Iranian students and recent graduates of Iowa State University sought to make not only their voices heard Thursday, but also the voices of their friends, family and other fellow citizens at home fighting government repression while mostly silenced to the world by internet censorship.
Iran has seen protests and the government's subsequent crackdown in recent weeks after the death of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, in the custody of the country's so-called "morality police," who arrest women whom they perceive have improperly covered their hair with a hijab.
Women in Iran have been required to wear hijabs in public since the 1979 Islamic Revolution brought to power the country's religious authorities.
Amini collapsed at a detention center, fell into a coma and died three days later, after having been reportedly beaten on the head, according to a statement by acting U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif.
Amini's death came after expanded street patrols by the morality police, and the Human Rights Office had received "numerous, and verified, videos of violent treatment of women, including slapping women across the face, beating them with batons and throwing them into police vans," Al-Nashif's statement added.
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"Today, Mahsa Amini is Iran's George Floyd," said a recorded statement broadcast at Thursday's protest on Iowa State's campus near Parks Library, referencing a Black Minneapolis man murdered in custody by a white police officer in 2020, which sparked protests in the U.S.
About 50 people took part at the beginning of Thursday's protest, shouting pleas for justice for Amini and Iran, saying women and Iran deserve freedom.
"Those who have no choice, we will be their voice!" was one chant.
Some women at the protest cut their hair in public as an act of defiance against the Iranian regime.
Most students and recent graduates who spoke with the Ames Tribune during and before the protest did not use their full names and often partly covered their faces with cloth masks because of the risk of retribution from the Iranian government, especially against their family and friends at home.
The regime's reach could extend inside the U.S. The U.S. Department of Justice announced in August that a member of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had been charged in a murder-for-hire plot targeting former national security adviser John Bolton. Last year, four Iranians were charged in a kidnapping plot against an Iranian dissident U.S. citizen in New York City.
Zohreh Parvini, who's from the city of Kermanshah and just started a doctorate program at Iowa State, said given how people are risking their lives much more so in Iran to protest, "That's the least we could do here," to give people hope.
Sarah, who's from the Iranian capital of Tehran and recently defended her doctorate, said the government's shutdown of the internet to censor information about the protests affects phones and apps, too.
The use of virtual private networks can at least temporarily get people access, but people like Zohreh's parents aren't tech-savvy enough to use VPNs.
"Mary," using a family nickname for her, who helped organize the protest and spoke with the Tribune on Wednesday, graduated last spring with a master's degree from Iowa State. She's from Tehran and has lived in the U.S. since 2019.
Her sister in Iran uses VPNs, so she at least hears from her every couple days, "'We are fine. Don't worry.'"
Mary knows she's taking a risk by speaking out. Her parents are scared for her.
"If I don't get to go back to Iran, OK, I accept that," and she can visit her family abroad, she said.
That risk is worth it to her because she sees the bravery of girls in her country, taking off their headscarfs and burning them in front of the police, risking being shot. "If they are that brave to do that on the streets, I need to do my part."
A lot of her friends go out to protest every night, and their social media posts educate people on what to do if they're shot or arrested. "We are just trying to amplify their voices and help them as much as we can," by the letting the world know what's happening.
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Mary said she's had one experience with the morality police, when she was 18. She said it's a common thing for women to be approached by the morality police walking down the street. A van pulls up, women are pushed inside and taken to a police station.
At the station, "just like a criminal," women are booked and have their picture taken for the state's records.
The stops are random, Mary said. Some women are just unlucky to live and work close by a police station and have to deal with them more often.
"We've had a lot of people dead in their custody, for many different reasons, but this time, this was different," Mary explained.
Amini was a woman from outside the city, visiting with her brother. And people don't buy the government's story that Amini had a heart attack.
"We are sure that she was beaten to death. This is a 22-year-old, innocent girl, not protesting," Mary said.
Mary said reformists have been at work for decades in Iran, but, "We are just right now sure that this government is not going to accept any reforms. Enough is enough. We just don't need this regime controlling our oil money, our reputation, our bodies, even if we're covering our hair or not. I'm just hoping for a big revolution to come."
She's proud of feminist movements in the U.S., but "you cannot be a feminist and you cannot talk about women's rights if you do not amplify the voices of women right now in Iran protesting. They're in a true war. They're getting shot for this."
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement the nation condemns Amini's death, and "We mourn with her loved ones and with the Iranian people."
The U.S. imposed sanctions on several top morality police, intelligence, military and paramilitary leaders, and acted to try to open the flow of digital information to people in Iran.
There is no active Iranian student organization at Iowa State, but Iran has been the fifth most-represented nation by international students at the university since at least the fall of 2017, according to enrollment data, with 124 Iranian students on campus this fall.
Amin, a recent graduate from Tehran, said Thursday the volunteers who organized the protest raised money from students and Iranian faculty members, and are hoping to get an Iranian Students and Scholars Association set up this year.
How Iowa universities handle investments with companies operating in Iran
The Iowa Board of Regents is required by state law each year to report universities' investment ties with companies that do business in Iran. The state's public universities had no direct holdings in any such companies as of June 30, according to the latest report.
Iowa State University and the University of Iowa did have indirect holdings with several companies that do business in Iran. Indirect funds are part of managed investments, such as mutual funds.
Iowa State's indirect holdings with companies doing business in Iran totaled more than $377,000 - mostly with Volkswagen, Siemens and POSCO, a South Korean steelmaker. The University of Iowa's indirect holdings totaled more than $1.9 million, also mostly among the same companies, with the addition of Porsche.
The University of Northern Iowa's investment portfolios are mingled with the University of Iowa's, according to Josh Lehman, spokesperson for the Board of Regents.
The Board of Regents is part of a statewide contract with ISS ESG, an investment analysis company, to scrutinize companies using public sources. The board then sends letters each year to companies to encourage them to cease prohibited operations, but divestment of indirect holdings in those companies is not required, Lehman said.
Iowa law requires the same scrutiny of companies that do business in Sudan or boycott Israel, and the board reports on those investments as well. "The board holds no direct investment in individual companies that requires divestment," Lehman said.
He said the universities' investment portfolios maintain liquidity, add flexibility in making long-term investments and grow endowment funds, among other financial roles. "Faculty and staff retirement funds have no correlation with the university-managed investments," he added.
Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at email@example.com. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.
This article originally appeared on Ames Tribune: Iranian community at Iowa State protests government repression at home