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University Student Groups Decry Security Climate on Campus, Rising Costs and Gender Segregation

CHRI - Seventy-two student organizations from universities throughout Iran have issued a joint statement asking President Hassan Rouhani to end the security climate on campuses, halt the rising cost of education, and stop discriminatory practices against female students.

"It's possible that the increasing pressure on students has something to do with fears that they could have an impact on the presidential election (on May 19, 2017)," a student activist, who asked not to be identified, told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) .

Nearly 50 students were summoned by disciplinary committees in recent months, including from University of Tehran, Sharif University of Technology, Iran University of Science and Industry, Babol Noshirvani University of Technology, Kerman Graduate University of Advanced Technology, Allameh Tabataba'i University, and Shahid Beheshti University.

"Students are facing lots of issues," said the source who asked not to be named for security reasons. "There have been protests against increasing university fees and gender segregation and stricter enforcement of female students' mandatory hijabs."

"The terrible thing is that the disciplinary committees have reacted to these peaceful actions by summoning the students," added the student activist.

Rouhani received a boost during his 2013 presidential campaign after stating that the "University of Tehran is not a military base" and calling for a less securitized political atmosphere on campuses. He has even proclaimed that "the university is the best place to criticize power."

In practice, however, his words have rung hollow against the growing power and influence of conservative hardliners in universities.

The statement issued on April 15, 2017 follows one in March 2017 by more than 20 student services councils also complaining about intensifying security practices at campus universities.

The discussion has reached Parliament.

Mohammad Ali Kamfirouzi, a member of the editorial board of the Student Medical Publications, revealed in a tweet on April 16 that 22 legislators were unsatisfied with Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi's response to their questions about reformist student reporters being harassed on campus.

On April 18, Kamfirouzi also tweeted that university officials were turning down requests from students to hold election-related events in support of reformist candidates.

In addition to electing a president, Iranians will also vote for their local city and village councils on May 19.

Rising Education Fees and Protests

Since 2013, student protests have moved away from political issues and instead focused on the quality and cost of university education and administrative services.

"The country's education system is reeling from unfair policies that are depriving more and more students," said the statement by 28 student services councils on March 15. "Every year, more of these policies are implemented resulting in lost opportunities for vulnerable sectors of society, such as women and people in remote areas who are seeking to enter university."

According to the student activist interviewed by CHRI, the cost of meals at university cafeterias significantly increased between 2009 and 2016, while fees for other student services, such as dormitories and transportation, also skyrocketed.

"In the past, it was normal for students in provincial towns and villages to enter prestigious universities in Tehran or other big cities, but with these new policies, their chances have decreased significantly," the student activist told CHRI.

On Student Day, December 6, 2016, more than 6,000 university students signed a statement criticizing "daily increases in the cost of student housing, meals and tuition, the allocation of university space and facilities to outside agencies and organizations, the coercion of students into forced labor, and their scientific knowledge being taken advantage of."

Increases in tuition and other costs led to protests at the University of Tehran on December 2, 2015 and Tarbiat Modares University on September 7, 2016 by students arguing that their constitutional right to a free education has been seriously eroded.

According to Article 30 of Iran's Constitution: "The government must provide all citizens with free education up to secondary school, and must expand free higher education to the extent required by the country for attaining self-sufficiency."

Gender Discrimination

In their December 6, 2016 statement, students provided examples of increasing instances of gender-segregation and harassment of female students in universities, such as "smaller quotas for female students for certain subjects, excessive controls and pressures on female students regarding their personal freedoms and clothing, compulsory hijab in women's dormitories, new restrictions on entering and leaving women's sleeping quarters, threatening attitudes towards female students by university security agents, female students being patronized and their families encouraged to impose restrictions on them, as well as the blackmailing of female students by certain academics and other university officials."

According to the student activist, quotas for female students were sometimes as low as 30 to 50 percent of course capacity, effectively denying many women from pursuing their primary interests.

"The university security agents can be really rude in reacting to female students' clothing," added the source. "In numerous cases, female students have been prevented from entering campuses because of the color of their dress, scarf or even nails, and have been reported to disciplinary committees."

"The boys' and girls' dormitories are completely separate, but even inside their own dorms, the comings and goings of female students are tightly monitored," said the student activist.

"They can't even leave their hair uncovered amongst themselves," continued the source. "In some cases, the girls come back to their dorms after 9 p.m. and they have to beg and cry to be allowed in. In many cases, these girls get expelled for being repeatedly late."

Security Climate Persists Under Rouhani's Watch

"We will have a very serious response if the authorities do not back down and if they continue to summon and discipline student activists for committing so-called security crimes," warned 28 student services councils in their statement on March 15.

The student activist who spoke to CHRI also noted that while hardline conservative student publications receive generous funding, independent groups are harshly vetted by university security offices. They also operate newspapers and events under the constant threat of being banned.

Persecution of student activists reached a peak during the last four years of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration, between 2009 to 2013.

During his 2013 presidential campaign, Rouhani addressed several student events and promised to end the "security atmosphere" in universities, reinstate students and academics expelled for political reasons, and prevent the segregation of male and female students.

In June 2013 he said: "Youths and students will undoubtedly taste the air of freedom under the next government."

However, on Student Day in 2017, Rouhani conceded that "the security climate (in universities) might not have changed and I don't like it."