On Oct. 13, the Iranian Society gathered at the War Memorial Pylons for a vigil and to raise awareness of Iran's protests against its government.
The vigil was for 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. As reported by TIME, Amini was detained by Iran’s morality police in the country’s capital, Tehran, on Sept. 13. The police — who enforce that Iranians adhere to Islamic behavior and dress codes regardless of religious beliefs — deemed that she did not wear her hijab appropriately. She died at a hospital on Sept. 16, three days after her arrest.
“There is a morality police in Iran that just looks at women, and if there’s something wrong with their hijab, then they arrest them, and then they (go) to the (detention center), and they have to just sign that it was the last time that they wear such a hijab (inappropriately),” said Behnaz Rezvani, a Ph.D. student in electrical computer engineering and member of the Iranian Society present at the vigil.
As stated by the TIME article, Iranian officials claimed that Amini suffered a heart attack while at a detention center where she was being trained on hijab rules. However, her family has denied this, stating that witnesses saw police beat Amini in their vehicle while en route to the center. Her father also recounted to an Iranian news outlet how he was not allowed to see Amini’s body but saw her bruised foot.
According to the Associated Press, there are reports indicating Amini died from a skull fracture. Images also surfaced of Amini in the hospital, bleeding from her right ear.
TIME reported that the day after Amini’s death, protests erupted across Iran and the world.
“At first people protest(ed), and the first request was just removing this morality police, but they didn’t listen to us, so it (got) violent, and other people (were) killed, and people are now just really angry,” Rezvani said. “They are just trying to get their freedom; it’s every human’s right to wear whatever she or he wants, and it’s not fair that it (the hijab law) only applies to women.”
According to Arash Sarshar, a postdoctoral associate in the computer science department who attended the vigil, Iranian students at Virginia Tech and the society identify with what War Memorial symbolizes. Their goal was to ensure that those who’ve lost their lives in Iran are remembered.
“We feel like that’s the least we can do as Iranians in (the) United States,” Sarshar said. “We just want their names to be remembered; nobody else does that. The internet is heavily restricted in Iran, (and) the media in Iran does not cover the protests for more freedom for women.”
On Oct. 10, the Iranian Society shared a collective statement on social media addressing Amini’s death, protests in Iran and the university’s lack of response. The statement was signed ambiguously to prevent Iranian students from being blacklisted and thus unable to see their families in Iran.
“Unfortunately, most of our nation’s greatest institutions including Virginia Tech remain silent despite being home to many Iranian students… In silence, Virginia Tech remains complacent to government suppression and the systematic killing of bright college students,” the statement said. “We, the Iranian students at Virginia Tech are devastated by the lack of support by the university and our community during such tragic yet inspiring times.”
Ramin Safavinejad, a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering and the web and technology director of the Iranian Society, recalled seeing an email sent by a Virginia Tech employee about what was occurring in Iran. However, he hoped for more coverage from the university.
“I think we expected some news coverage in the VT Ready website, for example, or some form of action that would be suggested by VT that anyone could take, (such as) tweeting about it,” Safavinejad said. “That’s the least anyone can do, and the university didn’t reach out to at least ask us what to do, so we had to notify them of this.”
Sarshar felt that the university was afraid to become involved in a seemingly political issue but was ready to be proven otherwise. However, he believes that Amini’s death and the hijab laws are a humanitarian issue, rather than a political one. Sarshar also said he would have liked to see various university organizations react.
“I don’t think it’s a political issue, and we were hopeful that the university sees it that way, too. So for example, a statement from the Faculty Union would’ve been nice,” Sarshar said. “After the protests, a couple of universities in Iran were attacked by the militia; people got killed in the streets of Sharif University. If we don’t raise our voice for them, what good is a university if you’re not reacting to this?”
Nastaran Khalili, a Virginia Tech graduate and member of the Iranian Society, suggested that in order to be allies, the Virginia Tech community should speak up and spread the word about Iran. She also suggested that people contact Congress representatives to request help.
Despite Amini’s death triggering major protests, Sarshar does not view the pushback as just a women’s movement, but a universal one.
“It’s not some incident that has happened in some far corner of the Earth; it’s actually very relevant to everybody, to people here,” Sarshar said. “This started as a movement women initiated. Even here in the West, everybody is praising these women, their courage, and the message is very resonant that people should have a choice in determining not only what they want to wear but determining their future. Their life, their lifestyle, their personal choices should not be a matter of (the) government.”
On Thursday, Oct. 20, the US Department of State released a joint statement with the Freedom Online Coalition condemning the Iranian government’s restrictions on the country’s internet access. They further stated that they stand in solidarity with the Iranian people.