Iranian students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee are more than 6,000 miles from their friends and family, but they’re speaking up on their behalf.
Every day, electrical engineering PhD student Nilou said people in Iran tell her, “You are in the United States, you have freedom of speech — please be our voice.”
Nilou is among more than two dozen Iranian students at UWM who are trying to do just that: inform the community about the situation in Iran following the police custody death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, from the government’s violent crackdown on protests to the chants for freedom that ring out nightly from every apartment window.
“We want to use this power, this stage, and say something, rather than keep being silent,” a graduate student studying psychology said.
The student asked to be referred to by a nickname, Iris, instead of her real name, as she is concerned she could be arrested for her comments upon returning to Iran. Nilou asked that her last name not be published, fearing retribution for her family in Iran.
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On Tuesday Nilou, Iris and other Iranian students held a demonstration at the UWM Student Union in support of the protests back home, performing a skit to represent how the government’s morality police harass women. And as they sang a popular song written for the current protest movement, some were moved to tears.
The students know the power social media can have — and the important role it has played in spreading the word about protests after Amini’s death. So they set up a selfie station at the demonstration, distributed posters and flyers with QR codes that led to online petitions, and encouraged people to post about the cause online.
“We want the world to hear our voice, to hear the people of Iran’s voice,” Iris said.
Although the Iranian students have been glued to social media for the last two months, watching for any updates that break through Iran’s highly restricted internet, they don’t hear much about it elsewhere in Milwaukee.
Compared to her fellow UWM students, “I feel like I’m living in another world,” Nilou said. “We would like to be seen.”
The group also handed out baggies of candy, rubber bracelets and buttons to the crowd of roughly 75 people, taking a cue from the streets of Iran, where protesters have been giving each other pieces of candy along with encouraging notes.
“You should stay hopeful. We will overturn this government,” Nilou said some of the notes read. And: “Thank you for making the city beautiful (by) showing your hair.”
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‘It’s a revolution’
Nilou and Iris don’t consider themselves political activists, and they weren’t especially involved before Amini’s death.
But in September, Amini died in custody after being detained by the morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab, or headscarf, improperly. Witnesses say Amini was beaten to death, although the government has denied it.
“Enough is enough,” Nilou said she thought at the time. “We should do something about it. (We can’t) put up with this.”
Many in Iran felt the same. Amini’s death touched off huge protests against compulsory hjiab laws and other women’s rights issues, and people have continued to take to the streets daily to demand an end to the Islamic Republic. More than 300 protesters have been killed, according to rights groups, including more than 40 children. Roughly 15,000 people have been detained.
Images of women burning their headscarves and removing them in front of police have circled the globe. Nilou’s family reports that more and more women are going without hijabs in public.
“It’s a revolution. It’s no longer a protest,” Nilou said.
The UWM students know well the tactics of the morality police.
Nilou’s mother, who contracted polio and uses a walker, has trouble keeping her hair completely covered in public because of her uneven gait. She was arrested twice, Nilou said, and felt deep shame.
“She said it was the worst experience that I had as a woman,” Nilou said.
And Iris, sitting in a park in Iran with her fiancé — now husband — was admonished by the morality officers because his hand was resting on her leg.
The UWM students on Tuesday were a world away from those restrictions, but they were front of mind. Each wore a T-shirt that read, “Woman, Life, Freedom,” a slogan that has become ubiquitous with the protest movement. Iris’s nails on Tuesday were painted shades of red and blue, something that wouldn’t have been allowed at school in Iran.
In a powerful moment, she and several other women joined together to sing the popular protest song “Baraye.” It is illegal for women to sing publicly in Iran.
“This is a pain that we all share,” Iris said of the sense of solidarity among Iranian students.
The students ask that Americans to contact their representatives in Congress to tell them not to negotiate with the Iranian government on any nuclear deals. They also want the Group of Seven (G7) leaders to expel Iranian diplomats and to demand Iran’s political prisoners be released.
“We actually want to isolate the Islamic Republic of Iran from the (rest of) the world,” Nilou said.
The question Iris poses is straightforward: Why not stand for democracy?
The students have compiled links to petitions and other ways to help on their website: wlfreedom.net/how-to-help.
Contact Sophie Carson at (414) 223-5512 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @SCarson_News.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: UW-Milwaukee students stand with Mahsa Amini protesters
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