Opinion: Women and youth take the lead in protests against Iran's regime

Feb 1 2023, 5:00 pm

Written for Daily Hive by Golnaz Fakhari, an entrepreneur and Iranian Canadian writer, living in Vancouver.

“Our generation… we’ve seen people die of hunger in Ethiopia for example, but we’ve also seen that teenager who’s living their best life in LA… humankind is idealistic, we always look at the better life circumstances, and want that… I’ve always thought: ‘Why can’t I have that?’”

In a video that has gone viral since her tragic death, Sarina Esmaeilzadeh talks about what life means to her as a 16-year-old teenager living in Karaj, a city 40 kilometres from Tehran, and how she believes her peers share the same values as her. She had a YouTube channel where she shared her passion for cooking, dancing, and conversing. In the same video, she says, “What do people in any country want from their governments: welfare, welfare, welfare…”

She died on September 23, 2022, from severe blows to the head after being beaten by the Islamic Republic regime’s forces.

In one of her videos, she talks about how good freedom feels after being done with school finals, saying, “I have to list what I want to do during the break. All the movies I want to see, all the books I want to read.”

Since the start of the nationwide protests in Iran, sparked by the death of 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman Jina-Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police for what constituted as “improper hijab,” and as a result of decades of oppression, the absence of human rights, economic hardship, and systematic misogyny and corruption, people took to the streets to demand their most basic rights. Women and youth took the lead and Iran is now seeing one of the most inclusive and consistent protests since the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Much like any other revolution in the world, the recent unrest in Iran shares similarities with past protests in the country

For the purposes of this piece, however, I will focus on the facts that make the Woman, Life, Freedom movement unique, both nationally and internationally, as the first women-led uprising in the region. The demography that has shaped this movement, for example, is one of the main differences.

In past protests, where the economy or, in the case of the post-presidential election protests of 2009 known as the Green Movement, people’s demand for a fair count of their votes had been involved, the call for change was not shared by a big segment of the society. Protests, especially during the Green Movement, managed to bring big crowds to the streets; however, people wanted reforms within the body of the government but with the lack of social media, information didn’t surface fast enough, which allowed the regime to crack down on protesters even faster.

The 2017-2018 protests focused on inflation, and thus, they only brought out people most impacted by the economic burden. The 2019-2020 demonstrations, known as Bloody November, were ignited by a 50% to 200% increase in fuel prices overnight in a country rich with natural resources, and it soon became a much broader call for democracy and overthrowing of the regime.

In order to avoid the spread of information about the regime’s atrocities, the Islamic Republic blocked access to the internet all over the country. Barret Lyon, the man behind Opte Project, has created a striking visualization of this nationwide internet shutdown. Based on his work, “On November 16, 2019, green starbursts, representing groups of Iranians, just vanished into the darkness. Some tenuous connections from Iran to the global internet remained, but the lines connecting them grew thinner and stretched further away.” The country was thrust into complete darkness and without the attention of the world, the regime carried out bloodshed that gave November its nickname; based on multiple reports, more than 1,500 people were killed in a span of 12 days.

That’s the problem with dictatorships. Their oppression, poor statecraft skills, and brutality might not immediately impact different sectors of society, but they will leave their mark on the whole nation eventually. First, it attacks the most vulnerable groups then, slowly, it will diminish more rights and affect more people. The Islamic Republic excluded the rights of women and minority groups since its establishment, so it’s not a surprise that both groups are now at the forefront of recent protests.

At the heart of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement is the call for human rights and democracy

After decades of sporadic protests, the majority of the nation is now united on these three principles. The youth that has filled the streets and are carrying out protests in their schools cannot imagine a bright future for themselves as long as their most basic demands and rights are being bullied and rejected by the regime.

The image of Jina-Mahsa Amini herself, a small-town woman with a happy smile and an innocence that is the essence of being young, raised empathy within the nation; she could be anyone’s daughter or sister, she could be any of the young girls who have stormed the streets after her death, to demand justice and to prevent the regime to condemn them to the same fate — what if I’m next? What if my mother, sister, or wife are next?

Iranian millennials and Gen Z are connected to the world. They are educated and a great percentage of them seek to further their education outside of Iran, as a means to have a better life. They follow social media trends; they are great gamers and like to share life experiences with their peers around the world and learn from them, too. Sarina Esmaeilzadeh was one of them. She lip-synced with Hozier’s “Take me to Church” song and talked about concepts that not all 16-year-olds are concerned with.

The world has seen a great number of young activists in the 21st century. From Greta Thunberg’s environmental activism and Jack Petocz’s political strategies to Malala Yousafzai’s fight for girls’ education and Sophia Kianni’s climate activism, the list goes on.

Now, a new generation of activists is emerging from the streets of Iran.

Young girls and boys who attend separate schools will be arrested if seen together in public. They don’t care for the values that the regime is forcing on them, because they have found their own values and are willing to fight to their last breath to achieve them.

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