Iran’s rising Gen Z at the forefront of protests


Furious and passionate protests have spread across dozens of Iranian cities following the tragic death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in mid-September. Amini was arrested by Iran’s infamous “morality police” – Guidance Patrol – on September 16, for allegedly “incorrectly” wearing her hijab. She died in their custody two days later, with signs of bruising on her face and body.

Tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets and many continue to do so to this day, despite the regime’s violent, sometimes deadly, crackdowns and threats of arrest. While anti-regime protests are not unheard of in the Islamic Republic, a key difference between the current and previous waves of protests has been the prominent role played by the country’s Generation Z, also known as the Zoomers.

Iranian Generation Z

Members of Iran’s Generation Z – those born between 1997 and 2010, years that correspond to 1375-1389 in the Iranian calendar – are better known as Dahe Hashtadi (“the 80s”) in Persian. This group of young Iranians make up only around 6 million (less than 7%) of the country’s population of 83 million, yet they have unquestionably been among the main leaders of the current protests.

In general, Iranian Zoomers have a reputation for being indifferent to politics, religion, customs and traditions, like many others their age around the world. Unlike previous generations in Iran, they tend not to worry about being judged and will speak openly about their interests or dislikes, even if it loudly crosses the traditional red lines of the ruling system.

According to Jabbar Rahmani, assistant professor of anthropology at the Institute of Social and Cultural Studies in Tehran, “this generation does not adhere to idealism and ideological idealizations like the previous generation” and generally “avoids[s] imagination above imaginary clouds.

Ignored generation

While Iranian Zoomers represent a relatively small proportion of the country’s population, they are extremely skeptical and are “digital natives”. Unlike their parents and grandparents, who were heavily restricted by conservative social pressures and censorship from the ruling system in the 1980s and 1990s, Iranian Zoomers had better access to information and the outside world. Their active presence and access to online social media gave them better analytical skills, a platform to air their concerns and the courage to speak out.

As a result, according to sociologists, this generation tends to question authority, does not believe in existing red lines drawn by society or the regime, and does not want to take for granted the sanctity of sacred cows, which it it’s religion, laws and regulations, or whatever.

The current protests in Iran may be the first time most of the rest of the world has heard the voice of the Iranian Zoomers, but they have stolen the show many times before in their own country. One of the first big controversies sparked by Generation Z dates back to 2014, when tens of thousands of people showed up to attend the funeral ceremony of Morteza Pashaei, a famous young pop star. This surprised more than one. Such massive ceremonies were common for religious figures or those who lost their lives for upholding the values ​​of the Islamic Republic, but never before for a music icon, let alone one who today would be considered a threat to Islamic values.

Subsequent notable events include a surprisingly large apolitical gathering of high school students to celebrate the end-of-school-year exams in 2016 at a shopping mall in western Tehran that was dispersed by police as well as a similar incident in Shiraz earlier this summer. The authorities’ response in all of these cases has involved arrests, criminal charges, and statements by senior officials about the need to enforce the hijab law more strictly, uphold Islamic values, and increase government control. Internet and social media status.

Was it anticipated?

While at first glance it might have seemed like the Islamic Republic was suddenly overwhelmed by angry young people who unexpectedly took to the streets in protest last month, in reality many observers had been warning for years that it was going to happen. Apart from the events described above, numerous studies by various academic bodies and expert researchers have also pointed to such upcoming brewing challenges.

Following a wave of mass social unrest in January 2018, Iran’s then Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli announced the findings of one such study, conducted by the Bureau of Cultural Studies , supported by the state. According to him, in addition to the usual “political, economic and social discontent”, the Islamic Republic is now facing a fourth factor of tension: the “deep generation gap”.

More than a year earlier, Saeed Razavi Faqih, a sociologist and former political prisoner and activist, offered an analysis of the socio-political situation in Iran and warned of the potential dangers ahead, of which many of us are witnesses on the streets of Iran today. His warnings were published on December 7, 2016 in Ensaf Newsin a play called “The Eighties [Gen Z] everyone will pass. According to Faqih, “this new generation has completely different demands, tendencies and viewpoints and basically shares no common language with the country’s managers and administration officials.” Noting that these young people would start entering university in 2020, he warned that “as soon as they [Iranian Zoomers] realize their ability to influence and change things, this massive population that governs universities in big and small cities will transform everything.

A more recent warning of this type came in 2019, when Sobhe Sadegh, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) weekly, has described Iran’s hitherto largely ignored Generation Z as a possible threat to the values ​​of the Islamic Republic. According At Sobhe Sadegh’s writers, due to the pluralistic opinions of the Zoomers, they will likely prove difficult to control or, as the writers put it, “their governance will not be as easy as with previous generations”.

Zoomers in the lead

The danger that many in the Islamic Republic establishment had been warning about has finally arrived. The young and fearless rising generation of Iranians are not only protesting in the streets and on social media, but the Iranian Zoomers have also earned the respect and support of their parents and elders as they have joined them in their struggle. against Iranian power. system.

According to the official figures of the ultra-conservatives Javanese dailyanother IRGC-affiliated newspaper said “93% of protesters” are no older than 25, signaling the rise of a “new generation of rioters in the country”, it added.

The Iranian government has sought to reduce protesters’ ability to coordinate by disrupting their internet access and blocking many social media and messaging apps, such as Instagram and WhatsApp, and even some popular online games. Yet, so far, he hasn’t been able to stop them.

Meanwhile, older generations of Iranians who failed to win the political and social freedoms they have long fought for over the past four decades are now expressing their public admiration for their children and young compatriots. Iran’s Gen Z has been notable for their outspoken willingness to not only challenge the status quo and demand their personal rights, but also to unite in this cause by staging massive street protests, even in the face of repressions. murderous.

What awaits us?

Despite years of warnings about the growing threat to the regime posed by the country’s growing “generation gap”, so far Iranian officials have mostly chosen to turn a blind eye to the issue. Basically, the government has refrained from making systematic changes or enacting liberalizing reforms to meet the growing evolving needs of Zoomers.

Instead, the Islamic Republic has relied on its current playbook of denying Iranians the right to think and act differently while seeking to further marginalize liberal segments of society. In the mainstream media, Zoomers, in particular, have been labeled in mostly derogatory terms such as “anarchist“, “unethical”, and “isolated”. The country’s policies and resources aim to impose new restrictions on those who reject the founding values ​​of theocratic Iran.

The zero-tolerance policy towards anything considered contrary to the identity of the Islamic Revolution, the drive to implement the so-called “Protection Bill” of the Internet, and token initiatives, such as the pop song “Hello Commander,” are just a few of the ways the Islamic Republic has attempted to control its youth. All of these measures proved unsuccessful.

Iran’s younger generation is leading the current protests at a time when, according to figures recently released by Iran’s Center for Statistics, some 77% of Iranians between the ages of 15 and 24 are not working, in education or not. are not studying, compared to around 31% in 2020.

Given state control over the country’s struggling economy and widespread corruption within the regime, which has attempted to fill all government posts with like-minded ultra-conservative individuals, the vast majority of young Iranians are tired of endless double standards, growing socio-economic gaps and systemic corruption. Therefore, Generation Z seized the moment of massive social discontent and chose to openly confront the Islamic Republic. Zoomers see no glimmer in their future, even in the increasingly unlikely event that the Iran nuclear deal is revived.

Many experts, including sociologist Abbas Abdi, believe that to end this crisis, the Islamic Republic must reconsider and modify many of its policies according to the needs and demands of a modern society. But the ruling elite is unlikely to follow this path given that, according to them, accepting even one request would lead to additional and increasingly ambitious requests in the future.

While the outcome of the current protests is far from certain, one thing is clear: Iran’s Zoomers will have a very active role to play in shaping the future of their country.

Maysam Bizaer is an analyst and commentator who primarily focuses on Iran’s foreign policy, politics and economy. He is a frequent contributor to a number of international media and US-based think tanks covering the Middle East. Follow Maysam on Twitter @m_bizar.

Photo by Getty Images

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