Women cutting their hair, mass protests and violent repression by the police. These images from Iran have been beamed around the world for months. Avans also has Iranians students, who are each in their own way taking part in the protests. For example Mahnaz Hassanejad Pirkolachahi, first-year Bachelor of Laws student.
Mahnaz is anxious to tell her story. Because she believes that people need to realise what is going on her home country, in order to create more awareness and understanding among fellow students at Avans. “The lecturers do know something about it and they acknowledge that it is a difficult situation. But many of my fellow students don’t know what is going on. I have to explain to them that Iranians are not just protesting because they don’t want to wear the hijab”, explains the first-year Bachelor of Laws student. “It is a factor, it is why a 22-year-old student was murdered, but it’s only one small part of it. As women, we want the same rights as men. We want to be able to decide for ourselves if we want to go abroad on holiday, to have the right to choose where we work, to be able to divorce and to keep the children after a divorce. We want the same rights that most women in the world have. That’s what it’s about and that’s why we are protesting.”
Iranians have been protesting against their harsh regime since September 2022. The direct cause was the death of a 22-year-old student who had supposedly disobeyed the country’s strict rules on dress. On those grounds, she was arrested and beaten so severely that she died of her injuries. This sparked large-scale protests against the treatment of women in Iran and the death penalty. According to American research, to date more than 500 people have died during the protests.
Mahnaz, who has been living in the Netherlands since 2016, prefers to follow all the news about the situation in her home country closely. Due to a lack of internet in Iran, a meagre supply of news and because she studies and works, that is not possible to the degree she would wish. So she doesn’t always know how her family and friends who are still in Iran are doing. “We used to be able to phone each other, but that’s become a lot harder. I find that difficult. And the news I read and hear is hardly cheering. It is about the murder and rape of our people”, she says. “I’m doing okay, but on the other hand I’m not. Here in the Netherlands, I can do whatever I want and I have everything I need – I should be happy. But I can’t be happy knowing how it is there. My heart is heavy.”
For the above reasons, she has hardly any contact with her family. That bothers her, but she’s not afraid. “Why should I be afraid here when my people in Iran are protesting? They are the ones running the risk”, says Mahnaz, who is trying to do her bit from the Netherlands. For instance, she has taken part in protests in Amsterdam and tells others about the situation in Iran. She does that using Instagram, on which she shares news of how people in other countries are protesting against Iran’s harsh regime. She has also contacted representatives of Eindhoven council about painting a wall in the city centre with the text ‘Women Life Freedom’.
“We can’t go to Iran to protest; we risk being immediately arrested if we do. We want to use this route to tell more people about what is going on and raise their awareness. That may increase the pressure on the regime.”
“I am grateful to be in the Netherlands. Here you can say whatever you want, without any consequences. I couldn’t have found a better place to study than here. In Iran, people can be sentenced to death. They have no voice, so we need to be that voice”, says Mahnaz.
Iranian men in the Netherlands, like Avans student Shayan*, are also preoccupied with the situation in Iran. A year ago, he left the country because he didn’t want to do compulsory military service. “So we decided to continue our studies abroad. Getting out of the country wasn’t easy. It took us a year to get all the right documents”, he says.
He left a lot of friends and family behind in the country. And they have suffered. For instance, two of his close friends ended up in prison after participating in a protest. “That was tough, because I didn’t know how they were. Eventually they signed a contract saying they would no longer take part in the protests. The government put them under a lot of pressure and are still watching them closely”, says Shayan. As a man, he considers it important to take action to improve the situation of women in his country. “Many men in Iran don’t understand the suffering of women. We support them and stand beside the women in this uprising.”
Like Mahnaz, Shayan is trying to do his bit primarily by being active on social media. He would like to see the Dutch government do more for his compatriots. “I think sanctions work best. They would really have an impact on the Iranian government. Apart from that, I think it would be a good thing to ban Iran from international events”, says Shayan. He also appeals to his fellow students. “I think people from Iran can really use a lot of empathy and support. So show that you stand with us and share links to articles and helpful posts on your social media.”
At the initiative of Avans, a number of Iranian students have met a few times to share their stories, experiences and needs with Avans and with each other.
*Shayan’s surname is known to the editors of Punt.