Iraq’s students turn out in numbers to back mass rallies

Despite an order from the prime minister to stay in class, thousands of young people are taking to the streets

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“The people are tired and there have been so many martyrs, so we came to take our rights,” said Kawthar Hussein, 18, a pupil at Adaya Al Kanaat high school.

Kawthar was one of the thousands of young people attending elementary schools, high schools and universities who formed a sea of white uniforms in squares across Iraq as they came out to join the third day of the country's protests.

“We came to demand a better future, not just for our generation, but for the generations to come,” she said. “We’ve had enough of this class that does not rule with justice, but with corruption.”

Despite days of deadly protests, the government ordered schools and universities to operate normally. Education Minister and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi warned students to remain in class.

But on Tuesday, they walked out – wearing their uniforms – and occupied local squares in defiance of government orders.

“Why does he [Mr Mahdi] want to stop us from exercising a constitutional right,” asked Kawthar. “This is not against the law. Quite the opposite, it’s our constitutional right ...When we get our rights, then we’ll return to school.”

Like many of her generation, Kawthar said she feels that they have no future under the current government. Around 25 per cent of Iraq's young people are unemployed and one in five people live below the poverty line, despite the country's massive oil wealth.

“The students from Iraqi universities and high schools left to join the Iraqi uprising because of the complete corruption of the country... an entire generation has collapsed,” said Ali Sheraty, the secretary of the Iraqi Students' Union. “An entire generation of graduates go from university to unemployment without any chance of finding work.”

Nearly a million young Iraqis enter the workforce every year and for decades the main employer was government departments, leaving a bloated and inefficient public sector.

“We don’t have any opportunities,” says Nour Hassoun, a dentistry student at Baghdad University. “At the very least we need work. You have to be an engineer or medical student, and even then, it’s rare to work. You can’t do anything you want to do. You have to take other careers; we can’t think of art.”

Iraq has a young population – 60 per cent are under the age of 25. Young people have come out in force to lead the mass protests, now in their second wave, that have left 250 dead and over 1,000 wounded since October. The military admitted to using excessive force in the first round of rallies earlier this month, but more have been killed in recent days.

The students organise on social media.

On Monday, Ali and others from the union set up a tent in Tahrir Square, the centre of the protests in Baghdad. The space, they say, provides students with a meeting and gathering point throughout the day. Ali and others emphasised that although the Students' Union supports the protests, the sit-in and strikes are leaderless.

“Every school organised themselves and came. There were sit-ins that came in front of the school,” said Amany Khaled, 21, a student at Israa University in the capital.

“We organised on social media. We decided through groups that we would meet in ‘x’ place and do that thing. Then there were groups that decided for more than one school. But there’s no leader.”

She added that the strikes provided a chance for female students to come out in large numbers, despite social stigmas against women going out to potentially dangerous places.

“Four or five universities came and the majority of them were girls,” she said. She believed that because men and women were mixing in the crowds in Tahrir, this mentality has already begun to change. “They see the majority of the girls standing with them and going out with them. So it begins to change the idea that this is wrong and shouldn’t happen.”

Ms Khaled said that her parents were proud that she was going to protests, but added with a smile that she didn’t tell them she was going to dangerous places like the centre of Tahrir Square where people have been killed and wounded.

The protests have been marked by violence from the authorities and Iran-backed militias who have opened fire on protesters and fired tear-gas. Two soldiers were filmed beating students with batons in Baghdad, an act that was later criticised by the Defence Ministry.

Despite the risks, students have vowed to continue protesting until the government changes. “We’ll continue until Abdel Mahdi leaves Iraq and the government falls,” Minar Al Hudaa, 18, a high-school student, said with a smile.

As she left the square for the night, she vowed to return again tomorrow.