Women’s History Month highlights the ongoing fight for women’s rights in Iran

Members of the USC Iranian community build momentum for the Women, Life, Freedom movement in Iran.

Protesters rally, holding Iranian flag and signs saying "Woman Life Freedom" and "Stand In Solidarity With The People of Iran"

This March marks the 36th annual Women’s History Month – a month that commemorates and highlights the past and current contributions of women in society.

For Tara Mojtahedzadeh, a sophomore global health major and president of the USC Persian Student Organization, Women’s History Month is an avenue to spread awareness of the plight of women in Iran. Particularly due to the heightened coverage of Iranian women’s rights following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, Mojtahedzadeh said that having a month dedicated to women is an opportunity to contribute to the cause.

“A lot of people don’t realize that this is a much bigger issue than it may seem,” Mojtahedzadeh said. “It is not very easy to overthrow an entire regime, because that’s what we’re up against.”

However, Mojtahedzadeh acknowledges the delicate tension that exists between celebration and tangible activism: “We need to find a balance between mourning and trying to contribute to the cause, but our people don’t want you to sit around and just feel guilt and pity,” she said. Doing so would be a disservice to the Iranian people, she continued, saying that students should celebrate Women’s History Month not just for themselves, but for the women in Iran who can’t.

Mojtahedzadeh acknowledges that there needs to be more realistic expectations in the minds of Iranian people and the rest of the public in general.

“You can’t necessarily expect to change a tyrannical regime overnight. Do what you can, spread awareness, be active,” she said. “The women in Iran, they’re fighting for something they deserve.”

On September 16, 2022, Amini, an Iranian woman from the Kurdistan province of Iran, died after sustaining wounds from being detained and beaten by the Iranian Guidance Patrol — Iran’s “morality police,” a group that enforces the Islamic dress code — for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly.

Amini’s death sparked a global outcry among the Iranian community, with Iranian women cutting their hair short, publicly removing their hijabs and burning them in protest. Since her death in September, about 450 activists have died worldwide at the demonstrations, including 29 women at the hands of the police.

Demonstrations have occurred both overseas and here at USC, with students and faculty marching through the USC Village last October. Christopher Manning, USC’s Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer, released a statement of support for students impacted by Amini’s death, while President Folt tweeted a similar sentiment in September.

Members of the Iranian community at USC continue to emphasize the importance of broadening the conversation from beyond the women in Iran.

Dr. Anna Atefeh Farzindar – a part-time lecturer of computer science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, is the faculty advisor to the Persian Academic and Cultural Student Association. For her, the month of March constitutes attending celebrations of women empowerment, like mentoring young women in STEM. But everytime she visits her family in Iran, including her sisters, she can’t help but notice the vast disparities in the treatment of women in her home country.

“The quality of life of a woman is very important for me. As a first generation and immigrant generation, I work hard to build a life here,” Dr. Farzindar said. Despite being highly educated – having earned a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics from the Amirkabir University of Technology in Tehran, and a doctoral degree in computer science at the University of Montreal, Canada – she still struggles to advocate for her place in Iranian society.

“I want to bring my knowledge to my own country, but unfortunately each time I travel, there is no place for a woman. There’s no voice.”

However, she acknowledges that by having public conversations, especially about the treatment of women in Iran – where women and girls are required to cover their hair and bodies and prohibited from traveling without parental or spouse approval – pushes the feminist movement forward.

“I hope the voice of the Iranian women can be reflected outside of the country, because from the inside of the country they can’t do anything,” she added. “For many years they have tried to communicate with the government to have a relationship to build something. But unfortunately, there’s no one to listen to that.”

Mojtahedzadeh echoes this statement, saying that the best thing that people far from “where the turmoil is actively happening,” is to continue to spread awareness, but censorship in Iran often puts a muzzle on the cause. This is where U.S. allies must use their privileged access to freedom of speech, Mojtahedzadeh said, rising in a crescendo of support for Iranian women.

“We’re lucky enough to be in the United States. Somebody made a sacrifice for us to be here – take advantage of that.”

Particularly as Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, approaches, Iranian women look to the spring equinox as an opportunity for growth, planting and nurturing a renewed sense of hope for their community like flowers in the spring.

“We are in a connected universe. We have just one earth, and if the people are ignored, it’s not beneficial for the rest of the world,” said Dr. Farzindar. This sense of unity and sisterhood among women is intersectional, connecting women in America and women in Iran and other aspects of the world like a thread.

Mojtahedzadeh agrees, adding, “One thing about Iranian people is that they know how to unite [themselves] and even non-Iranian people. It’s been a very prideful experience to see all these people from different walks of life and different experiences come together to go against this common theme and fight this battle in any way they can.”

“I think as long as we stay consistent and fight apathy, there’s a fair chance of creating some real tangible change,” she added.