Students protesting in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Photo via CPT Iraqi Kurdistan / Twitter.
On November 21, 2021, hundreds of students from the University of Sulaymaniyah, one of the largest public universities in Iraqi Kurdistan, walked out of their classes in protest to demand better living conditions. The student demonstrations are a response to decades of endemic corruption, bipartisan autocratic rule and widespread socio-economic injustice. Economic polarization and the political elite’s lack of accountability already triggered mass protests in Sulaymaniyah at the end of 2020. During the most recent demonstrations, students demanded the restoration of student allowances, an end to political party monopolies in their departments, universities and unions, improved living conditions at university dormitories and recognition of their basic rights by the ruling elite.
Students argue that the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) student allowance, which was offered to public university students until it was suspended as part of austerity measures in 2014, was their right and that they are that they are currently in dire need of its re-installment. For four days in late November, students joined their voices and expressed their dissatisfaction through sit-ins, slogans and the blocking of the main road to Sulaymaniyah which runs past the university. From the second day onward, the number of students in the protests increased to the thousands and it spread to universities and institutions in surrounding cities, including the regional capital, Erbil, where students took to the streets.
The demonstrations continued for four days until they were forcefully ended by armed forces in Sulaymaniyah and the surrounding cities. Thousands of troops were deployed around the gates of the new and old campuses of the university and in the city center of Sulaymaniyah. Students residing in the dormitories were ordered to evacuate and to head back to their family homes. It is now more than a week since public universities in the Sulaymaniyah governorate — including the Garmyan and Ranya districts — as well as the Halabja governorate have been closed down.
As university students, we want the international community to know that our demands are for dignified living conditions, which we believe are our just right. We are protesting against the dire living conditions at our universities and dormitories. Since the region’s economic crisis began in 2014, the state of higher education and the living conditions at public institutions have been deteriorating rapidly. The neoliberal reforms implemented by the KRG in the wake of the economic crisis have worsened the quality of education at public universities and have stripped our universities of previously available revenues for student allowances and services. At the same time, new private universities and institutions are opened every year, resulting in a ruthless classed system of education. Costly private education is prioritized over public education.
Our demonstrations began with peaceful sit-ins asking our local administrators and the ruling elite of the KRG to answer our just demands. When these went unanswered, we began blocking the main road around the university and headed towards the local mayor’s office to present our demands. We continued our peaceful civil demonstrations and kept our route clean. Once we moved our demonstration outside of the university campus and towards the city, the local government sent armed security who fired tear gas and rubber bullets, wielded electric batons and deployed water cannon in their attempts to stop us.
On the final days of the protests, the forces shot live rounds and chased us around. Hundreds of students were affected and had to be treated for their injuries. Others were beaten and humiliated in front of the cameras and many others were arrested.
To stop us from demonstrating, the university administrators cut the water and electricity inside the dormitories, forcing us to leave the campus and end our protests. Instead, we poured into the streets and demanded our services to be restored. On the evening of the fourth day of protests, November 24, the security forces used all their might against us by chasing us from the main road outside unto the university campus and locked us inside the university. We were then told to collect our belongings and evacuate the university. Since then we have not been able to return to our dormitories nor to the campus.
Our main demand has been the restoration of our living allowances: a monthly stipend of 60,000 Iraqi dinars (US$41) for students living in the city and 100,000 Iraqi dinars (US$68) for students living outside of the city. Under the current worsening economic conditions, students are in dire need of these living allowances. As student residents of the dormitories we would like to inform everyone of the terrible conditions inside. Our dorms lack clean drinking water services, forcing us to purchase water bottles from our own pockets. Our heating and cooling systems are dreadful too. Due to problems with the electricity supply, students from all the floors in each student complex have to go to ground floors to take their daily showers because the hot water does not reach the upper floors. Among the protesting students are climate activists who are asking for sustainable solutions to our dormitory and campus necessities.
There are hundreds of students at each residential complex who are unable to purchase food, water and other basic daily necessities. Many have taken things into their own hands and work as dishwashers and cleaners for other students in the dorms in order to make ends meet. Many students cannot afford books and educational material, or transportation fees to return home to visit their families. If restored, the living allowances will allow the students continue their education under dignified conditions and not think of quitting their education, as hundreds of others have done in the past.
Under the current economic conditions, our families are also suffering from delayed salaries and cuts in jobs and services. Reinstallment of the student allowance will also ease the financial burden our education places upon our relatives. Therefore, we want to also acknowledge that our demands as students are part and parcel of the larger demands of state employees, teachers, unions and the local community, and are not separate from them. Together, we are all demanding better living conditions, political and economic transparency and accountability from our ruling elite.
For decades, the regional government has completely ignored our demands and chosen to support private sector universities instead. Students at public universities feel neglected, alienated and ignored and are unable to compete with their counterparts at private universities for job opportunities, among other things. This alienation has also greatly affected our future vision — leaving us hopeless and likely to follow the illegal migration route to Europe. Hundreds of youth, among them many students, continue to perish on their dangerous journey to Europe in the hope of finding a better life.
As critical thinkers and informed citizens, we repeat to our local leaders and the international community that we are aware of the structural mishandling of the region’s hundreds of millions of dollars in oil revenues. Due to endemic corruption and a lack of accountability, these resources do not trickle down to the local level. As MPs in Kurdistan’s parliament, economic experts, oppositional groups and citizens before us have argued, by using just a third of its oil revenues, the KRG would be capable of significantly improving the living conditions of the entire local population, including the reinstallment of student allowances.
This economic injustice is happening in an oil-rich country whose elites and their children live a life of luxury. We do not have an economic crisis in this country, instead we are living through a crisis of inequality, monopolies and colonialism. We do not have to live under these harsh conditions.
We repeat our demands for end to the politicization of our universities and other educational institutions, the restoration of student stipends and sustainable improvements of our living conditions at dormitories and campus. We voice these demands as dignified and informed citizens of this region, not as young agitators — as our political leaders would like us make out to be.
Our demands are in line with those of the broader community: to end endemic corruption, political monopolies and socio-economic injustice in the Kurdistan Region in particular, and in Iraq in general. Our demands are just and our local authorities need to act immediately. We have welcomed the recent negotiations and responses from the heads of the two ruling parties, but long-term sustainable solutions must come from state institutions and the local parliament, not from short-term party politics for electoral gain.
This article was translated from Arabic by Shenah Abdullah, an anthropologist and lecturer at the University of Sulaimani. Her research focus is on addressing effects of external interventions on socio-economic conditions of people in the city of Sulaymaniyah.