MANCHESTER, United Kingdom — “To hold other governments accountable, we need the help of non-Iranian people.” Amid widespread human rights violations, fervent protests and rising deprivation across Iran, The Borgen Project interviewed Soudabeh Davoudi, leading campaigner at the female-led protest group Women For Iran. Davoudi discusses the atrocities inflicted on her compatriots, escalating tensions between the Islamic Republic and Western nations and Women For Iran’s initiatives, from recent meetings with members of the U.K. parliament to ongoing protests outside the controversial Manchester Islamic Centre.
Totalitarian Tehran’s Troubles
On September 16, 2023, a Kurdish-Iranian woman named Mahsa Amini died in police custody. Arrested by Iran’s infamous morality police for wearing her hijab too loosely, 22-year-old Amini’s death ignited nationwide protests against years of oppression and hardship.
As put by Davoudi, “The Islamic Republic has violated human rights for more than four decades.” Amini’s death, or “murder” as Davoudi labels it, garnered international coverage and attention. It provided an ignited match to the revolutionary firewood that has been building in Iran for many years.
Since the start of the demonstrations in September 2023, human rights groups estimate that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other branches of the Iranian security forces have killed at least 476 protesters, Iran Human Rights reported in December 2022. Indisputable links exist between economic hardship and persecution of ‘mostazafeen’ (the downtrodden), particularly ethnoreligious minorities. Before relocating to the U.K. in 2020, Davoudi’s years as an activist involved numerous visits to Iranian Kurdistan (Western Iran) and Sistan-Baluchistan (Southeastern Iran). “Kurdish and Baluch people”, says Davoudi, “are systematically oppressed” and “among the most voiceless groups in Iran.”
Through intersectional targeting of their ethnicity and religion as Sunni Muslims in a Shia-majority country, the Islamic Republic has continually marginalized Kurdish and Baluch people. Kurdistan and Sistan-Baluchistan are among the most resource-rich provinces of Iran but face frequent deprivations of employment, education, and, in some areas, access to clean drinking water.
Rising oppression is strongly related to rising poverty in Iran. According to the Financial Times, in 2021, more than 60% of Iranians lived in conditions of relative poverty. Inflation has risen above 43% in 2021, disproportionately affecting people within the lowest socioeconomic strata of Iranian society who are struggling to heat their homes amid gas shortages and power cuts in frigid winter temperatures.
This is despite Iran owning a sizeable portion of the world’s total oil reserves (about 12%) and natural gas reserves (17.1%). Foreign sanctions have dented Iran’s ability to sell petroleum and gas, but many insist that the inequitable distribution of these natural resources is of greater consequence. Davoudi focuses on Iran’s diplomatic strategy: “These problems are not because of a lack of energy, but rather the international policies of the Islamic Republic.”
Iran’s Geopolitical Misdemeanours
Since the first U.S. sanctions in 1979, Russia and China have become key trading partners for Iran’s oil. This has detrimentally impacted living standards, with the natural resources needed to fuel Iranian society exported at discounted prices.
Strengthened security relations between Iran and Russia have seen Tehran supply Moscow with a steady stream of weaponized drones and ballistic missiles. Not only is this prolonging the invasion of Ukraine at the cost of thousands of lives but the earnings from these lucrative dealings remain far from everyday Iranians. “Iran [has]sold rockets and weapons to Russia to kill innocent people in Ukraine… because of which the economic situation in Iran has gotten worse,” according to Davoudi.
In reverse, Iran’s foreign imports have centered around “oppression tools,” as Davoudi puts it, including tear gas, rubber bullets and shotgun cartridges. Investigations reveal that certain ammunition types used to repress Iranian demonstrators carry the logo of French-Italian manufacturer Cheddite.
The gravity of this apparent violation of the 2011 EU weapons sanction is magnified by the New York Times’ report that, over the past four months, metal pellets and rubber bullets have blinded more than 500 protesters. Davoudi emphasizes the importance of embargoes that target IRGC autocracy instead of Iranian demonstrators: “If these types of foreign deals were sanctioned, it would be far more useful for our people than other sanctions, which directly worsen Iranians’ daily lives.”
Calls for the EU and U.K. government to proscribe the IRGC as terrorists have intensified since the execution of British-Iranian Alireza Akbari on January 14 for allegedly spying on the Iranian government on behalf of British intelligence services. So far, London has delayed any meaningful response over fears of jeopardizing attempts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which President Trump withdrew the U.S. from in 2018.
Women For Iran
Through petitions and protests, Women For Iran aims to persuade the U.K. government to brand the IRGC as terrorists. Davoudi calls for the United Kingdom, United States, Canada and the EU to place restrictions on “the collaborators, associates and family members of Iran’s regime leaders living abroad” as seen recently with Russian oligarchs, including Roman Abramovich and Oleg Deripaska.
Domestically, Davoudi stated that one of Women For Iran’s key objectives is to persuade the U.K. government to revoke citizenships, freeze assets and immediately deport the expat allies of the Iranian government based in six Islamic Centres throughout the U.K. The controversy surrounding the Manchester Islamic Centre, outside of which Women For Iran staged a 31-day, 24/7 sit-in protest, was also discussed at a recent meeting between the Iranian campaigners and Lucy Powell, MP for Manchester Central.
Fellow protestor Sururiya encapsulated Women For Iran’s determination to liberate the Iranian people: “We start our days with shocking news from home. This is the least we can do — it’s nothing compared to the bravery of our brothers and sisters who are [subjected to torture, rape and murder]in the streets and prisons of Iran. We will win this fight together.”
Collective Activism Against Atrocities
This embodies the spirit of activists worldwide, such as the Iranian American Women Foundation (IAWF). Founded in 2012, IAWF uses a combination of mentorships, conferences, scholarships and multimedia to empower every Iranian and Iranian-American woman to realize her utmost potential. Since Mahsa Amini’s death, IAWF has spread messages of support for the Iranian protestors through billboards and advertisements while hosting Iranian-American speakers at schools to discuss female empowerment and holding vigils for Iranian women killed in the fight for human rights.
Those engaged in the global fight to establish democracy look to Iran as a site of struggle but also a beacon of hope. Amid constant reports of atrocities, most recently revealing the poisoning of Iranian schoolgirls as ‘revenge’ for anti-hijab protests, decisions made by foreign governments will be important, but the strength, peacefulness and resolve of transnational movements like IAWF and Women For Iran ultimately transcends diplomatic tensions. Lying in the balance is the freedom of an entire generation.
– Alex Blair
Photo: Courtesy of Sam Harrison