In Iran, a Lost Generation Raises its Voice

Saddled with the effects of the 1979 upheaval, Iran’s “children of the revolution” have expressed their rebellion through both destructive and creative means.

University students in Iran. Julia Maudlin. CC BY 2.0

University students in Iran. Julia Maudlin. CC BY 2.0

Iran’s younger generation has faced an uncomfortable paradox: While they were born after the massive cultural and political revolutions that redefined their country beginning in 1979, they nevertheless have to grapple with its less-than-favorable results. Over the past decade, Iranians at home and abroad in the United States have faced internal turmoil and external oppression—and with unrest once again brewing between America and the Middle East, upheaval threatens to return in full force.

Forty years ago, in 1979, the revolutionary period began when Iran’s Islamic Republic seized power from Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Led by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamists aimed to do away with the Westernized era of the Shah, and reinstate traditional religious principles. “We must root out immorality from our society,” announced the Ayatollah two weeks after his arrival in Tehran. “We shall purify the entire press, the radio, the television, the cinemas, the schools and the universities.”

In the ensuing years, Iran transformed into what Qantara—a German website seeking to promote dialogue with the Islamic world—calls “Neither East nor West, but an Islamic republic.” Vigilantes claiming to be “Followers of the Party of God” (“Ansar-e Hezbollah”) blacklisted liberal newspapers and torched publishing houses and bookshops. The Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution disseminated instructions to educators at all levels of the school system, ordering them to ensure their curricula aligned with the tenets of Islam. Further, the revolution adopted distinctly anti-American rhetoric, decrying the United States’ profiting from Iranian oil and thwarting of democratic movements for the past quarter-century.

Not every regime that has come to power since 1979, however, has enforced strict regulations on the lives of its constituents. Between 1997 and 2005, reformist leader Mohammad Khatami ushered in the “Tehran spring,” a period of political liberalization and relaxation of the harsh rules governing citizen behavior. Yet Khatami largely failed to live up to his promises of freedom, democracy, transparency, and reform, even when the reformers gained power in Parliament. Particularly traumatic for the Iranian people were the events of summer 1999, when gangs of thugs killed one student and injured many others during an attack on a Tehran University resident hall. When the students defended themselves, Khatami refused to support them, prompting many students and young people to distance themselves from the pro-democracy movement. And with the election of religious hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2005, even the perfunctory reforms enacted by Khatami lost their potency.

In recent years, Iran’s overwhelmingly youthful population—60 percent of its 70 million citizens were under 30 as of 2009—is placed in an uncomfortable position with respect to its country’s tumultuous past. This cohort did not experience the revolution directly, or experience the rule of the Shah, or fight in Iran’s battle with Iraq—yet they have experienced the aftermath of the 1979 upheaval and have grown up steeped in what The Economist calls “Iran’s strange blend of theocracy and democracy.”

This group of younger citizens was dubbed “the children of the revolution” by the mullah leadership that took control of the government after the 1979 student-led takeover of the American embassy. Having never known a world other than the one controlled by Islamists, they are branded with this label regardless of their own views on the massive cultural shifts that defined their childhoods. Their education was marked by intense ideological indoctrination, and among those who came of age in the 1980s, the principle of jihad and martyrdom against enemy forces in Iraq was often embraced.

A young woman in Gorgan, Iran. Soudeh Rad. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A young woman in Gorgan, Iran. Soudeh Rad. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In the following decades, young people were profoundly affected by the economic failures of the Iranian government: Although citizens are generally extremely well-educated and literate, job prospects have historically been grim, with rampant inflation and unemployment disproportionately affecting the young. The population spike following the revolution only made matters worse, as it encouraged rapid urbanization and an increasingly slim job market. With a job shortage, a lack of leisure and entertainment facilities, and discouraging prospects for the future, many young people experienced crippling apathy. In the mid-2010s, Qantara described dangerous levels of drug addiction among Iranian youth and an insurmountable rift between younger generations and ruling clerics. Overall, asserts Qantara, the children of the revolution yearn to live in freedom—to develop their talents and ideologies according to their personal desires and morals rather than under the aegis of spiritual leaders.

Yet despite widespread disaffection, young people are stymied by their complex relationships to their own country and its leadership. Many young Iranians still hold religion in high regard, and do not wish to transform Iran into a secular country; rather, they would prefer Islam to be eliminated from the public sphere and kept within their private lives. Further, despite the failings of their government, younger generations maintain a strong sense of national pride, and would still protect their leaders if faced with outside interference or attack.

Today, blame has shifted slightly among some citizens, targeting the theocracy rather than the elected executive class. Writing for The Economic Times of India in 2019, Abhijit Iyer-Mitra notes that lower-class rural voters are beginning to turn against the same religious leaders who have long supported them, but that their lack of independent leaders and means of mass mobilization effectively limits the harm they can do to the established order.

Meanwhile, Iranians living in America face unique challenges and often have complicated feelings about their native country. Virginia-based magazine AltDaily notes that the 2009 elections, which reinstated Ahmadinejad as Iran’s president, placed the country’s power structure and governance at the center of American dialogue. Writing 10 years later, in May 2019, Shervin Malekzadeh—who left Iran as a baby in 1978—describes the revolution as transforming Iran “from an exotic and ancient civilization” in the international eye “into something ominous.” Malekzadeh describes demonization of Iranians as religious fanatics, and feelings of pressure to present the “correct” narrative to Americans about a country that, to him, was largely an enigma.

Young men in Qazvin, Iran. Kamyar Adl. CC BY 2.0

Young men in Qazvin, Iran. Kamyar Adl. CC BY 2.0

In a piece for the Asian American news and culture magazine Hyphen, Iranian American writer Manijeh Nasrabadi notes hesitation to identify as Iranian among children of the diaspora: The 2000 US census indicated slightly more than 500,000 people of Iranian birth and descent living in America, but diaspora organizations place that number between 600,000 and 1 million. Nasrabadi points to negative treatment of immigrant groups by Americans, exacerbated by the 1979 upheaval and its anti–US rhetoric. Yet xenophobic attitudes—especially after 9/11, when Americans grew ravenous for knowledge of little-known, “threatening” parts of the world—have paradoxically offered a new outlet for Iranian American expression: writing. In the mid-2000s, memoirs by writers who came of age in Iran, such as Reading Lolita in Tehran, achieved mainstream success, and helped make a name for Iranian American literature as a distinct creative category.

“We have all faced a daunting challenge,” Nasrabadi writes, “how to grapple with a violent revolutionary legacy while inhabiting an America that abhors Iran and yet constitutes our home.” Now, with US tensions against Iran once again ramping up, and President Trump invoking bellicose threats as he deploys a military presence to the Persian Gulf, Iranian youth both in the Middle East and in America may once again face profound trauma as their native country grows embroiled in international turmoil. Perhaps this time, rather than channeling their frustrations into public disturbance, the younger generation will go the way of Nasrabadi and Malekzadeh, and express their disaffection through creative means—in the process, acquainting the international community with the unique concerns of the children of the revolution.

TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.