Iran´s population has more than doubled since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, as contraception was outlawed and large families were encouraged by the new religous leaders. Until the mid 1980s, an average Iranian woman gave birth to between six and seven children. Yes, that means there are a lot of young people living in Iran today. Over 60% of the population is under 30 years.

Young population: Age pyramid of Iran. Graphic: Viableopposition (25. November 2013)
Young population: Age pyramid of Iran. Graphic: Viableopposition (25. November 2013)

This young generation will inevitably change the face of the Islamic Republic. As the US agreed to remove the harsh economic sanctions on Iran, the new generation won´t be trapped by the geopolitical crisis that predated their parent´s ambitions anymore.

Due to recent technological innovations they will furthermore be connected more closely to the outside world. They won´t start a second revolution, but they will eventually change the Islamic Republic from the inside. Admittedly, the government tries to isolate its youth by blocking social media channels such as facebook and youtube, but vpn-clients are widely spread – and even the state´s own telecom provider has started selling circumvention software. In order to find out more about the chances and the challenges of Iran´s young generation, THE AUSLANDSCHWEIZER met up with pupils and students from Amol and talked with them about how they envision their future in the Islamic Republic.

Off to Amol

After a short stay in Tehran, I followed the couchsurfing invitation of Assad, a 33-years old psychotherapist and school counsellor, who lives with his mother and sister in Amol at the Caspian Sea. I was excited to leave this juggernaut of a city, a humongous beton jungle whose relentless carbon dioxine emissions made my head dizzy during the past few days. However, it areated quickly as I headed up north through the majestetic Albaroz mountain range which contains not only loads of fresh air but also a fortune of minerals.

Assad organised a Q&A with the peculiar visitor from Switzerland for the pupils of the primary boys school where he is working as a counsellor.

Children are the future

However, it was not only a rare chance for the kids to interact with a stranger, it was also a great opportunity for me to find out more about the future of Iran. The principal invited me for a cup of tea with his teachers, and we talked about how the Iranian educational system is organized. Since most of the schools are private, the parents need to save a great deal of their income for buying the access to the education of their kids. The schools usually separate the girls from the boys (as most universities do too), making it hard for boys and girls to meet each other. After we finished the tea it was time for me to visit the boys.

Iran´s future: Schoolboys from Amol. Picture: Philippe Stalder (November 2015)
Iran´s future: Schoolboys from Amol. Picture: Philippe Stalder (November 2015)

Inquisitive eyes were watching me from all directions as I entered the class room. The boys were very open, welcoming and interested in the stranger. It seemed that they have not met many Europeans in their lifes and they were so excited that they asked many questions at the same time.

“What do you think about Iran?”

The first thing all of them wanted to know was how I like Iran and why I decided to come here. They were looking at me with very big eyes when I explained that I travelled from Switzerland to Amol by bus and train and that I plan to continue until Indonesia. However, they were very happy to hear that I liked their country. The second thing they wanted to know was which football team I am supporting. They seemed a bit dissatisfied with my answer since they didn´t know my local team FC Zurich, but they were happy when I told them that Barca is my favourite international team, although there were some Ronaldo fans in the room.

Iran´s future: The teacher, THE AUSLANDSCHWEIZER, Assad and the class. Picture: Philippe Stalder (November 2015)
Q&A with a stranger: The teacher, THE AUSLANDSCHWEIZER, Assad and the class. Picture: Philippe Stalder (November 2015)

When it was my turn to ask questions, I wanted to know what they would like to become when they grow up. Their answers were very diverse:

“Policemen, Doctor, Footballplayer, Lawyer, Firefighter, Astronaut, Dancer.”

Turned out that the dreams of Iranian boys are no different from any other country. After the Q&A the teacher talked about different religions and explained that I come from a Christian country. The boys were very surprised that I am not a Muslim. I told them that although we have a growing Muslim population in Switzerland my parents descend from a Christian family. The boys started joking about me not being able to marry one of the many beautiful Iranian girls and the whole room was laughing – including the female teacher. When we headed to the schoolyard, the news about the peculiar foreigner spreaded fast. Mayhem broke out as all the boys wanted to talk to me, touch my hair and shake my hand. Some of them went and organised milk for me. The behaviour of the pupils indicates that they are already concerned about the image of their country and at the same time very much open to interact with and learn about the outside world. And needless to say, like all Iranians, they are already very hospitable.

Trapped in the system

I was wide-awake after the Q&A with the boys, so I decided to go down to the beach of the Caspian Sea. This is where I met Ali and Sahar, two students from Isfahan who moved to Amol to study architecture. As they showed me around the beach we started to talk about their career aspirations.

Beachlife: Caspian Sea, Iran. Picture: Philippe Stalder (2015)
Beachlife: Caspian Sea, Iran. Picture: Philippe Stalder (2015)

Ali would love to leave Iran and work in the US, but since he didn´t do his military service yet, he is not allowed to apply for a passport. “Not having a passport is the major limitation in my life”, Ali explained in a regretful tone, “in this way, the government prevents its young people from emigrating and even travel.” Sahar on the other hand told me that she doesn´t want to emigrate, although she owns a passport:

“I prefer security to freedom.”

Sahar explained that her career opportunities might be limited in Iran, but at least she knows that she can make a decent living with her job here. “And Iran is the only stable country in the region,” she added. Later that day Ali told me that Sahar tried to apply for a student exchange programme two years ago, but her application got rejected twice – due to the very hard criteria that Iranian students need to fulfill in the EU.

Off to a better future

From the conversations I had with pupils and students from Amol I learned that Iran´s youth is pretty much interested to engage with the outside world. However, there are still severe limitations that isolate their aspirations. But with the lifting of the sanctions many things could improve in the near future. The question is, whether the young majority of the population will be able to push for change at home, and whether the West will be able to overcome its mostly unfunded prejudice against the Iranian people and ease the visa and student exchange requirements. Then, inshallah, Iran´s youth will be off to a better future.