The opinions writer who authored this essay asked not to be identified by her full name because of safety concerns.
Hearing “Woman, Life, Freedom” chanted at protests nationwide as a rallying cry for women’s rights in Iran over the past months has been a jarring experience for me. I came to GW for the location and opportunities, including the ability to protest for my country – whether it’s at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial or in front of the State Department.
But my excitement quickly turned to disappointment as I pitched the idea to my parents. They advised me not to go – attending could jeopardize the safety of our relatives in Iran.
As a second-generation Iranian-American, it was encouraging to see so many of my classmates take part in the worldwide protests. They erupted after Iran’s notorious morality police beat 22-year-old Mahsa Amini to death in September for not wearing the required hijab properly with women leading the uproar to change the country’s strict hijab laws.
D.C. activists have organized protests every Saturday, and, as a student living in the District where the makers of our foreign policy work, I had the perfect opportunity to get involved in a cause that was personal to me. So many of my relatives have stories about the morality police, and I’ve seen this violence toward women while visiting my home country over the years.
I felt like I was not authentically Iranian because I didn’t take action along with the others, constantly telling everyone I couldn’t protest for the safety of my family. Here was an opportunity to advocate for my parents’ home country – the culture that shaped who I am today – and yet I was scared of the very real possible consequence that my family would be threatened. I was disappointed and I even felt that my parents were being paranoid – they’re convinced the Iranian government has spies in many places, especially major metropolitan areas like D.C. One of my politically active relatives living in the District had the police visit her home in Iran, and my parents didn’t want to take any chances.
Losing the chance to protest just as quickly as the opportunity arose was almost worse than not being able to protest at all. I envied my classmates as I watched their Instagram stories and saw them attend protests every week since Amini’s killing. They had never been to Iran and had all their family in the United States, safely removed from the political unrest. But seeing classmates from both home and GW post infographics on Instagram was disheartening. These posts tended to oversimplify the situation and ignore the very real threat the country’s authoritarian government poses to demonstrators, even if they were shared with good intentions.
Yet Western awareness of the Iranian regime’s violence against women has had many real effects, like the removal of Iran from the UN Commission on the Status of Women in December. I was glad people were recognizing the oppression women face in Iran and the Middle East, but why did it take such brutality for Western countries to become educated on the matter? I laughed when one friend asked whether I thought there would be a revolution. Little did they know, my family and I had spent years hoping for change – only for the government to continue its religious and social oppression, leaving us cynical and with little hope. At such a politically active university, hearing people talk about the treatment of Iranian women in a much more educated and active manner than my majority-white high school in Orange County, California was definitely a refreshing experience. High school back home wasn’t the best place to grow up connected to my culture.
I returned to California for winter break and decided to attend a small local protest in Irvine with some friends on the condition that we had to cover our faces, not post on social media and avoid being photographed. I felt safer doing so in a suburban environment that would be less likely to receive media coverage. Protesting helped me take a smaller step toward making change, and I returned to D.C. determined to make a difference through the GW and local communities such as the Iranian Student Association on campus and protests that I’m now resolved to attend. After protesting at home, I realized it was possible to protect my identity while also being involved in the movement, and the feeling of solidarity I experienced at the march made it clear that taking action was worth it.
As we approach the six-month mark of the protests in mid-March, I’m ashamed I let myself go this long without protesting as the Iranian people have put their lives in consistent danger for this cause. Joining the IRSA, meeting so many second-generation Iranians with the same experience and organizing together made me feel more involved. The government continues to silence protesters, from average Iranian citizens to famed actresses, with unjust murders and executions. The Iranian protesters must face the fear of the torture and rape that is committed in Iranian prisons every time they step outside – yet they continue to rally.
This movement is personal for me. My friend who moved from Iran in elementary school saw the morality police beat a woman for wearing a hijab that was slightly loose, and one of my parent’s friends was detained in prison for protesting. These and other stories have inspired me to take action from my place of relative safety in the United States, and they serve as a reminder of the strength and endurance of the people of Iran.
As I prepare to join the protests within the next month, I would like to thank Iranians and non-Iranians alike who have protested ceaselessly every week. I hope that 2023 brings better things to the country and community.
Ava E. is an opinions writer.
This article appeared in the February 13, 2023 issue of the Hatchet.