Content warning: This article contains discussions of death, as well as descriptions of gender-based violence and large-scale physical violence.

On October 6, over 400 people marched from Sidney Smith Hall to the Ontario Legislative Building in solidarity with the ongoing protests in Iran. The rally was co-organized by U of T graduate students Sara Shariati and Maryam Rahimi Shahmirzadi.

Previous solidarity events had been held at UTSG on September 22 and 23. A community vigil also took place on October 3, coorganized by the Iranian Association at the University of Toronto, the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office, and the Multi-Faith Centre.

These events are part of a worldwide movement sparked by the September 16 death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman. Amini died in custody after Iranian “morality police” arrested her for violating the country’s mandatory dress code. 

The protest

The crowd first gathered on the steps in front of Sidney Smith Hall, where the rally was set to begin. According to protest organizers, Melanie Woodin, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science, was in attendance. 

Some attendees held signs displaying the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” or calling for freedom for Iran. Other attendees’ signs displayed the photos and names of people reportedly killed during the violent crackdown on demonstrations in Iran, including 16-year-old Nika Shahkarami, who was allegedly killed by Iranian security forces for joining a protest in Tehran.

According to the BBC, exact figures for casualties in Iran remain unclear due to Iranian authorities’ “strict control of information and independent reporting.” An estimate from Iran’s Human Rights Activists News Agency indicates that, as of October 16, 240 people have been killed by the country’s security forces since the beginning of the demonstrations prompted by Amini’s death.

Outside Sidney Smith, several speakers addressed the crowd, providing historical context for the movement and voicing demands for action from U of T and the Canadian government. 

In a speech at Sidney Smith, U of T graduate student Niloofar Ganji noted that although the current wave of demonstrations was directly sparked by outrage over Amini’s death, this sentiment “soon turned into outrage over 40 years of systemic discrimination, destruction, and oppression by the Islamic regime.” 

The current Islamic regime has governed Iran since the 1979 revolution, which was coordinated in opposition to the monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. 

Following the speeches, an attendee with a megaphone led the crowd in several chants of, “Hey hey, ho ho, Islamic regime must go.” The crowd then marched to the Ontario Legislative Building at Queen’s Park, where more U of T community members gave speeches.

Amirali Alawi, a Faculty of Law student, spoke to the crowd at Queen’s Park on behalf of those who lost loved ones two years ago on Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. Alawi’s mother was among the 176 people killed when Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) shot the plane down via surface-to-air missile on January 8, 2020. Eight U of T community members, including six students, were among those killed in the crash.

“My hatred for the murderous regime in Iran grows deeper and deeper with each and every new massacre they commit,” said Alawi.

Guita Banan, a U of T graduate student and alum of Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, spoke about how compulsory hijab regulation is “a tool of power” employed within systems of patriarchy and misogyny in Iran to suppress women. “It is not a coincidence that the most powerful [and] the most widespread protest in decades is led by women,” Banan said to the crowd at Queen’s Park.

Protest attendees included those with and without personal ties to Iran. In a conversation with The Varsity at the protest, Rakesh Sengupta, an assistant professor at the Cinema Studies Institute, said that part of his reason for being there are similarities between women’s autonomy in Iran and India. He referred to the backlash that Muslim women in India face for wearing the hijab. 

“While the situation is different, I think it’s an issue about Muslim women’s rights and what they really want… It’s a moment of solidarity,” said Sengupta.

Protest demands

During her speech, Ganji presented a list of demands, explaining that Iranian people need the U of T community to be their voice and condemn the Islamic regime’s actions. She demanded that U of T offer support to Iranian students trying to escape the oppression in Iran. She further called upon Canadian media to increase its coverage of the situation in Iran, and urged the Canadian government not to normalize diplomatic relations with the Islamic regime.

According to an October 5 statement by U of T president Meric Gertler, the university is providing financial support for students in Iran who, while seeking refuge or asylum in Canada, decide to attend U of T.

Ganji also called attention to the Iranian regime’s response to recent demonstrations: “This regime has cut off internet access to the country and is violently and criminally cracking down on peaceful protests. Enough is enough.”

Alawi emphasized that Canadians need to support Iranians because Western governments are still working with the Iranian regime. He said that it is “outrageous” that the West hasn’t designated the IRGC as terrorists.

Although the IRGC states that the downing of Flight 752 was an accident, the Ontario Supreme Court ruled in 2021 that the incident had been an intentional act of terrorism. 

Alawi further noted that the Iranian regime is sending weapons to Russia for the war in Ukraine. “The fight of Iranian people is the fight of the Ukrainians, and the fight of Ukrainians is the fight of Iranian people,” he said. 

In an interview with The Varsity after his speech, Alawi said that the current protests sweeping Iran are “not about small demands. It’s about revolution.” 

“Those students could have been us”

At Sidney Smith, Shahrzad Mojab — director of U of T’s Women and Gender Studies Institute — said, “Islamization of social, educational, and political life [in] Iran has been enforced through a complex set of ideological and political mechanisms of coercion.”

Mojab also drew attention to the regime’s violence against students. On October 2, students at Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology were holding one of several on-campus sit-ins to call for the release of fellow students who had been arrested during demonstrations. Security forces trapped them inside the gates and then opened fire with rubber bullets and paintballs. “Sharif [University’s] students have called October 2, 2022… a bloody day,” said Mojab. 

She reminded attendees that there is a long history of violence against students in Iran. In 1953 Richard Nixon, then-vice president of the US, visited Iran to receive an honorary degree from Tehran University. Tehran University students protested his visit on December 7, 1953; to disperse the crowd, the Iranian police entered the university and fired on the students, causing three student deaths

Mojab urged the U of T community to commemorate December 7, 2022 by organizing a student rally to mark 69 years of students’ struggle for freedom in Iran.

Alawi’s speech also made reference to the events at Sharif: “Those students could have been us, and we could’ve been them,” he said. 

Kelly Hannah Moffatt, U of T’s vice-president, people strategy, equity & culture, released a public statement on September 27 affirming that campus protests and vigils for Amini have the university’s support. 

The importance of sustained action

In an interview with The Varsity, protest co-organizer Sara Shariati emphasized that the movement in Iran is ongoing. “I am very happy from the bottom of my heart that people came out and supported this [event], but this is not the end.” 

Shariati, who is pursuing her MSc at U of T, said that she had struggled to decide which names of the dead to include in her speech. “When you can’t fit the names of the people who have been killed and murdered in one speech, just this alone shows how big this movement is.”

She called for events every week, adding that action must continue “as long as people in Iran are fighting.” She also expressed her pride in the current movement and the “Woman, Life, Freedom” message. “If there was any time for a revolution in Iran — and if there is any message for revolution — I think this is the one we want.”

“We don’t want to be the ones who are scared. The regime’s scared now.”

If you or someone you know is in distress due to the ongoing situation in Iran, you can contact:

  • Wellness Care Counselling — which is offering free single-session therapy for Iranian individuals 16 years or older living in Ontario — at [email protected]