A Voice of Change: Iran’s Human Rights Fight


In 1988, Majid arrived in Norway as a political refugee, after being an active opposition voice; first against the Shah’s regime, and subsequently the Islamic regime. 35 years later, his daughter, Aira, a Norwegian national with strong Iranian roots, is speaking out against the current human rights abuses in Iran. 

What is your perception of the current human rights fight in Iran, as someone living abroad?

There are two aspects to how I am feeling and view the fight for human rights in Iran. Firstly, it is devastating to hear the constant news of people being killed by security forces of the Islamic regime of Iran, simply over fighting for their human rights. Even children are subject to the fatal violence of the security forces. One need not be a compatriot to feel completely enraged by this injustice. 

However, I also feel hopeful. It is empowering to see people shed their fear and make their voices heard, against a regime that brutally represses any form of criticism or opposition. I’ve also seen that spirits are high among the people, and I believe that shows their resistance. Nevertheless, I still believe that citizens and governments of democratic countries need to support the cause as much as they can by sustaining the momentum and amplifying the voices of the Iranian people and their struggle towards freedom and dignity.

Many mention the end goal being reform of the Islamic Republic of Iran. What is your stance on this proposed objective?

In terms of political reform, keeping the core of the Islamic republic of Iran is not the solution. All factions agree on one thing: uprooting, and abolishing the regime, even those who had previously been in favor of reform within the framework of the Islamic regime have abandoned that position. Ultimately, it is a system that is rotten from within.

Disseminating the message that people in Iran want ‘reform’ is to do the Iranian people a disservice and misspeak on what is actually happening on the ground in Iran. Protestors are shouting “death to the dictator”, and “we do not want this regime”; they are ripping up and burning pictures of the supreme leader. These acts are crimes under law, but people are speaking up without fear – which is a sign of a remarkable resistance towards the regime.

Moreover, following pro-reform candidate Hassan Rouhani’s governance, Iranians successfully boycotted the most recent national elections which ended up in the presidency of hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi, also known as the butcher of Tehran due to his prominent role in the executions of 1988 resulting in the massacre of over 30,000 political prisoners. 

The election that resulted in Raisi’s presidency had the lowest turnout ever. This act of protest is also a clear indication that the Iranian people are not content with a ‘zombie democracy’. We want real democracy, basic human rights, and to live as we choose.

I have seen articles from big news outlets attributing the core of the protests to economic grief, foreign sanctions or hard living conditions. However, it is important to stress that the main grievance is against the Islamic Republic, which has brought about 43 years of oppression and stagnation in all aspects of the development of our country . So yes, this is about completely abolishing the theocracy in Iran – a violent, murderous regime.

How has growing up in Norway fortified your views on the current fight in Iran?

I was raised in Norway. I know what it means to live in a country that respects the rule of law. If someone in a position of power puts my rights under their foot, I can protest and stay safe. I can trust a procedure, and not fall victim to arbitrary consequences – I know I won’t be persecuted or beaten or killed.

I have visited Iran a couple of times on holiday. There, I came face-to-face with morality police, and experienced harassment because of how I was dressed.

When I was 12, my mom, my aunt and I arrived at the airport in Shiraz wearing coloured nail polish. As a result, a couple of women wearing distinguishable black cloaks asked us to follow them. I understood that they were part of the morality police, and they were persistent. My mom advised me to hide my hands in my pockets and pretend I didn’t speak Farsi. I couldn’t understand why wearing nail polish was criminal. I still remember the dark office they led us to where my mom had to sign a document. I understood later, this document was an agreement to not violate the dress code ever again. Finally, they let us off with a warning. We were lucky as it could have escalated into something more violent.

My family and I would frequently visit historical cities when we traveled back. When I visited again at 16, we did just that. We were touring a beautiful garden, and as I was taking pictures, a woman from the morality police approached us and started to verbally abuse me. She shouted, “how dare you attract male attention with your clothes?”, “You are arousing men around you!”. I was 16! That day, my mom was there to guide me and deescalate the situation. She knew that if the conflict escalated, I could be taken away by the morality police, and anything could happen after that. In the end, I had to apologize and promise to cover up.

It was difficult and infuriating to push down my voice, and give into the control. If someone spoke to me in that way in Norway, even if it was a police officer, I could have spoken my mind and defended my right to dress however I wanted.

A woman’s life in Iran is exactly this. Mahsa Amini had to pay the price with her life, and her case is not an isolated one. Iranian women are either verbally or physically abused because of the way they dress or exist in public. There is no way a woman could safeguard herself from the scrutiny of the morality police. The non-existence of the rule of law paves way for arbitrariness, you could be stopped anywhere for any reason.

As you mentioned before, it is important to highlight the deep-rooted oppression that women face in Iran. Could you dive deeper into how the protests were not prompted solely because of the mandatory dress code?

The fight is about women’s struggle to be recognized as first-class citizens. About 150 years ago, women’s organizations made the first girls’ schools. This is how women were able to participate in intellectual life and discourse, and were included in the enlightenment and modernity which was occurring throughout Iran. But it was not until 1963 that Iranian women gained the right to vote. That is when women became active in the country’s political landscape. 

Then, from 1979 onwards, those rights were slowly taken away. For example, a couple of years after the revolution, the veil  became mandatory. This tactic was used by the Islamic regime to highlight their power. By controlling how women appear in public life, they are able to monitor her identity. This mandate also affects the woman’s capacity to appear and contribute in public life. Without the veil, she cannot participate in public life. As Iranian activist Masih Alienjad describes, the compulsory hijab is the main visible symbol of oppression in Iran. 

Moreover,  the obligatory use of the veil is not only used to control Iranian Muslim women, but also Iranian Christian women, Jewish women, women without any religious beliefs, and even tourists. Women have to cover themselves how the Islamic regime deems appropriate. Therefore, this also transcends borders – it affects everyone.

Although Iran holds a huge pool of educated women, they are severely underrepresented in the Iranian labor force, senior roles, and positions of power. For example, 65% of university graduates are women, and 70% of those In STEM are women. Although Iran’s unemployment rate has ranged between about 10 to 13.7 percent over the past decade, the rates are consistently higher for women, at between 17 to 21.1 percent. As an Iranian woman you cannot run for president, become a religious leader, or a judge in high courts.

Prominent Iranian activist, Masih Alienjad compares removing the mandatory veil to the fall of the Berlin wall – where when the veil is let down, everything comes down with it. Although the mandatory dress code is already an oppressive tool, the protests consider everything else; they are about women’s role in society, in public life, in the labor forces, in positions of leadership, politics, and family settings. In Iran, a woman can’t sing in public, or dance in public, etc.

The fight is not solely about the dress code, we are not only fighting to let down our hair.

As a law and international relations student, I imagine that you have been building your knowledge on these forms of uprisings. How do you see all of this ending?

There is no way of knowing when or how this will end, but it makes me hopeful to see the protests. The people’s uprising is showing that Iranians no longer fear the regime and their methods of control based in torture, executions, and beatings.

In my opinion, the most important thing is for democratic countries, and relevant institutions to stand up now – amplify the voices of the Iranian people, and cut the lifeline of the Islamic republic of Iran. This means, stop making deals with the crumbling regime; begin investigating for human rights abuses, and for money laundering; freeze assets, and make tribunals which can lead to criminal proceedings against regime officials.

Therefore, to keep the momentum up and save as many as we can, we need to start acting as an international community.

Aira has organized a panel alongside the School of Global and Public Affairs. It is being held at the IE Tower on the 24th of November, from 15:00 to 16:30. The event will address the current human right’s abuses in Iran, from Iranian perspectives. You can find more information and sign up for it on IEConnects, the waiting list is currently open – https://e.cglink.me/2kb/r300081130. 

Moreover, below are some users to follow on social media for updates on the Iranian fight:

  • Gissou Nia – human rights lawyer
  • Nazanin Boniadi – actress and activist
  • Masih Alinejad – journalist and activist
  • Nazanin Nour (@iamnazaninnour) – actress 
  • Goldie Ghamari – MPP in Ontario

Finally, there is also a large array of books available regarding the topic, below are a few:

  • The Shah by Abbas Milani 
  • Lost Wisdom: Rethinking Modernity in Iran by Abbas Milani
  • Patriot of Persia: Muhammed Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup by Christopher De Bellaigue 
  • Iran: Empire of the Mind: A story from Zoroaster to the Present Day by Michael Axworthy

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