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Iranian religious fanatics have picked a new archenemy: Noura Daei, the 13-year-old daughter of former Bayern Munich forward Ali Daei. The hardliners were outraged by a video in which the teenager appeared without a headscarf. Citing Sharia law, ultra-religious politicians are demanding punishment for the girl, her father, and the author of the video. Despite the widespread protests of 2022, which were directed specifically against the mandatory wearing of the hijab, Muslim radicals are playing an increasingly prominent role in Iranian society. Education is the most problematic field: as schools recruit theologians instead of secular teachers, growing numbers of teenagers are simply choosing to drop out.

  • All are equal before the Shariah. But some are more equal than others

  • Echoes of the protests

  • The age of new radicalism

  • An education reform promoting “Iranian spirituality”


All are equal before the Shariah. But some are more equal than others

Ali Daei ended his athletic career back in 2007, but he remains a celebrity at home in Iran. To date, Daei ranks second only to Cristiano Ronaldo in the number of goals scored for his national team, and he remains the country’s popular soccer player, frequently appearing on television to comment on high-profile sporting events.

In February, a camera crew from the online show Football 360 was filming at Daei's home. During the shoot, his daughter entered the room, hugged her father, and exchanged a few warm phrases with him. The show's host, sports journalist and an old friend of the family Ardel Ferdosipour, was moved by the scene and stroked the girl's hair.

Noura Daei and Ali Daei
Noura Daei and Ali Daei

When the show aired, it attracted the attention not only of soccer fans but also religious zealots. Multiple posts appeared on X <formerly Twitter - The Insider> and other social networks denouncing such behavior as unacceptable. The soccer player, his daughter, and the journalist were accused of violating Iranian laws, which prohibit girls over the age of nine from appearing in public without a hijab and men from touching women who are not related to them. The indignant users demanded immediate legal consequences for everyone in the video, marveling at the fact that the prosecutor's office and courts had not yet taken action.

Echoes of the protests

Iranian authorities may realize that harassing the Daei family or journalist Ferdosipour could backfire on them. Ali Daei supported the anti-government protests of 2022 but refrained from making any direct calls against the authorities. With millions of followers on social media, Daei is a powerful influencer in his home country, so the central government has been reluctant to put too much pressure on him, lest they provoke his millions of fans. The same is true of Ardel Ferdosipur, a wayward journalist who has long displeased the authorities with his liberal stance. His popularity among Iranians is so great that the authorities have only dared to go as far as to dismiss him from television, while letting him keep his online audience.

Repression against such prominent figures could reinvigorate the now-dormant protests, which the authorities suppressed at the cost of immense bloodshed. According to human rights activists, by September 2023, which marked one year of anti-government unrest, at least 551 protesters had been killed and roughly 20,000 arrested. The United Nations also links last year's record number of executions in Iran (at least 834) to the government's desire to demonstrate to dissenters the seriousness of Tehran’s intentions.

According to the UN, at least 834 people were executed in Iran in 2023

The protests, which provoked a wave of violence from the authorities, were triggered by the hijab issue itself. In September 2022, vice police detained 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for wearing her headscarf improperly; a few days later, the girl died in custody. Authorities named a vague chronic illness as the cause of her death, but many in Iran are convinced she died from the beating she suffered at the hands of the police. As a result, thousands of protests against the policies of the central government swept the country.

A protest after the death of Mahsa Amini
A protest after the death of Mahsa Amini

Radicals believe that it is not violence, but rather leniency towards the likes of Daei, that could spark the next wave of protests. The websites of the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability — a far-right parliamentary alliance also known as The Persevering Front — have called for the immediate prosecution of the Daei family and of journalist Ferdosipour. The alliance condemns the selective approach of the judiciary, which tends to overlook wrongdoing by prominent figures, and insists that the lack of reprisal against the daughter and her former footballer father could “enrage the general public and infuriate the faithful.”

The age of new radicalism

The Persevering Front has brought together the most radical supporters of the Islamic Revolution. Deputies from this association hold 23 of the 290 seats in the Iranian Consultative Assembly. Despite their relatively small numbers, radicals who advocate the strictest possible adherence to religious doctrines have considerable influence. For one, Persevering Front deputies got the parliament to adopt a ban on tombstones with portraits of deceased women without hijab. Cemeteries have been ordered not only to prevent new headstones with offending images but also to demolish existing ones.

The cemetery initiatives were the authorities' response to the mass protests. At first, Tehran appeared willing to make concessions to the protesters and even hinted at the possibility of disbanding the vice police, which are hated by many in society; however, those in power soon abandoned the idea of this liberal act, instead tightening the screws even further. As far as Iranian radical policies go, the demolition of offending tombstones can be considered comparatively mild.

As Amnesty International reports, thousands of female high school students from more than 100 schools — and recall that it was teenage girls who formed the core of protests in many Iranian cities — were hospitalized with symptoms of poisoning by an unknown substance. Human rights activists are convinced that the mass poisonings were organized by the authorities with the singular aim of intimidating the girls, or at least putting them in hospitals to prevent them from participating in demonstrations. Meanwhile, officials maintained that most of those admitted to hospitals with symptoms of poisoning had in fact been overworked, stressed, or were simply going through a difficult period in life.

Thousands of female high school students from more than 100 schools have been hospitalized with symptoms of poisoning by an unknown substance

An education reform promoting “Iranian spirituality”

As a hotbed of protest sentiments, schools are at the forefront of the minds of conservative politicians and the religious fanatics who support them. Along with high school and university students, their teachers and professors often became the driving force of the anti-government movement. At the height of the protests, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, met with Iranian teachers and instructed them on how to respond to dissent among students.

Among other things, the aged theologian reinforced the need to reform the education system. The reforms indeed began shortly thereafter, and they certainly did go in the direction called for by protesting educators and students. Instead, teachers suspected of disloyalty to the government began to be dismissed or forced into early retirement, and new teachers had to undergo extensive ideological training before they could begin work.

As a result, Iran began the current school year with a shortage of approximately 200,000 teachers. The government decided to make up for the shortage of teachers by engaging its most loyal following: 7,000 schools across the country got graduates of Shiite clerical seminaries as their new principals and instructors. Aside from teaching regular school subjects, the new staff has also been tasked with nurturing “traditional Iranian spirituality” in their students.

The new teaching staff has been tasked with nurturing “traditional Iranian spirituality” in their students

Iran's Ministry of Education has approved a targeted educational program that encourages schools to employ more theologians. As a result, over 20,000 recent seminarians have been placed in school classrooms. Even Iran's official media have questioned the appropriateness of this approach.

Moderate Iranian journalists point out that theologians struggle to establish contact with students, making them feel alienated and therefore more susceptible to the allure of the radical opposition. However, the theocratic regime, which perceives any protest against its rule as an attempt to undermine the divine order and which has shown itself unwilling to make even small concessions to secular society, sees no alternative to making the system of school and university education increasingly religious. After all, Russian president Vladimir Putin's proposal to open Russian schools in Iran is hardly a viable option.

Vladimir Putin and Ali Khamenei, 2022
Vladimir Putin and Ali Khamenei, 2022

Admittedly, the Iranian and Russian school curriculums have a lot in common — as do the two allied authoritarian aggressor states — but they are far from being identical. Not even Russia’s former minister of culture, sycophantic quasi-historian Vladimir Medinsky could succeed in writing a textbook that would satisfy both his boss’s delusions about the glorious Varangian past and Iranian ayatollahs’ fixation on Shiite mysticism, along with the Iranian rulers’ approach to school education as a path to true religious faith.

Coupled with the exacerbating poverty and uncertain prospects facing many Iranians, the replacement of professional teachers with theologians who lack pedagogical skills and education is causing more and more students to leave the classroom before graduation. In 2015-2016, less than 1% of Iranian school students did not complete their education; today’s dropout rate, however, borders on 5.5%.

Replacing professional teachers with theologians results in more students leaving the classroom before graduation

In the last two years alone, Iran has produced some 3 million school dropouts. The opposition blames the authorities, who appear to be more preoccupied with confronting Israel and the West than with creating a modern, competitive economy in which education is a serious priority.

In today's Iran, education does not guarantee a prosperous future. Many teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds leave school and take up unskilled jobs because neither they nor their parents believe that a certificate from a theological school improves their chances of employment. Statistics prove them right: one in ten Iranian men and one in five women with higher education are unemployed due to the economic stagnation brought about by international sanctions, which in turn were brought about by the Ayatollahs’ actions in power.

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