Tehran University Student Launches Campus Sit-In Against Being Blacklisted for Activism
University of Tehran student activist Soha Mortezaei began a sit-in at her campus library on October 11, 2019, to protest being denied university enrollment for allegedly engaging in political activism.
Since the creation of the Islamic Republic in 1979, student activists have been denied higher education through various methods. During President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s second term (2005-13), those accused of engaging in political activities received a star on their application, which blocked them from enrolling in Iranian universities.
During his first election campaign, President Hassan Rouhani (2013-21) promised to get rid of the star system. “We have to stop tagging students with stars,” he said at an election rally in June 2013. “Students should be free to carry out political and scientific activities unless they cross the red line against national interests.”
Yet students who’ve engaged in peaceful activism continued to be banned from attending university during both of Rouhani’s presidential terms by different means.
“I was 10th on the national exam for doctoral studies in political science but there is a problem with my case,” the state-funded Islamic Republic News Agency quoted her saying on October 11.
“I went to the National Organization of Educational Testing to see what the problem was and two letters caught my attention,” she said. “One was from the Intelligence Ministry and the other from the University of Tehran’s security office both recommending I should not be accepted into the Ph.D. program.”
“That is why I started this sit-in and I will continue until I am accepted as a Ph.D. student,” she added.
IRNA published a photo with its report showing Mortezaei holding a sign that reads: “I have been blacklisted by the university’s security office and the Intelligence Ministry. The university’s response has been to discredit my acceptance [into the Ph.D. program] in line with security officials’ wishes.”
Mortezaei is the former secretary of the University Trade Unions’ Council of Iran (UTUCI) at the University of Tehran.
She was arrested at her home in early January 2018 following student rallies amid nation-wide protests at the time and detained for about a month.
In September 2018, an unnamed judge presiding over Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran sentenced her to six years in prison and banned her from political activities for two years.
Mortezaei has been free on bail while awaiting a ruling on her case by the Appeals Court.
More than 20 university students in Iran were issued harsh prison sentences for attending street protests that occurred in dozens of cities around the country against various governmental policies in December 2017/January 2018.
In July 2018, more than 60 student organizations from universities across Iran sharply criticized Rouhani for the crackdown on students led by the Intelligence Ministry, which operates under him.
On October 12, 2019, the UTUCI issued a statement expressing solidarity with Mortezaei.
“The prevention of Mortezaei from continuing her studies at the doctoral level due to the influence of the Intelligence Ministry and the university’s security office, and the lack of clear answers from the relevant authorities, shows they [government officials] are continuing their efforts to impose a security climate at the university,” the statement said.
Several people shared similar experiences after news of Mortezaei’s sit-in spread on Persian social media networks.
“‘I have been blacklisted by the university’s security office and the Intelligence Ministry,” Sahar Mehrabi tweeted. “That’s the summary of the hell I have been through in recent years as well. Let’s not be silent toward the violation of Sahar Mortezaei’s basic right to education.”
Samin tweeted: “The university was supposed to be a place for safety, not security. The officials at the Science Ministry and the University of Tehran should be aware that the responsibility for these violations against the rights of people will remain on their shoulders.”
Mahdieh Golru, a prominent former student activist who was also denied the right to continue her university studies in Iran tweeted: “I know [Mortezaei’s] pain very well. She is sitting with a sign in her hand. Passersby have no idea what it means to be given a ‘star’ and you have to explain your pain to them. Sometimes they look at you as if you should not have protested in the first place!”
Read this article in Persian.
*This article was corrected on November 28, 2022, to reflect that Ms. Mortezaei’s first name is Soha, not Saha.