In response to an alumni-led petition, President Michael Elliott sent out a schoolwide letter on Oct. 12 condemning the ongoing attacks by the Islamic Republic on Iranian universities and student protesters.
For over a month, Iranians protesting the suspicious death of 22-year-old Mahsa “Zhina” Amini have faced brutal crackdowns from government police, bringing more demonstrators onto the streets demanding the overthrow of the Islamic Republic.
Amini collapsed in police custody after being arrested for not wearing her hijab in accordance with the Islamic Republic’s official dress code.
Many of the protests are taking place within schools and universities, and the government has responded with mass arrests and detainments of underage protesters. According to U.S.-based Human Rights Activist News Agency (HRANA), over 200 people had been killed in the protests as of Oct. 15, 29 percent of whom were under the age of 18. Several student demonstrators in Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology were left injured after riot police surrounded the university.
In his letter, Elliott wrote that he was “disturbed … by the attacks” on protesters.
“At Amherst, we prize free, open inquiry, including dissent,” he wrote. “Repression and violence against peaceful protesters run deeply counter to our values.”
The letter also recognized the Islamic Republic’s “long history of … human rights abuses against women in particular,” and announced that the college will be hosting guest speaker Dr. Negar S. Razavi via Zoom to further inform students of the situation in Iran. Rasavi is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Northwestern University whose work is centered on Middle Eastern political anthropology.
Pressure from alumni and current students for the college to publicly condemn police violence against Iranian student protesters precipitated Elliott’s letter. A petition written and organized by Navva Sedigh ’21 called on Elliott to stand with Iranian students, urging Amherst to condemn the killing of the “bright minds and critical thinkers” of Iran.
“As [the college is] one of the most well-respected institutions in the United States, a statement from Amherst sets a precedent against institutional complacency,” the petition read, “which could prove critical in protecting students and faculty in Iran who are guilty of nothing but demanding their human rights, yet remain in police custody where their lives are at stake.”
Sedigh is an Iranian American who was inspired by friends at several University of California schools who were pressuring their administrations to make statements condemning the violence against Iranian students, and inviting other students to sign petitions via social media.
Hoping to raise awareness and “show a unified front against the violence,” Sedigh reached out to Elliott individually but failed to get a response. She decided to create a petition to garner student support for the cause, which Sedigh felt “aligned with Amherst’s values.”
“I always felt that Amherst supported me as a student and was hopeful that they'd still be responsive, even as an alum,” Sedigh said. “I know so many students at Amherst who are passionate about activism — Amherst has always been a fertile ground for advocacy work.”
Within 24 hours of its creation, her petition had 139 signatures from current students and alumni alike. The number climbed to 159 even after Elliott’s office responded directly to Sedigh, sharing their intention to make a formal statement.
In considering next steps, Sedigh believes that Amherst is well-positioned to form a coalition of universities and colleges in the United States, the purpose of which would be to release a joint statement of condemnation of the actions of the Islamic Republic to the press.
Meanwhile, protests in Iran, led by young women, continue to rage over Amini’s death and subsequent state violence. Many demonstrators burn their hijabs or cut their hair in acts of resistance, and are calling for revolution against the regime.
Professor of History Monica Ringer, whose scholarship focuses on the Middle East, offered a historical perspective on the recent protests in an interview with The Student: “[The protests] are significant because they are a threat to the nature of the regime,” Ringer said. “It’s not simply about women being forced to veil. Gender is a fundamental construct of the Islamic Republic sense of itself and its social engineering mission. So that hits at the quick of the regime itself, not just on the government functionaries or at corruption.”
While the Islamic Republic is no stranger to uprisings since its creation following the 1979 revolution, both Ringer and Sedigh agree that what sets this particular series of protests apart is the distinct focus on gender — although Ringer noted that Iranian women protesting is hardly a new occurrence.
As the number of Iranian citizens born after the 1979 revolution grows, so does anti-regime sentiment, according to Ringer. Younger generations’ pushback against the “ideal new Iranian citizen education program,” she explained, upsets the regime because its attempts to manipulate the political attitudes of a new wave of Iranians has largely failed.
For Sedigh, it’s significant that this movement is being led by women and girls, and that it holds an additional role as one of “the first of its kind” to be led chiefly by Gen Z — a fact that she believes should spur university students in regions without state-sanctioned violence to action.
Sedigh encouraged Amherst students to utilize their rights to free speech and advocate for Iranian students on social media. “It's not performative,” she said. “It’s amplifying the voices of Iranians and educating your circles.”
For institutions like Amherst, Ringer said, statements are largely symbolic actions. Their impact is minimal, especially coming from countries with which the regime already has strained relations — Iran doesn’t expect U.S. support in the first place.
But the limited power of a statement doesn’t mean Amherst doesn’t have an obligation to make one, Ringer said. “We can’t necessarily change things by saying we don’t like it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t say we don’t like it.”
A more substantial next step, Ringer suggested, would be to invite Iranian students to study at Amherst, which might inspire other U.S. universities to open their doors to Iranians. While both Ringer and Sedigh agree that protests are not asking for direct U.S. intervention, Ringer believes that allocating funds toward special scholarships for Iranian students would support “individuals who are committed to helping their communities [in Iran].”
“One has to take a stance, whether or not that will topple the Iranian regime,” Ringer said. “Principles always matter.”
Razavi’s talk, entitled “The Iranian Feminist Protests In Global Context,” will be held on Friday, Oct. 21, in Fayerweather Hall’s Pruyne Auditorium, followed by a Q&A hosted by Ringer.
Correction, Oct. 22, 2022: A previous version of this article referred to “leaders of the movement,” but the ongoing protest movement has no centralized leadership.