Iranians were hopeful when President Hassan Rouhani’s administration came into office. But two years into the government’s term, many civil society organizations have yet to see a change in their situation. Moreover, some have even received treatment similar to that experienced under the previous administration of Principlist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association (ITTA) is one of these organizations. After having staged continuous rallies to voice its demands for improved conditions, ITTA and its members have received nothing but rough treatment at the hands of the authorities.
ITTA member Mehdi Bohlouli told Al-Monitor, “The teachers’ main demands are related to both their financial situation as well as status. These teachers are unhappy with the state of their livelihoods — their salaries and wages — as well as their social and work conditions, which unfortunately have drastically declined in recent years. Even in the Ahmadinejad era [2005-13], when a certain security atmosphere prevailed over the country, ITTA issued annual statements and wrote letters each year to request that its demands be met.” Bohlouli added that things appeared to be changing when the new government came into power: “The atmosphere seemed to open up, creating hope among teachers that they would now be able to voice their objections more openly, as they had done in 2006 and the years before that, and not be faced with security measures.”
When asked to expand on his assertion that Iranian teachers have demands related to their status, Bohlouli said, “In Iran’s centralized education system, the teacher has no authority. Based on available education guidelines, the teacher has to be effective in decisions regarding all educational matters, while in reality, they are allowed to only play a minimal role.” He added, “If the teachers’ discontent is heard and given a proper response, it would benefit all of society. In my opinion, as a teacher who has worked in Iran’s education system for 24 years, today’s society is being harmed by the ineffective education system.”
The current wave of teacher-led protests in Iran first began last winter. In addition to their usual demands, teachers are also criticizing salaries set out in the budget for the current Iranian year, which began March 21 and will end March 20, 2016. Bohlouli told Al-Monitor, “The first nationwide teacher rallies took place in the month of Dey [Dec. 22, 2014-Jan. 20, 2015]. These were spontaneous demonstrations, and although ITTA accompanied the teachers, it was not at the forefront. The cause of these protests was the teachers’ realization that the Rouhani administration had in no way prioritized the Ministry of Education when planning the budget.”
Bohlouli emphasized that teachers are deeply unhappy with their financial situation: “We wanted a bigger share allocated to education. Now, the government claims it has allocated a 1,350 billion toman budget for us [$397 million at open market rate], which will be put in force from September. Up until now, our salaries have only been raised in line with the official inflation rate in accordance with the country’s civil service law, and no more.”
In the first month of the current Iranian year, teachers saw a significant portion of their salaries deducted under legal pretexts, leading them to take to the streets. In the western city of Marivan, protesting teachers issued a joint statement with several labor syndicates on International Workers Day and stressed unity between laborers and teachers. They also described the minimum wage specified by the government as “the imposition of a gradual death on millions of workers.”
On May 7, teachers held a protest rally in front of parliament in Tehran as well as in other cities. In their concluding statement, which was read in front of parliament and simultaneously in other cities, they once again stated their demands and defended their legal right to pursue them.
The teacher activism has not been left unnoticed by Iranian security bodies. The summoning and threatening of ITTA activists began days before the protests in May. On June 27, ITTA’s secretary-general, Esmail Abdi, was arrested after being summoned to Evin prison. His current condition remains unknown. Bohlouli said, “More than 45 days have passed since his arrest, but we still don’t know what the charges against him are.”
Abdi’s arrest suggests that the authorities have no intention to meet teacher demands and are instead opting to crush the movement through security measures. On July 22, teachers held another rally in front of parliament to protest the continued detention of ITTA activists. In response, a number of protesting teachers were arrested, although all were released soon afterward. Bohlouli said, “In the view of the authorities, any type of gathering in front of parliament is illegal and warrants security measures.” He further suggested that the crackdown was unexpected: “Fewer security measures had been taken [under this administration] prior to July 22 than under previous governments, which is why the teachers did not anticipate such treatment.”
The stepping up of teacher-led protests since Rouhani took office indicates two parallel developments. On the one hand, pent-up civil society demands are beginning to spill out in the open. On the other hand, the Rouhani administration’s right-wing economic policies, which have targeted the interests of many low-income segments of society, are causing a backlash.
Bohlouli said, “From my point of view, the Ministry of Education has two problems. First, none of the governments in the Islamic Republic have given it priority. Second, whenever either of the two political wings in the administration talk of improving the state of the Ministry of Education, they have privatization in mind. In fact, no matter who is in office, whether the right wing or the left wing, they have a common view when it comes to education — the people should bear the responsibility for its costs and expenses. The current minister of education recently said that the number of educators should be reduced from 1 million people to 750,000. I do not believe that privatization is the key to improving our education system. In this regard, we see no difference between the Rouhani or Ahmadinejad administrations.”
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