Woman, Life, Freedom: Iranian Calls for Freedom and Justice Reverberate in Toronto
“Woman, life, freedom” has been echoing across the globe for the past four months. Initially a Kurdish motto, the cry is shared by all who stand in solidarity with Iranians facing women’s rights and human rights violations by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Since 1980, Iran has seen continuous protests from within the country against the Islamic Republic government. But the recent protests have sparked unprecedented international action and support as Iranians call for an end to the Islamic Republic’s regime.
“The Iranian people are fed up after 43 years of brutal oppression”, says Ari Moghimi, a director at the Institute for Voices of Liberty (iVOL). “The death of Jina Mahsa Amini brought the genie out of the bottle”.
Amini was a 22-year-old Kurdish woman living in Saqqez, Iran. According to DW, Amini was a vibrant young woman. She ran a boutique and recently applied to university, but on 13 September 2022, she was arrested by Iran’s religious morality police, the Guidance Patrol, for improperly wearing a hijab.
Amini died in police custody three days later. Her death is officially attributed to a heart attack, but eyewitnesses say they saw police brutality.
“The government, at its core, does not respect women”, Moghimi says. “They don’t want women to have rights”.
Protests ignited in Iran and across the world soon after. People took to the streets demanding justice for Amini and freedom for women and girls. In Iran, protesters face government suppression and violence, with crackdowns increasing near the end of 2022.
Spurred by the escalating violent treatment of protestors by the Islamic Republic, the UN Economic and Social Council removed Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women on 14 December 2022.
For many years, protests in Iran centred on the Islamic Republic’s treatment of women. In 2021, the UN published an article detailing how women and girls are treated as second-class citizens. From child marriages to high levels of domestic violence and severe limitations in their agency, women and girls cannot live securely and freely under the Islamic Republic.
But Iranian women have never given up—they continue fighting for their right to education, travel, jobs and a meaningful role in politics.
In addition to the violation of women’s rights, the UN Special Rapporteurs and international communities identify many serious human rights issues in Iran, particularly in treating protestors, prisoners and minorities.
UN experts openly condemned the government’s execution of protesters that began on 8 December 2022 when 23-year-old Mohsen Shekari was the first of many to be executed by the state during the 2022 protest. Since then, the New York Times has reported that more protesters were sentenced to death.
“The weaponization of criminal procedures to punish people for exercising their basic rights—such as those participating in or organizing demonstrations—amounts to state-sanctioned killing”, says Volker Turk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to Reuters.
According to Al Jazeera, human rights organizations like the US-based Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) report that more than 450 people were killed during the protests. However, the Iranian Interior Ministry acknowledges just over 200.
“Over the last 40 years, Iranians have taken to the street many times and faced batons, tear gas and imprisonment”, Moghimi says. “But these are innocent people who are just looking for their basic rights and freedom”.
Prisoners also report facing torture. After Iranian rap artist Toomaj Salehi was arrested during the intensified crackdowns in late October and November, sources from within the prison said to CBC that he had sustained physical injuries.
The regime has continually oppressed minorities as well. Though Persians are the dominant ethnic group in Iran, nearly 40 per cent of the remaining population comprises various ethnicities, including Azeri, Baluch, Kurd and Arab. However, many minorities face systemic discrimination.
In 2008, Amnesty International released a report on human rights abuses against the Kurdish people in Iran, citing economic neglect of Kurdish neighbourhoods and inequalities in employment.
In addition, many Kurdish names are not accepted for official documentation. Amini’s Persian name was Mahsa, but her name was Jina, and everyone around her knew her as such.
Since they are Kurdish, Moghimi says his family had to flee Iran after the 1979 revolution because it was unsafe for them to stay. They came to Canada, home to one of the largest Iranian diasporas and, according to Statistics Canada, home to more than 200,000 Iranian immigrants. One of the largest communities lives in Toronto.
Moghimi adds that many immigrants share similar stories with his family. “I know many people who were jailed for their basic beliefs”, he says.
The Toronto diaspora has been active in supporting its people since the beginning of the protests in Iran. Aveen Damghani, a second-year media production student at Toronto Metropolitan University, continuously participated in the protests and organized the 40th-day memorial of Amini’s death.
Now, Damghani focuses on online advocacy, translating texts for their primarily English-speaking audience and amplifying voices from within Iran.
“We’re past protests”, Damghani says. “There are many more useful ways of advocating that can lead to direct action”.
Damghani says that Canada should take this moment to listen to the Iranian community’s demands about the downing of the Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752. While the Islamic Republic said it was an accident because the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) misidentified the plane, all 176 people aboard were killed.
Many Iranian passengers were from the Greater Toronto Area, including Richmond Hill and North York.
Three years later, families are still demanding justice. The CBC reports that the community wants Canada to list the entire IRGC as a terrorist group under the Criminal Code, launch a criminal probe and bring the case before the International Court of Justice.
“The Western governments should not do business with this regime”, Moghimi says. “They should support the Iranian people and their quest for democracy, human rights and freedom”.
Across the world, countries are taking action to support the Iranian people. The EU, UK, US and Canada have continuously imposed sanctions against leaders and organizations involved with the morality police. Berlin saw record-breaking protests with over 80,000 participants.
“The international community must know that the Islamic Republic does not represent Iranians”, Moghimi says. “Iran is a beautiful country. We have many religions and different ethnic communities that live in harmony”.
“But the Islamic Republic and government forces always try to create divisions inside Iran. You cannot reform this regime because they cannot negotiate, so they cannot represent Iranians”.
Damghani adds that non-Iranian communities in Canada can show their support by writing to their local officials about the PS752 demands, keeping up with the news from Iranian sources, amplifying Iranian voices, and checking on their Iranian friends and colleagues.
“After all these months, we’re still in the same mindset. I have not been able to think about anything else”, Damghani says. “Just show you are still listening”.