Protests galvanize Iranians abroad in hope, concern and unity

Protests galvanize Iranians abroad in hope, concern and unity

London – As anti-government protests roil towns and cities in Iran for a fourth week, tens of thousands of Iranians living abroad have marched in the streets of Europe, North America and beyond to support what many believe is a watershed moment for their homeland.

From those who fled in the 1980s after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution to a younger generation of Iranians born and raised in Western capitals, many in the diaspora community say they feel an unprecedented unity of purpose and togetherness with the demonstrations at home sparked by the death of a 22-year-old woman who was arrested by Iran’s morality police.

“I see this as a turning point for Iran in many ways – we’ve always had political fault lines that divide us, but this time it’s people saying, ‘I’m with women,’” said Tahirih Danesh, 52, a human rights researcher who lives and works in London. “It’s phenomenal, it’s happened at such a speed, and this sense of camaraderie among Iranians has been amazing.”

Over the past month, large crowds of people of Iranian origin in dozens of cities from London to Paris to Toronto have turned out every weekend for demonstrations in solidarity with protests that erupted in Iran after Mahsa Amini died in custody after she was jailed for alleged abuse strict Islamic dress codes for women.

Many say they have been kept awake at night by a mix of hope, sadness and worry – hoping their country may be on the brink of change after decades of repression, and fearing authorities will unleash more violence in an increasingly brutal crackdown which has seen dozens killed and hundreds arrested.

Some, like Danesh — whose family smuggled her and her siblings out of Iran in the 1980s to escape persecution — say the images of protesters being violently repressed by authorities relive the trauma of similar scenes around the time of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

“I’m thousands of miles away, it’s 40 years later but the pictures I see bring it all back, it’s like I’m reliving it all over again,” Danesh said.

While Iran has seen waves of protests in recent years, many agree that this time the resistance feels broader in nature and scope as it challenges the foundations of the Islamic republic. Some say they have never seen similar global solidarity for Iran shown by politicians, intellectuals and celebrities, many of whom have cut their hair in a gesture of support for Iranian women.

“Before, many of us outside had a detached view of what was happening inside, we couldn’t find the same connection. But today Iranians are demanding inside for fundamental change. They are saying ‘get my Iran,’” said Vali Mahlouji, 55, an art curator in London who left Iran in the 1980s.He said he is self-exiled because his work deals with censored artists and art history.

“This unites all the Iranians I know, all the different generations of exiles,” he added. “People who have been outside Iran most of their lives feel restless and sleepless. I don’t know anyone who is not sympathetic and of course not worried.”

The Iranian diaspora is large, including not only those who fled shortly after the 1979 revolution, but also later waves who left Iran due to continued repression or economic problems. More than half a million live in the United States, and France, Sweden, and Germany have communities numbering in the hundreds of thousands, with major centers in Los Angeles, Washington, London, Paris, and Stockholm.

In Paris, 28-year-old Romane Ranjbaran was among thousands last week who came out despite a heavy downpour and marched, singing and chanting “Khamenei get out” in Persian and French, referring to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Several women cut off their hair and tossed it gleefully into the air.

Ranjbaran, who grew up in France, said she felt “struck” by what is happening in Iran.

“Iran is part of my history. My mother has known a free Iran when women were free,” she said as her mother and other family members stood by her side at the rally. “It is an international struggle. If we want the situation in Iran to improve, we need international support.”

The 1979 revolution ousted the US-backed shah, the monarch whose rule was resolutely secular but was also brutally repressive and plagued by corruption. The revolution joined leftists and other political factions including Islamists, who after the fall of the shah took total power and created the Islamic Republic, ruled by Shiite Muslim clerics.

Some expatriates have been wary of joining protests because they have family in Iran and regularly travel back and forth. Some expressed concern over the suspected presence of Iranian intelligence officials or extremist factions.

Others say they felt some concern about the aims of the protests beyond the unifying cry of “Women, Life, Freedom” and the leaderless nature of the protests.

“I love my country, I want to show support, but every time I go I also get confused because there is a different song in every corner of the demonstrations,” said Amanda Navaian, a designer of luxury handbags in her 40s who has participated in all the last weekend meetings in London.

Navaian said she wanted to participate in protests “for as long as it takes,” and has even planned to possibly organize one herself. She wasn’t sure that demonstrations abroad will make any real difference, but she said it was crucial “to show that we care.”

At least she knows she is doing something to dispel what she described as pervasive negative perceptions of Iran and Iranians.

“Islam was forced on us; this extremism is not who we are. Our country has been hijacked – we were a country of music, dance and poetry,” Navaian said.

“People came up to me in Trafalgar Square to ask ‘What are you doing?’ and I explained why we were there,” she added. “Through these demonstrations, there is more awareness. Maybe the international community should now wake up to what is happening.”





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