Features Editor Athina Bohner speaks to dozens of Iranian anti-regime protesters demanding freedom for Iran.
On 19 November 2022, impassioned voices demanding “freedom for Iran” engulfed the streets of Glasgow, as over 1,000 protesters of all generations marched from Kelvingrove Park to Glasgow Green. While proudly singing pro-democracy songs in Farsi and waving Iranian flags featuring a sun and lion, the protest embodied a deeply personal portrayal of Scotland’s Iranian diaspora standing in solidarity with the people of Iran.
Since 16 September, widespread anti-government demonstrations have erupted in Iran following the tragic death of Mahsa Jina Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman of Kurdish origin. Amini died in police custody three days after being detained by morality police for wearing her hijab “too loosely” with independent, UN-affiliated experts suggesting that she was severely beaten. Following the women and student-led protests in response to her death, the theocratic regime ruling the Islamic Republic of Iran has retaliated brutally. According to the non-governmental organisation Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRA), over 18,195 protesters have been arrested in Iran since the protests began in mid-September. HRA also reports that more than 459 protesters have been killed over the past few months, including at least 64 Iranian children.
Organised by the Iranian Scottish Association, last week’s protest was permeated by a palpable sense of collective grief, deep-rooted anger, and transgenerational trauma, as Iranian families, students, and supporters came together from all over Scotland to voice their decades-long struggle for liberty. After 43 years of oppression by the country’s Supreme Leader, the symbolic slogan “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi”, which translates to “Women, Life, Freedom”, is being echoed around the world in support of Iranians’ wide-reaching frustrations. Many protesters travelled from Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Stirling to commemorate the third anniversary of Bloody November, when 1,500 protesters were killed during a week-long total internet blackout.
In the midst of the lively sea of green, white and red, it felt particularly chilling to overhear a young woman absentmindedly comment: “I have never seen so many Iranians in the same place outside of Iran”. Though her words were filled with hope, the woman’s voice seemed wistful and heavy-hearted; her tired eyes fixated on the Glaswegian horizon, as though in search for a better tomorrow. The march’s touching portrayal of community spread through the crowd like a comforting blanket of memory and courage, as demonstrators loudly demanded: “One solution: revolution”.
In Glasgow’s city centre, Mahrou, a 17-year old student at Bearsden Academy, moved numerous onlookers to tears with her powerful speech. While marching past Buchanan Street, she declared: “This is not just a protest for mandatory hijab and the morality police anymore. We are protesting gender inequality, forced confessions, unfair trials, capital punishment, torture, child marriage, corruption, terrorism funding, and much more.” In addition, a middle-aged Iranian protester who was unable to find a job in his home country despite a university education, told The Glasgow Guardian that he is opposing the Islamic Republic of Iran because Iranians “don’t see a happy future and human rights are not respected”.
Moreover, university students played a visible role in Glasgow’s demonstration, as the students of Iran are at the forefront of the uprising by protesting on campus and refusing to attend lectures until their imprisoned classmates are released. According to Human Rights Activists in Iran, 143 universities across Iran are involved in the protests with 576 students arrested. Members of UofG’s Healthcare Students Against Racism society who attended the march expressed their dismay at the University of Glasgow’s lack of response to the brutal crackdown of protesters in Iran. One student told The Glasgow Guardian that she emailed the head of every UofG college, asking university representatives to amplify Iranian voices by publishing an official announcement condemning the situation, but has only received one reply.
It was evident how profoundly affected this protester was by the shocking events in her home country. During a speech to the large crowd, she urged Glasgow University students to raise awareness, because “to the government [of Iran], people are dispensable. They are pieces of pawn in a game of chess.” Speaking to The Glasgow Guardian, she emotionally remarked: “At the end of the day, family is so much more than just your biological relatives. The people that we see who are shot on the streets – the videos we see of people being killed – they are family to us, as well.”
In addition, the UofG students suggested that the university should implement schemes similar to those supporting Ukrainian students, particularly as Generation Z has been described as the driving force of protests in Iran. The students told The Glasgow Guardian that they hope the university will speak out “against what’s happening, because they did it for Ukraine, so why can’t they do it for [Iran], especially when there are so many students dying?” Another student added: “It is disheartening to see that there are responses to other issues – as there should be – but it seems that when it comes to matters in the Middle East, their voices are suddenly much, much quieter.”
Moreover, Katja, a Glasgow University student, who attended the march as “an opportunity to learn [about the situation in Iran] directly from the people who are most affected by it”, told The Glasgow Guardian that they feel sceptical about the UK Government’s response, as it took six years (and five foreign secretaries) to free the detained Iranian-British dual citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Directly addressing the UK Government and its history of imperial interests in the region, Katja remarked: “It’s time for you to take some responsibility and recognise that you’re part of the problem.” Attending the demonstration with their Kurdish friend Lala, who feels “especially tied to the death of Mahsa Jina”, the students called for the abolishment of the oppressive Iranian regime.
Throughout the protests, chants to remember the names of killed civilians expressed the Iranian people’s resilience and camaraderie. For instance, the crowd remembered 9-year-old Kian Pirfalak, who was killed by Iranian security forces while sitting in his parents’ car. Tens of thousands gathered at his funeral, which took place on 18 November – two days before the UN’s World Children’s Day. In conversations with protesters, the Iranian diaspora also shed light on the immense mental toll of Iran’s ongoing unrest. Bahar revealed that she has developed anxiety since the outbreak of nationwide protests “because I am not in my country to support my people and am scared because my family is living there”. Another demonstrator described her daily reality as “pure stress”, while Zara, a 33-year-old Iranian student at UWS who moved to Glasgow 6 years ago, sorrowfully declared that “emotionally, we are with them every single day.”
Nevertheless, the powerful anthem of Iran’s most recent wave of protests, Baraye by the 25-year-old Iranian singer Shervin Hajipour, rang passionately through the streets of Glasgow. The experience of this, both empowering and heart-shattering to be immersed in this chorus of voices singing for Iran’s long-sought freedom, was indescribable. Translated into English by the Iranian-American singer Rana Mansour, Baraye’s lyrics read: “For the future generations fighting for their time, For empty promises of heaven in the after-life, For all the imprisonment of beautiful minds, For all the babies who are born and for the ones who died”.
An Iranian man told The Glasgow Guardian during the march from Kelvingrove Park that he would like to see the UK limit their relationship with Iran and for Western media to increase their news coverage of the protests, as well as to tell people in the UK to “be happy because you have freedom”. When asked whether the protester would like to share his name for the article, he responded with a tentative smile that his name is Iran, declaring that “It doesn’t matter what my name is, because we are all Iran”.