Learning How to Fight
From the Iranian diaspora.
Editor’s note: In light of the political ramifications of the topic, the author writes anonymously.
To compare what’s going on with what has always been going on. To hang on straw. To be disoriented. To be running and standing still, in the dark, on the deck. To read the map of the sky. To mark out the stars.
—Etel Adnan, “To Be in A Time of War”
On Sept. 13, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, was arrested for failing to adequately comply with Iran’s rigid hijab laws. The morality police forced her into a white van and beat her. On Sept. 16, she died in a Tehran hospital. In the coming days, protests erupted across the nation. Iran began to burn: with grief, rage, and long-held desperation for justice.
Thousands of miles away, I watched, alongside countless other Iranians in the diaspora. We watched as protests spread from Amini’s hometown to the major cities. As the Evin prison was set on fire. As young girls removed their hijabs, each lock of hair defiantly tempting the regime’s brutality. As Sharif University of Technology was attacked and Tehran’s brightest minds were gunned down. As the internet cut out, and reaching loved ones became a daily challenge.
Days after Amini’s death, I stood on the steps of Low surrounded by people I didn’t know, chanting the slogan of the Iranian movement: zan, zendegi, azadi, or “Woman, Life, Freedom.” As my tears fell and a wax candle melted in my hands, I washed myself with grief for Mahsa, guilt for my family living in Iran, and fear for every woman who left her house that morning wondering whether her body would be a weapon or a battleground.
As I try to tell the story of “Woman, Life, Freedom,” I realize that I have felt the presence of this powerful movement my whole life. I have heard it in my grandmother’s dreams about a free Iran. I have seen it in my mother’s tenacity to pursue her education. I have walked alongside it in busy Tehran streets, where my cousin gently pushes her hijab back.
Inspired by their words but more importantly their actions, I want to discuss and place the unfolding Iranian liberation movement within relevant historical and theoretical frameworks. And I want to remind my fellow Columbians that this issue, while seemingly a world away, affects the very students on this campus, who are asking you to join them at this critical moment in history.
To extinguish the light in the eyes of those who love the world, to threaten life itself, to impose death, that’s war.
To better contextualize the current protest movement, I spoke to Manijeh Moradian, author, activist, and professor of gender and sexuality at Barnard. She explained that Iranian women have been historically constrained by “foreign Western forms of patriarchy, and domestic dictatorship forms of patriarchy, both of which have always intersected to shape the conditions of life for women.”
Western involvement in Iran, often forgotten, has had long-lasting implications on the country’s politics and global perception. The 1953 coup instigated by the CIA and MI6 overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Following the coup, the Western-backed monarchy became increasingly dissonant to Iranians, and religious extremists gained popularity.
Further, the application of Western ideology to Iranian society has shaped global perceptions of Iranian women. As Moradian notes, “Western imperialism or intervention into Iranian society brought with it a politics of gender and sexuality often talked about as Orientalism.” Through an Orientalist lens, today’s images of women burning hijabs or advocating regime change can be misinterpreted as a rejection of Islam in favor of Western values.
In reality, neither Iran’s democratic future nor the Iranian feminist movement relies on the adoption of Western ideals. Rather, the fight for liberation is rooted in the psyche and history of the Iranian people, who are rising up to redefine their government and future.
Iran’s most pervasive form of patriarchy comes in the form of domestic dictatorship. In post-revolutionary Iran, women’s rights are curtailed and delegitimized at almost every level of society. Activists are frequently imprisoned or exiled for protesting archaic laws. The most visible symbol of gender inequality is the mandatory hijab enforced by a brutal morality police. While some women choose to wear the veil for religious reasons, many Iranians resent the government’s weaponization of Islam as a tool to oppress. In this way, Iran’s mandatory veil does not pose a debate on religion versus secularity but rather autonomy versus oppression.
To transform matter into spirit. To cross the threshold. To abolish all signs, then go after them. To decode the future.
Under these constraints, Iranian women have developed what Moradian described as an “intersectional feminist movement.” Through everything from public disobedience to negotiation, activists have slowly achieved legislative improvements for women. In the current protests, Iranian women are leading a more powerful, unified movement than ever before. They are uniting people across not only religious but also ethnic lines in an unprecedented way. Amini’s identity as a Kurdish woman exposed her to both gender-based and ethnic discrimination as Kurds are a historically persecuted group in Iran. Women and ethnic minorities are now calling into question the entire system of Islamic theocracy.
While the current protests in Iran hold women’s issues at their core, their demands have sparked a societal mobilization against the regime. In particular, Iranians are protesting their untenable economic situation, plagued by inflation and unemployment crises. While earlier protest movements were largely confined to the middle class and advocated reform to the current government, today’s protests unite Iranians across classes in calling for regime change. In light of the unrest, the government has responded with a brutal crackdown: Since September they have imprisoned over 15,000 people and killed over 300. Many believe that regime change is the only path forward.
Not to forget. To be sure that some day, no one knows when, justice will prevail. To know that the world will take revenge for having been fooled.
Iran’s protests represent collaboration across gender, ethnicity, and class in fighting for a common future. One tendril of the movement is located right on campus, working out of Milstein: Columbia’s Iranian Student Association. Transition and action are the qualities of the moment.
Within the past few months, CISA has transitioned from acting as a cultural space to a politically-active student organization. In the wake of Amini’s death, the club planned a vigil in coordination with Undergraduate Student Life. One board member of CISA, BC ’24, told me that the “initial goal was to mourn the loss of Mahsa and the other protesters. But after the vigil there was this growing sense of anger and wanting the University to take action.”
After the vigil, CISA transitioned from mourning to organizing. Members of CISA reached out to the Illuminator Project, a freelance activist group that projects different messages across the city. The group helped CISA project “Woman, Life, Freedom” and “Mahsa Amini” in bold white lettering across Low Library. In a matter of days, CISA’s Instagram post of the Low display received over 48,000 likes. It was a testament to what CISA’s treasurer, CC ’23, called “the power of collective organizing and essential role of social media.” The group has leveraged Columbia’s campus in other ways, including a demonstration on Low Steps in partnership with the Afghan Student Alliance, honoring the symbolic link between women’s rights in Afghanistan and Iran.
Faced with countless requests for support from students, CISA sent an open letter to the school deans and the Office of the President. The letter asked for Columbia to “make a public statement, as the University has done in the past with regard to international affairs and violations of human rights.” They also called for certain adjustments to the application process for applicants from Iran; for example, extending deadlines and accepting unofficial transcripts. The letter was quickly signed by hundreds of students and alumni. CISA requested a response by Oct. 14th; none arrived.
When I asked, Moradian said that “faculty members were not successful in getting the Columbia administration to issue a statement.” Instead, they started a faculty petition declaring solidarity with protesters in Iran which was signed by over 80 professors.
Following a request from CISA, Columbia Psychological Services helped organize healing spaces for Iranian students. Across several newsletters, Columbia shared a University-affiliated podcast and article about the movement as well as information about a panel exploring “the unrest in Iran within the broader historical and geo-political context.”
These are steps in the right direction, but Columbia students, alumni, and faculty have made their message and request clear. They have projected it across Low, written it in prose, and chanted it in protest. And now, over two months since that fateful day when Mahsa Amini’s life was taken, the University still has not produced a public statement of solidarity. To better understand why Columbia should actively and publicly support Iran’s protests, we must first understand how deeply entrenched the issue is in our own community.
To know the absoluteness of the war. To still believe that the future will escape the diabolical schemes of the enemy.
In Iran, students are at the forefront of the movement. Universities are activist hubs and, as a result, targets of the regime’s violence. On Oct. 2, Sharif University of Technology, one of the most prestigious universities in Tehran, was invaded by security forces. Hundreds of students fled to the underground garage without realizing that the security forces were waiting for them. Students were gunned down with rubber bullets, arrested with sacks placed over their heads, and carted off in vans. Professors tried in vain to form human shields around the students. As a university that sees itself as a global actor, and furthermore prides itself on a powerful legacy of student activism, Columbia should publicly support fellow academic institutions and their students. On a more personal level, as a university home to dozens of Iranian students, many coming directly from Iran, we need to show them that they are not alone.
“We have students in our club that went to Sharif and their friends are there and it was a heart-wrenching experience for them to see their alma mater being attacked,” one of CISA’s heads, BC ’23, said. Another member of CISA, GS ’24, noted that childhood friends and family remain in Tehran and that “it’s hard to imagine what they’re going through.” Faced with the daily trauma of watching their loved ones in danger, Iranian students have been torn between organizing, processing, and trying to keep up with their studies. Columbia needs to recognize their dedication, struggle, and homeland.
But Columbia’s students aren’t the only ones asking for support. Moradian recounted that following the Sharif attacks, she was contacted by multiple students in Iran she did not know. She explained that students in Iran are writing to professors in the West “asking for solidarity and saying, ‘Please get your university administration to condemn the violence against us.’” Outside of issuing a public statement, there is more to be done to support these students. CISA representatives are working with the administration to increase accommodations for Iranian applicants.
But we cannot operate as if the actions of institutions are enough to stand in for our own—solidarity also needs to come on an individual level. Every student, Iranian or not, can play a part in supporting the movement in Iran. The most crucial plea for action echoed across my interviews was simple: Talk about Iran. Don’t let the violence become normalized. Whether bringing the conversation into classrooms or posting on social media, share information about the protests as much as possible. Tweets contain vital information regarding everything from local protests to ways to help purchase VPNs for Iranian students.
Next: Show up for your peers. Whether that is to the weekly protests held in New York or the programming run by CISA, try to take time out of your day to show solidarity. While many Iranians grapple with fears of posting or protesting due to the regime’s punitive surveillance, non-Iranians do not face this risk.
As a lover of poetry and language, I have found my space in this movement through writing. This essay is grounded by the words of Lebanese writer and artist Etel Adnan whose poem “To Be In A Time of War” speaks to the experience of living through conflict while a member of a diaspora. In her words, I saw the fear, trauma, and, most importantly, hope that Iranians across the globe are currently living through.
The people of Iran are in a time of war. A war for their women, their lives, and their freedom. Nobody can predict how this will end, but the bravery of the protestors has revealed valuable lessons about how to fight.
To be in a time of war is to fight without a rulebook. To care without receiving the world’s credit. To never let distance excuse complacency. To keep screaming even when you don’t know what to say. To look at the black sky, and chart out the future in the stars.