On September 13, 2022, during a visit from her hometown in Saqez in Kurdistan province, 22-year-old Mahsa (Jina) Amini, was detained in Tehran for “inappropriate attire” by the morality police, who enforce Iran’s strict hijab laws. Three days later, on September 16, Amini died in a nearby hospital after falling into a coma soon after her detention. While Iranian authorities denied any wrongdoing, blaming her death on a heart attack, all signs pointed to Amini being beaten and subsequently dying from those injuries.
Amini’s death immediately sparked outrage and protests in Iranian streets, led primarily by women, who have endured the arbitrary enforcement of oppressive rules limiting women’s rights since 1981 when the strict hijab laws were put in place after the Iranian revolution. Women and their allies flocked to the streets, many risking everything—their lives, their livelihoods, their families’ safety—by ripping off their hijabs and burning them in the streets. Protests started in Saqez, Amini’s hometown, during her funeral and spread across the country. During Amini’s funeral, Kurdish women removed their headscarves and chanted in Kurdish, “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” or “Woman, Life, Freedom.” The Persian translation “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” became the chant in Farsi-speaking parts of the country. In honoring Amini’s life and through those protests, the Woman Life Freedom movement was born, becoming a global action in solidarity with Iranian women and girls who are courageously demonstrating peacefully for their fundamental rights.
“The fact that Iranian women want to have equal rights as men in every area of life: their choice of career and style, sports, the arts, family issues and etc.,” said Jhila (ژیلا), a young woman in Iran whose real name we aren’t using for her protection. “What is noteworthy here is that these women want to achieve this goal without the aid of any of the big global powers.” And it is through this unique movement that, in light of International Women's Day, we have the opportunity to learn why and how we can continue to fight for the lives of women and against misogyny and the oppression of women through solidarity.
Women of the Iranian diaspora saw immediately the importance of solidarity. Yalda Shahram, MD, a hospitalist at UC San Francisco, is among those Iranian immigrants who felt moved to act. Dr. Shahram emigrated from Iran to the U.S. the week before she turned eight years old on her father’s 0-1 visa for individuals with extraordinary ability of achievement due to his career in Iranian cinema scoring feature films. It was not until she was 19 that Dr. Shahram and her family were able to travel back to Iran to visit her grandparents due to the U.S. immigration system’s delays in processing paperwork for some immigrants. But she has held onto her connection to Iran despite not having a connected community of Iranians within her career networks.
Not living in Iran was exceptionally painful as Dr. Shahram tried to find ways to engage. “I had this profound sense of guilt that I’m safe here and grief for the loss [of Amini],” she says. “I was dealing with that emotion while going to see patients in the hospital and going to my next Zoom meeting.” So as the protests in Iran took hold, she became connected with other Iranians across the UCSF campus who felt similarly. It started with an email chain of a few people and grew to a group of 30+ folks. When they met in October, they knew this coalition had the potential to activate folks across UCSF and the other University of California campuses more broadly.
With that, they formed WomanLifeFreedom at UCSF with a mission to “achieve solidarity by partnering with and learning from marginalized, immigrant, refugee, and undocumented communities to build a coalition in the struggle for freedom, justice, and human rights.” Amini’s death was a catalyst for these healthcare providers to take their caretaking role and link it with the larger movement in support of the anti-patriarchal feminist movement in Iran as they work to end violence and misogyny all over the world.
“There’s hardly any woman in Iran who hasn’t had some interaction with the morality police,” says Dr. Shahram. And in that, she and other Iranian women could see themselves in Amini. This was amplified for healthcare providers when they learned of the death of Dr. Ayda Rostami in December 2022. She was a 36-year-old street medic treating protestors who were afraid of being detained in Iranian hospitals. She disappeared on December 12th while going out to obtain more supplies. She never returned and the next day, her body, displaying evidence of torture, was returned to her family. “Street medics should be protected,” says Dr. Shahram. “This is something that speaks to the healthcare community.”
These motivations all factored into a lot of the group’s awareness-raising efforts. As part of her work to shed light on the global movement, Dr. Shahram and her colleagues with WomanLifeFreedom at UCSF are getting the word out in various ways. Dr. Shahram published a letter-to-the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle in October imploring the media to publicize the local protests and encouraging the general public to pay attention and support the movement. “The oppression of women is a global tragedy, and people are chanting ‘woman, life, liberty’ across the world in support of the women-led protest in Iran,” she wrote. “The media are ignoring these demonstrations.” She recalls the thousands of protestors on the Golden Gate Bridge on September 25, 2022 with only a small amount of coverage from the local media. In addition to this letter, Dr. Shahram and the WomanLifeFreedom group are distributing petitions and holding events for the larger community to get involved.
WomanLifeFreedom at UCSF also serves as a place for catharsis and belonging for Iranian women who are grieving what is happening. “I think this community forming and creating a sense of belonging is especially important now,” says Dr. Shahram. “Speaking from personal experiences. When I learned of the death of Dr. Rostami, I was on service in the hospital and I felt like nobody around me cared or knew. I felt like I was all by myself there. But having this sense of belonging and community with the WomanLifeFreedom at USCF group has helped get through these challenging times.”
And through this support network, they are working to create a community for anyone who wants to join the fight. These five arms form the core of WomanLifeFreedom at UCSF’s work:
- Advocacy. Through organizing petitions (such as in the wake of Dr. Rostami’s murder that asked healthcare professionals and the general public alike to demand actions such as freezing assets from leaders of Iran and condemning gender apartheid) and awareness-raising programming (such as this Roundtable discussion on the movement hosted by UCSF Office of Diversity and Outreach), the group is advocating for a change in the patriarchal and misogynistic systems worldwide.
- Research. They are conducting research that can inform the field, particularly around mental health and mental health support. They have also conducted workshops for students to support them with their mental health.
- Telehealth (Begoosh Docs). By providing free, remote medical consultation services, this team of California-based medical specialists is actively assisting Iran-based doctors and patients, particularly as their needs relate to protests such as pellet gun and eye injuries with a high demand for ophthalmology consultations.
- Scholars at Risk. Recognizing the scholars across the world trapped in war zones or in places experiencing unrest such as Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Iran, the group provides support in the form of help with visas or application fees, or any other assistance needed by these individuals.
- Events. Events serve as a focal point for their work through organizing rallies, fundraisers that support all of their efforts, and celebratory events focused on joyful gatherings and action. For example, they’ll be holding an event for Nowruz—Persian New Year—on March 25th that is focused on joy and celebration.
Six months since the protests began in Iran, women and allies continue to protest in Iranian streets, on social media, and in various individual acts on a global stage. The movement’s reach is broad and global. Dr. Shahram and the team behind WomanLifeFreedom at UCSF stand with these protestors and would like the world to know this:
“I wish that every single reader would feel motivated and awed by the bravery of these women and men in Iran who are doing these revolutionary acts against patriarchy, against religious extremism. They are risking everything to show us how it should be done. With International Women’s Day, we must recognize that the oppression of women is a global tragedy. It is not isolated just to Iran or other places far from us. We, in the United States, have laws here aiming to limit women’s freedoms as well and we need to be worried about what’s being done. The bravery of Iranians is an example of what bravery looks like. Why don’t we learn together, teach each other and fight against patriarchy not just as siloes, but all together.”
WomenLifeFreedom of UCSF’s next major event is a Nowruz–Persian New Year–Celebration on Saturday, March 25th on the UCSF campus (you can learn about the event here). You can learn more about their work at https://womanlifefreedom.ucsf.edu/ and if you are motivated to be regularly engaged (especially with communications and marketing efforts), email email@example.com about your interest.