A Revolution for the Rights of Women, Life and Freedom

Calgarians add their voices to those calling for change
An illustration of a woman with hair flying in the colours of the Iranian flag which protesters were holding in front of City Hall in Calgary on Oct. 8, 2022 during their protest in support of the Iranian people against the violence in Iran due to the death of Mahsa Amini. Photo: HAJAR AL KHOUZAII

It was Sept. 13, 2022, when Mahsa Amini walked  through the streets of Tehran, Iran,  with family and friends, exploring the capital. Within minutes, members of Iran’s morality police confronted Amini, asking her to come with them, they put her in a van, not allowing her family to see her until she was dead. Her crime? “Improperly” wearing her hijab. Her desperate family rushed her to hospital. She never regained consciousness due to the beating she received ,never had the chance to tell her story. But the world has been doing so ever since. 

“We are fighting for the most beautiful purpose there ever is, it’s freedom. And it’s in the name of women and life, and nothing will ever be like it was in the past, everything has changed in Iran,” said Mohammed, a human rights activist living in Tehran. Article 1  has agreed not to use Mohammed’s real name to protect his personal safety.

Mohamed said anytime there’s been any type of human rights protest organized by the Iranian people in his city of Tehran, he was always involved, therefore the women, life, and freedom protests were a new revolution he wanted to be a part of. Mohammed said his day consists of fighting for the women, life, freedom cause day and night. He says his life is always in danger whether he lives inside or outside of Iran as the regime is making sure that anyone fighting for this cause faces fear and intimidation.

“Right now in Iran I’m doing two things,” said Mohammed. In the day time I am being a voice and trying to take my voice beyond the borders of Iran. I’m trying to inform everybody of what’s going to happen.” 

“At night I go to the streets, I fight for freedom.” 

Nastaran Bazzazi, one the organizers of the Women Life, Freedom protests shouts “Women, Life, Freedom,” in support of Iran and the Iranian people at Calgary’s City Hall on Oct. 8, 2022. PHOTO: HAJAR AL KHOUZAII

Protests in Iran started in Amini’s hometown of Saqqez and spread to other cities in the country shortly after her death. Worldwide protests were also organized and Canadians in Calgary,  Ontario, and a few more provinces in the country were amongst those who took to the streets in support of the Iranian. 

“Just like the protesters of Iran, [we]are saying, this revolution is for our sisters, and we won’t stop,” said Nastaran Bazzazi, one of the Calgary protest organizers.

Another organizer, Eghbal Kayadan, hasn’t been able to go to Iran in 30 years because of his vocal opposition to the regime. Kayadan said Amini is  the only person the regime has killed because of a hijab, and now people are demanding reform.

“The people now want more than just to protest for human rights, they now want to change that regime, we want the freedom of Iran,” said Kayadan.

Protests in Calgary have been ongoing since the start of what Iranians are calling “the Iranian revolution.”

“Every Iranian wants their voices to be heard, and we want it to be heard every week, and not to disappear from the news,” said Armin Zarringhalam, one of the Calgary protest organizers. 

[We want] “to keep this ongoing revolution sparked up until we see a free Iran.”

Since the protests began in Iran, a nationwide internet blackout and restrictions on social media have been imposed. Both Kayadan and Mohammed said, Iranians have evidence and videos of the brutality against the protestors but the problem is the government shutting down the internet.  

“They are switching the internet off in the hope that we wouldn’t reach our voice beyond our borders,” said Mohammed.

The Iranian government has recently admitted that 300 people have been killed since the start of the unrest but that number is much lower than the over 600 that activist groups say have died.

The association of religion and violence

Many women and schoolchildren have been playing an important role in the demonstrations. During the demonstrations, women have been taking off their hijabs, some burning them, others holding scissors and cutting their hair to show the world that life and humanity is more important than a head cover and hair. However, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, dismissed the protests as “riots’ caused by foreign states and dissidents abroad. 

According to Mohammed, and Zarringhalam, the government is using and justifying violence in the name of religion, which only spreads hate between people of different faiths.

“This regime is taking something in the name of Islam, just like every other terrorist organization, and starts doing these cruel things in the name of Islam, which is just not what Islam represents at all,” said Zarringhalam.

Michael Hawley, a professor of religious studies at Mount Royal University, said the relationship between religion and violence is a complicated one as there are a lot of nuances, both to religion and to violence.

“This whole regime getting into power was through a lie.”

— Armin Zarringhalam, protest organizer

“It is simply assumed, falsely, that Islam promotes violence and that Islam is oppressive to women, and it is very much a cultural assumption,” said Hawley.

Hawley said more often than not, women are both the targets of violence and the objects of intervention, and this is the case in Iran. He added that both secularists and the religiously faithful claim they are the ones protecting women, leaving women in harm and putting them in the middle.

“There has been over the course of history, particularly with respect to Muslim majority countries, a discourse of protecting women from oppressive, patriarchal, backward, violent religion. This is evident in the West’s attempt to overthrow governments.”

The hijab and why it’s important

Head coverings can come in many forms, but the hijab often specifically refers to a cloth wrapped around the head, neck and chest, covering the hair and neck but leaving the face visible.

Even though the hijab is mandatory in Islam, said Hawley,  the religion itself doesn’t require women to wear it by force, instead, it is to be understood through education. However, there have been attempts to forcefully unveil women in and by Muslim states, and what the hijab means based on people’s expression of faith is going to vary for each Muslim woman, he said. 

As for the violence in Iran, it can be regarded as negative when viewing Islam as a religion especially because it is a Muslim state, Hawley said.

“A Muslim person can argue that, ‘No, you guys are misunderstanding, I am against the violence that happened to Mahsa Amini, I am pro-choice of the hijab.’ But you’re blaming my religion for no reason, because they understand the religion more than someone who is non-Muslim, non-Christian, non-Jewish,” said Hawley.

A protester staring directly in the eye of the camera surrounded by signs asking for a “free Iran,” in Calgary’s 17 Ave. SW, on Sept. 25, 2022. PHOTO: HAJAR AL KHOUZAII.
The Iranian Islamic government

After the 1953 Iranian coup d’état, the Iranian monarch, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, aligned Iran with the Western Bloc and refined a close relationship with the United States in order to strengthen his power as an authoritarian sovereign. With heavy American support during the Cold War, Pahlavi remained the Shah of Iran for 26 years after the coup, efficiently maintaining Iran from being influenced by the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union. 

In 1963, Pahlavi implemented many amendments meant to modernize Iranian society, in what is known as the White Revolution.

However, this didn’t stand well with Ruhollah Khomeini, a religious cleric who led one of the rebel groups in 1964. Khomeini, continued with his vocal opposition to the modernization campaign causing him to be arrested twice and eventually being exiled in 1964

Khomeini was against the modernization campaigns that Pahlavi drove, and due to Khomeini’s  rising popularity in the country, anti-government demonstrations began in October 1977 that eventually led to a campaign of civil resistance that included elements of secularism and Islamism.

This series of events ended in the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979 and it led to the replacement of the Imperial State of Iran by the present-day Islamic Republic of Iran.

“Anytime they raise their voices against this government, they get beaten to death, and they must be stopped because enough is enough, we are taking the freedom of our country back!”

— Nastaran Bazzazi, protest organizer

The monarchy  of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was superseded by the theocratic government of Ruhollah Khomeini.

“This whole regime getting into power was through a lie,” said Zarringhalam. “When Khomeini was advocating that, ‘oh, I’m going to give everyone rights, I’m going to give women rights, everyone is going to be free,’ it was all a face, and now it’s the same thing, they come on television, and they tell everyone about it, tell everyone, ‘hey, we’re doing this, we’re doing that.’ it’s all a face.”  

According to Zarringhalam, even women members of Iran’s parliament are a face, or a facade,  because these members have the exact same mindset as the people ruling the country in terms of dictatorship and violence towards civilians for the sake of an Islamic regime that infringes on the rights of everyone.

The overthrow of Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, formally marked the end of Iran’s historical monarchy. Zarringhalam said, the current Iranian government’s violence towards the Iranian people isn’t new, and it’s been ongoing since they took power of the county in 1979.

“The people of Iran have been suppressed from everything and oppressed for the past 44 years, and therefore the protest won’t stop,” said Zarringhalam.

“Iranians know that they can’t stop now, because this regime, they’re cruel, they’re not human, they’re animals, and if we stop, they’re gonna kill everybody.”  

The Iranian regime killed 1500 people after the 2019 protests, he said. 

“Now, there’s 18,000 people in prisons, there’s already been 600 people who have died in the recent protests, many who have been executed, and a lot of them are under 30-years-of-age,” said Zarringhalam.

Voices united

Zarringhalam said the safety of Iranians everywhere is unfortunately  threatened and this is because of the fear that the regime has instilled in Iranians for more than 44 years.

“When I started all this, and started speaking at protests, and started videography, and creating films for the Iranian Revolution, there was a big risk and everyone kept saying, ‘Oh, watch out, you know, you’re not going to be able to go back, you’re not going to be able to do this’,” said Zarringhalam.

One of the major risks for Zarringhalam, his family and many of the Iranian protesters is not being able to travel to Iran anymore out of fear of being detained at the airport and/or not returning to Canada. 

In November of 2022, the Canadian Broadcasting (CBC) published multiple articles of  Iranian – Canadians who’ve “raised concerns about being threatened, monitored and even followed at protests and outside their homes by affiliates of the Iranian regime who are here in Canada.” 

Iranian-Canadians protested the death of Mahsa Amini in Calgary’s 17 Ave SW, on Sept. 25, 2022. PHOTO: HAJAR AL KHOUZAII.

However, Zarringhalam said, if Iranians give up because they’re afraid then they won’t reach a solution, and the more the protests continue and people raise their voice, the more the regime will begin to fear the people.

“This  time around, there’s no more fear, we have to put that aside, because that’s exactly what they want us to do,” said Zarringhalam.

“Right from the beginning, I made that decision that I’m putting that aside, forget that, I’m not listening to what they’re going to tell me to do.”

“I’m going to continue to be the voice of my people because I’m here, I’m gonna save a country, while the people in Iran, my age, are going into sheets, dying, getting killed, getting arrested, getting tortured.

“You know, this is the bare minimum, what we can do outside of Iran.”

According to Mohammed, the protests will not stop until there is a new regime in power.

Calgary protests organizer Bazzazi said Amini was just one among many women who have either died or been taken by the Iranian government for asking to have a choice, to just have basic human rights. She added that the regime rules based on its own perspective of Islam.

“Women don’t have the same rights as men in Iran, they can’t have custody of their children, and now it’s no longer just about women rights issues, it’s about human rights in general for all the Iranian people because they’re killing people in the streets,” said Bazzazi. 

“Anytime they raise their voices against this government, they get beaten to death, and they must be stopped because enough is enough, we are taking the freedom of our country back!”

“They are using the excuse in religion to purify their acts by saying that they are doing what God says, but it’s not like that, because I’m Muslim and there’s freedom in religion.”

Mohammed, human rights activist living in Tehran

Kaydan said, people will continue to protest until the current regime falls, as a new free Iran is the goal. Kayadan also said it’s important that non-Iranians also support the cause as it involves  human rights, a concern for  all people regardless of their ethnicity.

“We would like the Canadian people all around Canada, especially in Calgary to come and support us,” said Kayadan.

“We are peaceful people. But the regime is not peaceful.”

To Zarringhalam, even though the protests started with Mahsa Amini’s death, it then sparked into something more. The situation, said Zarringhalam, became a deeper issue of misconception because everyone thinks it’s just because of the hijab and in his opinion, this isn’t the case.

“It’s about freedom, it’s about women’s rights, it’s about human rights, it’s about all the rights of everyone in Iran,” he said.

“It just went from protesting this young girl’s death to protesting for a free country, for a free Iran. And as we calculate forward in this revolution, we have reached the point of no return.”

Mohammed also agrees with Zarringhalam’s point of view about religion not being the issue nor the reason for the people protesting. But it’s the government using religion as a means of justification for their use of violence and force, as well as a means for infringing on women’s rights and at this point all human rights.

“They are using the excuse in religion to purify their acts by saying that they are doing what God says, but it’s not like that, because I’m Muslim and there’s freedom in religion,” said Mohammed.

Mohammed also said there are many religious countries, Muslim ones in particular, but they don’t have morality police that see any justice in killing a  22-year-old woman.

Six months after the revolution 

In December of 2022, international media quoted Iran’s attorney general Mohammad Jafar Montazeri proclaiming the state’s morality police had been “abolished.” However, sources like Mohammed say this is a media cover up to distract the world from knowing the truth as they continue to see morality police everywhere in the country. 

“They still put a lot of guards and militaries in the streets. And yes, the morality police are still in the streets because they don’t want to show any weaknesses and they don’t want to step back,” said Mohammed. 

Mohammed said the situation is still very dangerous and that the people have lost the feeling of safety and security but did not lose the hope of getting rid of the current regime, nor will they give up in making sure future generations have a better future. 

An Iranian-Calgarian holding a sign that during the protests in front of City Hall in Calgary, on Oct. 8, 2022 that translates to ‘All of us from Calgary, sh** on the supreme leaders home’ referring to the place where Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lives and where all the decisions about the country are taken. PHOTO: HAJAR AL KHOUZAII

“After what happened to Mahsa, the call of ‘women, life, and freedom’  is becoming a culture in Iran,” said Mohammed. “This is very important. It’s as if it’s becoming a scale for people to judge everything based on that. Values are measured by this slogan. New standards are based on life and freedom, and the more time it takes, I think it gets more mature and it sticks deep in our culture, which is very, very precious.” 

Iranians according to Mohammed, and especially protestors are optimistic about the future, as they know “deep in their heart” that the current regime will eventually end, and they really hope to be heard even more as this will mean serious change for Iran as it’s an important player in the Middle East. Change for Mohammed means fixing the image of Iran as a country in the eyes of outsiders. 

“If only Iran will never be recognized as a threat in the Middle East, a lot of stuff in this place will be fixed. A lot will change with Afghanistan and even Russia,” said Mohammed.  “Even when it comes to the war in Ukraine, this regime is standing on the wrong side of history right now, and this will have consequences for them,” said Mohammed.

The issue is that people on the outside who aren’t Iranian may not know that there’s a lot of human right infringements happening to the Iranian people by the current regime, said Mohammed. The lack of internet and not being able to connect with the outside world, and not having a connection to Iran and its people put the lives of the Iranian people in Iran in a lot of danger. 

Parents of these students have protested in front of their daughters’ schools, but have been attacked by Iranian forces and even  arrested. Some girls have been forbidden from going to school.  

“To the people living outside of Iran and have the freedom to spread the word, I beg of you to be our voice. Don’t let them suppress us and kill us and arrest us. Don’t let them kill our voice. That’s all I’m asking for,” said Mohammed.