Iran’s months of street-demonstrations that erupted after the disputed presidential election of 12 June 2009 have hit the country’s young people - including children - especially hard. The effects are various, damaging, and in many cases. It is a phenomenon that deserves to be considered as a distinct part of the kaleidoscope of Iran’s collective social experience in these dramatic months.
Children have been among the ranks of anti-government protesters, and some of those in their mid-teens are also represented in the paramilitary basij militia. The conflict that divides their country - and especially the opposition “green movement” - enters and shapes children's worlds in Iran.
Some remarks of schoolchildren known to one of us illustrates the point:
"I don't tell my classmates that I'm among the green, I'm afraid to let them know what I think."
"I have a classmate who is not green, I hate sitting next to her. I asked my teacher to change my seat."
"Since I've seen the protests, since I've seen those many Basijis, I'm not afraid anymore"
"I'm tired of listening to the news. Can't we just have fun for one day?"
"Please don't go to the rallies, you could be arrested."
If young people played a central role as active subjects in the early weeks of the protest, they also soon became the targeted object of intense surveillance and policing action from the authorities. The immediate post-election wave caught Iran’s hardline rulers somewhat off-guard; but by the time of the protests around the religious festival of Ashura in late December 2009, they had established efficient mechanisms to identify, arrest and prosecute young demonstrators.
A range of methods was used. The hardliners’ websites displayed multiple images of young protesters and invited users to identify them. In addition, headteachers in middle- and high-schools across Tehran were instructed to display posters featuring the images of hundreds of wanted teenagers, and students were told to provide information about anyone they recognised. Some middle-school pupils (12-14 year-olds) were taken on field-trips to Ebrat, a once-feared prison-turned-museum in Tehran that had been used during the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah (1941-79) to incarcerate and torture political prisoners. These methods serve the dual purpose of delivering a lesson or warning (indeed, this is the meaning of Ebrat) to and instilling fear in a young (and potentially green) generation about the consequences of their involvement in the movement.
Many of the targeted young people have indeed been hunted down and arrested - and worse. For on 28 January 2010, in the approach to the high-tension thirty-first anniversary of the 1979 revolution, two young men who had been arrested in April 2009 - Arash Rahmani and Ali Zamani - were executed. Arash was 19 at the time of his execution, though he had been charged with offences against national security that he was alleged to have committed when under the legal age of responsibility. That makes Arash’s case of under-18 execution one that international child-rights organisations have a responsibility to examine closely and seek to hold the Iranian state accountable to its obligations.
The psychological effect of the state-security campaign against those who have raised a voice is often extreme. Every day, lists are issued of Iranian citizens - workers, artists, teachers, students - who have been arrested. This situation creates an atmosphere of fear and stress for everyone, not least children and teenagers who worry that their classmates and their teachers may be next. The state of fear deepened as the major anniversary of 11 February approached, with children from “green homes” especially filled with anxiety. Some cried and pleaded with their older family members - parents, brothers and sisters - not to go onto the streets.
A generation’s test
Iranian children are growing up as a highly politicised generation. As they watch and witness the protests, express civil disobedience in their own ways, experience and observe state violence or oppression, their views about citizenship are being shaped in ways that may have far-reaching consequences.
The growing reports of children's involvement as actors and victims in the protests has led to a growing recognition of the need for Iranian civil society to be more proactive on children's issues. A few organisations in Iran are taking a lead as child advocates in the context of the security crisis; they include the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, an NGO founded by Shirin Ebadi; among many other actions, it submitted an open letter to the judiciary to raise concerns about the arrest and imprisonment of adolescent children.
But the scale of the problems affecting young people and children mean that it is time for activists and the larger civil society who work with children to explore other ways of advocating and promoting children's rights. Such initiatives as interactive and civic-education programmes that promote pluralism and dealing respectfully with difference - in contrast to the volatile “us” versus “them” polarisation of the current period - could be very beneficial. To recognise the roles and contribution of children is a valuable aim for all of those struggling for rights and justice in Iran; for how children learn about and “do” politics, to claim and protect their rights, will be of tremendous importance for them throughout their lives.
More immediately, the aftermath of the revolution’s 2010 anniversary has been depicted as confirming the regime’s strength and confidence. It is also a time when the opposition movement is beginning to consider ways of refining its strategy for peaceful and democratic change. This will involve looking at tactics other than street protests as part of a medium-to-long-term campaign. A wise movement will include among its projects the need to engage with children and to address the fear and anxieties they are experiencing in these tense times. Such effects, internal to young people and families, are part of the wider agony that Iranians continue to live through.