brainpower and potential political power.

They have taken an active role in recent years, but not during the election controversy of the past few months.

The controversy started in December, when Iran's conservative and unelected Guardian Council barred more than 2,300 pro-reform candidates from running in the February 20 parliamentary election. The reformists boycotted the election, allowing the Islamic conservatives to sweep to power amid low voter turnout of about 50 percent. The ballot was condemned as unfair by both the United States and the European Union.

Throughout the controversy, Iran's young people were, by and large, nowhere to be found. No one in the group at the coffee shop voted, nor did any of them protest against the actions of the Islamic hardliners. There were no protests to join.

That is different from what Iranian young people have done in the recent past. In 1999, thousands of students clashed with police in protests against an unauthorized raid on a student dormitory. Observers say the demonstrations transformed into rage against the conservative government and its lack of reform.

In 2002, students demonstrated daily for more than two weeks to protest the death sentence given to a pro-reform professor for heresy. He had said that all Muslims should have the right to interpret the Koran in their own way.

The protesters also called for more reforms and more freedom. Iran's supreme court eventually overturned the professor's sentence, but the professor is still in jail, and the court ordered harsh punishments for the student protest leaders.

Since then, the authorities have clamped down, and student leaders, newspaper editors and others who disagree with the government have faced arrest.

Analysts say many young people have lost their faith in Iran's reform leaders, who came to power in 2000, because they failed to bring about significant change in the face of opposition from senior Islamic leaders. That has led to disillusionment and apathy among young people.

In the coffee shop, 25-year-old Farhad says that even the large student demonstrations in 1999 were not really about politics. He says, because Iran's young people are so restricted, they rebel in other ways - like the demonstrations. He says the protesters just wanted to have fun and were not really interested in politics. Anybody who saw the protests, he said, would have seen students laughing and chasing each other from alley to alley.

Some at the coffee house also admit to taking drugs - smoking marijuana or hashish, or even taking ecstasy. They also throw illegal dance parties in private homes. They say that, like the protests, it is all part of ordinary youthful rebellion.

Of course, not every young person in Tehran fits the same mold. Twenty-one-year-old Peyman Aref is a student leader, who has been arrested and imprisoned four times for speaking out about the government. One time, he spent three months in jail.

Peyman says the time of revolutions is over. But he says that does not mean Iran's young people will not stop pushing for democracy.

Others agree. Ibrahim Yasdi served as Iran's foreign minister during the reign of Ayatollah Khomeini - the leader of the Islamic Revolution. Disillusioned with Iran's hardline leaders, Mr. Yasdi is now with a pro-reform party. He says a return of the student political movement is just a matter of time.

"After this election, what I know is that, internally, within their own group, the students are debating what they have done, why such apathy, why such inactivity," he said. "And all of us are expecting that the student movement will get another momentum and become very active."

At the coffee shop, that seems a long way off. These young people say they want changes in Iran. But these days, they are not motivated to take risks to try to make those changes happen.

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