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Students in Tehran Protest Gender Segregation in University Dining Hall

Students in Iran are fighting to reclaim everyday life by resisting state-imposed gender segregation on campus.

People gather in protest following the death of Mahsa Amini, on September 19, 2022, in Tehran, Iran.

Students at Sharif University of Technology, the highest-ranking public technological university in Iran, recently confronted members of the university’s chapter of the pro-regime Basij militia who were trying to reinforce gender segregation at one of the university student dining halls.

On October 23, female and male students defied the state-mandated segregation regulations in the university dining halls by attempting to enter, sit and eat together at a dining hall, only to be evicted by the university administration. The next day, the Basiji students sought to uphold the boundary their classmates had “breached,” by attempting to barricade the area with tables and prevent other students from entering and normalizing “desegregation.” As the students overran the Basiji barricades and flooded the dining hall, women and men together celebrated their victory by clapping and chanting “My Schoolmate” (Yaar-e Dabestani-ye Man), a popular song within the student movement.

Clips from this iconic moment of defiance went viral on social media. In the public imagination, the clashes at the dining hall were no longer restricted to the space of the university but were also seen as part of the broader confrontation that had been enacted in the streets of Iran for the past month.

The discourse used to refer to the events was also replete with metaphors of war; as the Basiji students retreated, people hailed “the liberation of the dining hall from the occupiers,” and used expressions of conquest such as “we conquered the dining hall” which, incidentally, transforms the student’s victory into one celebrated by all those who oppose the regime.

To understand this incident, which could have otherwise been dismissed as youthful campus unrest, and to get a better sense of the protests that have been taking place in Iran since September, we need to focus on a set of interrelated and often-overlooked aspects of politics and governance in Iran that has been generating paradoxes and impasses over the past 43 years.

Only Paradoxes to Offer

These paradoxes relate to the ontological insecurity of the Islamic Republic when it was established in 1979. Among its initial tasks were efforts to effectively reconcile and integrate into one distinctive identity, its ideological claims, rooted in religious tradition, and its modern outlook and aspiration, embodied in its bureaucratic institutions. As there was no blueprint of what an “actually existing” Islamic state was supposed to look like, and how it was supposed to govern, the “Islamic” in the Islamic Republic needed to be invented and crafted. This process, however, rendered the definition of the “Islamic” the subject of contestation among the multiplicity of factions (for instance conservatives and pragmatists) vying for supremacy within the regime. These internal regime tensions necessitated simultaneously the continual renegotiation and recalibration of the meaning of the “Islamic” and the struggle to maintain a semblance of regime coherence. Yet, beyond the discursive domain, the “Islamic” needed to be confirmed in the everyday, performed by citizens in their everyday movements and interactions. The regulation of bodily movements and everyday practices through policies such as mandatory veiling and gender segregation was thus deeply inscribed in the identity of the state and inculcated in society, through the introduction of relevant laws and policing, as well as the deployment of “soft” measures involving schooling and the media. While this added to the state’s distinctiveness, it also imbued the everyday, mundane practices with political meaning and turned them into spaces of contestation, rendering the state vulnerable. At the same time, the state’s dual populist and authoritarian streaks necessitated the development of new institutions and their extension to the furthest reaches of society to both provide — expand welfare, literacy, and other essential services — and police and control. As the state extended its reach and jurisdiction into society, it encountered and had to engage with more societal claims. The result has been much more negotiation, friction, and, occasionally, conflict. Thus, particularly when the state fails to provide, as has been the case in recent years, frustration spreads to a wider part of the population. In this sense, the state “governs” too much and as such undermines itself.

Messiness of Governance

These steps, which were intended to shore up the identity of the regime, have not been as straightforward as originally envisaged. For instance, the centrality of gender segregation and veiling as two key policies upholding the state’s Islamic character effectively rendered them nonnegotiable and putatively immutable. This rigidity, ironically, limited the state’s capacity to resolve tensions and address demands that arose from their implementation. The state, thus, became a prisoner in a jail of its own making. It had to govern demands and resolve tensions by redrawing the boundary demarcating acceptable from unacceptable practices, while never relinquishing the centrality of gender segregation and veiling, and its authority as the boundary-maker. This has been giving rise to a host of haphazard “corrective” interventions, or uneven implementation and enforcement — what we call “messiness” of governance, effectively producing consecutive crises.

For example, at first the state required women to veil using only fabrics from within a dark colour palette (officially sanctioned colors initially included black, brown, navy and grey), but, faced with increasing dissatisfaction, and to make veiling more palatable, it eventually expanded the palette to sanction brighter colors — except, of course, during the aftermath of the 2009 Green Movement when green was treated with suspicion.

The messiness of governance is also apparent in the uneven enforcement of veiling, evidenced by the active, and sometimes overzealous presence of the “morality police” in some areas (such as transit and entertainment hubs), its absence from others, and its activation in certain conjunctures.

This messiness also manifests in the unpredictability and arbitrariness of the punishments incurred when infringements of the sanctioned dress code occur; these could range from a verbal warning, to attending “modesty classes,” to detention, and could even culminate to incidents such as the one that led to Mahsa (Jina) Amini’s death in the hands of the “morality police” on September 16, 2022.

Gender segregation, too, has been enforced unevenly and haphazardly. In public transport, it was enforced in buses, and even there, the metal bar that separated women from men has, over time, moved back and forth as the government has repeatedly recalibrated the division of the bus space via trial and error, while female and male passengers have often ignored it and challenged it. At the same time, shared taxis remained unsegregated with women often finding themselves sitting in close contact with unknown men, something that is at odds with “Islamic morality.”

This sort of messiness is also apparent at Sharif University, the site of the Basiji students’ struggle to reimpose the gender segregation boundary at the dining hall: For example, there is a cafeteria at the university where gender segregation is not enforced at all, and just outside the campus, students mingle at restaurants that do not observe any segregation measures.

Messiness often manifests itself through absurdity, as the state is often mocked by citizens for its inability to police the boundaries it sets, or for its unprincipled and haphazard policing and rule enforcement: One taxi ride in Tehran would provide any passenger with a sufficient number of jokes about the “messiness of governance” to keep a party going. As rules and their enforcement become unclear, sometimes negotiable but on other occasions not so, people have to go to great lengths to balance a sense of freedom with the demanded compliance. This sometimes involves negotiating and at other times involves efforts to evade detection and punishment. Messiness of governance messes up, depletes and humiliates bodies, and torments minds. Mockery thus is not only an attempt to deal with messiness with humor; it is also a sign of the demystification of state power and its projects, of the progressive erosion of its legitimacy and of the patience of those subjected to it.

On a War Footing

Basij members’ feeling of entitlement to reimpose gender segregation in the university dining hall rests on a long history of unfairness, and double standards cultivated by the state. The Basiji students are members of one of several organizations established by the state to reinforce its presence in everyday spaces such as schools, workplaces and neighborhoods. Basij does so by providing social services while simultaneously imposing the contours of the state’s ideology and order. Their networks provide a notable base of support for the regime (the nationwide Basij membership alone is thought to be in the region of 4 to 5 million) and engage in propaganda, monitoring and counterinsurgency, as the role of the Basiji students in the Sharif University clashes demonstrates.

In return, participants in the Basij are granted privileges by the state, such as generous quota systems giving them easy access to higher education, preferential employment opportunities and a host of other inducements and benefits, allowing them to lay claim to city districts, schools and university spaces. In the Sharif University events the Basiji students tried to reassert, redraw and defend “the state’s boundaries” by asserting their own presence in the university, reminding observers in the process that their presence on campus is a reward for their loyalty to the state.

The university dining hall clashes reflect the transformation of many students’ sense of unfairness in the university microcosm into indignation against the Islamic regime. Students are tired of negotiating boundaries with people whose presence at their university is contested and resented, and with the state that empowers them. The students showed their resolve to not just breach boundaries but to pull down the boundary-maker as well. Yet, their indignation also feeds into a broader revolt against a history of four decades of messy and uneven governance that renders a dispute over the university dining hall into a political issue, that turns everyday sites into everyday frontiers.

Yet, the events at Sharif University reveal something more. After the students celebrated their “victory” over the Basiji students in the dining hall, they cleaned the floor, collected the glass shards of the broken windows, put back the tables and sat outside to eat together. In the students’ fight one can discern their rejection of the continued colonization of the everyday; like many Iranians, they are no longer willing to perform for the state. These students are tired of the state’s governance over their most mundane acts. Their conviviality as they sat outside the dining hall to eat, talk and laugh together had a foundational quality underlying their determination to wrest control over the “public” from the state and reclaim it, recasting the meaning of public institutions and public spaces, and winning back everyday life itself.