Dr. Aazam Feiz speaks during a recent Rally for Iran hosted at UCSB's campus | Credit: Aran Hosseini

When 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was killed in police custody in Iran on September 16, her death lit a fire that had been building in the country for decades, sparking protests not only in Iran but across the world. Then last week, the country carried out two executions — Mohsen Shekari on December 8, followed by Majidreza Rhanavard on December 12 — both arrested for participating in protests and both hanged in public after being found guilty of “moharebeh,” or “waging war against God.”

Amini was arrested by The Guidance Patrol, the religious morality police of Iran’s government, for allegedly not wearing the hijab in accordance with government standards; Shekari and Rhanavard are two of 11 prisoners reported to be sentenced to death by Iran’s Revolution Court, and the first to be officially executed in connection to the protests.

Activist group Iranian Human Rights, which is monitoring the protests, says that as of December 7, at least 458 people have been killed in the recent protests in Iran, with at least another 18,200 detained.

And while even more are facing the death penalty, like Maha Sadrat, who faces “imminent risk of execution,” according to the group.

“The Islamic Republic has raised the level of violence against protesters by starting their executions,” said Iranian Human Rights director Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam. “Under such circumstances, the backlash both at home and abroad must be stronger than ever before. Protester executions can only be prevented by raising their political cost for the Islamic Republic.”

A sign showing prisoner Amirhossein Moradi, an Iranian student sentenced to 16 years due to a confession that activists say was coerced through torture | Credit: Aran Hosseini

Here in Santa Barbara, the Iranian community has galvanized around the tragedies in Iran. Starting in late September, UCSB’s Iranian Academic Community (IAC) began holding weekly demonstrations every Wednesday. In October, those mid-week demonstrations were supplemented with weekend protests at Stearns Wharf, and the topic was the center of discussion at this year’s Women’s March on State Street.

Now, those involved are hoping this movement keeps growing until there is a regime change in Iran.

“First this was a demonstration. Now it is a revolution,” said Dr. Aazam Feiz, who was born in Iran and now teaches Persian Language Studies at UCSB, “and the goal is a regime change.”

While the most recent wave of protest was sparked by the death of Amini, and there has been a focus of putting women to the forefront with the new battle cry of “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi,” or “Women, Life, Freedom,” Feiz says that the roots of the problem with the current regime run deep and date as far back as the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

“It is not only the story of women; the people of Iran have many problems,” she said. “They have waited for 43 years.”

The long fight against the current regime has many chapters, she said, from the first major protests against the new mandatory hijabs in March 1978, to the executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, to the more recent uprisings in 2009 and 2019. Now, with the power of youth — young men and women who have joined in the current fight for regime change — and the power of social media, which has helped push news worldwide, she hopes that this revolution is here to stay.

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Part of that growing wave of youth here in Santa Barbara is fourth-year biopsychology student Aran Hosseini, a representative of UCSB’s IAC who has helped organize the weekly events on campus and lent his voice to the protests by speaking at the events and sharing updates daily via social media. 

He has a personal connection to Iran’s troubled history, as his uncle was one of the thousands executed in the ’80s.

Hosseini says that this time around, he has seen a sustained effort by Iranians and allies across the world to keep these protests going strong. In 2011, protests against corruption in the 2009 election lost momentum when demonstrations were shut down and the world was distracted with other Arab Spring movements in Western and Northern Africa.

“Back then, the diaspora and people abroad had knowledge but weren’t super involved,” Hosseini said. “They would downplay the atrocities that occurred in 2011. This time, the diaspora, even people outside of the diaspora, have combined together.”

Now, although Iran has experienced temporary internet blockages and it can be hard to get up-to-date news, the prevalence of social media apps like Telegram and Instagram have allowed people across the world to post news from the ground and organize together.

Following a “human chain” at Stearns Wharf on October 29, and a candlelight vigil in honor of protesters killed in Iran held in Isla Vista on November 23, UCSB’s Iranian Community held its weekly Rally for Iran with more than 200 universities across the world on November 20. Almost every Wednesday, the group can be found on campus holding signs and chanting songs.

At Stearns Wharf, the group plans to hold demonstrations every Saturday, weather permitting (last week’s was canceled due to rain). Now, Santa Barbara Women’s March and World Dance for Humanity participate in the demonstrations with dances in solidarity with protesters in Iran, who often are not allowed to express themselves in the street the same way they are allowed to here.

“The dance thing we do there is not allowed in Iran,” Hosseini said. “It’s an act of solidarity, an act of hope.”

He says that we should all be listening to Iranian voices and centering them during these times, but that people here in the U.S. can continue to “be their voice” to ensure that the world does not lose interest.

“Continue to be their voice,” Hosseini said. “One voice may seem insignificant, but when you join more voices together that puts pressure, that’s the most effective way to isolate the regime.”

For more info, or to see updates on local demonstrations, check Instagram: @iac_ucsb.

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