In September 2022, Iran’s Gen Z – a young generation born between 1997 and 2012 – issued the boldest challenge to the theocracy in more than a decade. Protests sparked by the issue of personal freedoms for women erupted in dozens of cities, from Tabriz in northern Azerbaijan to southern Bandar Abbas along the Persian Gulf coast, from Sanandaj in the Kurdish west to eastern Mashhad, the pilgrimage city and Iran’s second largest city. They were often led by teenage girls and young women. Many were centered at high schools and universities. Others played out at bonfires on street corners. They evolved into challenges of the Islamic Republic. “Clerics, get lost,” students at Al Zahra University, a college for women in Tehran, shouted during President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit on October 8.
What are their goals, as reflected in the protests? What unites them? What divides them?
Zoomers have not necessarily adhered to any one ideology. As they came of age, many in Iran’s Gen Z have demonstrated more pragmatism and less ideological commitment than their parents and grandparents. They want opportunity, stability, personal freedoms and financial security—a more normal life than any of the earlier generations who lived through the revolution, an eight-year war with Iraq, food rationing and economic hardships, and confrontations with the international community.
“Gen Z is a globalized generation whose experiences and worldviews are in part driven by exposure to the Internet and social media since they were born,” Holly Dagres, a fellow at the Atlantic Council said. It “has little in common with the clerical establishment at the top.” It sees a double standard in society—how the government elite live well, while the rest of the country struggles to get by. The Zoomers witness government mismanagement and corruption amid a rise in repression. The protesters reflect the exhaustion with the Islamic Republic and are outspoken in ways that their parents weren’t. “Their present is bleak, and they want to take control of their future,” she said.
The pluralistic nature of Gen Z made it harder to govern than previous generations, Sobhe Sadegh, a weekly publication linked to the Revolutionary Guards, editorialized in 2019. The young generation challenged the status quo— and held parents and grandparents responsible for its problems. In October 2022, more than 41 percent of people detained by security forces during the protests were under age 20 and 48 percent were between 20 and 35, Fars News Agency reported.
How do Zoomers relate to the regime’s aging leaders?
An Iranian schoolgirl replaces the portrait of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei that hang in every classroom—the only two men who’ve ruled Iran for 43 years—with the words “Woman, Life, Freedom”. pic.twitter.com/dDQkQZQ6f0— Karim Sadjadpour (@ksadjadpour) October 4, 2022
In state-run schools, the young in Gen Z were “made to worship the revolution and its martyrs and leaders,” said Jasmin Ramsey, deputy director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran. But they did not uniformly embrace the heroes lionized by the government.
Schoolgirls refused to sing a song praising Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei after an October 13 raid on a high school in Ardabil. Asra Panahi, a 15-year-old girl, was reportedly beaten to death by plainclothes officers. In Sanandaj, schoolgirls burned pages of a textbook featuring a photograph of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. They also chanted “Death to Khamenei,” his successor. In Tehran, another group of schoolgirls stomped on a picture of the two clerics, then ripped it up. In a third video, schoolgirls spray-painted over a photo of Khamenei on a classroom wall, then put up a photo of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Kurd whose death in the custody of the morality police sparked the 2022 protests.
“These young women and girls are facing a well-oiled system of political repression and violence and risking everything including their lives to make their voices heard,” Ramsey said. “Gen Z girls have taken off their compulsory hijabs, stared the government straight in the eyes and said in more ways than one: ‘We are not going to live under your thumb anymore.’”
What challenges do Zoomers face?
Despite literacy at over 90 percent, the Zoomers have faced high youth unemployment, gender segregation, and deferred marriage due to economic hardships. As of 2020, 29 percent of the young were not enrolled in higher education, did not have jobs, or lacked training, according to the International Labour Organization.
During the protest on September 21, 2022, shortly before she was shot, 22-year-old TikToker Hadis Najafi said in a video, “I hope in a few years when I look back, I will be happy that everything has changed for the better.”
In October 2022, officials described Gen Z protesters as misguided and immature. Some were sent to mental health facilities to “reform” their “anti-social” behaviors, Education Minister Yousef Nouri said. Some of those interrogated by security forces likened “street riots to video games,” said Ali Fadavi, deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards.
What makes them different from previous generations?
Zoomers grew up more connected, better educated, and more socially active than previous generations. They became known as “digital natives” because they grew up immersed in the internet and social media. They became savvier about the freedoms enjoyed by their counterparts elsewhere in the world. “Through their phones and satellite TV, Gen Z has been exposed to other ways of living, where girls and women are able to make choices about their appearance and who they want to be in life, how they want to live,” Ramsey said. In 2020, some 84 percent of Iran’s population used the internet, compared with just 16 percent a decade earlier.
Sarina Esmailzadeh, a 16-year-old vlogger who was allegedly beaten to death on September 22, had opined four months earlier. “We ask ourselves why aren't we having fun like the young people in New York and Los Angeles?” In a YouTube video, she said, “We are in need of joy and recreation, good spirit, good vibes, good energy. In order to have these, we need freedom.”
Photo Credit: @1500tasvir
Garrett Nada, managing editor of The Iran Primer, assembled this report.