Iranian students, community members and allies marched in downtown SLO following the death of Mahsa Amini. Credit: Courtesy of ISCO

The sources in this article chose to remain anonymous for the safety of themselves and their families in Iran. 

The shouts of “Justice for Iran” were in the air and the indignation for Iranian women in the faces of local protesters as they marched through downtown SLO, a week after news of Mahsa Amini’s death surfaced. 

A 22-year-old Iranian-Kurdish woman, most accurately known by her Kurdish name Jina or Zhina Amini, died days after Iran’s religious “morality police” arrested her for not wearing the hijab in accordance with government standards — too loosely and showing some hair.  

Although police claim Amini died after falling ill and slipping into a coma, witnesses claim her death stemmed from police brutality. 

Soon after news broke of her death on Sept.16, protests swept across Iran and worldwide. According to Iranian state-run news, 41 people have died, including protesters and security forces. Yet, according to the non-profit Iran Human Rights (IHR), as of Oct. 4, at least 154 have died in the protests. 

Iranians in San Luis Obispo have undergone a whole host of emotions these past few weeks, particularly for one protestor. 

“When I first heard about this I cried,” she said. “Since then, my sadness and mourning and sorrow has really shifted into anger and passion for change and really hard conviction.”

She now seeks to channel that lingering sadness into change, “which is why I’ve been using my voice any way I can,” she said. 

Amini’s death also hit home for another organizer, who spent part of her childhood in Iran. She remembers the pressure to accept religious ideologies and the normalcy of punishment from Iran’s “morality police.”

In talking with other Iranians and international students through local events, she met others, like Amini, who were taken away by this group. 

“I was asking them a lot about the feelings they have and how they felt during those moments when they were being taken, they were getting their mug shots taken of them, just for something so simple as covering your full hair,” she said. 

Internet access remains limited within Iran since the government regulates its usage, and what does get seen is just “a glimpse of what’s escaping through the media,” the organizer said. 

Little to no communication is “the story of every Persian on this campus right now. No one’s really been in touch,” she said. 

The death of Amini is not an isolated event, she said. Instead of a fresh wound, this is a rooted pain felt by Iranian society, according to her. 

“When I saw Mahsa Amini, in my eyes, she is a symbol of what was happening to hundreds and hundreds of women on a daily basis and how much every woman walking the streets of Iran is in danger of getting tortured, beaten, arrested or killed,” she said. 

Locally, Iranian organizations on campus and in the greater SLO area organized events, like protests, vigils, booths and informational meetings on campus to raise awareness of Amini’s death and the violence against women as a whole. 

These protests differ from those in the past. As another organizer noted, this is a “Gen Z movement” and has taken a grip on the international community that few other Iranian protests have before. 

“There are youth on the streets who are fighting for change and when we see support from our older generations, when we see support from our peers, it really gives us the drive to continue,” she said.

One hope from protesters involves the international community’s treatment of Iran — particularly on an economic level. 

One ally said the lifting of sanctions, which restricts foreign trade, financial services, energy sectors and technologies, would be vital in moving forward. 

“[Having sanctions] is like putting a chokehold on the people and moreover, it’s affecting women rather than men,” she said. “Basically giving Iran financial freedom, and setting the regime apart from the public [is what I hope for the future of Iran].”

Yet, at its core, another organizer wants the Iranian society as a whole to reform. 

“I really, really hope for a future where women are seen as equals, where ethnic minorities are seen as equals, where we as women do not have to worry about being killed if a strand of our hair is let out,” she said. “And for a future where just the people are number one priority, not money, not religion, not anything else.”

She said simply having “room to breathe” is her hope for Iran’s future. 

“People have not had room to breathe in this country for so long,” she said. “Honestly taking a breath comes with its own consequences there. I just want people to be able to breathe and live their own lives without fear of being killed.”

Given the strict monitoring of media surrounding these protests, Iranians abroad are risking their livelihoods to speak out, knowing their families or themselves are at risk for arrest among other punishments, an organizer said. 

Because of this, the need for allies is stronger than ever, whether it’s spreading information or simply showing up to support, she said. 

“We all are trying our best, scream on top of our lungs and be present,” she said. “It hasn’t been enough to make it part of people’s daily conversations and people’s daily thoughts.”

The fight for freedom surprasses Amini’s death; it is a fight for the future of Iran, the organizer said. 

“When we actively speak out about what’s going on, we do not let the atrocities of what the Iranian government is doing sweep under the rug,” she said.

Hopefully change comes out of this and if not change from within the Iranian government, then change for how the world supports the Iranian community because we have been fighting for this for so long.

Iranian Student Organizer

On Nov. 7, the Iranian Student Cultural Organization (ISCO) released a statement via their Instagram regarding the protests happening in SLO and worldwide, the current reality of Iranians abroad and back at home and the importance of “spreading awareness to ensure the voices in Iran do not become silenced.”

Credit: ISCO Instagram

The statement also discusses frustration in asking Cal Poly administration for support. 

“All of our various requests have been met with continuous ‘No’s’ when it comes to taking action. The promises of caring about us and having our backs are empty,” the statement read. 

This student’s push for the university to comment on the violence in Iran has been months in the making. On Wednesday, they did. 

According to Cal Poly spokesperson Matt Lazier, administration has been in contact with members of ISCO throughout this time. The Dean of Students proactively reached out to the club to offer support, a representative from ISCO had dinner with university staff last week to discuss concerns and several meetings have been held between concerned students, President Jeffrey Armstrong and Vice President Keith Humphrey. 

Lazier said there have been multiple requests from students for campus-wide communications, but Armstrong chose not to because “the university has a general practice of offering campuswide comments or communications on current events only when they have a direct impact on a critical mass of students or on higher education specifically,” and needs to ensure communication is handled “equitably and consistently.”

Two days after ISCO’s statement on Wednesday, a campus-wide email was sent out from Associated Student, Inc. (ASI) president Gracie Babatola and President of Student Affairs Keith Humphrey with the subject, “We Stand with the People of Iran.”

The email discussed the impact of restriction of speech happening to those in Iran and the affected Cal Poly community. 

“Though we cannot directly change the situation in Iran, we unequivocally stand in solidarity with the people of Iran in our commitment to equity, peaceful protests and freedom of speech,” the email read. 

Babatola has been intimately involved with the university’s Iranian students from hearing news of Amini’s death, feeling the “shock and hurt” as an ally to the cause.

Shortly after news broke, she invited ISCO members to a student government board meeting to address the board during an open forum and wrote an email to different campus Diversity, Equity and Inclusion entities urging a statement of student support. She also met with Armstrong on multiple occasions with Iranian students to push for campus-wide communication, but to no avail.  

An Iranian student voiced their concerns once again at a dinner between Armstrong and the officer team on Nov. 1.

“Since that meeting, I have felt a little bit frustrated and didn’t know what else to do,” Babatola said. 

Following that day, Babatola decided to take matters into her own hands and send out a statement of solidarity, in collaboration with Keith Humphrey. 

“I never want to sort of only give importance to local issues because I think we do have to acknowledge that issues that are happening across the world and across the nation affect Cal Poly students on a day-to-day basis,” Babatola said. “It would be ignorant of us to assume that we are all going through classes normally and not acknowledging the roots we have with the international world.”

On Thursday, ISCO will be hosting a student-led protest around campus starting at Dexter Lawn at 11 a.m. to “spread awareness about the protests going on everyday in Iran,” their Instagram post reads.