One week after the death of a 22-year-old woman named Mahsa Amini, who was arrested and beaten by Iran’s “morality police,” Iranian students at UT plan to join the voices of millions around the world in protest against the Islamic Republic in Iran.
Amini, a Kurdish woman from the town of Saqqez, was visiting the capital city of Tehran on Sept. 13 when she was arrested by the morality police, who claimed that her head covering did not adhere to the government’s strict laws controlling women’s clothing.
According to witnesses, including Amini’s 17-year-old brother Kiarash who was present at her arrest, Amini was forcibly dragged into a police van and beaten by officers. She later went into a coma for three days and died in a Tehran hospital on Friday, Sept. 16.
Though Iranian state-run media claimed Amini was in poor health and suffered a heart attack while in custody, a photo taken in the hospital and spread rapidly through social media showed severe wounds to her head.
Amini’s father, Amjad Amini, told BBC Persian that medical staff had prevented him from seeing his daughter’s body or her autopsy report after her death. He denied claims from the state that his daughter had been in poor health and said the government was lying about the circumstances of her death.
Since news of Amini’s death spread through social media, anti-government protests have rocked Iran from big cities to rural towns. Many women have publicly removed and burned their hijabs and protestors have called for the end of the ultraconservative Islamic Republic which has ruled the country since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. One week later, the protests show no signs of slowing.
The rallying cry “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi,” or “Women, Life, Freedom,” borrowed from photographer Sonja Hamad’s 2017 series on an all-female unit fighting ISIS in Kurdistan, has overtaken the internet and Iran.
Protests have been met with violent police crackdowns, resulting in the deaths of dozens if not hundreds of protestors.
The exact number of protestors killed is difficult to confirm because the Iranian government has shut down internet across most of the country, making communication with the outside world impossible in many cases. At a time when social media is the central means of spreading information worldwide, the government has also restricted access to apps like Instagram and WhatsApp.
In order to raise awareness of the violence of the Iranian government against its own people, Iranian students at UT have planned a protest for Saturday, Sept. 24 at Charles Krutch Park off Gay Street from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Mohammad, a doctoral student at UT, is helping to plan the protest (sources' last names have been removed for their safety). He said the uprisings in his home country are unlike anything in the four decades since the Islamic Republic took power under Ayatollah Khomeini, the first Supreme Leader of Iran.
Mohammad can see a change in his conservative northern province of Mazandaran, where people have taken to the streets in protest against the Islamic Republic, even though they are devoutly Muslim themselves.
“Now, I can see a lot of religious people in my relatives that hate the government. They cannot tolerate them,” he said. “This time, it’s different.”
The protests have created a stark new dividing line between those who support the Iranian government and those who oppose it, regardless of their observance of Islamic faith, a marked change in what has long been a religious conflict.
The anti-government sentiments also extend beyond Amini’s death to economic hardships under the rule of President Ebrahim Raisi, who assumed office in August 2021.
Raisi, an Islamist and close ally of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has imposed strict enforcement of the state’s laws on dress and behavior. He was a member of the so-called Iranian “death committees” of the 1980s, which killed thousands of political prisoners.
Though Raisi has a long history of human rights violations and has stood by President Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine, he was welcomed to address the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday in New York City.
In his address, Raisi did not acknowledge the protests against his government, but instead spoke against sanctions and called out the United States and Canada for their own human rights violations and militarism in the Middle East.
Outside the United Nations Headquarters, crowds of protestors called on Western leaders to oppose Raisi’s government and its violations of human rights. In the crowd, Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad, one of the most active and popular critics of the Islamic Republic, called on the Biden administration to cut diplomatic ties with Iran.
Tonight in Tehran. Protesters chanting: "Seyyed Ali (Khamenei) Will Be Toppled in This Bloody Year" . Iranian regime is cutting the Internet to prevent people from organizing the protests and at the same time killing innocent protesters to creat fear. Didn’t work. #MahsaAmini pic.twitter.com/mfzgL4W8Ei— Masih Alinejad 🏳️ (@AlinejadMasih) September 23, 2022
“My anger is the anger of people inside Iran. Women of Iran are risking their lives. They’re risking guns and bullets. They’re not just fighting against compulsory hijab,” Alinejad said.
Some Iranian students will not attend the protest for fear of repercussions should they return to Iran, a country where punishments for crime are unpredictable and often violent.
But whether they join the protest on Saturday or not, Iranian students are doing full-time work to keep up with the news and spread information, often in the form of graphic images and videos of police brutality against protestors back home — including violence against children.
“At least I feel better that I’m doing something from outside Iran,” Mohammad said. “I want Western people to know about it. The fake president could come to the U.S. and have a speech about human rights at the United Nations, and at the same time, his government is killing people in Iran.”
The organizers said that the home football game against the rival Florida Gators could make transportation difficult, but the timing is worth it to have as many people as possible see their messages.
Zahra, a doctoral student at UT, said the fearlessness of protestors in Iran, who have in some cases publicly removed and burned their hijabs and fought back against police officers, shows a change in the country.
“It was not a thing you could see a decade ago, it was not that common. It shows how fearless people are right now,” she said. “We are trying to bring up that people are not having normal rights or minimum rights in that country, and there should be a kind of reaction to that. What is happening is not acceptable.”
It is not clear yet how the protests may change the political landscape of Iran in the long-term.
Zahra said younger generations have become bolder in their fight against the Islamic Republic, signaled through widespread chanting for the death of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. And with the health of the 83-year-old Khamenei in question, the nation could soon see political upheaval unlike any since the Iranian Revolution.
The goal of Saturday’s protest in Krutch Park is to defy a government invested in killing its own people, even if that defiance must happen thousands of miles away.
“We know that one of the goals of the government by shutting down the internet over there is just disconnecting people from each other inside and also from outside, so what we are doing is against the goal of the government,” Zahra said.
“We are going to connect everyone, although we are not inside of the country, although we are sitting in another place of the world. We want to give that information, we want to let everyone know what you have done.”
Editor's note: The last names of sources have been removed to protect their privacy and safety.