Saturday, Dec. 7, was national Students' Day in Iran, so Farnaz Shirazi a middle-aged, middle-class housewife with two sons and a husband who drives a taxi attended a demonstration outside Tehran University. But instead of listening to impassioned speeches, she found herself running down an alley, trying to get away from police clearing the street with truncheons. "We don't have free speech and we don't have freedom," Shirazi (not her real name) said after stopping to catch her breath. "I have come here to support the students for my children's future."
Since early November, students throughout Iran have taken part in a series of rolling demonstrations to protest the death sentence imposed on Hashem Aghajari, a reformist professor who criticized the clergy's monopoly on interpreting the Koran in a speech given June 19. The Aghajari verdict has stirred the long-dormant student movement, provided focus for popular discontent and injected new life into the standoff between President Mohammed Khatami's reformist parliamentary majority and the hard-line clerics who control the Expediency and Guardian Councils, which form a supervisory executive. Two reform bills, limiting the Guardian Council's ability to veto electoral candidates and curbing the excesses of an often arbitrary and politically motivated judiciary, are currently under review by the parliament. Many see the proposed laws as Khatami's best chance to deliver on reform.
Student rallies are routinely broken up by the Basij, vigilante defenders of the revolution who shout chants like "Death to America!" and disperse demonstrators with chains and sticks. Says one student leader from Amir Kabir University, where protesters had their podium overturned and the sound system turned off during a rally last week, "These militia come inside the universities to create chaos while saying that they are maintaining Islamic values."
On the streets outside the campuses, intimidation is also rife. When more than 10,000 people gathered outside Tehran University on Students' Day, they were constantly moved on by police wielding truncheons. Shirazi helped one woman who had been beaten limp out of the fray; she saw another arrested by plainclothes security agents and taken away. "Don't tell us how to live, what to wear, what to eat and what not to eat!" she said.
Her frustration with the regime is widely shared among ordinary Tehranis. But people have other priorities as well. With inflation running at 13.4% and unemployment officially put at 12.5% but actually thought to be at least double that figure middle-class men have to work two or three jobs just to keep their heads above water. Shirazi's husband earns just $150 a month, and says he doesn't much care whether Aghajari is hung or not. "Ordinary people don't want to pay a high price to change the political situation; they have already been through the revolutionary experience," says Hamid Reza Jalaipour, a reformist journalist who spent a month in prison in 2000 after attending a conference on Iran in Berlin.
According to Jalaipour, the students and reformists in parliament share the idea that reform should be gradual. "The target of a revolution is usually the collapse of the political system," Jalaipour says. "In this case, we are looking for modification." Student leaders, anxious not to provoke a violent reaction from the Basij, tend to concur. One of them, who was arrested outside Modarres University three weeks ago and detained for 14 hours, thinks sudden changes are undesirable: "We are looking for human rights in accordance with the nature of our society."
Life in the Islamic Republic has changed enormously since Khatami came to power in 1997. Shirazi and her family watch satellite TV, while her sons listen to banned Western music and hang out with girls in cafés illegal activities, but facts of life in most cities. In the past hard-liners have used assassination and imprisonment without trial to silence their critics. Not any more. "They thought they could execute Aghajari to frighten Khatami's reform movement," says Jalaipour. "The consequences were not what they expected." If the reformers continue to gain force, Iran's hard-liners can expect more unexpected consequences.