Iranian Americans gathered in Civic Center Park on Oct. 6, 2022, to draw attention to human rights abuses in Iran. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Iranian Americans in Berkeley on Thursday evening joined global protests sparked by the September death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Iranian police custody.

Over 100 people gathered in Civic Center Plaza across from Old City Hall, chanting “Woman, life, freedom,” and calling for an end to the regime of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has led the country since 1989.

Berkeley residents at the protest, many of whom immigrated to the United States in the late 1970s during the Iranian Revolution, said they’ve been part of numerous protest movements against the ruling government in the past several decades. Many others in attendance were young Iranian Americans living in Berkeley or attending Cal.

Amini, a Kurdish woman, was visiting Tehran on Sept. 13 when Iranian police took her into custody, claiming she violated the strict dress code. According to international news outlets, she was transferred to a hospital before seeing her family, where she died three days later.

Protests began in Iran on the day of her death and have grown to become the largest movement in the country and abroad in decades. Estimates vary, but Amnesty International said Thursday that Iranian security forces had killed at least 87 people in the protests.

Iranian Americans in Berkeley protest the death of Mahsa Amini. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Esfandiar Imani, who ran for Berkeley Unified School Board in the 2020 election, said the current movement was initiated and led by women, stemming from human rights abuses they’ve faced at the hands of morality police in the years after the Iranian Revolution.

“What happened to Mahsa Amini happened every day, almost, for the past 40 years,” Imani said. “But this one was the trigger.”

The movement’s slogan, “Woman, Life, Freedom,” was a phrase popularized by the Kurdish Freedom Movement. In Berkeley on Thursday, it appeared alongside depictions of Amini’s face as the crowd chanted the slogan and other phrases in Farsi.

The Berkeley City Council has backed other iterations of this movement, and last summer passed a resolution in support of political prisoners in Iran, known as the “Nasrin Sotoudeh Resolution” after a human rights lawyer who has been imprisoned multiple times. The Oakland City Council approved a similar resolution on Tuesday.

Jaleh Niazi, 56, is a Berkeley pediatrician who moved to the U.S. from Iran when she was 13. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Jaleh Niazi, a 56-year-old Berkeley pediatrician, moved to Berkeley shortly after the revolution when she was 13. She attended Berkeley High School, and has gone back and forth to Iran a few times since immigrating to the U.S.

After her participation in several protest movements, beginning with the Green Movement uprising in 2009, she feels it wouldn’t be safe to travel there anymore. Visitors “have to play a game” to convince the Iranian government that they’re not troublemakers, Niazi said.

Niazi is pushing for U.S. cities to stand in solidarity against atrocities in Iran, and said there are barriers in the process due to the “historical memory” of the 1953 Iranian coup d’état. At the time, the CIA overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, destabilizing the country.

She said Nelson Mandela’s strategies during South African apartheid, especially in garnering international resistance, have inspired her to rally support with grassroots methods. And several local groups, cities like Berkeley and Oakland, and UC student unions have taken steps based on an informational petition Niazi began circulating even before Amini’s death.

“I’m a pediatrician, so I work for social equity and social justice for my own patients and patients at large,” Niazi said. “So I thought, ‘I have a voice to give for people in [Iran]’ because there’s all this misconception of what Iran is.”

She said it isn’t widely known that there’s been opposition to the current regime since it was formed over 40 years ago, and that opposition has been “decimated.” She emphasized that these movements have been women-led, and the fight for justice following Amini’s death is in line with this history.

“With Mahsa, it was just clear-cut … she was arrested, and she was killed — you can’t spin that one,” Niazi said of the current protests. “It was clear-cut, and people had had it.”

Neeka Mahdavi (top right), a Berkeley grad student, attends a protest for freedom in Iran. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

This week has seen large solidarity protests in the United States and abroad, including New York and Los Angeles, which has the largest Iranian population outside of Iran.

An action at UC Berkeley earlier this week drew 500 people to Sproul Plaza, calling for justice for Amini and women’s rights and applauding the bravery of women in Iran who are risking their lives to oppose the government, especially at the country’s prestigious Sharif University of Technology in Tehran.

“At this point, women in Iran are saying, ‘There’s nothing left; we have to fight for this,'” said Neeka Mahdavi, a 27-year-old Berkeley graduate student who also attended Cal as an undergrad. “That’s why they’re willing to put their lives on the line.”

Iran has recently practiced multiple forms of censorship, including shutting off the internet to suppress dissent. Mahdavi said the least people can do in the U.S. is show solidarity with Iranians who are currently being silenced.

She said she’s enthused by the movement’s international backing, but it needs to be sustained — even if the regime in Iran falls because of the protests.

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...