Protesters gather at state capital against Iranian government human rights violations

A crowd gathers outside the state capitol building to protest human rights violations in Iran. Photo by Jack Glagola

Jack Glagola, Contributing Writer

The forecast called for rain — but the weather did not stop Richmond’s Iranian community from coming out on Sunday and protesting human rights violations by the ruling regime of Iran.

Protesters stood under umbrellas in the colors of the Iranian flag; they held up the picture of Mahsa Amini, the young woman whose murder sparked the unrest; they waved the Lion and Sun flag of the previous regime that was deposed over four decades ago. 

Protests in Iran started last month when Mahsa Amini was brutally killed by “morality police” because she was not wearing the proper hijab, according to Iran Focus, a nonprofit news site. Central to the protests underway in Iran and here are human rights, especially regarding the treatment of women. 

Former VCU student Mahyar Zarei said the core of the issue is freedom of expression, and it is nobody’s choice but a woman’s whether or not she should wear a hijab.

“We are in the year 2022,” Zarei said. “In Iran we go on a different calendar — they say the year is 1401 — but we’re past that age of thinking that women are less than men. This is about basic human rights, and it’s kind of weird to say because you wouldn’t think we’d be at this point.”

Many of the protesters in attendance on Sunday, including Zarei, were in Washington, D.C. the day before with the same goal — to get government officials to hear the Iranian community’s voice. 

“The rain’s nothing for us here,” Zarei said. “I’m exhausted from yesterday, but the people back home are doing this every day.” 

The event in the nation’s capital included Iranian communities from the city proper and the surrounding suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, and numbered nearly ten thousand. They marched from Farragut Park all the way to the former Iranian Embassy. 

“It was beautiful,” Zarei said. “I couldn’t see the front or back of the line.” 

Virginia Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, who represents a swath of the Richmond area, made an appearance on Oct. 2. She addressed the crowd and reiterated the importance of women’s rights and human rights across the world. 

“The profound grief that the Iranian people are feeling translates across all peoples, all languages, and all time,” Hashmi said. “Outrage against injustice is a universal language.”

The authoritarian government of Iran denies fundamental rights afforded to all people, according to Hashmi.

“Democracy and theocracy are not compatible,” Hashmi said.

In her speech, Hashmi said the Iranian “morality police” that carried out the murder of Amini were acting contrary to their intended function. 

“You cannot call yourself the ‘moral police’ when your morality requires you to harm, to oppress and to make a mockery of justice,” Hashmi said.

Dr. Iraj Mirshahi, an internal medicine doctor at St. Mary’s Hospital and the organizer of this protest, said he decided to have a rally in Richmond because he wants to make sure Virginia leadership remembers that Iranian Americans have a voice here.

“We want our fellow Americans to support us and our elected officials to understand where we are coming from,” Mirshahi said. “We want them to stop negotiating with them — we don’t think the regime is going to change.” 

Initially, the outrage in Iran focused on Amini’s death and the treatment of women by the theocratic Iranian government, according to Mirshahi.   

“They have gone beyond that. People are demanding more, because they’ve been oppressed for 43 years,” Mirshahi said. “They want a democratic, secular government now. This is about women’s rights, this is about all Iranian people’s rights.”

There is a disparity between the ruling class and the middle and working classes of Iran, Mirshahi said. 

“Even with all the sanctions, the leaders are still enjoying a good life while the people of Iran become poorer and poorer,” Mirshahi said. “They’re sending their kids to Europe, to America, to Canada, to Australia, while Iranian kids are in the streets — they don’t have enough food to eat. The message is strong — we want to condemn what is happening in Iran. We want support from leaders here in the United States.” 

Mirshahi said he was optimistic about the future of the protests. 

“I think it’s a great start because right now, the people involved are the young people — people in their 20s and 30s who weren’t around when the Islamic Revolution happened 40 years ago,” Mirshahi said. 

The Iranian people want to avoid conflict if possible, but will have to engage for the duration of this regime, according to Mirshahi.

“The Iranians are a peace-loving people,” Mirshahi said. “We want to live in tranquility with the rest of the world. But as long as that regime is there, that is not going to happen.”

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