Last Saturday, thousands walked from Midtown Manhattan toward Washington Square Park, as part of a coordinated global protest that day. Participants carried signs that said “Women. Life. Freedom.”
This is the slogan of the women-led, nationwide protest movement in Iran, which was ignited several weeks ago by the killing of a Kurdish woman Mahsa (Jina) Amini at the hands of Iran’s morality police.
Two days after the march to Washington Square, a candlelight vigil was held on the campus of the Pratt Institute in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Despite the rain, dozens of New Yorkers huddled beneath canvas tents as strong winds scattered posters with imagery associated with the protests — a woman cutting her hair in one, a woman burning her hijab in another.
The vigil turned into an emotional round-table discussion. Iranian immigrants shared their experiences of living under the Islamic Republic and their insights on what’s currently happening. They spoke about the need for the media to adequately cover the protests, as well as the subsequent violent crackdowns by the government. Many spoke defiantly against the idea of government reform, instead voicing support for a complete overthrow of those in charge.
Some described current events in Iran as a movement. Others called it a revolution.
However the protests are described, what’s happening in the streets of Iran — where every day, citizens are risking their lives to demand change — does not seem to be going away anytime soon. In response, the Iranian diaspora in New York has been mobilizing to support the efforts. A Slack channel for Iranian New Yorkers helps them organize and disseminate information about events, like a gathering at Masquerade, an Iranian-owned Brooklyn bar and restaurant, as well as another march scheduled for this Saturday in Foley Square, in Lower Manhattan.
“One of the important roles that we as Iranians can play here outside Iran is trying to uplift the voices of people who are living there, who are risking their lives by going in the street, doing demonstrations and also experiencing the harsh suppression from the security forces and from the police,” said Forouzan Farahani, 31, a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering at City College, and one of the main organizers of events in the city. Recently, Ms. Farahani shaved her head to show solidarity with the women of Iran who have cut their hair.
“As people who are from Iran, who have had the opportunity to come here and who are able to communicate with a wider audience, it brings about a responsibility of sharing what’s happening,” said Arya Ghavamian, a founder of the performance and party project Disco Tehran. In the past few weeks, he has used the organization’s social media platform to share videos of the protests and the crackdowns, as well as a history of the women’s resistance in Iran. Recently he posted a newspaper clipping from 1979, the year of the Iranian Revolution, which had an image of women protesting the newly announced Islamic dress code.
“For us, it’s very important that people know about the history of this movement and how this isn’t something that has just happened overnight,” said Mr. Ghavamian, who sought political asylum after Iran’s publicly contested 2009 elections, which incited several months of demonstrations called the Green Movement. “It’s really been a very long process of suffering that has led to this moment,” he said.
Some tech-savvy New Yorkers are providing virtual private networks, or VPNs, to those on the ground in Iran, as the government continues to tighten restrictions on the internet.
Over the past couple of weeks, Islamic Republic leaders have banned popular social media and messaging outlets like WhatsApp, making it difficult for protesters to organize or communicate what’s happening to those outside of the country. A man who runs a phone repair shop in Tehran, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid detection by the Iranian government, said that blackouts tend to happen between 4 p.m. and midnight.
Internet restrictions in Iran are nothing new; the government has often used them as a tool to quash resistance there. In 2019, protests that grew out of Iran’s gas rationing and price hikes prompted a total internet blackout for six days, during which some 1,500 protesters were killed. “That was the first time that people realized the government can do this,” said Mani Nilchiani, the other organizer of Disco Tehran, who has stepped down from that role since this interview. “They can literally turn it off, kill people and then turn it back on again.”
A VPN acts as a go-between. It can access restricted websites and services on the user’s behalf while protecting her anonymity. While Mr. Ghavamian has been using the Disco Tehran Instagram account to share posts from Iranians, Mr. Nilchiani had been using it to reach Iranians in need of VPNs, in order for the sharing of information to to continue. In the past few weeks, nearly 100 people have written to him, asking for help with VPNs.
Mr. Nilchiani had been paying for these VPN subscriptions using Disco Tehran’s funds and then donating them to those inside of Iran. A 35-year-old Iranian expat who works in artificial intelligence, who declined to be named, said that he had personally supported some 20 subscriptions, which cost about $100 each. He added that he hoped American VPN companies would relax their rules so that more Iranians could use the internet; he has spent hours speaking with customer support departments to make this happen, but he’s not making much progress, he said.
And in Iran, even with obfuscation tools like VPNs, accessing the internet can be difficult. Many VPN services require that you download an app first, and Iranians are banned from Apple’s App Store. Plus they must navigate sanctions, which prohibit financial interactions between Iran and certain countries. In some cases, the Iranian government has learned about certain commercial VPN services and blocked their I.P. addresses.
One workaround to that is an initiative called “Snowflake,” where volunteers in other countries like the United States install open-source software (meaning that it is free, licensed and designed for anyone to use) as a temporary bridge to the internet. The project’s goal is to continuously add new I.P. addresses faster than government censors can block them.
For Navid, 36, who works in finance in New York and who requested his last name be omitted because he comes from a marginalized group in Iran, downloading the extension to share with the protesters is the most impactful way that he and his friends can help from abroad, he said. Even feeling a small bit of success has been energizing for him, he added.
But the psychological toll of the current resistance in Iran has been heavy for many in the diaspora. Mr. Nilchiani, who has a full-time job on top of trying to field VPN requests, said he expected the emotional processing would come later.
For now, he’ll do what he can from New York City. “It’s like there’s a fire that needs to be put out,” he said. “You just put it out.”
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