Meet Iran’s Gen Z: the Driving Force Behind the Protests

Foreign Policy, 01.11.2022
Holly Dagres
They’re shaking up the aging clerical establishment to a degree not seen since the 1979 revolution

“Islamic Republic” is scrawled in chalk in Persian on a blackboard. Below, a gaggle of female students are in their navy blue school uniforms, but they are not wearing their mandatory hijabs. Collectively, they raise their middle fingers in the direction of the dusty blackboard.

This is just one of hundreds of images recently shared on social media by students who are part of Iran’s Generation Z (known as Gen Zers or Zoomers), and they are a force to be reckoned with. They’re also the driving force behind the current protests that have swept the country since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iran’s so-called morality police.

This generation, born between 1997 and 2012, is social media savvy despite intermittent internet shutdowns and draconian internet censorship. Frustrated and angry with the status quo, they aren’t afraid to express themselves online or in person nor to push the red lines of the Islamic Republic. And they’re shaking up the aging, sclerotic clerical establishment to a degree not seen since the country’s 1979 revolution.

In Iran, terms such as “Millennials” (people born between 1981 and 1996) and “Gen Zers” are generally not used. Rather, Iranians speak of youth, who today make up more than 60 percent of Iran’s roughly 87 million population, in terms of decades.

The children born during the 1980s are referred to as daheye shast or the 60s (in reference to the 1360s of the Iranian calendar), and children of the 2000s—Iran’s Gen Z—are known as daheye hashtad or the 80s (the 1380s of the Iranian calendar). Generation Alpha, the generation born after Gen Z, is known as daheye navad or the 90s (the 1390s of the Iranian calendar).

Academics in the West have coined the phrase “children of the revolution” to describe youth who came of age after the 1979 revolution and the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. Many of those young Iranians were part of the student-led movement that helped Iran’s reformist candidate, Mohammad Khatami, win the 1997 presidential election in a surprise landslide victory.

Academic Asef Bayat describes that generation as post-Islamist youth—suggesting that they were not the ideal Islamic youth that former revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had envisioned. Rather, they shocked the clerical establishment with their “degenerate behavior”—behaviors no different from those of many Western youths—such as drug use, drag racing, and partying.

By the late 1990s, their antics sent shockwaves through the clerical establishment. These young people were, in the words of Bayat, “pragmatic and non-ideological with a clear aversion to violence, a distrust of officials, and a dream of living in the West.”

They also came of age at a time when satellite dishes provided access to everything from Baywatch on Turkish channels to MTV India airing Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys music videos—all illegally broadcasted into the country. Augmenting the illegal satellite dish, one could contact a filmi (meaning “movie man”), who would show up in one’s home with a briefcase full of the latest bootleg blockbusters like Titanic and Armageddon from Southeast Asia. This also played a role in exposing Iranians to the world outside.

By the early 2000s, many Iranians were also becoming exposed to the internet and its many uses, including blogging and social media. However, it wasn’t until the 2009 post-presidential election protests known as the Green Movement, sparked by election fraud, that the Islamic Republic began to view the internet as a serious national security threat.

Although Green Movement demonstrations spread primarily by word of mouth and text messages, shocking photos and videos uploaded on social media of protesters donning green clothes in support of then-reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi and being violently beaten by security forces went viral around the globe. The video documenting the shooting death of Neda Agha-Soltan, a young woman killed by security forces, became the emblem of the government crushing dissent.

Since 2009, Iran’s government has dealt with the internet with an iron fist by blocking 35 percent of the world’s most visited websites. Nevertheless, 78.5 percent of Iranians over age 18 manage to use heavily censored social media and messaging apps. Circumvention tools allow access to blocked international social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Instagram has yet to come under full censorship (though it’s currently blocked because of the protests). Not surprisingly, the photo-sharing application is where Iranians, especially youth, express themselves the most.

Countless videos and memes in the Persian language social media sphere compare the youth of the 1980s to the youth of today. Many posts highlight Iranian girls’ dress codes, particularly how girls dressed very conservatively in the obligatory all black and were expected to have obedient and meek personalities 30 years ago. Those images are contrasted with the more revealing, colorful clothes Iranian girls wear today, daring to show their curves and hair. Not surprisingly, these young women are more outspoken against authority in general.

Journalist Sayeh Isfahani explained some of this phenomenon. “Gen Z were born to parents who themselves had to fight against the previous generation for simplest of liberties: to get a chance to wear makeup or dress less ‘conservatively,’” Isfahani said. “Having that experience made millennial Iranian parents more lenient towards their kids.”

Iran’s Gen Z didn’t experience the constant threat of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles or the food shortages that plagued much of the 1980s, which coincided with Iran’s darker years that saw mass executions and arrests of dissidents and political rivals. Zoomers were just being born when Khatami became president and are too young to remember the sweeping changes in dress and public spaces under a short-lived reform movement that was quelled after a student uprising in 1999, prompted by the shutting of reformist newspaper Salam.

Additionally, Gen Z is too young to remember the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; the invasions of neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq; and the dinner conversations about whether their country, a member of the so-called axis of evil, would be the next target of the George W. Bush administration.

As Zoomers come of age, all they have been exposed to is brutal repression and systematic mismanagement and corruption. They were barely in their double digits when the 2009 Green Movement unfolded and hardly adults when the November 2019 anti-government protests, prompted by a fuel strike, resulted in security forces arresting and killing thousands of people, including at least 23 children. They’ve since witnessed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shoot down a Ukraine passenger airliner in 2020, killing all 176 people aboard—including many of the country’s brightest, who had “moved to Canada to do something bigger.”

This generation also survived a global pandemic and experienced how Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei initially denied them Western vaccines despite having the largest numbers of deaths and cases in the Middle East. Then they mostly sat on the sidelines as the clerical establishment engineered a hard-line-led government to take power, first in the 2020 parliamentary elections and then in the 2021 presidential elections.

This new generation of Iranian youth also grew up under almost two decades of punitive, broad-based economic sanctions and international isolation prompted by a nuclear program that Iranians increasingly question the merits of and have expressed opposition to publicly. For most young people, life is hard in Iran unless they have connections or wealth.

Thanks to the internet though, this generation of youth are “digital natives” and part of the globalized Gen Z in that they share many of the same interests and preferences. Like their Western counterparts, this generation has been born with information and communications technology at its fingertips, albeit with the hurdle of having to use circumvention tools, such as virtual private networks. Zoomers can illegally stream the latest season of The Mandalorian or download the latest podcast or Rap-e Farsi (“Persian rap”) song to listen on their bootleg Apple AirPods, spouting lyrics word for word while walking down the tree-lined streets or metro.

Zoomers have produced viral memes making fun of the clerical establishment, such as Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s lack of charisma, and deep fakes of hard-line former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as singer Billie Eilish performing “Bad Guy.” They’ve created viral videos pertaining to the 2020 U.S. presidential election that one would never guess were made inside Iran and formed an online army of critical voices about how an Iranian tourism initiative whitewashes the Islamic Republic.

In March 2021, audio-only app Clubhouse became popular in Iran (but has since waned). In a Persian language room, “Clerics: yes or no?” (Akhoond, na ya na?), I listened to several Iran-based teenagers, none older than age 17 or 18, turn their mics on one by one and rail against the Islamic Republic using language that would make their parents blush. When the moderator expressed concern for their safety for being so blunt, one basically responded, “So what?”

More importantly, through the internet, Gen Zers have learned not just about their country’s past but also to question things and do their own research. “They are significantly bolder compared to the previous generation. They don’t shy away from trying new things, exploring new worlds,” Isfahani said. “[Iranian youth] also have a deep sense of individualism and aversion towards anything that would intrude on their privacy or personal freedoms.”

Social media has given Zoomers the ability to see the misfortunes of their country in real time, be it through nationwide or localized protests, violent crackdowns viewed on Instagram accounts like @1500tasvir, or the disparity of wealth between themselves and regime elites through viral posts and accounts like @therichkidsoftehran.

This is confirmed by Iran-based dissident rapper Toomaj Salehi, who was arrested in 2021 for criticizing the government through his lyrics about repression, poverty, and injustice and again on Oct. 30 for reportedly supporting ongoing anti-government protests. He said this new generation is more aware of current affairs because of social media. “[The new generation is] braver because it has nothing to lose [and] more violent because it has suffered more,” Salehi said, referring to the pressure on society both economically and due to the brutal clampdown on protesters in recent years.

This is arguably in part why Khamenei, in a June speech, pushed parliament to ratify a controversial internet bill: the Regulatory System for Cyberspace Services Bill, better known as the so-called Protection Bill. In the same speech, he also called for a massive clampdown “similar to 1981”—a reference to a time when mass arrests and executions were common.

The bill criminalizes all forms of circumvention tools and would potentially force Iranians to use the National Information Network, a domestic or “halal” internet separate from the international internet used by much of the world. Internet freedom researchers and activists are reporting that the bill is already being implemented since Raisi took office in August 2021.

In July 2021, when the news initially broke about the bill being debated in parliament, Entekhab reported that internet searches for “immigration” went up. This is backed by a July study conducted by Stasis Consulting that found that almost half of Iranians surveyed between the ages of 18 and 29 wanted to leave the country. (It’s worth noting that it’s tough to conduct precise polling in the country due to the authoritarian nature of the government; however, brain drain is a real problem.)

As they interact online and watch youth in other countries live freely, particularly in the West, Iranians recognize the injustices and hypocrisy in their society as well as their wasted potential. And they do not accept that these are the living standards they must put up with. As a result, many Iranian youth feel disconnected from the geriatric clerical establishment—as apparent by the ageism memes of 95-year-old politician Ahmad Jannati, who leads Iran’s powerful vetting body, the Guardian Council, and is often referenced as a “dinosaur” or “prehistoric.”

All of this makes these youth a threat to the Islamic Republic.

In a baby blue dress shirt, a boy smiles shyly by a fountain at a heritage site. This photo of 15-year-old Ali Landi would go viral post-mortem after he rescued two older women from their burning home in southwestern Khuzestan province on Sept. 9, 2021. After spending two weeks at a hospital, Landi succumbed to third-degree burns that covered around 90 percent of his body.

In an unusual move, there was an outpouring of condolences from countless high-ranking officials, including even cabinet members in the hard-line Raisi government. Raisi compared Landi to Mohammad Hossein Fahmideh, a child soldier who martyred himself during the Iran-Iraq War by sliding under an enemy tank with a hand grenade to stop an Iraqi tank division’s advance in the besieged Iranian city of Khorramshahr—or so the legend goes.

“The story of the self-sacrifice of this national hero must be narrated in the language of art and the pen of the people—of culture and media—in a historical way so that this model teenager can inspire the future generations of the children of Islamic Iran,” Raisi said of Landi. “Undoubtedly, every Iranian is proud to have such zealous children.”

Landi’s heroism became a topic of national conversation, and the teenager was regularly described as a “national hero” and “martyr.” His “honorable deed” was said to be published in schoolbooks and written in a biography. Schools, streets, and boulevards were to be named after him in every province, and there is even an upcoming biopic.

Landi became a poster child for the Islamic Republic, albeit not by choice. Aware of how alienated young Iranians are from the theocracy, the clerical establishment has long been seeking a new kind of outreach.

In the late 2010s, the Iranian government recruited former underground rapper Amir Tataloo, who once had millions of followers on Instagram, to produce pro-regime music. Tataloo’s 2015 nationalist hit, “Energy Hastei” (“Nuclear Energy”), which celebrated the country’s inherent right to nuclear energy, was produced by the IRGC’s media arm and filmed on a frigate in the Persian Gulf just as a multilateral nuclear agreement was being signed with world powers.

During Iran’s 2017 presidential election, then-candidate Raisi met with Tataloo, whose tattooed arms contrasted with the conservative nature of the cleric now at the helm of the presidency. (Today, Tataloo is covered head to toe in tattoos and lives in exile in Turkey after he was seen smoking a joint at a concert in Tbilisi, Georgia).

In May of this year, the song “Salam Farmandeh” (“Salute Commander”) swept the country. The religious song—which pledges allegiance to Khamenei, calls for the return of the occulted Shiite Imam, and even references assassinated IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani—is widely believed to be a regime attempt at indoctrinating children to demonstrate their unquestionable loyalty to the Islamic Republic. “Salam Farmandeh” went viral with videos of Shiite youth in other countries—including in the United States—singing its lyrics in multiple languages.

“Salam Farmandeh” was created by the regime to combat growing disillusionment inside the country prompted by mismanagement, corruption, and government repression. It was also written as a counter to the viral songs of Iranian diaspora pop singers over the years, such as Sasan Yafteh (known by his stage name, Sasy). His 2019 hit single “Gentleman” was so catchy that Iranian students of all ages were filmed singing and dancing to it at schools across the country.

“Salam Farmandeh” quickly became a fixture in public spaces, with public schools even encouraging and, in some instances, forcing students to memorize the lyrics. Authorities gathered youth choirs to regularly sing the song at sports stadiums.

But then there was the other side of “Salam Farmandeh”: youth spoofing the song and, in some instances, dancing to mock its lyrics. Dislike of the song even prompted soccer fans to boo one youth choir. Thus, this pro-regime propaganda tune became a part of the battle for the hearts and minds of Iranian youth.

In June, a video of Go Skateboarding Day in the southern city of Shiraz went viral in Iran—but not because of skateboarding tricks. Rather, it was because most of the teenagers were dressed like goths or in skatecore (skater clothes), and girls exposed their dyed hair without the mandatory hijab. The viral video shocked authorities so much that they arrested five of the organizers.

Within days, dozens of conservatives came out to pray in the space where the teenagers had gathered. They chose a prayer that is specifically evoked when a calamity occurs. These children were an earthquake to the conservative’s core belief system.

A week after Go Skateboarding Day, another video went viral. This time, a teenage boy put on a chador, the tent-like garment conservative women wear, and did ollies on his skateboard. It was his way of trolling the authorities—including the conservatives that prayed for his sins to be washed away.

Separately, in August, a video of a little girl hip-hop dancing to Rap-e Farsi surrounded by a gaggle of cheering teenage girls wearing tracksuits and no hijab went viral. If it weren’t for the flag in the background, no one would have believed that the video was shot in Iran.

That video emerged at the same time a massive government crackdown was underway against women who refused to wear the mandatory hijab. An August order signed by Raisi imposed numerous new restrictions on how women’s dress in public, and authorities are reportedly going as far as using China-like surveillance technology with facial recognition software on metros to monitor who is and isn’t wearing a hijab.

Then came Amini’s death. Amini was visiting the capital with her family from western Kurdistan province. On Sept. 13, morality police arrested her for “violating” mandatory hijab rules after she exited a metro station with her brother. Amini was taken to a police station for a “reeducation” class, but within two hours, she ended up in a hospital after allegedly being brutally beaten by the morality police. Three days later, Amini died.

Outcry against Amini’s murder was swift. Before long, a protest movement, prompted by a Persian language #Mahsa_Amini, spread from the internet into the streets. At the University of Tehran, students held signs with messages such as: “I’m not a hashtag. I’m a human being,” “I don’t want to die,” and “Jina dear, you won’t die. Your name will become a symbol”—a phrase that was etched on Amini’s grave.

Then videos went viral as women, often under age 25, began removing their headscarves, burning their headscarves, and cutting their hair. Young men also joined the cause by shaving their heads on TikTok. Before long, the protests reached all 31 provinces, led by Iran’s Gen Z and with women at the forefront.

Based on the chants being heard in the streets—“Death to Khamenei,” “I will fight. I will die. I will take back Iran,” “freedom, freedom, freedom,” and “Khamenei is a murderer. His guardianship is invalid”— it was clear the concerns went beyond mandatory hijab. Protesters were saying loudly and clearly that they no longer wanted an Islamic Republic.

Zoomers begged their elders to join them in the streets: “

Hello, Iranian people. I’m [a Gen Zer]! I send this message from Tehran! People, I helplessly ask you to come to the streets and end this now. … Don’t lose this opportunity. … Let’s overthrow this criminal and murderous regime that brought despair to Iran for 43 years,” one viral audio recording went.

In a separate video, teenage girls chanted, “Our shawl, our shawl, your noose”—referring to the clerical establishment—as they burned their headscarves in a pile. In another, a teenage girl in her school uniform spray-painted #Mahsa_Amini on walls and posted signs with a protest date and time to the TikTok version of singer Tom Odell’s “Another Love,” which was used in other protest videos.

But the Gen Z anthem became “Baraye” (“For the sake of”) by Iran-based singer Shervin Hajipour, who composed its lyrics from actual tweets, which included, “for the fear of kissing a lover on the street” and “for freedom.” The needs and wants of the protesters were as simple as that but threatening enough for authorities to arrest Hajipour on Sept. 29. (He was released on bail on Oct. 4.) Since then, Iranian Zoomers have defiantly sung the song in public spaces, including school yards, and blasted its lyrics from their cars.

According to the group Human Rights Activists in Iran, security forces have arrested over 14,000 people and killed at least 287 people. The group told Foreign Policy on Oct. 31 that of the 121 people whose names and ages they have been able to confirm, the average age was 23 years old, with 39 people under age 18.

One of those individuals shot to death by security forces was 23-year-old Hadis Najafi, a TikTok star who regularly posted lip-syncing dance videos and uploaded them onto her Instagram account. Since her death, Najafi’s Instagram account has grown from several thousand followers to over 82,000 followers and is full of condolence messages. “May your soul be happy, brave girl,” Iranian users write on her posts.

Another protester, 16-year-old Sarina Esmailzadeh, was beaten to death by security forces using batons. She used YouTube to log her feelings about living under the Islamic Republic, including the prohibitions women face daily, and compared her life to those who are better off in the West, even posting a video of herself singing along to Irish musician Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” while in her family’s car—all which have gone viral since her killing (especially now that authorities are covering it up by claiming she died by suicide).

These girls are the very essence of this Gen Z-led protest movement. Zoomers know full well that in the streets await not just batons but bullets, and they’re willing to take that risk out of desperation because they want to live ordinary lives.

Many older Iranians recognize the role of Gen Z in the current protests and are giving them credit. “For the courage of the 80s decade,” read one tweet. Another said: “I am speechless because of all this courage. I swear to God, Iran has never seen a generation with such courage. From now on, whoever speaks against [Gen Z], I will slap them in the face.”

“[Gen Z] are the same people who saw the protests and killings of [2009] as a child … and November 2019 in their teens and are now sending a million tweets about their sister #MahsaAmini in half an hour. Be afraid of this generation,” wrote another.

Since the school year began in late September, countless videos have circulated on social media showing defiant Gen Zers tearing down and defacing photos of Khomeini and Khamenei, chanting an array of anti-government slogans, and even telling a member of the Basij, a volunteer paramilitary, to “get lost.” This prompted security forces to raid some schools and arrest children to be taken to what the country’s education minister described as “psychological institutions.”

At one high school, when students refused to sing “Salam Farmandeh,” many were beaten by security forces, including 16-year-old Asra Panahi, who died of her injuries on Oct. 13. Fearless and defiant, the crackdown hasn’t even stopped elementary schoolers—Generation Alpha—from chanting the battle cry: “Women, life, liberty.”

It’s not clear what will happen next in Iran, but this is no longer the Iran that used to be. As Isfahani explained: “This generation is going to change Iran. They simply don’t put up with what my generation stomached in silence.”

This is exactly what one Tehran-based Gen Z protester, a 22-year-old named Sarah who asked to be identified only be her first name for security reasons, told Foreign Policy:

“I wish I knew the source of the bravery we are witnessing, but I think that it just comes from the heart of those of us who’ve had enough! … This is just the beginning of change in our world.”

The clerical establishment seems to recognize this. This year, Sobh-e-Sadegh, an IRGC-affiliated weekly magazine, warned of the threat Zoomers pose to the nezam (meaning “system”). The article noted that by studying their online behavior, it is clear “governing this generation will not be as easy as previous generations. Because this generation, unlike the previous generations, has a mainly protesting nature towards the current situation”—referring to the status quo.

Every generation seeks to differentiate itself from the generations before it. However, there’s been a pronounced mood shift in the past few years. Whereas the most punitive multilateral sanctions regime imposed under the Obama administration prompted Iranians to direct much of their anger at the U.S. government, U.S. sanctions reimposed by the Trump administration after the 2018 U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal—despite Iran not violating the deal—and continued by the Biden administration have Iranians directing much of their anger at their own leadership.

As one Iranian who asked to remain anonymous given security concerns told Foreign Policy, “sanctions and the government are the same in terms of their economic impact,” referring to the government’s mismanagement and corruption. Efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear accord remain in limbo. But even with a revived nuclear deal, many Iranians are aware that sanctions relief would be merely a temporary Band-Aid and would not fundamentally improve the economy.

Although there was always a sense of despair on the ground—67 percent of Iranians reportedly suffer from depression—the last few years have destroyed what little hope Iranians have for any sort of internal change or reform. This is reflected in the chants of protesters—such as “Reformists, hard-liners, the game is now over!”—that have become normalized over the past several years.

Some Iranians hoped that former U.S. President Donald Trump would win a second term and that his so-called maximum pressure policy would somehow lead the Islamic Republic to collapse—or at least change its behavior. This view was echoed by Faezeh Hashemi, the firebrand daughter of former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Hashemi surprised many people when, during an interview with Iranian outlet Ensaf News in early 2021, she said:

“Maybe if Trump’s pressure would have continued, we would have been forced to have change in some policies. And the change would have definitely benefited the people.” (She was arrested on Sept. 27 for allegedly “inciting rioters” in Tehran.)

Her comments spoke to the sense of desperation many Iranians, especially youth, feel. That sense of gloom with no hope for reform is reflected in the angry lyrics of rapper Salehi’s music, such as his song “Normal.” In it, Salehi sarcastically rattles about how “life is normal” but then breaks down all the ways in which it is not—such as how some Iranians sleep in empty graves because they’re homeless while others own 10 high-rises. “People are only alive. They don’t live,” Salehi said.

“Hate is a bad thing, but society is suffering from hatred, not only of the regime. People are becoming violent, impatient, tired, and depressed.”

With a rise in repression and further tightening of controls, the selection of a hard-line government, and a rotten economy that benefits only the well-connected elite, the clerical establishment is telling Iranian youth that their lives don’t matter.

That leaves Iran’s youth with two options: Leave the country, or rise up.

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