Content warning: This article contains descriptions of misogyny, racism, violence, sexual violence, and verbal abuse.

When I was in the third grade, my family and I took a vacation to a tropical destination. While on the beach, my hair was braided — primarily for the convenience of managing my long and curly hair, but also because all the other girls at the beach were getting braids too. 

Even when our vacation was over, I wanted to keep the braids in for as long as possible, mainly because I thought they would make my hair easier to contain in school underneath our mandatory hijab. 

Within the first hour of class, I heard my teacher scream my name. I knew either my hijab had loosened or that I was wearing it improperly. I tried to fix it to avoid trouble — but, before I knew it, my teacher dragged me to the front of the room and forced me to reveal my braids to the class. She called me immoral and took scissors out of her desk drawer, threatening to cut off my braids. That’s my first memory of being harassed for “immodesty” in Iran. I was seven. 

Reader, this story is one of many that I know about Iran. My country first showed me that, ever since girls are young, it would instill modesty into their minds to support patriarchal values. Women are told to cover up and to obey authority figures who oftentimes won’t hesitate to use unsolicited power and violence. This first image of Iran depicts people living in an environment of oppression. 

The second scene paints a picture of the Islamic Republic, which came into power in Iran in 1978. Women are taking a stand against the Republic’s rule, cutting their hair and burning their hijabs; not because of Islam, but a forced version of the religion. In this tale, Iranians are fighting for the very basic rights many of us often take for granted. 

The third scene depicts a country that I hope the world will one day see, a country in which Iranians will be free. It is an Iran that centres people. It is for this Iran that citizens stand in the frontlines against a ruthless oppressor. 

Of an interaction with a janitor

After living in Canada for a few years, my family and I moved back to Iran. In the time that followed, I experienced my second incident of being harassed for being “immodest,” and this time, my aggressor was a man.

When I was 14, my high school janitor demanded that I step out of his way. I didn’t. I don’t remember whether I acted out of spite or simply because there wasn’t enough physical space for me to move to at that moment, but I planted my feet firmly on the ground and waited.

This janitor’s reaction? He slapped me. For the remainder of the day, I argued with myself over whether or not I should report the incident to someone. I want to say that my reasoning for not reporting was because I didn’t want to get the janitor in trouble — but the more truthful reason is that I thought I could have been the one who was in the wrong. 

Despite my internal conflict, I confessed the incident to my parents later that night, expecting them to be mad at me for not moving out of the janitor’s way. They obviously weren’t — there will never be an excusable reason for an adult to hit a teenage girl — and the following day, they accompanied me to the principal’s office to discuss what had happened. 

The principal didn’t believe me — at least, not until my parents filed a formal complaint. My parents, the principal, and I offered the janitor an ultimatum: he would apologize, or he would lose his job. He doubled down: “Apologizing to an immodest little girl is the last thing I will ever do.”

In the following months, the janitor seemed to always be lurking outside my school. He would stare me down and yell sexist, derogatory terms at me. I felt unsafe.

A while afterward, my principal called me into his office and asked whether I was willing to withdraw my complaint against the janitor, allowing him to return to his job. I answered “no” — I was uncomfortable with the fact that he’d continued to harass me even after the incident. 

My principal accepted my answer, but from then on, he made my school life hell. He tried to catch me wearing my uniform improperly, attempted to isolate me from my classmates, and threatened me with warnings of suspension and expulsion if I acted against my school’s code of conduct. 

I moved back to Canada for university and have not returned to Iran since. While I am traumatized by events such as these, I recognize that my experience with the Islamic regime is just a pinch of the treatment that women living in Iran are subjected to daily.

The saddest part, in my opinion, is that these misogynistic, harmful actions have become normalized. Iran wasn’t always like this. However, when the first leader after the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, came into power, he ensured that all the citizens of Iran had to practice Islamic dress and modesty. After Khomeini’s death, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, established the country’s Guidance Patrol, which is widely nicknamed the ‘morality police.’ In Islam, there’s always been an informal morality police; in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, a market inspector oversaw public morals during trading; they were appointed by the government to prevent fraud and protect travelling traders. Over the centuries, though, the police took on greater responsibility for moral standards, including how women dress.

Legally, if convicted of dressing immodestly, Iranian women will face fines. Those who do not cover their hair can receive up to 74 violent lashes. In reality, police have killed, raped, and tortured Iranian women — all with the supposed intention of teaching them ‘morality.’ Read that again.

When I lived in Tehran, I didn’t think twice about wearing a hijab or seeing the morality police. Here are some general rules I learned when living in Iran: married women cannot leave the country without their husbands’ permission, women are not allowed to watch men’s sports in stadiums, a man can marry up to four women at one time but a woman can only marry one husband, women are prohibited from singing and dancing publicly, and young women cannot wear makeup and nail polish in school. 

In short, the incident with the janitor was not new — Iranian women have been tormented for being what others perceive to be immodest their entire lives. 

Of death to a dictator

Four years after I moved out of Tehran, another woman my age was arrested on the city’s streets. This new target of Iran’s “morality police” was brought into custody 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 woman collapsed before eventually being taken to hospital. Upon arrival, doctors discovered that she was brain dead. Two days later, on September 16, she died in the hospital. She was 22. 

This woman’s name was Jîna, which means ‘life’ in Kurdish. The first part of the name — Jîn — is etymologically related to the word Jin, the Kurdish word for woman. But the world knows her by her Iranian name, Mahsa Amini

This is because Amini could not legally register her true name. In Iran, Kurdish names are banned by clerical authorities. Kurds are an ethnic minority of Iran — one that has long faced persecution and discrimination. 

The ease with which violence struck Amini is inseparable from who she was: a young woman, an ethnic and religious minority, and a person with no ties to the ruling classes. Maybe these are the factors which sparked public attention; maybe the protests began because young women from Iran saw what happened to Amini and realized, “This could have been me.” 

After Amini’s funeral on September 17, protests began in her home region, the province of Kurdistan. Soon afterward, these protests spread to 80 Iranian cities and swelled into the country’s capital. Iranian women burned hijabs and cut their hair in public and on social media to stand in solidarity with Amini. Crowds chanted “death to the dictator” in public squares. These protests have gone international — on October 6, the movement gained widespread attention at U of T when hundreds marched in solidarity with Iranian protests. 

But what protestors outside Iran don’t see is the Iranian government cracking down. On October 2, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps held students hostage in the country’s Sharif University of Technology. The incident began after a group of students were reprimanded by campus security and its reinforcements for staging a walkout and engaging in anti-regime chants. Security forces tear-gassed and shot students with paintballs. 

To put this incident into perspective, Sharif University is one of the most prestigious universities in Iran, with the brightest minds in the country — if it were Harvard, Cambridge, or even U of T, every academic, student, and professor would be outraged. An attack on a university is an attack on all students; an attack on university is an attack on the bright minds that will create our better future. 

It’s not just future leaders who are suffering — it’s present ones, too. On October 15, the regime set fire to Tehran’s Evin prison, whose cells held political activists, journalists, artists, athletes, and innocent civilians. According to witnesses of the fire, the Iranian government used the fire to pretend that prisoners were trying to escape. During the mayhem, witnesses say, police could kill whomever they chose; during the media attention the fire later received, attention of the protests would be diminished. 

To cover their horrendous actions, the Iranian government has forced the relatives of murdered protestors to publicly lie about their loved ones’ cause of death. Many injured protestors are reluctant to seek medical attention, for fear of being detained by the morality police.

A week after Amini’s death, Iran’s already tightly-regulated internet access— the country censors social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — was cut off, resulting in a near-total blackout of internet use across the country. Censorship is increasingly being woven into the structure of Iran; while the Iranian internet comprises 750 networks; only three can connect to the internet beyond the country’s borders. This blockade of information is a calculated effort to keep Iran’s citizens in the dark. A lack of connection to the outside world means less knowledge and less support from people outside the country.

Unfortunately, we’ve reached the point in which the government’s actions are no longer only a concern for the future. Envision a country in which prisoners are the brightest of the country, while criminals are its leaders. This is Iran under the Islamic Republic. 

Of a better Iran

My family immigrated to Canada for the first time when I was eight. We left almost everything behind: our friends, our family, and my childhood home. This move is extremely common among Iranians who are living abroad. Many of us were raised without grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, and cousins around. For the past 43 years, Iranian families have split and our parents have had to leave the country that they have known their entire lives in hopes of giving their children a better life, a life that wasn’t ruled under a strict Islamic regime. 

Regardless of having to be stripped away from home, I consider myself extremely fortunate — and I always have been — for being born into a family that had the capability to immigrate. Moving to Canada has brought me many blessings; the freedom of speech and expression being ingrained into our Charter of Rights and Freedoms are two of the most notable. I wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to write this article if I was still living in Iran. Realistically, I would instead probably have been detained for it. 

If, like me, you’re Iranian and are living abroad, all that is happening back home has transformed the last month of your life. You’ve already heard about everything I’ve referenced in my writing, and you’re already aware of the responsibilities of an Iranian living at home, such as raising awareness and attending protests in your city.

If you’re not Iranian, but have any Iranian friends, neighbours, or acquaintances — check up on them. It is indescribably stressful to hear of your country burning and to watch footage of your people be shot at with minimal warning. To offer the people of Iran solace at this time, I kindly urge you to educate yourself through credible sources about all that’s happening in the country. 

This movement depends entirely on global attention; there’s no specific need for western intervention or money. If you care about the rights of women, now is not the time to turn away. On social media, engage with the hashtags #MahsaAmini, #Iran and #زن_زندگی_آزادی, which translates to “women, life, freedom.” Use your voice and stand with the women of Iran. Stand with every Iranian posting or protesting and risking the real possibility of never being allowed back into the country. Stand with every Iranian who is risking the chance of never seeing their loved ones again. Stand with every woman and man taking the streets every day, fighting for the future of human rights. Stand with Iranians, not to be an activist but to be empathetic toward your fellow human beings.

Iranian people are not synonymous with the Islamic regime; Iran, as a country, is not its government. Iran is vast, and if one day you choose to visit, you’d feel its hospitality all around. Iranians love when people visit their country, and they will never hesitate to invite you over for a cup of tea and a plate of almond cookies or saffron and rosewater ice cream. I cannot wait for the day that the world will experience this Iran, the Iran that I love — an Iran free of the Islamic Regime. The Iran that Iranians want to live in, compared to the current, lifeless version that all citizens feel forced to flee. 

If you’ve read all I have to say and are still struggling to understand the importance of this movement, I challenge you to consider this question: Why are Iranian people putting their life on the line?

Shervin Hajipour is an Iranian singer who was arrested by the country’s authorities for his single, Baraye. Hajipour composed the song from tweets posted by Iranians following Amini’s death; many of them blame Iran’s social, economic, and political ills on its regime. The song, which has been sung by thousands of protesters during demonstrations, was able to answer my question through its lyrics:

“For dancing in the streets / For my sister, your sister, our sisters / For students and their future / For the imprisoned geniuses / For a peaceful life / For Freedom.”