Nastaran Fathollah holds a chunk of hair she cut off during Saturday's protest for women's rights in Iran, following the death of Mahsa Amini, who was killed while in police custody in Tehran. | Credit: Ryan P. Cruz

Santa Barbara’s Iranian community has been protesting for at least the past week — with daily demonstrations at the UC Santa Barbara campus organized by the Iranian Academic Community (IAC-UCSB)  — and on Saturday, the group took over the corner of State Street and Cabrillo Boulevard to join in worldwide protests for women’s rights in Iran.

Credit: Brett Morrison

Members of IAC-UCSB, Iranian-Americans for Justice & Human Rights, and supporters of the local Iranian-American community crowded along the grass in front of Stearns Wharf, singing songs and sharing testimony to spread awareness of an ongoing humanitarian crisis in Iran. The worldwide protests were heavily sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini — who was arrested and killed in police custody in Tehran in September for failing to properly wear a hijab — but according to those who have lived under the Islamist regime over the past few decades, the battle for control over women’s bodies has been a struggle for years, dating back to the 1979 revolution.

In Santa Barbara, as in protests around the world, women have taken to the streets, burning their hijabs or chopping off their hair in symbolic acts of protests. 

Nastaran Fathollah, a Santa Barbara resident and mother of three, was born in Iran. On Saturday, she helped lead the crowd in chants and shared her story before taking a pair of scissors to her long black hair.

“Women in Iran cannot show their hair,” Fathollah said, to cheers from the crowd, “so I will cut mine now.”

After holding her freshly chopped ponytail high above her head, Fathollah’s oldest daughter rushed to embrace her mother, both in tears. “I brought my daughters here to have freedom,” Fathollah said, “but women in Iran need freedom now.”

After Fathollah, several women followed, standing in the center of the crowd of about 150 that had gathered, each sawing through their hair with scissors and adding to a growing pile of chopped locks, all different shades of brown, on the grass below.

But while the recent protests were spurred by Amini and other women arrested for not wearing a hijab, speakers at Saturday’s protest reiterated that the issue is much bigger than hair — women in Iran have long fought for the right to control their own bodily autonomy.

Credit: Brett Morrison

“Women in the U.S. know really well about the Me Too movement,” said Ali Reza Payandeh, a postdoctoral researcher at UCSB who was born in Iran. “So when the women of the west say ‘my body, my choice,’ you have to listen to Iranian women when they say ‘their body, their choice,’ and show your solidarity to your sisters.

“Women in my country are in the streets facing bullets and guns; they want an end for this gender-apartheid,” he said.

In Iran, he explained, women are “deprived of their basic rights,” unable to work or travel unless they adhere to strict laws concerning their appearance. The Iranian regime has in turn responded violently to the acts of protest, allegedly disrupting internet access and deploying armed riot police, which has resulted in dozens of deaths, including the arrest of Amini on September 16. She was later reported dead of a brain hemorrhage after being injured in police custody.

“Mahsa is my sister; Mahsa is my daughter,” shouted one protester.

Since Amini’s death, “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” (translated to “Women, Life, Freedom”) has become an unofficial motto of the demonstrations, with supporters all over the world protesting while chanting the words and holding signs featuring the faces of the women arrested.

For more information about how locals can support women in Iran, visit IAC-UCSB’s Instagram profile at @iac_ucsb.

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