As human rights protests continue in Iran, Michigan residents hold solidarity events
Mahsa Amini died while in custody of Iran's morality police in September. Since then, protests have spread across the country. The demonstrations about Amini's death have turned into calls for broader freedoms in Iran.
The men's World Cup soccer tournament has brought even more attention to human rights in Iran. Tuesday's schedule includes a match between the Iranian national team and the United States.
Here in Michigan, there have been local events to show solidarity with the protesters in Iran. On Morning Edition, Michigan Radio spoke to two organizers who are Michigan residents originally from Iran. One is Iman Harsini. The other is a woman who asked that we not use her real name because of safety concerns. She requested that we call her Mahsa, in tribute to Amini.
A growing wave of protests
Both Harsini and Mahsa still have family and friends in Iran.
"From what I hear from my parents and my friends on social media or speaking directly with them, the protests have been spreading and intensifying throughout the country. More than 150 cities, especially in Tehran, where my parents live and most of my friends," Harsini said. "In every neighborhood, you can hear protests, especially at night. You can hear people chanting."
He says violence is not uncommon.
"At times, there are clashes between protesters and security forces. I've seen clips of the security forces forcefully entering the apartment complexes, hitting cars, and even beating and killing people," he said. "So it's very, very horrifying what's happening."
Demands for change
Mahsa says enforcement of morality laws is at the root of the protests.
"Iranian authorities and regime so-called 'morality police' are responsible for enforcing the hijab and dress-code mandates. These agents have the power to stop women and men and examine everything from the coverage of their hair and body to their makeup and nail polish," she said.
But the death of Amini has led Iranians to take a closer look at other aspects of their society.
"Right now, there are so many things that they're asking for. For women, singing and dancing in public is illegal. Women cannot attend men's sporting events. They cannot leave the country without their husband's consent, if they're married, and they do not have the right to divorce their husbands. So everyone, men and women right now shoulder to shoulder, are asking for gender equality," Mahsa said.
Harsini and Mahsa are part of a group called PS752 Justice that was formed after a Ukrainian flight was shot down by Iranian military forces in 2020. Now that group is working on solidarity protests in other countries..
"The people of Iran from all walks of life, across ethnicities, across ages, are demanding fundamental change and in solidarity," Harsini said. "We have been holding protests here in Michigan alongside more than 100 cities across the world, including a big one in Toronto. More than 50,000 people attended. And one in Berlin, more than 80,000 people attended."
"Iranians really don't know how it feels like to live a normal life."Michigan resident and Iranian immigrant Mahsa on life in Iran since the country's Islamic revolution in 1979
Fears of returning to Iran
Both Mahsa and Harsini have been protesting publicly and voicing their support for anti-government demonstrators on social media. They're concerned about what would happen if they went back to Iran to visit.
"It is not safe. For example, I had a flight in November that I had booked a while back. I had to cancel that one. I wanted to go to see my old grandmother. And right now, to be honest, I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to see her ever," Mahsa said.
"[T]here is a very big chance that I won't even be able to see anyone. There are so many people that as as soon as they put their foot in that country that were just kidnapped and weeks can pass by. Months passed by and no one hears from them."
Communication has also been challenging because the Iranian government is blocking and heavily censoring the internet.
"It's been very difficult speaking to my parents. We haven't been in touch in so long. Sometimes they find a [virtual private network] that can kind of bypass the internet censorship so that we can talk. Other people who are protesting and filming and want to spread the word, they do the same," Harsini said. "But sometimes the internet shutdown is so massive that no VPN can go around it. There are very limited internet access in Iran, and that's one of the demands that we are hoping we can get to."
A different energy
There have been other protests in Iran over the years, including the 2009 green movement that followed a disputed election, but Harsini sees something new in the current demonstrations.
"We are living in a very different time [and] people are fed up. So this time around, it doesn't seem that people are backing down, and they want to go all the way and change the regime," he said.
"Right now, it's been over 40-something years after the [Iranian] revolution [in 1979]. Iranians really don't know how it feels like to live a normal life," she said. "They're asking for so many fundamental changes and a regime change. For example, freedom of speech, free expression, freedom of assembly. They want fair trials, and they're just sick of the funding of Iranian government of terrorism, and the government corruption."
Mahsa believes protestors in Michigan and around the world are helping by making the global spotlight on Iran even brighter.
"Because of the [Iranian] censorship and Internet crackdown, the people living abroad and outside of Iran are really playing a huge role in amplifying the voice of this opposition. That's why everybody is just putting their differences aside and uniting to help the people of Iran."
Editor's note: Some quotes in this story have been edited for length and clarity. You can hear the full interview near the top of this page.