Last Saturday, Civic Center Plaza was engulfed with red, green, and white hues as more than 2,000 protesters honored fallen Iranian political prisoners and called for a regime change in the country. Notable among these activists were members of USF’s Iranian Student Union (ISU) who utilized social media to promote the event and orchestrate pre-protest preparations throughout the week.
Saturday’s protest was organized by BayArea4Iran, a grassroots activist group. They were established after the death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini on Sept. 16, 2022. Amini was a 22-year-old Iranian woman who died in the custody of Iran’s Gashte Ershad, more commonly referred to as the “morality police.” Amini was visiting the capital of Tehrān with her family from her home of northwest Iran, when she was arrested by the morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab in a way that violated Iran’s dress code for women. Upon her arrest, morality police notified Amini’s brother that she would be taken to an ‘educational and orientation class’ on proper dress code only to be taken to the hospital from police headquarters two hours later. Human Rights Watch reported, “…while he was waiting for his sister outside the police headquarters, he and others heard screaming. Multiple women who left the building said, “they killed someone in there.”
Her death started a global movement of activists calling for “Woman, life, freedom,” – Zan, zendegi, azadi – in response to “patriarchal thinking and the ideological use of religion against women,” according to Vienna Institute for International Dialogue and Cooperation, an international policy think tank.
Saturday’s “Say Her Name” protest was created to honor Amini a year after her death. Ray Rasi, an Iranian and one head of the Bay Area International Emergency Campaign to Free Iran’s Prisoners chapter, one of the organizations that advocated at the protest, told the Foghorn, “This movement that you see basically arose out of [Amini’s death]. [The protestors] said, ‘One person too many.’”
The San Francisco action was one of more than 70 protests held globally to commemorate the anniversary of Amini’s death. Before the march, Chelsea Hart, an activist and TikTok influencer, and Dr. Jaleh Niazi, a member of Mahsa Medical Group and human rights activist, spoke to the crowd in front of City Hall. Parisa Vaaleh, Amir Etemadzadeh, and Alex Estrada, all Bay Area locals, performed live music during the rally. The city of San Francisco officially commissioned Sept. 16 as Mahsa Amini Day. City Hall was lit up Saturday night in red, green, and white in her honor.
“Today, the situation is much worse, especially after the Mahsa Amini uprising in Iran,” Rasi said. The Human Rights Activists News Agency has reported 290 incidents of alleged gassing of an estimated 7,000 Iranian schoolchildren, prominently young girls, with “poisonous substances.” While Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, released in a Mar. 6 statement, “If there are any people involved in the matter, and there certainly are… the perpetrators must be given the most severe of punishments,” activists claim that the regime supporters are responsible. A United Nations statement from Mar. 16 stated that, “We fear that [the gassings] are orchestrated to punish girls for their involvement in the movement — Women, Life, Freedom — and for expressing their opposition to mandatory hijab and voicing their demands for equality.”
Many San Francisco protestors were from Iran, or people whose families were from Iran. Protestor Sherri Golnazar told the Foghorn, “I’m an Iranian woman so I’m here, just like everyone else, supporting, in the tiniest bit that I can, just to show support for women and everyone fighting back home,” she said. “I have cousins, aunts, and uncles back home. It’s really hard because I see them going through these struggles. Every day we’re scared for what’s going to happen to them. We’re all part of the same thing, fighting and hoping for a change.”
Multiple students and members from the ISU attended Saturday’s protest. The Hilltop’s chapter of the national organization was founded in 2019 and since then has been a community for Iranaians and Iranian-Americans.
For Nika Mazloom, a sophomore international studies major who attended the action, she said, “Protesting, for me, is a way for me to show my support, and also gratitude for the conditions that I have been thankful enough to not endure.”
Before the protest, ISU preparations were held in the University Center. They made signs with phrases such as “Say Her Name,” “Woman, life, freedom,” and more. ISU secretary and senior economics and philosophy double major Ariana Anayat said, “The ‘Women, life, freedom’ movement is ongoing, despite the continued oppression of the Iranian regime to silence us.”
According to NPR, an estimated 20,000 people have been jailed and 527 killed since protests began in response to the death of Mahsa Amini.
At Saturday’s protest, organizers created a monument in Civic Plaza displaying hundreds of posters of Iranian political prisoners who were “murdered by the Islamic Republic forces in Iran,” as the signs read. These flyers displayed the deceased’s name, headshot, age, and date of death. The vast majority of these victims were between the ages of 15 and 30. Before marching in the streets of the city, all protestors were funneled through this lane of remembrance.
There were several protest signs calling for support of musical artist Toomaj Salehi, who was arrested in Oct. 2022 and is currently sentenced to at least 6 years in prison. CNN reported that Salehi is currently facing charges that are punishable by death in Iran, including “propagandistic activity against the government.”
For years, Salehi has openly criticized Iran’s government through his lyrics. In his song “Normal,” for instance, he raps in Farsi, “Here people are only alive. They don’t have a life. Our children sleep hungry at night. Excuse me, but how does your conscience sleep at night?”
Rasi said, “Most of the courageous and beautiful people in Iran are imprisoned. We cannot allow that to happen. There is a saying in Iran. It says that they have turned the universities to the prison and the prisons to the universities. That many intellectuals, that many university students, are imprisoned.”
Narges Tabari is an organizer for BayArea4Iran. At the protest, she expressed the importance of global attention to the cause. “It’s important that all local media — everyone — come to these events and broadcast our voices. It would really do a lot to help Iranian people if all countries know what’s happening.”
In this vein, BayArea4Iran put out a call to action on their Instagram account: “We are calling every Iranian worldwide on Sept. 16, Mahsa Jina Day, to invite and bring at least one non-Iranian ally to their local protest.”
Miguel Velasco is an ally who was brought to the rally by an Iranian friend. He told the Foghorn that he attended the protest because of “all of the injustices that have been going on in Iran. I feel like it’s time to stand up and protest.”
Rasi said, “That is what we are fighting today. We are saying, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a savage fascist, and that the people of Iran have every damn right to get rid of and overthrow it. But the question is what to replace it?”
There are many different perspectives about what the new Iranian government should look like. According to a Dec. 2022 study conducted by GAMANN, the group for analyzing and measuring attitudes in IRAN, 81% of 157,000 respondents inside of Iran said “no” to the current republic and 99% of 42,000 Iranian respondents who lived abroad likewise replied “no.”
When further asked what government they would like to see replace the regime, the majority of both groups, 28% and 32% respectively, said they would prefer a presidential republic. Other preferred governmental systems recorded in the survey are a parliamentary republic and a constitutional monarchy.
For many activists at Saturday’s action, their largest call to action is a legislative item — the Mahsa Amini Human Rights and Security Accountability Act (S.2626). The bill, which passed in the U.S. House on Sept. 12, is aimed “to impose sanctions with respect to the Supreme Leader of Iran and the President of Iran and their respective offices for human rights abuses and support for terrorism.” The bill has been introduced to the Senate and is currently awaiting a vote.
Tabari said, “It would be great if we could urge our senators, in any state, to co-sponsor the MAHSA Act.”
Rasi said, “This revolution in Iran is not just Iranian. It’s something that actually has already ignited the imagination of a lot of people all over the world. It should be, can only be, ending up with the elimination of the oppression and exploitation all over the world.”
As one protestor’s sign proudly read, “This is not a protest. This is a revolution.”