Campus & community, People

‘A mix of hope and sorrow’: Campus community reflects on Iran uprising

Five members of the Iranian campus community share how they've been affected by 22-year-old Mahsa Amini's death in the custody of Iran's morality police, the protests and the brutal government response

a woman in a protest who has red hand prints on her cheeks and holds a sign with three girls and women killed by the Iranian government

Protesters chant slogans with red-painted hands and faces during a demonstration on Oct. 11. The protest was held in front of the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in response to the death of Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody in Iran after being detained for allegedly not wearing a head scarf (hijab) “properly” in public. (Photo by Onur Dogman / SOPA Images / Sipa USA via AP)

In the weeks since 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in the custody of Iran’s morality police, Iranians in their country and across the world have risen up in defiance of Iran’s restrictive and violent treatment of women. Their demonstrations have captured the attention of the world and have been met with violent crackdowns by the Iranian government.

In recent days, Berkeley News spoke with five members of the Iranian campus community about how they’ve been affected by the death of Amini, the protests and the brutal government response. In two of the interviews, Berkeley News granted anonymity to students because they feared attaching their names to their comments would threaten their safety when they return to Iran.

UC Berkeley has provided resources to students, staff and faculty who need support with their work, studies or research during the uprising and unrest.

First anonymous Berkeley graduate student: It’s been ‘years and years of oppression’

Any Iranian woman who has lived in Iran has encountered the morality police. When I was a teenager, I did, too. I’ve had several interactions. One time, I was walking down the street and, like Mahsa, my hair wasn’t fully covered. I was very angry with them. I started yelling at them in English, telling them not to touch me.

They take me in a van to an education center. They call my mom to bring proper clothes, and they ask me to pledge never to do this again, never to go against the mandatory hijab laws. My mom comes, she starts yelling and screaming at them, “How dare you take my daughter?” And then we leave.

I wasn’t beaten, but being picked up by the morality police is a daily thing. It happens to girls and women every day in Iran.

There are so many stories from the protests — girls and women who have been beaten, who have been raped and who have been killed in the last two weeks. It’s years and years of oppression. Years and years of experiencing it myself, my mom experiencing it, my grandmother experiencing it. Enough is enough.

I’ve regained so much hope. Iranian women are not going to let this die. To the women who read this: You have so much power. Learn to find it within you.

In 2009, when the Iranian Green Movement happened, my mom, my grandmother and other family members and I, we all protested. Then, the government became very violent. They killed many people. We didn’t want more people to die, so the hope of a better tomorrow slowly disappeared.

The other morning, something different happened when my mom was crossing the street. When you’re crossing the street in Tehran, there’s no mercy. You’ve got to jaywalk and find your way through traffic. But this time, she said, every car stopped for her. And she was like, “Wow, this is changing. This is not like 2009. People are listening, people are changing.”

After the protests started, my grandma told my mom that she wanted to go in the car to see them happening. But then she got super sick and we couldn’t take her out. I really hope that she feels better and she can see women without the hijabs walking, just like she did when she was young. I have a lot of brave women in my family.

I’ve spoken to quite a few of my classmates about what’s happening, and they said, “We’re scared of saying something discriminatory or something stupid.” Or, “I don’t want to be a burden for you to educate me on what’s happening.” Personally, I don’t find it to be a burden. In order to grow as a person, you need to make mistakes. To stay silent is the worst thing. Silence is deafening. We live in a free country — our voices are so powerful.

To stay silent is the worst thing. Silence is deafening. We live in a free country — our voices are so powerful.

If you see an Iranian person or know someone who is affected by this, reach out and say, “Hey, I’m here. How can I support you? I am here for you.”

Some people think these protests are an attack on Islam, which is absolutely not the case. It’s about the right to choose. We have a lot of women who choose to wear the hijab, and we have a lot of women who choose not to wear the hijab, and we stand together and support each other.

There is no turning back. I feel so strongly about this.

I’ve regained so much hope. Iranian women are not going to let this die. To the women who read this: You have so much power. Learn to find it within you.

You want to see a true feminist? Just watch these Iranian women. The women of Iran are not going to stop. They’re not going to stop. It brings me so much hope. I get shivers every time I think about it. I’m proud to be an Iranian woman.

Sholeh Asgary, lecturer, Department of Art Practice: For youth, a ‘life-or-death experience’

I was born in 1982 in Tehran. From the age of 6 months and for a couple years, we were in constant movement, being chased, harassed, moving between borders until my family — my dad, mom and I — made it to the states. There is not much documentation from that time, but there is a photograph of me turning a year old at a refugee foundation in France. It wouldn’t be more than a year and a few other countries later that we were granted asylum in the United States. I have vague memories, lots of things are blurry until I was about 10.

portrait of a person smiling

Sholeh Asgary is a lecturer in UC Berkeley’s Department of Art Practice. (Photo by Siel Martha Medium)

My mom raised me as a single mom for a good portion of my childhood. Her marriage — they married in the middle of a revolution — ended very quickly after we got to the U.S. We lived, in all places, in Houston, Texas, in an area that was home to lots of immigrant communities, and didn’t come with more than maybe one small suitcase for all of us. Prior to the revolution, I believe my father and uncle had been studying in a different part of Texas, so that was why we went there.

My mom worked all kinds of jobs — the night shift at a gas station, Pizza Hut or Round Table, and, as a family, we would sell shrimp out of a van on the highway for income.

My mom kind of threw me in a car one day when I was, I believe, 5 or 6 years old, and said we were leaving. It was incredibly brave of her. We drove from Texas to California. Initially, we went to San Diego, stayed for a number of months with dear friends we are still close to today — another single mom and daughter with a similar story.

We then moved several times a year, sharing a single room or a one-bedroom apartment, to Oakland, Berkeley, Sacramento, Davis and eventually L.A., where we were joined by my stepdad, also from Iran, who had applied to medical school at USC. They had both been politically active in Iran as part of student-led movements.

I moved to San Francisco in my 20s and, ironically, after finishing graduate school, I moved to Oakland about a decade ago to an area that felt strangely familiar. I would later figure out that it was the exact neighborhood my mother and I lived in 1989.

Most of my family is in Iran. My family and I came amidst a revolution that started almost 43 years ago, and it is hard not to think of this as a continuity that may one day make us all free from the oppressive regime. I think what is happening now in Iran means many things to those of us in the diaspora. The courage and bravery of the youth have delivered a glimpse of a world that otherwise seemed unimaginable.

Many of us here feel it in our bodies and have felt it all these years — collective experiences, traumas and overcoming that are shared with me through my family, whether in conversation, silence or through culture. And in this, I know that I am not alone. In some ways, this experience of diaspora is a series of coverings and uncoverings — much like memory, and this moment is uncovering much.

Many of us here feel it in our bodies and have felt it all these years — collective experiences, traumas and overcoming that are shared with me through my family, whether in conversation, silence or through culture.

Someone asked me, “Do you have concerns about your family? Are they OK?” Yes, of course. This concern exists in both the immediate and the long term, particularly for those who are the youngest, and ethnic minorities. I try to get through to my family in Iran to see if they’re OK. At the same time, I wonder what level of “OK” well-meaning friends and colleagues here are referring to. Many haven’t been OK for decades, and this is why this is happening. Sadly, those at the forefront, the younger set, people in their teens and 20s, are having a life-or-death experience, taking freedom into their own hands.

People ask, “Can your family get out?” There are many who, as a matter of life or death, have needed to leave prior to this revolution and, against all odds of being able to obtain a visa, tried numerous times without success. Aside from this near impossibility, loss and survivor’s guilt can be quite oppressive to one’s sense of freedom. And for some, after decades of compounded oppression, there’s the possibility of another world opening up in Iran right now. The hope that another world is possible.

I don’t know how realistic going to Iran to start a new life would be for me, but there are new possibilities, if the government changes. I find that even stating that it may not be realistic for me is a reflection of how I have trained myself to block out such possibilities for all my life. Movement could mean physically moving there, or moving back and forth between here and there for a wedding, a birthday, for anything. Or it could mean exchanging ideas. All of these are kinds of change that also uncover various layers of loss, mourning and hope.

people hold candles and signs at a vigil outside at dark

Members of the UC Berkeley community held a vigil on campus for Mahsa Amini on Sept. 24. (UC Berkeley photo by Sashu Machani)

If one looks at the artwork of Iranian American students the last five to 10 years, it mirrors what’s happening. It’s important in the states and in the arts to support Iranian artists — students and faculty alike — and others from underrepresented groups and to engage with them, but not encourage them to play into narratives so that they feel compelled to make artwork about their struggles and feel pressure. That limits students’ ability to understand themselves and asks them to use their identity as a didactic tool. It’s important to acknowledge that our lived experiences are a conglomeration of many things.

The biggest way to support Iranians is through actionable items, like requests and suggestions from various Iranian students, professors and scholars. There are a few letters in the works that are going out now, with specific policy demands.

In my position as a lecturer in the Department of Art Practice, I shared with my students what is happening in Iran. A few were curious, and, in general, I find it important to make space and share in open conversations about national and international events.

Ironically, I don’t have Iranian students in my classes this fall. Due to the lack of media coverage (until recently) and constrained state narratives, what is happening right now largely depends on social media, which brings up conversations of media literacy and journalism with my students. In my Global Perspectives in Contemporary Art course, our upcoming weekly topic also happens to be Orientalism, nation and the archive.

I hope this power reverberates beyond Iran and the Iranian diaspora community and inspires others, big and small, to imagine so deeply against all odds that better worlds become collectively visible.

Focusing has been absolutely impossible, and certain basic tasks in my work take much longer than normal. It wasn’t until I heard a few others say they are having difficulty focusing or even getting out of bed that I realized what I was feeling was normal. I’ve accepted this and have limited the engagements I accept in my schedule during these weeks. It’s still not enough. I’m constantly thinking through both my emotional processing and the utility of my actions — both in the immediate, and also on a larger time scale through my practice as an artist and educator. I think most Iranians in the diaspora will say they are a mess right now.

It is simply the strangest experience to live a life mediated by images and the promise of another through pictures of horror and courage. Staying in close touch with my family, my parents, whose courage and strength are further uncovered to me throughout this, astounds me. I’ve been much closer to my Iranian friends and colleagues these weeks and those who have reached out to me. I was recently part of an exhibition catalog release of Once At Present, a large exhibition of Iranian artists in 2019 curated by Taraneh Hemami and Kevin B. Chen and supported by the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies with Dr. Persis Karim.

The time we spend together, whether at gatherings, protests or rallies, is like sips of fresh air — this is where I feel the freest in expression right now, each one of us with a different origin story and level of processing. It’s painful, as what is happening is incredibly powerful.

I hope this power reverberates beyond Iran and the Iranian diaspora community and inspires others, big and small, to imagine so deeply against all odds that better worlds become collectively visible.

Second anonymous Berkeley graduate student: ‘Mahsa Zhina Amini could have literally been any of us’

Being Iranian is the most core part of who I am. I want people to understand my experience as an Iranian American during this time because I think a lot of people think this is an issue that’s affecting someone on the other side of the world. But for a lot of us Iranians living in the U.S. — it’s our grandparents, our cousins, our friends from school who are being directly affected.

When I found out about the murder of Mahsa Zhina Amini by Iran’s “morality police,” I was absolutely outraged. Almost all of us Iranians have either had direct run-ins with the morality police or know someone who has been arrested for wearing clothing that’s “too tight,” having strands of hair out of our headscarves, wearing nail polish or other ridiculous things. Mahsa Zhina Amini could have literally been any of us, and it was infuriating and chilling to see what they did to her.

It has been a very heavy experience of grief, helplessness, anger — just everything all at once, which has been very overwhelming. Some days I can’t stop crying, and getting out of bed in the morning feels impossible.

When this all started, I was just doom scrolling on social media, trying to understand what was happening on the ground. As the protests increase, with more and more people joining every day, I wake up every morning to check the news and see that the government’s security forces have killed another young person in a very brutal way: Hadis Najafi, age 23; Nika Shakarami, 16; Sarina Esmailzadeh, 16; and more. A lot of teenage girls and women in their early 20s. Even if I didn’t know these people, they could’ve been my family members. I also directly know of a few Iranian Americans whose friends and family have been killed in recent protests.

It has been a very heavy experience of grief, helplessness, anger — just everything all at once, which has been very overwhelming. Some days I can’t stop crying, and getting out of bed in the morning feels impossible. I’m doing my best, but it feels surreal for me to be going to school, trying to pay attention to my academics when I always have Iran in the back of my mind. I feel compelled to spend all of my time raising awareness, organizing and advocating for Iran.

During this time, I have also been reflecting on the intergenerational trauma that we face as Iranians, which is so painful that no one really talks about it.

It’s important that Iranian students really feel seen and heard on campus and that our non-Iranian community members show up to solidarity events, vigils, protests — it means a lot to us right now.

Older family members of mine say, “We’ve already been through a revolution. We’ve already been through the Iran-Iraq War. We’ve seen people get brutally killed in the streets. We’ve had friends and family get beaten and executed. This is nothing new for us.” It’s heartbreaking. It’s so hard and vulnerable to have hope, I think, for the older generation who have already been subject directly to this type of state violence their whole lives.

But there is hope there for folks. This is the first time that Iranians, especially Iranian women, have gotten this kind of international attention. It’s very empowering for people on the ground. So, there’s a mix of sorrow and hope.

One family member I spoke to said, “I feel like I’ve entered a new chapter of my life. There was the pre-Islamic revolution chapter, the Islamic regime chapter, and now it feels like a new chapter is starting.”

It’s important that Iranian students really feel seen and heard on campus and that our non-Iranian community members show up to solidarity events, vigils, protests — it means a lot to us right now. Ask Iranians what you can do, and consult trusted sources that are respected by folks on the ground, as opposed to sharing talking points by Western politicians.

I urge our university administration to listen to our UC Iranian student organizations’ urgent demands, detailed in a joint letter sent out on Oct. 5, which includes a request for accommodations for students applying to the University of California from Iran who are impacted by political unrest and internet disruptions.

For reliable daily updates on what’s going on in Iran, I recommend following these media sources on Instagram: @middleeastmatters and @from____iran.

Azadeh Zohrabi, executive director, Berkeley Underground Scholars: I carry a ‘deep and unhealed wound of being violently displaced’

The Iranian revolution happened in 1979, to overthrow the shah. My mom and dad were student organizers aligned with socialist ideologies and the anti-imperialist movement that was brewing.

When the revolution was hijacked by Ayatollah Khomeini with the help of the Carter administration, the new Islamic regime began arresting, incarcerating and executing student organizers, journalists, academics and other dissenters who continued to organize for a government that represented the people. My parents were among the young people who were incarcerated and tortured. The regime was regularly torturing and interrogating people and coercing them to denounce the movement and align with the regime. There were mass executions.

toddler sitting in a backpack

Azadeh as a toddler, after her mother was released in Tehran from Evin Prison, the primary site for the housing of Iran’s political prisoners since 1972, and before they escaped from Iran.
(Photo courtesy of Azadeh Zohrabi)

My dad was incarcerated and coerced into denouncing the movement and aligning with the regime, and he was released. He made a decision to get out of Iran and made his way to Europe. My mom was incarcerated shortly after I was born, in 1982. I was lucky my grandparents took care of me, nurtured me and made me feel safe while she was gone. Children were being put in prison with their moms. Sometime after my brother was born in Evin Prison, my mom managed to escape.

We were underground for a little while, out of sight. We made our way to Pakistan, then to Turkey. We managed to make it to a refugee camp in Europe where my father and mom’s family had escaped to.

My mom found a job as a domestic worker, and my brother and I started school. My mom rekindled a relationship with a childhood friend, another Iranian refugee who had managed to escape. He wound up in Central America before coming to the U.S., where he would become my stepdad, and he eventually got us out of Europe.

My mom, brother and I were finally able to come to the U.S. when I was about 6 years old — we got to Canada through Europe, but when entering the U.S., were detained again. Mom was put in immigrant detention and severely mistreated, and my brother and I were in foster care. An attorney helped my mom, reunited us, and set us up on a path toward U.S. citizenship.

My family has experienced so much trauma at the hands of this regime. The effects of that trauma were very present in my home and my life growing up and still are today, although we’ve done a lot of work to heal from it.

Still, for nearly 40 years, I’ve carried this deep and unhealed wound of being violently displaced from my homeland, from my family and my culture with no safe pathway to return under this regime. In my teens and 20s, I felt disconnected from Iran. But in my 30s, my interest in returning to Iran grew, as did my grief around not being able to return.

I have family on three continents, and we’ve had no chance to come together. We can’t celebrate weddings or holidays, we can’t mourn together when people die. My grandmother passed away in 2020, and I have so much anger about not being able to return to see her before she transitioned, or to bury her. There’s nothing I want for myself more than to walk on the same earth as my ancestors did, to lay flowers at my grandmother’s burial site and to embrace my family in Iran.

When I see my people rising up — now even elementary school students are going on strike, coming out into the streets — I feel such a stake in the liberation of Iran, but I can’t be involved on the ground or send money because of sanctions. It’s hard to know how to contribute to Iran’s liberation. It’s a really heavy weight to carry. It’s also a hopeless feeling, to be here knowing how much damage the U.S. and foreign intervention have done to my country.

person poses for a portrait

Azadeh Zohrabi is the executive director of the Berkeley Underground Scholars. (UC Berkeley photo)

I feel anxious to watch what’s happening and to see no international outrage and to know how complicated it is if we speak out against Iran’s government, the Islamic regime, to some it sounds like Islamophobia.

But Iran is so much more than Islam and revolutions. My country, my people, are vibrant and joyous. We are known for our art and our poetry and the way we welcome and nurture our guests. My people want the freedom to express the fullness of our humanity. We don’t want a dictator, a religious leader or a monarch. Iranians want a government that represents them and their best interests.

I believe things are much worse for Iranians than what’s being reported. Hundreds have been killed in the streets, thousands have been arrested and are in danger of mass executions without due process. This is a movement that is being led and fought primarily by women and youth to feel like they have nothing to lose and nothing to gain under this regime.

I want people to know what’s happening, because this is not a victory that will be claimed overnight. This will be an ongoing battle with many actors, including the U.S. government, and we can fight here against U.S. intervention and for policies that can help Iranians, like targeted sanctions to seize the assets and freeze the accounts that members of the Iranian regime have in the U.S.

The main thing is to pay attention to what’s happening and share it. If media and social media attention die down, the government will continue to massacre people, and it will get even worse. The story needs to stay alive.

Andrew Wade Houston, principal campus counsel, Office of Legal Affairs: Going back to Iran is ‘not safe’

My mom was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1958. My father is African American, born in 1955 and raised in East Oakland. My mom was forced by her parents to come to the U.S. in the late 1970s due to the Iranian revolution and unsafe conditions. Protests erupted throughout Iran and hundreds, if not thousands, of people were killed.

three adults and a young child pose for a photo

Andrew as a child with his mother, father and Iranian grandmother. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Wade Houston)

My grandparents, who have passed away, stayed in Iran, and they would visit us in the U.S. every few years, pre 9/11. I vividly remember my grandmother cooking the best Persian food, like ghorme sabzi, aash soup and khoresh karafs. In addition, she’d bring gifts for us, her five grandchildren, such as pistachios, gold jewelry and Persian rugs.

I’ve only been to Iran once, when I was a 1-year-old. As an adult, I’ve always yearned to go back, so I can better understand the culture and my roots, but I have been told it’s probably not safe due to our family’s involvement in the revolution many decades ago.

I’ve felt many emotions throughout the recent and ongoing upheaval in Iran. I am incredibly sad for those women and their families, who have given their lives for freedom of expression, speech and choice to wear a head scarf or not.

It’s very important to understand that the protests, especially by the women of Iran, aren’t just about the hijab — they’re about regime change and fighting oppression and discontent with the Islamic Republic.

I’ve also felt many moments of anger, fear and pride. I get angry when Iranian forces are killing protestors. I’m fearful at times that things might not ever change in Iran, but at the same time, I’m feeling so much pride toward those brave people in Iran fighting for their rights.

Education systems throughout the world need to consider holistic approaches to supporting Iranians on campuses in the U.S. and overseas, as Iranians are likely to need social and emotional support and health services, both physical and mental.

portrait of a person

Andrew Houston is the principal campus counsel in the Office of Legal Affairs. (Photo by Anjelica Houston)

I’m hopeful for the future of Iran, but in reality, I’m unsure if we are seeing a clear picture of the current events. Reporting from the ground is extremely limited, and I feel I’m oftentimes piecemealing the situation there via social media clips. The sad reality might be that though these are historic protests, they can be destroyed by the still very powerful Islamic regime.

The current protests in Iran remind me of some of the Black Lives Matter protests that spearheaded demonstrations worldwide protesting police brutality and systematic racism that overwhelmingly affects the Black community. I don’t want the regimes in the U.S. and Iran to present their most vulnerable populations with symbolic gestures about progress without any real accompanying economic, political or structural change.

Iran’s image is overwhelmingly negative across much of the world. Unfavorable opinions of Iran are especially pronounced in the U.S. A majority of my acquaintances who don’t know I’m half-Iranian say they have a negative opinion of Iran.

If these people were able to connect with Iranians in Iran and the U.S., they’d probably have a positive experience and become more tolerant and accepting. Iranian people are the most warm-hearted and kind people you’ll ever meet in your life.