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Street protests in Iran over death of Mahsa Amini rattle Iranian Americans

"The Iranian people have reached a boiling point," said a college student in Los Angeles, home to the largest Iranian population outside Iran.
Image: Activists Demonstrate Against Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi Outside Of The United Nations
People protested Wednesday against Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi outside the United Nations.Stephanie Keith / Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Painful memories of a violent and chaotic past were resurrected this week for many Iranian Americans watching from afar as protesters flooded the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities following the death of Mahsa Amini.

Amini, 22, died on Sept. 16 while in the custody of the Islamic Republic’s morality police, who accused her in part of violating the country’s strictly enforced hair code by improperly wearing her headscarf, which is required for all Iranian women.

Her death has sparked outrage across Iran and waves of protesters clashed with Iranian security forces this week.

Some women defiantly burned their headscarves as a sign of resistance and opposition to the morality police and the country’s broader social repression. State TV suggested the death toll from this week’s demonstrations could be as high as 26, The Associated Press reported, although an exact tally remains unclear as Iran tightens its grip on state-owned media.

The deadly unrest has been documented on social media and triggered demonstrations in other parts of the world, including in Los Angeles, home to the largest Iranian population outside Iran.

“My heart goes out to Mahsa Amini’s family and all the other countless women who have experienced violence in Iran,” said Sasha Gladkikh, a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, and member of the school’s Iranian student group.

Gladkikh was born and raised in Southern California after her family fled Iran in the 1990s. Her mother follows the Baháʼí faith, which teaches the worth of all religions. Practitioners are routinely persecuted in Iran and increasingly face raids, arrests and land grabs, according to Amnesty International.

At 19, Gladkikh is just three years younger than Amini. Seeing what happened to Amini makes Gladkikh feel even more “privileged” to have grown up in a free democracy and attend a top-tier university as a woman. Now, she is adding her voice to a growing global chorus of young people who want to exercise their freedom to choose how they live, and she helped to organize a vigil Thursday night at UCLA for Amini, a Kurdish woman from western Iran.

Iranian officials are investigating after they said Amini had a pre-existing condition and suffered a heart attack while in custody. Amini’s family denies that and says witnesses told them she had been beaten by police. She was taken to the hospital and died days later.

“The Iranian people have reached a boiling point,” Gladkikh said. “When your own country has been extremely oppressive and you’re constantly being oppressed, you have nothing else to lose.”

Another student and member of UCLA’s Iranian student group said she was encouraged by the hundreds of people who gathered at the vigil to share in a moment of silence for Amini.

The student, Paria, who asked that her last name be withheld because of concerns over her personal safety when she travels to Iran, said she has cousins who want to protest, but their parents are warning them, “‘You protest and you can die. It’s not the same as in America.’”

A few miles down the street from the UCLA campus, restaurant owner Roozbeh Farahanipour recalled being beaten and tortured in his native Tehran, the capital, which he fled in 1999 after facing an execution order for his anti-government activism. He was a young journalist at the time and founder of the Glorious Frontier Party, which advocated for democracy and secularism in an increasingly fundamentalist Iran.

“I have not forgotten my motherland. I will always be a freedom fighter.”

Roozbeh Farahanipour SAID

Now in his 50s, Farahanipour still carries a slight limp and has limited range of motion in his neck as a result of injuries sustained during his torture, he said. He estimates his family lost some 20 members during the Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s, which ushered in a new era of social, political and religious extremism that continues to haunt many former citizens who have since left the country.

“I have not forgotten my motherland,” he said from inside his restaurant, Persian Gulf. “I will always be a freedom fighter.”

Farahanipour continues to mentor new generations of political activists using social media and secure apps like Skype and Signal. Since Amini’s death last week, he said he has heard from dozens of young Iranians asking for advice “almost daily” about what to do if they are arrested by authorities. 

He tells them the most important act is to work as a team and always have an escape route.

“When the situation gets hot like it is now, I am on my devices all the time,” he said. “The people are fearless. They are so brave.”

On Wednesday, Farahanipour joined hundreds of protesters outside a federal building in West Los Angeles, near the heart of the enclave known as Tehrangeles. The bustling neighborhood is filled with Persian signs, restaurants, markets and other businesses catering to the thriving Iranian American population.

Farahanipour’s restaurant, Persian Gulf, serves as a kind of monument to Iran’s ongoing political and religious tensions. American flags are displayed next to the Iranian lion and sun flag, which predates Islamic rule and which Farahanipour calls “Iran’s real flag.”

The current flag, adopted after the Islamic Revolution, “represents Nazis,” Farahanipour said. 

“I don’t have any feeling for that flag other than hate,” he added. “Freedom has a cost and the Iranian people are willing to pay it. It’s the Islamic Republic versus the Iranian people.”

The tensions in Iran come at a delicate moment for the United States, as it seeks to revive a 2015 nuclear pact brokered by the Obama administration but abandoned by then-President Donald Trump.

Speaking Wednesday at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, President Joe Biden said the U.S. would ensure that Iran does not build a nuclear arsenal while also recognizing the street protests intensifying there.

“We stand with the brave citizens and the brave women of Iran who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights,” Biden said.

In a country where radio and television stations already are state-controlled and journalists regularly face the threat of arrest, the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard urged the Iranian judiciary on Thursday to prosecute “anyone who spreads fake news and rumors” on social media about the unrest. Widespread outages of Instagram and WhatsApp, which are used by protesters, also continued Thursday.

On Friday, the U.S. Treasury Department said it would give guidance on how it will make exceptions for expanding internet access in Iran despite U.S. sanctions on the country.

The sanctions remain a point of contention for Iranian Americans who have family there, with some arguing that the penalties are undermining pro-democracy demonstrators and anti-government activists.

“We have crippled humanitarian workers and activists who have to work four or five jobs to put food on the table because the Iranian economy has been so weakened,” said Hanieh Jodat, a political activist, founding member of Women’s March Los Angeles and a delegate to the California Democratic Party Assembly.

Sepi Shyne, a member of the West Hollywood City Council, said she has been unable to make contact with family members, including aunts and cousins, in Iran because of the outages.

“I’m very worried — not just for my relatives, but also for all people in Iran,” Shyne said. “I’m worried for women, for the young people. They need all of us to be their voices right now.”

Shyne, 45, said the death of Amini is striking a nerve with Iranian American women in particular at a time when sexual and reproductive rights in the U.S. are being challenged and overturned in the courts — forcing women here to assert more agency over their bodies.

“We’ve seen other small demonstrations against the Islamic regime and its corruption,” she said, “but this is like a fire that will be very hard for the government to put out. I think women — even in America — are under such attack right now that this is like a dragon that’s being released.”

Alicia Victoria Lozano reported from Los Angeles, and Daniel Arkin and Erik Ortiz from New York.