‘Our choice’: Candlelight vigil calls for justice in Iran

For Zainab Akhtar, a senior psychology major, the choice to wear hijab is a personal decision. This belief is part of the reason she attended the candlelight vigil for Mahsa Amini on Tuesday evening.

“My decision to put on my hijab is between me and God — not any person, not any government, not any political agenda,” Akhtar said. “What’s happening in Iran isn’t about hijab, it’s about controlling women, forcing them into the shadows.”

Pitt’s Middle Eastern and North African Student Association held a candlelight vigil Tuesday to mourn the death of Amini, who died at the hands of the Iranian “morality police” for improperly wearing her hijab. Her death has been a catalyst for rapid and widespread calls for political and social change in Iran, with women at the forefront of the public protests.

A memorial for Mahsa Amini outside the William Pitt Union Tuesday evening. (Pamela Smith | Visual Editor)

“What has happened now to Mahsa has been happening to thousands of other women for decades,” Kinan Moukamal, president of MENASA, said. “Her spark sent forth a movement of protests against these injustices across Iran.” 

Moukamal, a senior linguistics and computer science major, explained the historical context behind the current climate in Iran and talked about the 1979 Revolution, also called the Islamic Revolution. 

“In 1979 the lives of all Iranians changed forever when the Islamic revolution brought an extremist regime to power,” Moukamal said. “The basic human rights of all people in Iran were stripped away, especially those of women.”

The group of about 50 students and professors gathered to honor not only Amini, but also other women who were killed during the protests.

Students attend a candlelight vigil for Mahsa Amini and other victims of the Iranian “morality police” outside the William Pitt Union Tuesday evening. (Pamela Smith | Visual Editor)

“Mahsa Amini, Hadis Najafi, Sarina Esmailzadeh, Neda Aghasoltan, Nika Shakrami,” Moukamal said. “Tonight we are gathered as witnesses to their tragedies.”

Akhtar emphasized the universal call for bodily autonomy and choice which Iranian women are fighting for. 

“We all know hijab is not the enemy,” said Akhtar. “Today I am here as a hijabi by choice, a right that women in Iran don’t have.”

Layla Banihashemi, an associate professor of psychology, called for those around the world to take action and spread the voices of Iranian people.

“Please keep watching, please keep amplifying,” Banihashemi said. “The Iranian people are clear — they call for freedom from an oppressive regime, and they ask one thing — be our voice.” 

Layla Abousaab, a senior biology major and MENASA member, said she participated in Tuesday’s vigil to remind the rest of the world about what is going on in Iran. 

“I think a lot of human rights issues in the Middle East are overlooked,” Abousaab said.“The vigil was a really beautiful way to honor Mahsa and bring awareness to people who may not have known what happened or the true impact for women in Iran.” 

Banihashemi also emphasized the lack of attention the protests and brutality have received in international news. 

“I stood in solidarity with Iranians in the global protests on Saturday, October 1,” Banihashemi said. “Over 150 countries stood in solidarity with the Iranian people, followed by little to no news and pieces that failed to highlight the heart of the protests in Iran.” 

Weeam Boumaza, a sophomore political science major and MENASA member, called on the collective humanity of those at the vigil.

“Anyone with a heart, a conscience, a soul, should feel devastated,” Boumaza said. “Whatever identities we share or don’t share with those involved in this tragedy, we can all count on one common unifying factor, and that is our humanity.”

A student approaches a candlelight vigil for Mahsa Amini and other victims of the Iranian “morality police” outside the William Pitt Union Tuesday evening. (Pamela Smith | Visual Editor)

Banihashemi said the sustained protests and calls for change have given her hope that the Iranian people will overcome the current political climate.

“This is not a war,” Banihashemi said. “It is a governing body enacting extreme violence on its own citizens, but all of this has been shot through with glimmers of hope — watching the oil workers go on strike, with awe and admiration as schoolgirls chant ‘death to the dictator,’ and with joy to see long, glossy hair flowing in Tehran.”

According to Moukamal, the vigil marks a moment of frustration and anger, both in Iran and in communities around the world, that can no longer be ignored.

“Experiencing brutality and injustice for so long breaks one’s soul so deeply that you think eventually it won’t break you down any further, but this is not the case,” Moukamal said. “There is a point where it all has to erupt. With every innocent person’s death, the weight becomes more and more unbearable.” 

Moukamal said speakers and attendees alike are continuing to spread the message and honor the lives of the Iranian women who were killed in their fight for freedom.

“We are here tonight to honor the lives of Mahsa Amini, Hadis Najafi, Sarina Esmailzadeh, Neda Aghasoltan, Nika Shakrami,” Moukamal said. “We are here tonight on this campus to use our voices to keep their fight for freedom alive.”


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