Iranian Students Protest

Protesters gathered in the Quad on Sept. 23 to raise awareness of Masha

Amini’s death.

While thousands in Iran have died or been arrested protesting the death of Mahsa Amini, Iranian students at SIUE feel powerless to help. 

Maede Shahin is president and founder of the Iranian Student Association at SIUE. Shahin said her inspiration to create the association was the associations of other international students. 

“I saw that some international students … have their own community, and this helped them a lot in order to support each other and have this network, so Iranian students should have something like that too,” Shahin said. 

Shahin said support is something that Iranian students at SIUE, thousands of miles away from their families, could use. Since the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022, protests have occurred across Iran that have left hundreds dead and thousands arrested. The morality police, an entity in Iran responsible for enforcing the country’s hijab requirement, have been widely blamed for much of the violence surrounding these protests. 

“Mahsa Amini was a 22-year-old  girl who … did not survive the morality police officers,” Shahin said. “There’s violence towards women in Iran because of not wearing what the government wants them to wear.”

Amini was arrested on the grounds of wearing an improper hijab, according to the Iranian government. The protests surrounding the death of Mahsa Amini are not the first in Iran, but are notable for their longevity and brutality. 

“The Islamic Republic of Iran has been there for about 40 years,” Shahin said. “Through all those years we have been under that violence, and it was like suddenly an activation … throughout the whole society … Through all these 40 years we have been asking for our freedom, for our liberty, for our normal life, for our human rights, but all we have gotten as a reply from them is gunshots.”

Sarina Fatahizadeh, a chemistry student at SIUE, said that when the protests kept going, the government became more brutal towards the populace. 

“It got worse and worse, so they started to protest and people didn’t go to work, the stores were closed, and then the government started to … kill people in the street,” Fatahizadeh said. “Women, young people, children … In some cities it’s like war. You can see the guns and machines that are just used for war, not for protests.”

Fatahizadeh also said many of the arrests and deaths have occurred in the younger generations of Iran’s population – many not much older than college students. 

“After that, they arrested a lot of people,” Fatahizadeh said. “Most of them … are young people, between 22 and 30, and now they are sentencing them to die. It was yesterday or two days ago, a young boy was killed by them. They sentenced him to die.”

Sophia Wilson is an assistant professor with the political science department, and has led a series of webinars committed to combating misinformation and propaganda about the Russian war in Ukraine. Wilson, who is Ukrainian, said she wishes to conduct a webinar in a similar vein in order to educate people on the current crisis in Iran, but has so far had trouble organizing one. 

Wilson said Iran is becoming a very important actor on the global stage, especially in its “desperate” alliance with Russia. 

“2022 has been and 2023 is guaranteed to be very decisive in changing global history. Lots of things will be different after 2023,” Wilson said. “I don’t know how many people realize that, but the world has changed this year, and it will continue changing. In just a year it will be something completely different than what we had the year before in terms of [the] global system … Tens of millions of people’s lives will be affected by that directly.”

Fatahizadeh said she wished she could do more to help the protestors from the U.S., but feels powerless to do so. 

“If I was there, I would go to the street and do protests with other people, but I know my family [and] what they would feel. I know they would be worried like other families for other people,” Fatahizadeh said. “I read something over Instagram [about] a teenager who wanted to go to protests, and he said he wrote a note for his mom and said, ‘I’m sorry, you might not be able to see me grow old,’ and he died. It’s like that. Nothing is good, being here or being there.”

Shahin said the influx of news from Iran, both televised and directly from their families, has caused Iranian students a lot of stress and anxiety. 

“Mahsa was not only a girl who was beaten up and killed in Iran, she is a sister – she is one of us. It could be me, it could be my mother, my sister, my beloved ones,” Shahin said. “This was really hard for all of us, and still people are protesting … So you can imagine how hard it can be for all the Iranian students who are following the news to hear or see all those videos that we get from Iran and still bearing their schoolwork or being far away from their family. [It] is so important for us to see the support or the solidarity from the school, but to be honest, we have not.”

Shahin said she has tried to take it upon herself to demonstrate solidarity for the Iranian population at SIUE.

“The government back in Iran is so powerful, [and] I myself as a student do not see that much of a power in myself to do anything,” Shahin said. “[I want to] show solidarity so more and more people know about what’s going on in Iran in the hope of getting more international attention towards what’s happening in Iran … So the other people know that this is not the government that they want to have.”

Wilson said awareness of global events is critical, especially to U.S. voters, who have a direct impact on events that may occur on the other side of the planet. 

“This college is not very large,” Wilson said. “I think SIUE should hire more people who study the countries, and then we could do more to inform people. But any kind of awareness is very important – it’s vital – because U.S. voters are the major drivers behind U.S. foreign policy, and U.S. foreign policy affects the fate of people all over the world.”

Wilson said the anti-state movement in Iran will likely be one of the defining moments of 2023, particularly for the Iranian people and government. 

“Not every anti-state movement is the same, but in Iran the anti-state movement is gaining momentum. It will not be quick, because the security forces of Iran are numerous and trained and share determination to continue antisocial suppression, suppression of society, using violence,” Wilson said. “That willingness to use severe violence to suppress protestors when the anti-state awareness movements are growing at the same time … is a recipe for a very difficult situation to unfold. In the coming months, in 2023, it is going to be very difficult for the people of Iran.”

Shahin said her efforts to coordinate with others on campus to spread awareness about the Iran protests have been met with difficulty. 

“Iranian students, as a part of [the] SIUE family, really need this solidarity or needed to hear something from [the] school,” Shahin said. “Some students tried emailing the chancellor asking him to show some perspectives or solidarity … But they got no results, as you can see. None of us received any emails from him. I myself went to some of the Association and they were just like, ‘You can do that, you can do this,’ but the whole thing was that we preferred the school to show that they care. Yes, I’m an Iranian student, we have our own programs – we even went to Washington, D.C. to do our own stuff – but nothing special happened here at SIUE.”

Shahin suggested starting with offering specific counseling for those affected by the Iran crisis, particularly to alleviate the signs of depression and stress she said she sees in her Iranian classmates. 

“The slogan of Iranian people these days [is] ‘Women, Life, Freedom,” Shahin said. “Women have been through sexual discrimination through all these 40 years, and this discrimination is not only toward women, but also other people with any different ideas or identities from the Islamic Republic regime have been through all these difficulties.”

Fatahizadeh said she hopes to spread awareness as well, not just among the Iranian students, but among the population on campus as a whole.

“I want to, those who are into news or politics, to try to [better] understand what exactly is happening in Iran. It’s not just about women’s right, it’s about human rights. What’s happening in Iran is far [worse] than [the] death of a young woman,” Fatahizadeh said. “It’s been going on for more than 40 years in my country. It’s not just now, or five  years ago. They’ve been doing this, and I don’t know, somehow the world is quiet. I don’t know what the problem is … I want the people to know that. It’s like a war – it’s worse than a war – because no one is worried about us. That’s the biggest problem."

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