‘This is very much a fight for everyone.’
The struggle for human rights in Iran should not be ignored.
It may have been largely absent from western media, but halfway across the world there is a desperate fight for human rights taking place. Chants of ‘death to the dictator’ echo in the streets of Iran, as the death toll steadily rises. For people outside of Iran with no connections to the country the protests can seem distant – hardly mentioned in the press or on social media. But for those with family and friends in Iran, the situation is very real. Even publicly posting on social media from the UK or attending a vigil can be risky when there could potentially be consequences for loved ones in Iran. Here in the UK it is easy to take our ability to peacefully protest or criticise the government for granted. Watching several of my Iranian friends cover their faces at a vigil for Iran in St Andrews was a sombre reminder that elsewhere in the world, the freedom to speak out against oppression is still being fought for.
In September of this year, a young woman, Mahsa (Jina) Amini, was arrested and beaten by the regime’s morality police for allegedly failing to comply with Iran’s strict hijab laws. After being taken to hospital in a coma, she later died, sparking a wave of condemnation and protest throughout Iran and the rest of the world. Now almost two months on, Iran has issued its first death sentence over the protests that have erupted throughout the country. Human rights groups have warned that it is likely further executions will follow. Reports suggest that already over 300 people have been killed in the protests and over 15,000 have been detained. But the Iranian regime’s horrific treatment of protesters goes beyond executions. Since the 1980s, there has been evidence that young female prisoners who are virgins are often raped and forced into marriage the night before they are executed. For context, under Iranian law, a minor cannot be executed if she is still a virgin. The word ‘minor’ should be emphasised here. These protesters who are being detained are children and teenagers, young people who, instead of facing exams and classes, are facing arrest and execution.
The situation in Iran is shocking for anyone to hear about, but even more terrifying for those with connections to the country. An Iranian student studying in St Andrews, whose parents are in Tehran, spoke of the impact of reading such stories. ‘It definitely is difficult to open up social media and to see all of these horrific things that are happening to young people, to children in my country, and it’s hard to know that this is a place where my family live. Not just my immediate family but there are uncles and aunts, cousins, friends from my childhood.’ Even communicating with friends and family to confirm their safety is difficult at times. Communication is easier than it was at the beginning of the protests, she explains, but being able to chat is not guaranteed. ‘We’ve been able to facetime, but you never know, it’s always on and off so I can never be certain I’ll be able to get through to them.’ I’m reminded of the situation a year or two ago during the Covid pandemic, and how grateful I was then to be able to stay in touch with friends and family despite being physically separated. It’s hard to imagine the anxiety caused by not always being able to check up on family at the press of a button. But, she says, she doesn’t have any right to complain as ‘they’re in the thick of it which makes it the most difficult… it’s a matter of me trying to keep my mental health strong and be there for my family.’
I asked her how she feels about the response from the community in the UK and St Andrews to the situation in Iran, as it hasn’t escaped my notice that coverage of the protests is curiously sparse on social media and in the press. One could draw comparisons with the invasion of Ukraine which (rightly of course) received and is still receiving widespread attention in the media, as well as an immediate statement of support from the university. She agrees that Iran has received little to no western media coverage and tells me of the anger felt by Iranian students at the response from the university. ‘The fact that our principal hasn’t said anything, hasn’t reached out to us, the fact that it took the university over two weeks to even reach out to anyone was abysmal… it was incredibly disappointing for all of us.’
What’s happening in Iran right now is shocking, and worthy of attention not just because of the violence and human rights violations perpetrated by the regime, but also because of the incredible courage and resilience of the protesters. As the student I spoke to told me, ‘This is a movement for women’s rights, this is a movement for human rights and for freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of expression. This is very much a fight for everyone.’ Just because it is not being covered in the media does not mean that we should ignore events in Iran, especially when here in St Andrews we are surrounded by friends and fellow students whose families are directly affected.
Jin, Jiyan, Azadî. Women, Life, Freedom. That is what these protests are about, and we should all be paying attention.