One year on, an Iranian-American in Rock Hill explains why local voices are still vital for Mahsa Amini
September 16 marks one year since the death of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman killed by Iranian police for allegedly not properly wearing her hijab. On Saturday, a large protest commemorating the anniversary of the killing is set to take place in Washington, D.C.
Amini’s death sparked immediate and repeated protests in cities worldwide, including several in Charlotte, which Sharam Mazhari, an Iranian-American living in Rock Hill, has attended.
Mazhari will be attending Saturday’s protest in Washington, but local protests like those held in Charlotte, he says, are vital for pressuring the Iranian government to pull back from what he sees as draconian laws meant to punish women and strangle democracy in the Islamic republic.
“Every voice is important,” he says. “We are trying to connect the dots. To connect these lonely voices together so we can have a much, much louder representation on the platform, which is a changing regime [and] bringing democratic values to Iran.”
The dots have had some effect, if not on Iran itself. The country’s ruling class retains its grip on power, the morality police – the arm of law enforcement that arrested Amini for violating “one of the principles of the Islamic Republic” – has returned to patrolling the streets after vanishing following initial protests, the parliament is considering harsh sentences for those who flout dress code laws, and the crackdowns on protesters have been severe.
But outside the country, sanctions from the European Union, United Kingdom, and United States have tightened the screws on the Iranian regime. On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives almost unanimously passed the MAHSA Act, which “requires the president to impose property- and visa-blocking sanctions on certain foreign persons (individuals and entities) affiliated with Iran.” (All of South Carolina’s congressional representatives voted in favor of the bill, which now awaits a hearing in the Senate.)
'Every voice is important. We are trying to connect the dots.'
Keeping pressure on Iran has been a hard go nevertheless, Mazhari says. Those initial anger that reeled the Iranian ruling elite has cooled, and the numbers of protesters and protests have waned.
Iranian is among the least represented national heritages in the U.S. South Carolina’s Iranian-descent population in January of this year was listed at 1,882 by World Population Review – roughly one-tenth of the total for Georgia and about one-third of that for North Carolina.
Mazhari says focusing on the size of South Carolina’s Iranian population, however, is the wrong focus to have.
“We really don't need billions of people to be on the side of the Iranians,” he says. “We just want a handful of people that can help us make that change. And my dog in this fight is for the Iranians to live the lives that they deserve.”
Mazhari has family in Iran. He says what he wants is what they want.
“What they want is [for] the Iranian government to adhere to the human rights parameters that are accepted and respected by the entire world community,” he says. “They want basic women's rights. They want gender equality. They want the gender apartheid to go away. They don't want any chemical attacks on schoolgirls, which the regime has committed. They want secular democracy. They want freedom of expression, job opportunities, better health care; no state sponsorship of terrorism, because that's giving the Iranians the bad name.”
One of the reasons Mazhari says he keeps attending protests is to help show his American neighbors that they should not conflate the people of Iran with the country’s government.
“Iranian people and the Islamic Republic of Iran are not on the same side,” he says. “On the one side, you have … millions of Iranians inside Iran. On the other side, you have the Islamic Republic, which is really not a republic, it's a theocracy.”
Mostly, he wants non-Iranian people to know that they can still help.
“We're sitting in South Carolina,” Mazhari says. “What can we do for the people of Iran? Well, first of all, don't be silent about the atrocities committed in Iran or any place in the world. Respect and protect the human rights of the Iranian people. Support Iranian people-friendly policies, not Islamic-Republic-of-Iran-friendly policies.”
On that last note, Mazhari is chiding the Biden administration for just days ago striking a deal with Iran to free up $6 billion in frozen Iranian funds in exchange for American prisoners. It’s a deal that he says has outraged many Iranian people.
“Initially, [Iranians] liked Joe Biden,” he says. “But Joe Biden's administration releasing $6 billion that we call ransom to a terrorist government, it's a slap in the faces of all people who want the Iranians to be free.”
Whatever the external politics, Mazhari says he has no plans to stop trying to raise awareness for the people of Iran and for the memory of Mahsa Amini.
“The fight will continue,” he says. “The protests will continue until Iranian people are guaranteed a democratic government and democratic process.”