Protestors speak at a rally in solidarity with Iran at UC Berkeley on Sept. 23, 2022. (Courtesy Persis Karim)
On Sunday morning, more than 2,000 people from the Bay Area’s Iranian community and their allies gathered on the Golden Gate Bridge to form a human chain across the entire span — 4,200 feet across. Organizers hope the symbolic bridging will bring greater attention to protests in Iran and around the world following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died in police custody September 16 after being arrested for not wearing a proper hijab, or headscarf.
“It's not just about Iranians. It's about the freedom of people and humanity,” said Sepehr Khosravi, a college student from Hayward who came to the U.S. from Iran at age 7, escaping religious persecution. “If we don't come together to build that cohesive love and unity, our world will become a mess, just like how it is right now.”
Khosravi attended the event with his older sister, Sanaz Khosravi, an artist based in San Francisco. Sanaz stressed the importance of showing images of what’s happening in Iran to the rest of the world to avoid a repeat of the events of 2019, when Iranian authorities shut down the internet during mass protests in response to a hike in gas prices, in part due to harsher U.S.-imposed sanctions on the country. Fifteen-hundred people died during this time, according to Reuters.
The Sunday event on the bridge came after smaller gatherings, rallies and candlelight vigils throughout the week, including Friday evening in front of UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall and Saturday in front of San Francisco City Hall. In Berkeley, hundreds of people showed up, some holding signs written in English, Persian and Kurdish — calling for women’s liberation, justice for Amini and the end of Islamic rule.
Amini was visiting Tehran from the Kurdistan province in Iran when she was stopped by the capital's Gasht-e Ershad, otherwise known as the “morality police” — a group of law enforcement whose main purpose is to enforce Iran's strict dress code. The group is a notorious and powerful one, known for their white patrol vans and access to detainment and "reeducation" centers, where women and men accused of improper attire are held.
On the day of her arrest, Amini was accused of wearing an improper hijab, or headscarf, a mandatory part of the nation's dress code for all women. While still in police custody on September 16, three days later, she died. Iranian authorities say Amini died of a heart attack, due to preexisting conditions, but Amini’s family and supporters say she had no history of health problems, and that her death is the result of police brutality.
Outrage, from Iran to the Bay Area
Since Amini’s death, protests have erupted in the streets of Iran, igniting outrage over ongoing issues for the nation's citizens, including women’s rights, the strict dress code and restrictions on personal freedoms, and a suffering economy that’s been made worse under years of international sanctions.
“You feel helpless and you feel so angry that the government is treating its people, people that I'm connected to by blood and history, in a way that is unfathomable to me,” said Nima Rahimi, an Iranian American attorney and community organizer who lives in the Bay Area and one of the organizers of Saturday’s demonstrations at San Francisco City Hall.
“It breaks my heart that my community on the other side of the world is living under such harsh conditions every day. And a woman who was just at the beginning of her life was killed for such a stupid reason,” Rahimi said.
Rahimi is one of many Iranian Americans and allies who took part in solidarity protests over the weekend, taking to the streets shouting, “Zan! Zendegi! Azadi!,” or “Women! Life! Freedom!”
In its original form, the Kurdish slogan “Jin! Jiyan! Azadi!” is from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party; it’s a cry for liberation from patriarchy — specifically the combination of the patriarchy, capitalism and the state. It’s since become a central slogan in the global protests.
Rahimi recognizes the bravery of Iranians protesting right now. “I see things like this unfold in the country and see the willingness of the population to put their bodies on the line for their freedoms, basic freedoms, to decide whether you're going to put a headscarf on your head or not, to have the ability to make that decision,” he said. That bravery, he said, motivates him to use whatever influence he has to raise local awareness so that elected leaders can engage in better, more effective foreign policy with Iran.
Sanctions on Iran have been ongoing for decades, limiting international trade and, according to the U.N., exacerbating economic and humanitarian hardships, especially for vulnerable populations.
“Right now, we've got a foreign policy that keeps Iran isolated,” Rahimi said. “There's a lot of nuances around that, but isolation only empowers the extremists.”
Keeping all eyes on Iran
For many, raising awareness about what’s been going on in Iran goes well beyond the weekend’s protests. Torange Yeghiazarian, who immigrated from Iran right before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, says it’s been her life's work since she settled here in the Bay Area in 1991.
“There's a lack of understanding or a misunderstanding of Iran,” she said. “Its history, the history of its relationship with the U.S., and the place of women in Iranian society.” Yeghiazarian is the founding director of Golden Thread Productions, a theater company that features plays from or about the Middle East to celebrate the people, history and culture of the region while challenging stereotypes and misunderstandings.
It’s ongoing work that Yeghiazarian says does not always get the visibility it needs. “This is just another moment where we've become visible, briefly, and have an opportunity to talk about who we are and where we come from. And how strong the Iranian women are,” she said.
The internet also plays a key role: It’s super valuable, Yeghiazarian says, when it comes to sharing information — and specifically for spreading the word about what’s going on in Iran, and where people can take action and support.
“I'm seeing a lot of compassion and a lot of messages of solidarity from various communities,” Yeghiazarian said. “You realize that you're part of a global community, that you are not alone, that you're part of a global solidarity movement for women all around the world to gain their freedom and to gain their respect.”
It’s a moment where keeping the momentum going and maintaining international attention is essential, said Hasti, who recently moved to the U.S. from Iran, and prefers to keep her last name anonymous for safety purposes. This includes news coverage and social media mentions — even something as simple as sharing a hashtag, she says, can make a difference.
“If that [social media] momentum dies, that could directly mean more people dying on the streets of Iran, innocent civilians,” she said.
It's a tactic, Hasti says, to limit the information that gets out of Iran. And for her, it always marks a dangerous time. “The last time this happened, I was back in Iran,” she said, referring to the 2019 shutdowns. “Both times it was the feeling of just maddening frustration, because you know that people are getting killed and there's nothing you can do about it.”
For many people living in the Bay Area with family and loved ones in Iran, the internet shutdowns invoke a lot of fear and deep worry. It creates a void of silence, Hasti says: With no internet and a lack of international eyes on the situation, the loss of something as simple as a hashtag can correlate to the loss of human life. “They basically violate every human right possible and they will get a free pass to do whatever they want to,” she said.
Yet the images and messages that continue to come from the streets of Iran — as well as the weekend solidarity demonstrations that occurred around the world— also make some hopeful.
“This is a time of change,” said Yeghiazarian. “We have an opportunity to work together and create lasting change, and to realize that women everywhere in the U.S. [and] in Iran are not only equal but, that without women's rights and without women leading fulfilling lives, society as a whole is paralyzed.”
KQED’s Anaïs-Ophelia Lin and Lakshmi Sarah contributed to this report.
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