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Q&A: Alumna Sajedeh Zahraei on the uprising in Iran

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University of Toronto community rally, St. George Street, October 6, 2022

Sajedeh Zahraei — who completed both her MSW and PhD at FIFSW — has focused much of her research and practice on the political, structural, psychosocial issues that impact the mental health of immigrant, refugee, racialized populations. In addition to her role as Senior Manager, Professional Development and Training at the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, the Toronto-based registered social worker and psychotherapist has a private practice: The Saleemeh Wellness Centre For Women. On October 5, 2022, we asked Dr. Zahraei, who was born in Iran, to share some insights on the uprising following Mahsa Amini’s death. (Please know that events in Iran are shifting daily.)

How has the current crisis in Iran impacted you and the communities and individuals that you work with in Toronto?

There are a mix of emotions. There’s excitement; there’s hope. We are witnessing the courage and creativity of young women leading the protests in the streets. What I’m hearing from people in the community is that this a feminist revolution that is unprecedented. It is a historic moment. That’s the part that is exciting to see.

The more concerning part is the brutal violence and the crackdown that is happening, especially on university students and academics. There have been widespread protests across university campuses throughout the country, including  Sharif University, which is one of the more prominent universities in Tehran. Students protesting on the grounds of the university were surrounded by police and plain clothes officers who started attacking and arresting them. They brought in buses and detained hundreds of students. Many were injured and shot at while the community and the parents tried to intervene to protect them and break the siege. Serious human rights abuses and crimes are being committed, and there is a lot of worry and concern and need for support from the international community.

We’ve seen widespread protests in solidarity outside of Iran as well. On October 1, more than 50,000 people in Richmond Hill joined a protest against the Iranian government. Protests have been happening in countries across the world to bring attention to what is happening there.


What advice do you have for those who wish to support the people of Iran?

First, we can educate ourselves about what is happening — not just about the day-to-day events that are happening on the ground, but also about the history and the significance of this movement. Over the last several years, the media has focused on the Iranian government’s involvement with nuclear weapons and terrorism. There has been little reporting on the people of Iran and how they have been impacted by sanctions and the economic situation — which has resulted in a huge increase in poverty — and by government repression. The people of Iran are now at the forefront of media attention, but what they are experiencing is not new. There has been a lot of unrest and protests over the murder of Mahsa Jina Amini, which has galvanized and united people across the country to demand regime change.

It is also important to see the connection between what is happening to women in Iran and what is happening in Canada and the United States, where we are also seeing policies and trends that undermine the rights of women, such as recent changes to abortion laws, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, and a rise in fundamentalism. It goes beyond just the hijab. It’s what’s behind it. It’s about patriarchy. It’s about challenging the system that tries to control women and dictate how you live your life, how to dress, and what to do. We need to look at ways that we can build transnational feminist solidarity to unite our struggles for women’s rights and human rights and challenge historical systems of oppression that are rooted in colonialism, racism, and global neoliberal policies. All of these things are interconnected. For us to make any kind of impact, we need to challenge these systemic structural and historical issues.

In addition to educating ourselves and recognizing the connections between what is happening in Iran and what is happening around the world, we can host and create spaces for dialogue and conversations to imagine new alternatives especially now in the context of the severe crackdown in Iran where people are trying to make their voices heard. We can amplify those voices

The broader community can also be involved in organizing around these issues. At a recent protest in Nathan Phillips Square, I noticed there was a group of Iranians were on one side, and a group of Afghans protesting genocide against Hazara on the other. It was so striking. These communities are very close, and they are dealing with similar issues, but they’re operating in silos. How can we tie these issues together and build a more cohesive movement and support each other in these ways? And why should it be just Iranians on their own Afghans on their own?  We need everyone to join in and support these struggles for human rights.


Is what we are seeing in Iran now different from what we have seen in the past?

Women in Iran have been active for decades against this kind of repression. When the Islamic regime came into power, one of the first things that they did was impose the mandatory hijab on women. The other thing they did was repress minorities in different national groups within the country. Mahsa Jina Amini was both a woman and a Kurdish woman. Understanding the intersection of those issues, the history of resistance, the leadership that women are showing and the solidarity between different nations and around this issue has really galvanized different groups of society. Different members of various communities have come together around this issue and around the impact of the economic situation and repression that everyone is experiencing. It has mobilized them in a way we haven’t seen before.


> Click here to read full story on Sajedeh Zahraei’s work as a social work researcher and practitioner 

More from the U of T community:

Statement from President Meric Gertler on the crisis in Iran, from the Office of the President, U of T

‘The entire country is on fire’: U of T’s Shahrzad Mojab on the uprising in Iran following Mahsa Jina Amini’s death, Q&A with OISE Professor Shahrzad Mojab, U of T News

Could protests in Iran grow into revolution?, interview with Maral Karimi, OISE doctoral student and author of The Iranian Green Movement of 2009: Reverberating Echoes of Resistance, CBC Radio

Amid violent protests in Iran, women throwing off headscarves have nothing to lose, says protester, includes an interview with OISE Professor Shahrzad Mojab, CBC Radio