Iranian Youth: Measures of Merit in the Islamic Republic


The Islamic Republic came to power on a wave of youthful enthusiasm – students formed the backbone of the rallies, marches and protests that overthrew the Shah, and they wholeheartedly supported the installation of the Islamic Republic and its new order and morality. Today, however, Iranian youths are beginning to take a hard look at what Islamic fundamentalism promised, versus what it actually delivered and what it has meant to them and the quality of their lives. A pro-democratic, vibrant, critical movement of educated young people is underway in Iran. This development, which potentially could lead to important cultural, intellectual and social changes with an exemplary effect in the region, should be better understood.

This project will shed light on what "measure of merit" young people use in evaluating ideological systems, systems of governance and societal transformations. It will also illuminate the range of behaviors, from personal to political, by which young people manifest social disaffect.


Most experts highlight the significant role of demographics for any developments in the region. This part of the world is extremely young. In most of the countries that comprise the greater Middle East, the median age of the population is 20 or below. This is worrisome in itself, for several reasons. As one expert puts it, 'the one generalization demographers are willing to make is that youth bulges disrupt the social equilibrium' and are frequently associated with "political turmoil and social unrest" 1

The Islamic Republic had initially endorsed large families, inspiring a baby boom. However, it soon became clear that this would massively overburden the country's services and economy, and the government aggressively reversed its course. Through a campaign of religiously endorsed, heavily advertised and free family planning, impressive results were achieved. While in 1986, the average number of children born to Iranian women was seven, it had dropped to 2.7 by 1998. This puts Iran in strong and positive contrast to some other parts of the Islamic world, where excesses of population growth continue.

The respective projections for 2025 in the tables clearly illustrate the difference: Gaza has the pyramid demographic typical of continued high fertility rates, while Iran shows the "youth bulge" reflective of a temporary baby boom.

total population projection

However, the social and economic consequences of such a baby boom are not as easily reversed. The increased burden on the economy and the infrastructure continues for decades, and even if the newly formed couples restrict themselves to two or three children, the baby boom has resulted in so many of these new couples that population growth continues. 2

Add the economic, social and political problems already confronting most of the societies where these young people live, and the concerns are compounded. Education systems are largely inadequate or inappropriate to the modern age; unemployment is already high, even before the next large cohort enters the job market; economies are already floundering.

This study looks at the social, cultural and intellectual expressions of youthful disaffect in Iran; explores its catalysts; and considers its significance for the attitudes of other young Muslim populations.
It focuses on three distinct levels at which this disaffect is finding expression:

  1. increased social problems affecting youth
  2. lifestyle rebellion, and
  3. intellectual and political protest.


1 Hassan Fattah, "The Middle East Baby Boom," American Demographics, September 2002, p. 57.
2 an interesting discussion of Iran's family planning initiative can be found in Robin Wright, The Last Great Revolution, Turmoil and Transformation in Iran, Knopf, N.Y. 2000, p. 160 ff.