‘I’m extremely disturbed’: Harsh crackdown at top Iranian university shocks academics worldwide

Universities have become hotbeds of protest. At some, Iran’s government is striking back hard

two women wearing masks run in a crowded street
Women run away during a street protest in Tehran, Iran, on 19 September following the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who died in police custody.Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Sunday’s brutal crackdown against students protesting at one of Iran’s most prestigious universities has shocked Iranian academics and students around the world. The attack, at the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, also drove home the important role students and universities are playing in the popular uprising against the Iranian government. Protests at many other universities in Iran have continued.

“I feel extremely disturbed by the brutality and violence. I do not know any of these students in person, but I hugely care about them,” says Farid Farrokhi, an economist at Purdue University who obtained his master’s degree at Sharif. “They are the future of Iran.”

Sahar Zarmehri, a Sharif alum who’s now a quantitative analyst at Citigroup, says she “cried several times” as she watched the news this week. She urges the international academic community to support Iran’s students. “We want the scientific community to stand next to our innocent people and students and be their voice,” Zarmehri says.

The protests were triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman from Kurdistan who was arrested on 13 September in Tehran by the Guidance Patrol, also known as the Morality Police, for not wearing her hijab, or headscarf, properly. Amini collapsed while in detention, was taken to a hospital, and died 2 days later. Police insist she had a history of heart and brain issues, but Amini’s family says she was in perfect health and fellow detainees have said she was beaten during her arrest.

Protesters filled the streets in Tehran and other cities, calling for justice for Amini and an end to the law requiring women to wear the hijab in public, but their demands have expanded to include more freedoms and an end to the Islamic theocracy that has held power for 43 years. (“Women, Life, Freedom,” has become one of their main chants.) Universities have become a hotbed of such protests—at least 60 have seen strikes and demonstrations. Women, who make up 60% of Iran’s university students, have led many of the protests.

The attack at Sharif began after students on Sunday protested the arrest of a few classmates during recent street protests. Members of the Basij, a paramilitary group supervised by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, attacked the students. Some students tried to hide in classrooms, according to eyewitness accounts and videos on social media. Other fled to the parking garage, where they found themselves trapped by plainclothes police. Outside the university, riot patrols and armed police were waiting; they fired shotguns and tear gas and used paintball guns to mark the protesters. Reports suggest several people were seriously wounded and more than 100 were arrested. Amid the chaos, Iran’s minister of science and technology, Mohammad Ali Zolfigol, visited the campus in a failed attempt to calm the situation.

Sharif was a high-profile target, as the alma mater of some of Iran’s most famous scientists, including the late Stanford University mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal. “Can you imagine the US government sending armed guerrilla forces to Boston to surround Harvard and MIT and start killing students? Well, that is exactly what is going on in Tehran,” Iranian-born engineer Firouz Naderi, a former director of Solar System exploration at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, tweeted on Monday.

Students and professors at Sharif contacted by Science confirmed many of the events reported on social media, but none wanted to be named. One student said security forces told students’ parents to keep their children under control. Police also warned students not to share stories on social media. The university has announced that all classes will be held online until further notice. Also on Sunday night, there were reports of clashes between students at the Iran University of Science and Technology.  

“Universities have always been the place for brave young adults with brilliant minds who are not scared of openly expressing their opinions,” says physicist Azadeh Keivani, a Sharif alum who’s now a data scientist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. By attacking students, the Iranian government is hoping to “create fear among all walks of life in the society,” she says.

Still, demonstrations at other universities have continued. On Monday, protesters at the Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, in Iran’s northeast, gathered in front of the office of the president, chanting, “You killed Sharif’s students, don’t ask us to stay silent.” In Tehran, students at the K. N. Toosi University of Technology canceled classes and held a rally in support of protesters. At Semnan University, students rallied while chanting, “Iran has become a prison, Evin has become a university,” a reference to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where large numbers of students and intellectuals are locked up. Videos posted today appeared to show schoolgirls heckling a Basij speaker while waving their headscarves.

Farrokhi hopes the international research community will offer more support, for instance by writing open letters to express its solidarity, urging the media to pay more attention to the struggle, and putting pressure on Iranian ambassadors.

For Keivani, the death of Amini, who was 22, was a stark reminder of her own youth in Iran. “I was 22 when I immigrated to the United States to attend graduate school. It was right after I graduated from Sharif University,” she says. “The number of morality cops had significantly increased in the last year of my undergrad. Almost every day, one of them warned me to wear a ‘proper’ hijab as soon as I entered the campus.”

“In my first days in the U.S., it happened to me several times that while I was outside, for a moment, I was worried I wasn’t wearing a headscarf,” Keivani says. “It took only a fraction of a second until I remembered I was no longer in Iran. But you can never understand what those moments do to you and your mental health, unless you were an Iranian woman raised in Iran.”

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