“This is a really beautiful moment,” says Hoda Katebi, a writer and community organizer based in Chicago. “It has been terrifying and inspiring for Iranians, both in Iran and outside of it.”
For the last 14 days, Iranians have been protesting on the streets across their country, defying judicial warnings after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa (Jina) Amini.
Amini, who was a member of Iran’s Kurdish minority, was arrested in Tehran by the morality police because of how she chose to wear the hijab. She collapsed and died in police custody. In solidarity, some women have taken off and burnt their headscarves. Others have pelt police officers with stones while chanting “zan, zendegi, azadi” or “women, life, freedom”.
In solidarity, the chant, which has Kurdish origins, is being sounded all over the world by the Iranian diaspora. Across the US, Iranian Americans have responded by staging protests in cities such as Washington DC, New York, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“We now all have the same demand inside and outside [of Iran],” says Esha Momeni.
Momeni, a lecturer in the gender studies department at the University of California, Los Angeles, has attended solidarity protests in Los Angeles, home to one of the largest Iranian American communities in the US and where more than 100,000 members of the diaspora live.
For Hamoun Dolatshahi, a Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker based in Los Angeles, the hijab is a powerful symbol of resistance. Since the government controls bodily autonomy, “Iranian women are hitting the government in the most vital spot,” he said.
“Ten years ago, when people believed that the election was stolen, which it was, people were asking ‘where is my vote?’” Dolatshahi says, referring to the Green Movement in 2009. “The chants have changed drastically, nobody is talking about reform. Now people are asking for a change of government.”
Aside from women’s leadership, UCLA professor Momeini says “what distinguishes this movement from previous ones is its ability to unite people around a common goal”.
In 2008, Momeini was arrested and jailed in Iran after marching with three million people during the Green Movement uprisings. She had traveled to Iran to film a documentary on women’s rights. “At the time, people were not demanding structural change. It was about citizenship rights. It was about corruption,” she says. “It had a reformist approach.”
However, today women have been removing their headscarves, she says, as a way of demanding fundamental structural change.
Chicago-based Katebi, who has been advising activists in Tehran with tech issues, agrees that this uprising differs from the others. The protestors’ chants, she says, “aren’t just abstract or romantic ideals and catchphrases, but they actually are connected to very tangible demands that Iranians have been demanding for decades”.
Some of these demands are bodily autonomy in public spaces, as well as economic justice, including rights for workers, teachers and students. She emphasizes “that there should be no gender delay on progress”.
The Iranian diaspora in other parts of the world has been playing its part too. In Freetown, Sierra Leone, Priscillia Kounkou Hoveyda has been tweeting videos of the protests, sharing artist-designed graphics and championing the uprising on her site Collective for Black Iranians and her Twitter feed.
“What’s being pushed into the forefront is the narrative of hair in the wind. To me, it’s a reductive narrative,” Hoveyda says, referring to a popular social media post featuring hair on a flagpole flying in the wind to signify liberation from the compulsory hijab.
Instead, Hoveyda prefers to support “lower-class” minorities who have been driving the demonstrations and calling for freedom from discrimination. “It’s about freedom from state-sponsored violence,” she says.
Kurds in Iran, who make up 10% of the population, cannot speak their language, Hoveyda points out. They do not teach it in schools and are afraid to use their Kurdish name. Amini too has been widely referred to as Mahsa instead of her Kurdish name, Jina. The demonstrators are calling out this discrimination, she says, in addition to the end of compulsory hijab.
As protests have continued, the Iranian government has cracked down with internet blockades, arrests and tear gas fired at the protestors. The US and European Union have retaliated with the threat of further sanctions.
However, Hoveyda, Dolatshahi and Katebi vehemently oppose sanctions.
“I think what we need to focus on is what’s coming out of Iran. And the people of Iran, we do not hear anybody calling for sanctions,” says Dolatshahi.
Hoveyda points at the chants on the ground: “I don’t want how it used to be, and I don’t want what I have now, no shah, no rahbar,” as an indication of what the people of Iran want, she says. Sanctions, she adds, are politically motivated.
Sanctions, Katebi says, embolden the hardliners in Iran, strengthening the government, which can consolidate wealth. The impact, all three agree, will economically hurt those on the streets calling for government change.
Dolatshahi was also disheartened by Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi’s opportunity to address world leaders at the United Nations just last week, even as protests rocked the country.
Raisi, who he refers to as “president of the dictatorship”, should not have been allowed to visit the US freely, “as people were being killed by his orders”, he said.
Instead, Dolatshahi urged foreign leaders to “listen to the people of Iran, to speak out, they need to put pressure on the Iranian government and Iranian officials. They need to be very careful that they don’t affect the people who are fighting the system”.
He also called for the removal of sanctions that economically impact the people of Iran, calling them “just as violent and unnecessary as the dictatorship of the extremists”.
“The fundamental purpose of sanctions”, Momeni says, “is to cause a severe economic crisis in a country in order to turn the public against the regime, and so trigger a policy or even regime change”.
In the case of Iran, she continues, it has strengthened the Islamic republic and destroyed the middle class. “Even if we assume that sanctions play a role in the change of the regime, they had devastating long-term effects. To name a few, it isolated Iranians from participating in [the] global economy, has created generational trauma [and] increased gender violence,” she says. And it’s these generational losses that are forcing young people to the streets demanding change.
Momeni urges the international community to recognize that and end sanctions to support the movement. She says she has received emails from individuals and organizations wanting to donate money to support the family of prisoners in Iran, but because of the sanctions, “there’s no way to send money to anyone.”
President Biden moved to relax sanctions on internet communications in Iran to “support the free flow of information” and Katebi thinks this was the right move.
She urges the US government to continue in this vein and “lift sanctions that are placing a chokehold on the Iranian people, and are directed towards specific things like medicine, aid, as well as other very basic things that have been harming Iranian people on the ground, including women, workers and ethnic minorities”.