Iraqi students back up anti-government protests through ‘White Shirt Revolution’

The “white shirts” have become a distinctive feature of the protests in an unprecedented show of students’ solidarity.
Sunday 23/02/2020
Iraqi university students take part in an anti-government demonstration in the city of Najaf, December 29. (AFP)
Unbreakable resolve. Iraqi university students take part in an anti-government demonstration in the city of Najaf, December 29. (AFP)

BAGHDAD - Dressed in the white shirts of their school and faculty uniforms, students have been swelling the ranks of anti-government protesters in Baghdad and southern Iraq in defiance of school administrations and the Iraqi Ministry of Education.

Shouting “Peaceful and void of harms, students are seeking freedom,” the young people have gathered in large numbers on Sundays in what they dubbed the “White Shirt Revolution” to support the protests that have gripped Iraq since October.

“The white shirt is part of the school and university uniforms that distinguishes us from the rest of the crowd,” said Ayed Mohammad, 20, a student at the faculty of economy.

“We believe that student participation has given momentum to the protests and conveyed a clear message that we want peace and that the government should heed our demands and stop using violence.”

Mohammad has missed classes since the start of the protests, sitting instead in his faculty’s tent in Tahrir Square, the focal point of anti-government protests in Baghdad.

“We are here as students as well as revolutionaries sharing in the collective national responsibility. I will not leave the square until demands have been met, even if I have to lose the academic year,” he said.

“The voice of the students who constitute an educated and alert bracket of the society cannot be ignored, especially their demands for better education.”

He said students set up committees to coordinate mobilisation efforts and organise the participants in protests in Baghdad and southern Iraq. “We have created a union for faculty students comprising 66 faculties. The continuously growing number of participants is a show of determination that there will be no stepping back,” Mohammad said.

Demonstrators in Iraq have demanded more job opportunities, better public services, an end to corruption and the overhaul of the political system imposed after the 2003 US-led invasion.

Protests forced the resignation of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi in December. Mohammed Allawi, a former communications minister, was appointed prime minister-designate, but he has been rejected by the protest movement, which sees him as part of the ruling elite they want removed from power.

Sama Tawfik, 19, a student at the Medical Technical Academy, held a banner that read “Give us a Nation.”

“We want a civil state that secures people’s rights regardless of their political and sectarian affiliations. Iraq is for all its citizens without any preference or bias. We have all been suffering equally for decades,” Tawfik said.

“After 2003, Iraq has lost its prestige and status. Today, government incompetence and conflict have destroyed what used to be the best education system in the region. We want to have a better life and stop being vassals to countries that took us backward many years,” she added.

The “white shirts” have become a distinctive feature of the protests in an unprecedented show of students’ solidarity.

“I could not participate right from the beginning because my family was totally opposed, fearing I would be hurt or punished by the school but I insisted on joining my peers in the popular movement and here I am,” said Ammar Salah, 16.

His schoolmate Ammar Tohme showed a stronger commitment, stressing that “students should escalate their action and go on an open-ended strike to pressure the government to fulfil the people’s demands.”

Tohme said the “White Shirt Revolution” derives support from the presence, activism and volunteerism of students who erected hundreds of tents in protest hubs representing various departments of universities.

Striking students have defied government orders to return to classrooms, saying that, until protesters’ demands are met, there was little point returning to school.

Iraq’s Teachers’ Union observed a 4-day general strike in December in support of the protesters. “It was a national decision to pressure the authorities to listen to the people’s legitimate demands,” said union President Abbas al-Sudani.

“The educational system suffers from many problems that led to the decline in the level of education. These include outdated curriculum, obsolete teaching techniques and unsuitable and crowded school buildings,” Sudani said.

He said the union ended the strike “out of concern for the students’ academic future” but does not oppose students’ participation in peaceful protests outside class hours.

The UN Children’s Fund said in some areas of Iraq that have witnessed conflict, more than 90% of children are not in school, schools across the country are physically crumbling and the education sector is underfunded.