Ava Seif, a junior psychology major at JMU, lives a double life — split between worrying about her family stuck in the middle of protests on the other side of the world, and life as a college student here in the U.S.
In Iran, 6,665 miles away from Harrisonburg, protesters have been demonstrating against government restrictions against women for nearly three months.
“I have to go from talking about … prisoners they have that were going to be executed in Iran versus, ‘Oh, how’d you do on that exam?’ You know, it makes the world seem so much bigger than me,” Seif said. “I mean, these people are going to lose their lives and I’m worried about how one class grade is going to impact my GPA … It’s a life versus a grade and it doesn’t add up to the scale.”
On Sep. 13, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman from Iran, was beaten by the morality police — enough to be sent into a coma and then pronounced dead after three days in the hospital, according to the BBC. Amini was targeted because her hijab was loose on her head, and her death has sparked a series of youth- and women-led protests in Iran.
After months of protesting, Iran’s attorney general, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, announced Dec. 3 the morality police will be disbanded, according to a Dec. 5 news article by the BBC. The morality police, or Gasht-e Ershad, was formed after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and they’re “tasked with ensuring the respect of Islamic morals and detaining people who are perceived to be “improperly dressed,” according to BBC. This includes women covering all of their hair with a hijab and only wearing loose-fitting clothing that covers their whole body. Time magazine has also named the women of Iran “Heroes of the Year” because of these protests.
Protests against the regime have been prevalent in Iran since the Islamic Revolution, but not to the same scale as in recent months. BBC reported that “for the first time, protests involve people from all sections of society and age groups, and have spread across dozens of cities and towns.” Amini became a face of the protests. Women have burnt their hijabs and cut their hair as acts of defiance.
Bernd Kaussler, a political science professor at JMU who specializes in the history of Iranian politics, said these protests were a “long time coming.”
“It’s always been sort of this demographic time bomb,” Kaussler said. “You have a large majority of highly educated people who are aware of the forces of globalization, what’s happening around the freedoms being enjoyed elsewhere in the world, who are operating within the framework of rather authoritarian governance.”
Delnia Dadkosh, an Iranian entrepreneur who owns Dlnia Hair Salon in Harrisonburg, said her time growing up in Iran was filled with many hardships and difficulties — specifically, in how there isn’t a separation of church and state and women are seen more as property than human.
“We get sell, and this is not only now happening, that’s for whole our life was that I seen that which, is a lot of women, they couldn’t see it because they stuck there. The way they raised … they think this is it … If they are really good woman, they don’t have any hair out and their body doesn’t show and they will never talk. Maybe in heaven, God will forgive them and you can go to the heaven — maybe, not 100%,” Dadkosh said. “You can say nothing to this regime, and they would never be there to help you … They think they mix the religion … with their power.”
Kaussler said the Islamic Republic of Iran has “dual character” that has democratic, authoritarian and Islamic governance elements. He also said the younger generations, mainly Gen Z, don’t remember a time before living under the Islamic Republic rule.
“I feel like social media helped our generation in Iran really understand what they were missing, what they wanted to be a part of, to how they pictured their lives,” Seif said. “I mean, it was all on their phones, and then they wake up to their own reality, and it was like, ‘All right, you have to follow all these morality laws.’ And I’m really proud of them … They have a lot of courage and bravery.”
Kaussler explained that the Islamic Revolution of 1979 took “six months of concentrated strikes [and] protests” to break the monarchy that had been around for two-and-a-half centuries. A majority of people wanted to get rid of the monarchy rather than have an Islamic Republic. Liberal democrats, communists and socialists were all part of the strikes and protests that followed suit.
“Many scholars and students of Iran sort of see the parallels to ’79 and see these revolutionary forces which want to topple what they consider their authority,” Kaussler said. “The government in Iran thinks back of ’79, and they view themselves as the true revolutionaries … They like to view themselves as the anti-imperialist anti-status quo power, but now people are in the streets and trying to do the same to them,” Kaussler said.
When the monarchy fell in 1979, he said, the Islamic revolutionaries were “very keen on making sure that they wouldn’t share power.” He said they were castaway, killed, or subdued and from it came the Islamic Republic and also the Revolutionary Guard Corps whose job it was to make sure that the Islamic Republic “would not suffer the same fate as the monarchy.”
After the shift in governmental power, Kaussler said, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, holds most of the power as he oversees the armed forces and the appointment of the judiciary. These positions answer only to the Supreme Leader, which Khamenei said “defeats the purpose of a democratic checks and balance.” Kaussler said the policies implemented after the revolution were restrictive for women, causing women who wanted to be more independent — like Dadkosh — to struggle in Iran.
“I was the Kurdish girl with a lot of dreams I had and I couldn’t say,” Dadkosh said. “I couldn’t stay there and achieving my dreams … You can’t have your hair out, you can’t have the dress that you like to show in some of your body … You need to be somebody else. You need to be somebody that how they, how they picture, woman. They don’t see you. You are nothing. You just build up for getting married, having some kids and taking care of all this stuff happening.”
JMU students, like Student Body President Shawdee Bakhtiari and Seif, who have connections to Iran, acknowledge that this is a historic moment for the country but said they feel disconnected because they live on the other side of the world.
“Obviously, I have a personal stake in the fact that I am Iranian, and that does mean something to me, but I think in that sense of kind of being displaced from the actual environment,” Bakhtiari said.
Seif said the time differences play a big part in knowing what’s going on with her family because Iran eight-and-a-half hours ahead, so the information she does learn is old.
“I think the hardest thing has been the lack of information, because as far as listening to any news channels, whether they’re Iranian or not, they’re usually behind, like they’re delayed at least by a day,” Seif said.
Bakhtiari said she’s “desensitized” to these types of events because they’re always happening. For instance, she said when Iranian officials “turn off the internet,” she’s aware of it because her family in the U.S. can’t reach her family in Iran.
“It’s something that I’ve just grown up with … I’m just happy to be able to have the connections to know what they’re going through and, like, how they’re handling it,” Bakhtiari said. “I kind of compare it to like, when there were a lot of protests here in America … I have any type of like, natural concern, but I don’t feel like I have this, like, heightened fear monger type of concern, ift that makes sense.”
Democracy Fellows at JMU’s Madison Center for Civic Engagement, Adrik Bagdasarian and Jason Whitted, said it’s important for people to have conversations about what’s going on in different countries like Iran. Bagdasarian is also part of the Woodson Martin Immigration and Democracy Initiative, which educates people on issues facing marginalized and immigrant communities, compared what’s happening in Iran to the suffrage movement in the U.S.
“[Iran is] under a government that has rules that oppresses them, and doesn’t give them civic rights and human rights,” Bagdasarian said. “There’s a very clear parallel to the suffrage movement we had in our own country. I think it’s really important for college students — young people — to know about this, because it’s something that has faced our country and is now facing another country.”
Whitted said it’s important to know about these events to better understand JMU’s diverse community, especially in Harrisonburg, which he said is a sanctuary city. Harrisonburg is also a refugee resettlement area that provides multiple resources for immigrants.
“I think it’s especially important to focus on what’s going on across the world because the city is directly impacted by the awful things that happened in other places,” Whitted said. “A lot of asylum seekers come to Harrisonburg, a lot of immigrants come to Harrisonburg. I think we should try to have an understanding of where they’re coming from, so we can have a better understanding of our community.”
While agreeing that this is an important issue students should be informed on, Bakhtiari said when many students aren’t directly affected, it’s hard for them to be cognizant of the situation.
“You have to take with a grain of salt that, like, as you know, in this society, when things are not pertinent to you, it’s not always going to be something that you’re thinking about,” Bakhtiari said. “I do think that it’s very important because these types of things are very central to the culture of what it means to be a university-aged student.”
Although news of these protests has died down in recent weeks, events such as the World Cup and other sporting events with Iranian citizens have shined the spotlight on the country — from the Iranian soccer team protesting by not singing the national anthem before its match in Qatar to Elnaz Rekabi’s hijab falling off during her climbing competition in South Korea, which was “inadvertent,” according to BBC.
“A lot of people my age right now have been paying attention to what’s been happening with the soccer players on Iran’s national team and how there’s been pushback by the Iranian regime against their refusal to sing the national anthem,” Whitted said. “I think that’s kind of exposed a lot of people to these issues that normally wouldn’t have an understanding of them.”
It’s been speculated that the Iranian soccer team will receive a punishment of some kind and Rekabi already has, according to BBC, which reported that Rekabi was forced to apologize.
Kaussler said free speech in the U.S. isn’t a luxury Iranians have.
“I think the greatest gift the West can give to people of Iran who are demanding human rights and democracy is to advocate for them and be their voice,” Kaussler said. “We all in the United States and Europe tend to take these protests and demonstrations of free speech for granted. But it’s not the case for somebody to go out in the street without a job as a woman and protest against the government, protest against human rights violations, go outside prisons, demand for the prisons to open and for them to release the incarcerated protesters. This is an incredible amount of courage. It’s really unseen … in the recent history of the Middle East.”
News of these protests isn’t circulating as much as it did a few weeks ago, Seif said.
“It’s a very accurate way to describe everything and anything on social media, you know, it pops up. It’s a trend, it’s a, it’s a fad, and then it’s gone,” Seif said. “And I think it did its job of spreading awareness to the point that now, if you mentioned an update, people will know.”
Kaussler said there’s currently a media blackout in Iran, also reported by BBC, which has reduced the number of videos that have been put on social media. People have to dig on different platforms to know what’s going on in the country. Kaussler said this may be to take the focus off of what’s happening in the country. Seif also mentioned that in her experience, when calling relatives in Iran, the call will drop if some key words like “protest” or “gun violence” are spoken.
“The greatest gift to the [Iranian] government will be that people would lose interest in the West and nobody’s talking about it,” Kaussler said. “They’re certainly hoping that this would happen, that with most things people tend to lose interest as it drags on. We’ve seen that with Ukraine and Russia and the American public. That solidarity always has an expiration date.”
Even so, Bakhtiari said it’s still impressive how far the news was able to reach and that she still sees updates and posts pop up on social media.
“The fact that it lasted as long as it did, I was like, ‘Wow … honestly, that’s pretty impressive,’” Bakhtiari said. “I think that was kind of interesting, like the longevity in and of itself. Like, of course, I was disappointed for it to lose traction, but the longevity really impressed me.”
With Iran’s Attorney General saying the morality police “have been shut down from where they were set up,” Bakhtiari said she believes this is a move the government is making to hopefully “dampen the protests.”
“I think that this is something that has even jarred the regime … I think that this is kind of like a cat and mouse game, almost of like, giving a little to get a little,” Bakhtiari said. “I think that it’s a very interesting move, I think it probably comes a lot from the pressure.”
Seif said she doesn’t want the disbanding of the morality police to “encourage the people to stop protesting.” It’s just a temporary fix, she said, put in place to distract from the bigger picture.
“That’s not going to change the culture of the government and of what’s going on, it’s not going to help, and I think they need to keep pushing for Iran,” Seif said. “I think it’s really just the government trying to bribe the people. Give them something just like, like a little treat to get them to stop, which I think is so demeaning.”
Seif said seeing the amount of damage that’s taken place is “devastating” but that “a healing has already started.”
Even so, that damage from across the world can reach community members in Harrisonburg.
One Iranian person who The Breeze asked to speak to for this story said they couldn’t do the interview, even if it was anonymous, because they had family still in Iran — any publicity with their name attached, they said, could put their family’s safety at risk.
Contact Shirin Zia Faqiri at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter at @BreezeNewsJMU.