Content warning: This article includes mentions of death, terrorism, and gender-based violence, including violence against LGBTQ+ people.
On September 22, several hundred U of T community members and mourners held a vigil in front of Convocation Hall to protest the death of Mahsa Amini. Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman, had died in police custody after being detained for violating the country’s dress code.
Following Amini’s death, thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest her death and call for an end to the current Iranian regime — headed by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — and its decades-long reign of violent oppression. Demonstrations have spread across at least 40 cities in Iran, as well as across various cities around the world, including in Canada.
According to one of the vigil’s organizers, the U of T gathering held particular significance because several U of T community members died on Flight 752 when the Iranian military shot the flight down in 2020.
Mahsa Amini’s death
On September 13, “morality police” in the Iranian capital of Tehran detained Amini for breaking the country’s mandatory dress code, which requires women to cover their hair with a scarf and wear loose-fitting clothing in public. During her arrest and detention, the young Kurdish woman sustained several blows to the head and fell into a coma. She died on September 16.
According to authorities, Amini suffered a heart attack; however, her family says she had no preexisting health conditions, noting the suspicious nature of her passing.
Official accounts of her death have been met with widespread public skepticism, which escalated into protests across the country. Footage from the protests shows women removing their hijabs, burning their headscarves, and cutting off their hair, in an act of defiance against the regime. In other videos, protestors can be heard chanting “Woman, life, freedom,” and seen flipping police vehicles or throwing rocks.
Iranian authorities have responded with a violent crackdown and have suppressed access to the internet, social media platforms, and cellular services.
According to the Iranian government, 17 people have been killed in the demonstrations, but other reports suggest that the number is higher than 30.
The Convocation Hall vigil
At the vigil, organizers demanded that the Canadian government avoid normalizing diplomatic relationships with the Islamic Republic of Iran. They also called upon Canadian media to grant Iranian women a platform to share their stories.
Additionally, several speakers addressed the crowd, condemning the Islamic Republic of Iran and calling for a stop to its violent regime.
Among the speakers was Iranian women’s rights activist Azam Jangravi, whom the police arrested several years ago after she stood atop an electric utility box on Tehran’s Enghelab street and removed her hijab. “Getting arrested for [not wearing a] hijab is something that thousands and thousands of other women in Iran have to experience,” she said.
Following her arrest, Jangravi fled the country on foot to protect herself and her daughter from the Iranian authorities. She now resides in Canada.
Several other speakers had connections to Flight 752, the Ukraine International Airlines airplane that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps shot down via surface-to-air missile in January 2020. All 176 people on the plane died, including eight U of T community members — six of whom were students.
Although the Iranian government initially denied shooting the plane down and later said it was an accident, a 2021 ruling by the Ontario Supreme Court claimed that the incident had been an intentional act of terrorism.
Another speaker at the vigil, Maral Gorginpour, told the crowd that she lost her husband, Fareed Arasteh, in the Flight 752 crash — which happened only three days after their wedding ceremony.
“We can no longer be humiliated by the Islamic Republic [of Iran],” Gorginpour said. “We can no longer bury our loved ones and say that we are handing them over to God.”
“Judgment day has arrived in Iran,” she added, referring to the current protests.
Following the speeches, the crowd marched along St. George Street through U of T’s downtown campus, before disbanding at Bloor Street.
On the day of the vigil, the United States imposed sanctions on Iran’s morality police and several senior Iranian officials, citing “abuse and violence against Iranian women and the violation of the rights of peaceful Iranian protestors.” The next day, Canada’s foreign minister, Mélanie Joly, issued a statement condemning Amini’s death.
Fear of punishment from authorities
In an interview with The Varsity, a U of T alum who attended the gathering said, “I’m here [at this vigil] because I feel a responsibility for the protesters in Iran who are putting their lives in danger.” They requested anonymity, explaining that they fear being arrested during an upcoming visit to Iran.
Vigil co-organizer Niloofar Ganji, a second-year PhD student at U of T’s Institute for Medical Sciences, told The Varsity that attendees’ safety concerns were legitimate because of the violent nature of the Iranian regime. On top of the recent killings, she alleged that when people with institutional connections or a background in activism return to Iran, they are commonly arrested or questioned or have their belongings confiscated at the airport.
She also claimed that, due to the Iranian government’s desire to silence resistance, Iranians living in Canada face challenges maintaining their ties to home and their relationships with loved ones in Iran. “It’s really hard to leave home and never have the prospect of being able to go back again.”
Ganji warns that, should any of the students who attended the September 22 vigil return to Iran, they could easily face the same violence as Amini did.
Connection to a larger movement
Ganji explained that Amini’s name has become a representation of a greater movement against gender-based harassment in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
To queer rights activist Nima Yajam, queer people are core to this movement. “Every queer person in Iran is only one step away from death,” Yajam said when addressing the crowd at the vigil.
Iranian authorities formally outlawed same-sex relationships in 2013. On September 6, an Iranian court sentenced two LGBTQ+ activists to death. The country is one of eight in the world with legislation permitting execution for consensual same-sex relations.
Yajam, an Iranian refugee, is in touch with queer people currently protesting in Iran. In an interview with The Varsity, they said that queer people are currently being beaten and killed in the streets.
Yajam called for cross-border queer solidarity from those who enjoy more freedom. “The queer movement does not end at Pride… it doesn’t end at the colours and the dances,” they told The Varsity.