What’s Happening in Iran? An Iranian-Jewish Perspective

With a looming revolution and violent reactions to peaceful marches and protests, the past few months have been tumultuous for Iranians.

During Yom Kippur, I typically like to stay off my phone. But this year, that felt impossible.

With a looming revolution and violent reactions to peaceful marches and protests in Iran, Iranian Jews have had a hard few months. Unrest began when protests broke out after the announcement that Jîna Amini (frequently reported under her Persian name, Mahsa Amini, because Kurdish names are outlawed in Iran), a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, died on the 16th of September after being detained for an “improper” hijab. Jîna’s treatment was not an isolated incident: Enforced hijab has been a cornerstone of the Islamic Republic’s politics.

Prior to the Islamic revolution in 1979, a civil uprising that toppled Iran’s monarchy and established Iran as a religious republic, the Shah (the Iranian equivalent of a King) passed the kashf-i hijab law, enforcing the forcible removal of any veil or modesty garment worn in public. Now, women are fighting not be forced to wear the hijab.

Countless stories of missing people, known police brutality victims and detained dissenters have been published and gone viral since the protests began. Shervin Hajipour, a famous Iranian singer, wrote a viral protest song, “Baraye.” He was arrested and intimidated into deleting the original post on Instagram, which featured him singing over a compilation of protests. After reportedly failing to join in singing a pro-regime song, 19 schoolgirls from the Shahed Girls High School were arrested, 10 were injured, and one, Asra Panahi, died due to internal bleeding. Nika Shakarami, a 16-year-old who went to a Jîna Amini protest, did not return home. She was later identified as dead by family members, who weren’t able to choose where she was buried due to worries about coaxing more protests. And Elnaz Rekabi, an Iranian rock climber who recently competed in South Korea without her hijab — which is controversial, as all female athletes representing Iran must wear a hijab — has not been heard from since she competed.

From the 16th of September to the 14th of October, IranINTL reported that at least 224 people have died in the crackdown of anti-regime protests.

Unfortunately, for Iranian Jews, the country has never been a safe haven. There is a misconception that pre-revolution Iran was an easier time for Jews, but I would argue that neither era has been good to the Jewish community. Reza Shah, the precursory last Shah of Iran, very much rubbed elbows with axis powers. While Iranian Jews could access further education and, for a minority, excelled at the game of class, these privileges could be, and were, taken away without warning — resulting in community instability and mass migration. (Post-revolution, approximately 80% of Iranian Jews have moved elsewhere.) The same laws that publicly humiliated modest hijabi Muslim women also humiliated Orthodox/Hasidic Jewish women.

2022 saw new measures for Jews in Iran: A community letter was sent out just before Rosh Hashanah to Tehran’s Jewish community issuing a stay-at-home warning. While the protests weren’t directly citied, increased anxiety in the Jewish community shouldn’t come as a surprise when the supreme leader tweeted how the protests have been orchestrated by a “Zionist regime” that “pulls off women’s scarves” — a far cry from the reality of women, girls and students burning and voluntarily removing their forced scarves. (The protesting crowds include a range of modest women.)

The supreme leader was right about one thing: These protests aren’t really about the hijab in Iran. They’re rebelling against a regime that has stripped women of their ability to choose — just as the previous anti-veil laws stripped Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women of that same right.

I’ve visited Iran less than five times, the last time being 2009. In hindsight, visiting family was a lot more complex than I realized. As a child, I ate my weight in baklava, visited bazaars and sat in the car while my Abba bartered for hours in Farsi for a souvenir I’d picked out. We’d visit around the high holidays, and I always felt surrounded by a vibrant, flourishing Jewish community, a contrast to the less colorful, less vibrant British community I was used to. When my Abba was at work, we wouldn’t leave the house and would stay inside, something Iranian women typically find themselves doing when they don’t have a male family member to escort them around — although this isn’t a legal requirement, it’s standard to avoid unnecessary difficulty with local police.

As an adult, things take on a different light. What seemed to be curious questions from local authorities or men with badges now seem testing and frightening; my mother’s adult conversations about how to dress were actually  warnings. Going through border control always took time and, even for a dual passport-holder, was an intimidating process.

In recent years, it’s become even harder to visit Iran if you (or your Iranian relative) left during the revolution, whether on the official grounds of refugee status or not. This is because the Islamic Republic wants to erase the narrative that the revolution was a violent uprising that caused millions to flee. Even if I could return easily as someone without an Iranian passport, would it be hassle-free? With multiple high-level cases of queer Iranians being detained or, worse, going missing, it’s a hard question to answer.

But I loved celebrating in Iran, and I wonder if, one day, I’ll be able to again.

This high holiday season gave me a moment to reflect. It makes me incredibly sad how we see the same plight fought out in different generations. I imagine what my Abba must have felt fleeing Iran when the revolution broke out and in the following months trying to navigate Europe with no real documentation. Jews have sadly always been chess pieces, frequently used in national turmoil. The thought of being able to visit Iran again if the regime is toppled during these protests, now described as another revolution, fills me with joy and hope. But what if exposure to decades of antisemitic propaganda makes it toxic to explore?

Iran has a history of revolution, but this one does feel different. It’s now been over a month since the protests began, and there’s no sign of them abating. People are hungry for change after 43 years of Islamic republic rule. Although the Iranian state is known to block internet access in moments of civil unrest, they still can’t stop video of what’s happening from reaching a wide audience. With clips now able to be shared internationally, there have never been more eyes on human rights breaches. Globalizing a message is just a click away.

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