Baghdad, Iraq – Tiba says she decided to boycott her university classes the moment she learned that her friend Amer had been killed during clashes with Iraqi security forces.
The pair first met in October in Tahrir Square, the capital’s main site for anti-government demonstrations which have continued for two months. Amer told her that he was protesting on behalf of his brother, who had died in clashes with security forces. Days later, Tiba received news that her new friend had joined a growing list of Iraqi lives cut short during the protests.
“When I saw his picture among the martyrs, I knew I had to do something for my country,” said Tiba, a 23-year-old engineering student at Baghdad University. “The best thing I could do was go on strike,” she added.
For two months, protesters have taken to the streets in Baghdad and towns and cities across the mostly Shia south to demand jobs, basic services and an end to corruption. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has since quit and now leads a caretaker government with limited powers, but the grassroots movement wants a complete overhaul of the political system before new elections are held. More than 400 people have been killed and thousands of others wounded in clashes with security forces.
Since October 25, university and school students across Baghdad and Iraq’s south have defied the government and gone on strike to support protesters’ demands.
The students believe the walkout is a potent tool to pressure politicians to act on the protesters’ demands.
“If we keep it up, the government will have to respond,” says Tiba. “Our university campuses have been literally empty for weeks. This can’t go on forever.”
For Hussein, an 18-year-old medical student at the University of Mustansiriya, taking part in the protests is his only hope for a better future.
“There are barely any jobs out there, even if you’re a university graduate,” he told Al Jazeera. “So, what’s the point of going to class now and then being unemployed a few years later.”
Instead of attending university, Hussein helps organise weekly rallies at the ministry of education, attends the protests at Tahrir Square and participates in campaigns to encourage the sale of local products.
“We do everything from cleaning the streets and painting the walls in Tahrir to holding protests at our university gates to encourage people to join in,” he said, adding that the strikes would continue despite the prime minister’s decision to step down.
“Abdul Mahdi’s resignation means nothing. He’s just a tool in the hands of the corrupt political parties,” said Hussein.
“We’re continuing our strike until the electoral law changes. Unless that happens, our main ask for a complete overhaul of the political system can’t be achieved.”
While university students say the ministry of education has done little to force them back to classes, university professors say strong measures have been taken against faculty members who choose to go on strike.
According to Fayez Abdel Hamid, who teaches medicine at the University of Baghdad, Iraq’s public universities received communication from the ministry of education to ensure staff were attending their jobs.
“Deans were given orders to pass on the names of professors who have been on strike and to deduct money from their salaries as punishment,” he said.
Zaid Shafik, an IT professor at al-Nahrain University, says while he has been forced by his university to prove his attendance, he continues to join the protests.
“After I sign the register in the morning, I head to Tahrir with the students,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s our right to protest, and we’ll continue to do so no matter the measures taken against us.”
Dhamiaa al-Rubaei, spokesperson for the ministry of education, said students and teachers had been given space to protest.
“We’ve only been encouraging students to attend classes for the sake of their own futures,” she told Al Jazeera.
“With regards to lecturers, they have been mostly attending their classes even if some support students on strike.”
Most of those boycotting classes have been university-level students but school teachers and students have also taken part.
After the Iraqi teachers’ syndicate called for a nationwide strike from October 28 to November 7 to mark the beginning of school walkouts, most schools in Baghdad and Iraq’s southern provinces shut their doors, according to the syndicate’s secretary-general Odai Essawi.
“During the official strike, we saw 100 percent adherence at most schools across Baghdad and the south,” he told Al Jazeera.
Essawi claimed that when the education ministry tried to end the strike by threatening to blame the syndicate for any measures it takes against striking teachers, the body fought back.
“We warned the ministry of education that we would stand up to it. Protesting and expressing our opinions are human rights,” he told Al Jazeera.
Despite the challenges, Essawi says 50 to 75 percent of school students in Baghdad and the south were on partial strike or attended protests after school hours.
The ministry of higher education has warned that if university students continue to strike it may cancel spring break, while the army has warned it would detain administrators who keep schools shut as part of its fight against “terror”.
The threat forced many schools to resume classes, while some set exam schedules in an attempt to force students to return to class.
Omar al-Mukhtar High School in Baghdad, which took part in the strike for more than a week, officially resumed classes after security forces visited the school.
“The whole school, teachers and students, were on strike. Many of us would even go to Tahrir together,” Abbas Tamimi, the school’s headteacher, told Al Jazeera.
“But intelligence staff threatened to take measures if we don’t resume classes,” said Tamimi, adding that 80 percent of students attended classes after he set an exam schedule.
Ali, an 18-year-old student at the school told Al Jazeera that while he had not prepared for the exams, he decided to end his boycott to avoid possible repercussions.
“I boycotted classes for a whole month to show my support for those who died for us,” Ali told Al Jazeera.
“But I had to come back when exams were set. I was worried my name would be sent to the ministry or that I’d be suspended from school altogether,” he added.
Tamimi said that while he has to enforce some rules, he remains lenient towards students who don’t show up.
“We won’t take any measures against students who don’t attend. But people [from the intelligence] do come asking for the register, so we have to maintain some level of adherence,” explained Tamimi.
“But as soon as we finish school hours, students and teachers go to Tahrir hand in hand,” he added.