In recent months, women-led protests all over the world have spoken out against human rights abuses by the Islamic Republic of Iran, particularly against women. The tipping point was the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman visiting the city of Tehran who was arrested for allegedly violating the country’s strict dress code. Amini died while in custody, leading many in Iran and beyond to suspect murder.
Mahsa Amini’s death has served as a global rallying cry against the Iranian government’s treatment of disenfranchised groups, and the Bay Area is seeing its own movement along these lines. Recent protests have taken place in Berkeley and on the Golden Gate Bridge.
One local effort started in 2020. That year, an East Bay pediatrician named Jaleh Niazi watched “Nasrin,” a documentary about Iranian human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh. It inspired her and other Iranians living in Oakland and Berkeley to protest that government’s treatment of women and other disenfranchised groups. “I think most Iranians who are out of the country are acutely aware of the tyrannical rules that are inside the country and would like to help in one way or another,” Jaleh told The Oaklandside.
The film documents the life and work of Nasrin Sotoudeh, an activist who has spent the bulk of her career in the Islamic Republic of Iran representing women, children, LGBTQ prisoners, religious minorities, journalists, artists, and those facing the death penalty. In 2018, she was arrested for representing women protesting Iran’s mandatory hijab law; she was sentenced to 38 years plus 184 lashes. Sotoudeh has spent the last four years in and out of prison due to medical furlough but remains under state surveillance.
Niazi, who moved to Berkeley from Iran as a teenager and later worked in Oakland as a pediatrician for two decades, was deeply moved by the film. Her family left the country during the Iranian revolution, an uprising in 1978-1979 that overthrew the country’s monarchy and installed an Islamic republic.
“She’s very powerful through the work she does, moving through the legal channels to represent women and children and minority groups oppressed by the regime,” Niazi said of Sotoudeh. “It wasn’t just about her, it was what she symbolized, and I thought she would be a good person to focus on for the movement.”
The documentary prompted Niazi and other East Bay Iranians to draft a resolution that Bay Area cities could pass calling for Sotoudeh’s release and condemning other forms of state violence and repression against marginalized groups in Iran. The idea was to mirror Sotoudeh’s legal approach to tackling injustice. “Anybody can contact us for a template. They can add to it and write to their council member and ask for their support,” Niazi said.
Her brother Kaveh Niazi, a longtime homeowner in Montclair, and Mona Afary, executive director of Oakland-based nonprofit Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants, assisted with reaching out to Oakland’s councilmembers to get their resolution passed in October.
“What I like about Nasrin’s resolution is that it just doesn’t talk about freeing Nasrin. It talks about freeing everyone who is in opposition to the regime,” Afary said.
Kaveh Niazi felt that if Oakland were to stand with the women-led revolution in Iran, it would set an example for other cities to follow. “Oakland is a large, vibrant, multicultural municipality in the Bay Area,” Kaveh said, “and I hope that when others see what Oakland has done that they can try to mimic us in some way and ask themselves, ‘Where do we stand in regard to women’s rights? Where do we stand in regard to human rights?’”
Iranians in the diaspora feel a responsibility to speak out
Kaveh Niazi said many in the Iranian diaspora feel compelled to say something. “By passing these resolutions, there’s zero risk to me and my family, but when people in Iran go to demonstrations, they know they’re going to be shot,” Kaveh said. As of late November, over 450 people have been killed in the nationwide protests, and that number continues to rise.
Jaleh’s friend Mona Afary left Iran at the age of 20, shortly before the revolution, to attend Cal Poly Pomona in Southern California. A few years later, she moved to the Bay Area and transferred to San Francisco State University. Since then, she’s worked to provide clinical services to refugees through her nonprofit organization in Oakland. Her current work is deeply tied to her experience as an Iranian who no longer feels safe in her home country. “I spent the first 20 years of my life in Iran, so I have a deep connection with the people there even though my family lives here now,” Afary said. “I think that what we are seeing in Iran right now is that the young women are taking the leadership of this movement.”
Jaleh and Kaveh Niazi’s parents were academics who studied at UC Berkeley prior to the Iranian revolution. Their parents would move with their children back and forth from Iran to live in Pasadena and also in Berkeley for work. “They [Jaleh and Kaveh’s parents] asked their friends in Berkeley to send an invitation for a visa. It took about eight months for us to actually legally leave the country,” Jaleh said. “At that time, many of my classmates were leaving as well.”
The two siblings attended Berkeley High in the early 1980s and were, at the time, some of the only Iranians at the school. Jaleh went on to pursue a career in medicine, became a pediatrician, and had a practice in Oakland’s Pill Hill neighborhood for 20 years before moving back to Berkeley in the late 2010s. Kaveh went on to become a teacher and obtained a Ph.D. in Iranian studies from Columbia University, as well as a Ph.D. in physics from UC Berkeley. For the Niazis, their service-oriented career journeys are intertwined with their Iranian roots.
“I think there are very strong roots in Iranian culture to always give back. There is a Persian saying that if a limb is hurting, then the other limbs are also hurting,” Jaleh said.
More Bay Area cities join the effort
The group drafted the resolution in 2020, and it took roughly a year for the Alameda Democratic Party to adopt it in May 2021, followed by the City of Berkeley in June 2021 and the University of California Student Association in May 2022.
In early October, Oakland became the second city to pass their resolution thanks to Councilmember (and incoming mayor) Sheng Thao, who represents District 4, where Kaveh Niazi resides. Kaveh and Afary worked on contacting their respective councilmembers, Thao and Nikki Fortunato Bas. Kaveh remained in correspondence with Brandon Harami, Thao’s policy director, to get the resolution passed.
Councilmember Bas later introduced a similar resolution in early December condemning the Iran government’s actions.
Niazi says getting non-Iranians in the Bay Area to empathize with human rights abuses occurring in a faraway country has been challenging. “People had been upset that no one [locally] had covered this until now because when you do, it gives a strong message to the government in Iran that people are watching,” Niazi said.
Their efforts have gained momentum in recent months. Nationwide protests ensued in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death. Many citizens were arrested by the Iranian morality police for crimes allegedly committed during those protests and are now in danger of execution; two executions have been confirmed, with more expected to follow.
Niazi maintains an online record of how many U.S cities have chosen to adopt their resolution, with each city making slight alterations. So far, more than a dozen cities have signed on.
“Americans stand up for injustice, but only when they know about it,” Niazi said. “So it’s wonderful to see that this is taking off now.”