CN: mentions of extreme violence, anxiety

On the 16th of September last year, 22-year-old Iranian Mahsa Amini was beaten to death by the ‘morality police’ in the Islamic Republic of Iran, after they arrested her for supposedly improperly wearing her hijab.

This provoked worldwide outrage, but as the events in Iran fade from our news feeds and social media pages, it is easy to forget that protests are as strong as ever: Iran is in the middle of a revolution. Three Iranian Cambridge students agreed to speak to me about how the revolution has transformed their lives.

Kimia* was in Iran when Mahsa Amini was killed, and left 10 days into the protests — “I heard shooting, I smelled tear gas, I smelled smoke.” Being a woman in Iran amid the nascent revolution was particularly terrifying, as she tells me that the morality police have arrested her many times, even when she “literally had the most amount of hijab possible”. Even though she’s not in immediate danger while in Cambridge, Kimia has “been having more panic attacks than [she’s] ever had in [her] life” over the past two months.

It is extremely difficult for Iranian students to contact their families. Kimia explains how the Islamic Republic government has blocked access to all messenger apps, and is now even making communication via VPN impossible by using a firewall.

“I know how brutal [the morality police] can be even when you are not protesting”

Iran’s internet is so slow that even when she can briefly call her parents, they are abruptly disconnected. All three students we interviewed worry about their families, because, as Kimia says “I know how brutal [the morality police] can be even when you are not protesting.”

All three students also have friends in prison, with Mehdi* mentioning a friend who was imprisoned and tortured for a week for protesting. Four men have been executed since the revolution began, following summary trials, often without a lawyer, but Mehdi argues: "executions don’t silence people at all”. If anything, “there’s more rage.”

Mahsa Amini’s death was not the start of the unrest in Iran - there have been tensions since 1979, when the Islamic Republic was first established. Mehdi explains that the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) have long been committing acts of terrorism, such as shooting down a Ukrainian flight in 2020, killing 176. Saeed* adds how, more recently, “there’s been incidents where [the morality police] blind people,” while Kimia recalls that “they literally shot a person who was taking a video” of the protests.

So what are Iranians fighting for? In three words: ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’. The students emphasise that Iranians are not protesting against the hijab, they are fighting for a woman’s right to choose whether she wears one. Kimia explains that the misconception that the recent protests are anti-hijab is exploited by the moralising Iranian government: “what they are saying is that people want to get naked”.

There are many different reasons why Iranians are fighting. The students directed me to a song by Iranian artist Shervin Hajipour called ‘Baraye’ (Persian for ‘For’), which has become hugely popular in the revolutionary movement. The themes in his lyrics range from “child labour” to “polluted air” to “the fear of kissing” one’s lover in public. Predictably, since releasing ‘Baraye’, Hajipour has been arrested.

“In 44 years, I’m telling you, Iran has never been united like this before”

As ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ suggests, the Iranian revolution is a women-led revolution — the women of Iran earned Time Magazine’s Heroes of the Year award in 2022. Mehdi notes how, since the first Iranian Revolution in 1979, the percentage of women who complete primary education has increased massively, from around 30% to the high 90s. “They know what they’re doing, they know their history”. Saeed adds, “maybe that’s why the Taliban doesn’t want a woman to be educated.”

This is, however, not just a women’s revolution. Mehdi mentions the chant: “from Kurdistan to Tehran, I’ll die for Iran”, to illustrate that supporters of the revolution come from all over. “For 44 years, the Islamic Republic has been saying that if they are not there, different parts of Iran are going to get separated. But in 44 years, I’m telling you, Iran has never been united like this before.”

That’s the reason, Mehdi continues, that what some call protests, or a crisis, Iranians from all walks of life call a revolution – because they are confident that a change will come, “even if we don’t see the results in the next two months, three months or next year”.

Kimia, Mehdi and Saeed are all extremely active on social media and speak at many protests, and they know the consequences of this – if they were to return to Iran, they would be arrested at the airport. Movingly, Mehdi tells me how he doesn’t expect to ever return to Iran. “It wasn’t an easy decision at all. I was born and raised in Iran. Until I die, Iran will be my home.”


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The students point out that Western countries’ responses, namely sanctions targeted at the Islamic Republic, are ineffective, because they hit specific people rather than financial institutions. They also say that the University of Cambridge needs to do more to support the people of Iran. When Mehdi emailed Pro-Vice-Chancellor Kamal Munir in October, asking if Cambridge would issue a statement condemning the Islamic Republic’s actions, Munir said no, dismissing it as one of “several live conflicts around the world”.

Mehdi cannot help but feel aggrieved, given that Cambridge released a statement condemning Putin’s invasion of Ukraine just 8 months before. The University also provides a Hardship Fund for Ukrainian students, but no such scheme exists for Iranians, despite the fact that Kimia’s master’s degree “[costs] 40-50 years of an average worker in Iran’s income”.

I conclude by asking Kimia, Mehdi and Saeed if there is anything ordinary people can do to help the cause. There is plenty, they assure me. Email your MP. Be there for your Iranian friends — “not just Iranian friends, Afghan friends, Ukrainian friends.” The easiest thing to do, they say, is to “use your social media [...] by sharing the things that are coming from the people of Iran”.

Some Iranians who live abroad, she explains, do not protest or repost about the revolution because they want to be able to travel to Iran with impunity to see their loved ones, but Kimia has no patience for these people. “I don’t want to travel to Iran, I want to live in Iran”. The only way to achieve this is for the world to speak out.

The University have been approached for comment.

*Names have been changed.