Defiance of a rule that requires male and female students eat separately in canteens spreads in Iranian universities as civil disobedience to gender apartheid.

On October 4, a few brave female students of the literature and languages faculty of Allameh Tabatabi University in Tehran removed their headscarves, marched into the boys’ canteen, and sat to eat after protesting and chanting outside for hours and more female students joined in.

The move was welcomed by everyone, who chanted “Women, Life, Freedom” and clapped as a short video posted on Twitter showed. Students have been eating together there since the taboo was broken, despite threats of disciplinary action and even expulsion.

Students in many other universities have followed suit as canteens were “reclaimed” as students say. But in some universities, there have been stand offs with authorities and hardliner students who often belong to the student wing of the Revolutionary Guards’ Basij militia.

Wherever students are being barred from dining together, they stage protests outside the buildings and chanting slogans, waving their headscarves above their heads.

In some universities students are taking their food trays outside to eat together in the open or arranging the trays in a row on the ground and refusing to eat the food while chanting and protesting.

For four decades authorities have imposed gender-segregation in universities. Male and female students are required by an unwritten law to sit in two separate parts of classrooms and lecture halls, eat in separate canteens or in the same canteen but at different hours, exercise and compete in separate sports facilities, and live at separate dormitory buildings unless they reside in dormitories allocated to married students.

In the religious city of Qom which is also home to many seminaries, students’ insistence on breaking the segregation taboo ended in a standoff with school security on Tuesday, who closed the canteen door to stop boys and girls from entering together.

After some chanting, students tried to force their way in but security used violence against the students who did not give up and finally went in to buy their food. They took their trays out and had a huge picnic outside, defying segregation.

On Monday at Sharif Industrial University in Tehran cafeteria chairs, tables, and windows were broken during a standoff between protesters and Basij members. Protesting students said on social media later that they had tidied the place up after the standoff and set up a fund for replacing damaged furniture.

Meanwhile, the Basij students took to the memorial of unknown soldiers buried inside the university and mourned what they considered as sacrilege against those martyred for Islam and Islamic laws.

Photos posted on Twitter show several Basij students laying their heads on the tomb of an unknown soldier and crying. The remains of three unknown soldiers of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) were buried on the campus in 2006 despite the opposition of over 80 percent of students who voted against it in a poll. Those opposed argued that insistence by hardliners to bury the unknown soldiers inside the campus was a symbol of their political dominance.

Videos posted on social media Tuesday showed TV football commentator and producer Adel Ferdosipour, who also teaches English at Sharif Industrial University, joining students’ sit-in/picnic outside the canteen in a display of support and solidarity, which students hugely welcomed. Ferdosipour who enjoys popularity among Iranians for his honesty and open criticism of the hardliner establishment was included in Newsweek’s list of the 20 most powerful Iranians in 2009.

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