Mana Shooshtari is an Iranian American feminist activist and organiser whose work—spanning issues like immigration reform, gun violence prevention and sexual and reproductive health and rights—focuses on the protection and promotion of human rights. In the midst of widespread protests across Iran, she’s working to amplify the voices of Iranian feminists and to bring their women-led movement to the global stage.
On 16 September, 22 year old Mahsa Amini died in the custody of Iranian police. She had been arrested three days earlier for an alleged violation—described by authorities as an “improper” hijab—of the strict dress code imposed by law on Iranian women.
Iranian women and girls have faced decades of systemic oppression, Mana says. “They can’t wear what they want to wear. They can’t say what they want to say. [And] they are not going to stand for it anymore.”
The tragedy was met with widespread outrage, inciting nationwide protests. “[Iranian women] are on the streets. They are waving their hijabs in the air. They are risking their lives,” says Mana. “They are fighting for a […] country where they can live freely and not have to worry about their basic rights being violated simply because they choose to speak out.”
In the months since Mahsa’s death, more than 300 protesters have been killed by Iranian authorities. Thousands have also been arrested—many of them women and children; at least 51 of them journalists. Those indicted face charges punishable by death.
“When you target one person in society, it has this ripple wave,” Mana says. “And I hope people can understand the larger ramifications of stripping women of their rights, because it’s not just women who are going to be affected. It’s going to be everybody.”
Mana’s political activism began in high school, sparked by the rising tide of xenophobia and Islamophobia she saw in American politics. “That was truly my wake-up call to get more involved,” she says.
A long-time feminist, her advocacy often centers on the intersection between women’s rights and other social issues. As an anti-gun violence activist, she has worked to push policies that make it harder, for example, for a convicted domestic abuser to buy a gun. And she’s been heavily involved in recent elections, campaigning on behalf of feminist, pro-choice candidates.
As both a feminist and an Iranian American, she’s been devastated by the violence and rights abuses in Iran. “My heart is just shattered,” she says. “I’m trying to do what I can to help make sure that we are amplifying the voices […] of the brave Iranian women and girls who are putting their lives on the line by protesting for their rights.”
We can all act in solidarity with the woman of Iran, she emphasises—particularly those of us with the privilege to speak up safely. That can mean posting on social media, penning an op-ed, starting a rally, writing to your elected officials or anything else. What’s important is that you do what you can: “Take action when you do have the ability to do so, because it makes a larger impact than you think,” she says.
“If these women, and the men who are standing in solidarity with these women, are risking their lives by simply saying, ‘I don’t want to live like this anymore,’ I think the very least we can all do is say, ‘I support you,’” she emphasises.
In a world free from gender-based violence, Mana sees a vast store of talent and ability suddenly unlocked. “You look at Iran: 60 per cent of all university grads are women. Iranian women are [so] smart […] and they haven’t been able to use that ability,” she explains, “because they have to worry about their rights.”
“I think we’re going to see a more just and equitable world, and not just in the sense that all women have rights,” she says. “We’re going to see so many more minds and so many more people uplifted to speak on the issues they care about, to research the things they care about […] I think we’re going to see a major wave of innovation once women do have the ability to live in a society that is free, fair, and does not have violence.”