‘Women, life, freedom’: Students plan rally for Iran on International Women’s Day

March 7, 2023, 9:23 p.m.

The last names of some sources have been redacted out of concern for personal and familial safety in Iran.

At least once a day, Romy McCarthy ’25 thinks about going back to Iran. The last time she visited the country where her mother grew up was when she was four years old and too young to “remember anything.”

But now, “there’s no way” for McCarthy or her mother to return to Iran because of political tension and their outspoken work against the government. “For me to go, it’d be a disaster.”

Armita ’26 and McCarthy are co-organizing a rally at White Plaza from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, in support of Iranian women who have led an ongoing uprising in Iran over the last six months. The rally, which is also taking place at other universities across the world, is sponsored by a global collective of Iranian students and academics known as Iranian Scholars for Liberty. 

A flyer of a woman with a flyer in her hair that encourages people to rally for Iran on International Women's Day.
The flyer for the “WOMAN, LIFE, FREEDOM” rally in support of Iranian women in White Plaza on Wednesday, March 8. (Courtesy of Armita.)

In the past six months, nearly 20,000 Iranians have been arrested and nearly 600 have been killed by the government. Since November, it has been reported that almost 700 schoolgirls have been poisoned in suspected attempts to close their schools. People have been jailed for acts including protesting, dancing or reporting on the regime.

“Despite all that effort to intimidate, I think there’s more daring and defiance now than there ever was,” Director of Iranian Studies Abbas Milani said.

McCarthy said that she had always known about the “damage done by the [Iranian] Revolution.” The 1979 overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty resulted in the country shifting to an Islamic republic. The new regime reversed many legal and social rights for women and dictated personal or social aspects of their lives, including what they could wear or study.

According to McCarthy, her mother, who had left Iran in 1979 during the Revolution, was arrested and tortured when she returned because she was wearing a coat that didn’t fall past her knees. Still, McCarthy said speaking up against the Islamic regime is “a risk [she’s] willing to take.” 

Armita, who grew up in Iran, said she noticed unequal treatment of girls in the country, including  at the international school she attended. She recalled school assemblies where girls were told not to “dye [their] hair” or “paint [their] nails.” She said many of her friends who are still in Iran cannot attend university both because of the costs and how discouraged girls’ education is under the current regime.

Milani described the recent protests in Iran as triggered by “increased brutality of the so-called Morality Police” after the killing of Mahsa Amini for wearing an “improper hijab.” He said that the protests are part of a much larger fight for democracy and human rights.

“So these eruptions are only eruptions if you look at the moment,” Milani said. “If you look at it historically, you realize that this has been a building tension—the Iranian regime is sitting on a volcano.”

Milani said that, for the past 44 years, women have “been the most serious, consistent, persistent challenge to misogyny, to patriarchy, to theocracy, to despotism” in Iran. What “began with a simple demand for freedom of deciding how women dress and equality…quickly morphed into demand for a secular democracy,” according to Milani.

McCarthy said that a central aim of the rally is to raise awareness about the ongoing uprising in Iran, an issue that she said is not typically covered by the media and affects “not just women” and “not just Iran.” Speakers at the rally will include Milani, Shima Ph.D. ’17 and former student advisor Laleh.

The rally will coincide with International Women’s Day and McCarthy said she believes it is important for people to recognize the efforts of Iranians, particularly Iranian women, who are fighting for human rights.

“‘Feminist’ is a very commonly thrown-around word, particularly on campus. It’s a word of great magnitude and a word of great meaning, right?” McCarthy said. “If you call yourself that, it’s important that you recognize one of the biggest women-led movements we’ve seen in our lifetimes.”

According to Milani, the present is a “pivotal” moment for Iran, as well as the future of other authoritarian regimes in what he labeled as the “brotherhood,” a group of countries including Russia, China and Turkey. Acknowledging that while no one can predict the turn of events, he said he holds an optimistic — albeit “tumultuous” — view for the future of Iran.

“Fom everything that I have studied…about what it takes to make a transition to democracy, I think Iran is arguably maybe the most ready country, Muslim at least, for a transition to a secular democratic society,” Milani said. “The trend line by far is the diminishing of [the regime’s] base, the diminishing of the repressive ability, and the increase of the democratic aspirations of Iranian society, particularly of Iranian women. Thus, for the midterm future of Iran, my view is very bright, but from now until the future, it’s stormy weather.”

Milani said that it is important to make the international community aware of global events, describing the state of Iran as “the battle for democracy, the soul of the future.”

“What happens in Iran doesn’t stay in Iran, it has international consequences,” Milani said. “If you’re interested in the future of democracy, I think we should all be interested in what happens to Iran.”

McCarthy echoed the sentiment, and said that she hopes “the campus community” will come to the rally to learn and understand about the uprisings and crackdowns taking place in Iran. 

“Being at Stanford, we have a massive platform… some of the most well-educated and well-resourced people in the world,” McCarthy said. “We have the opportunity to change the world if we want to.”

Caroline Chen '26 is a Vol. 265 News Managing Editor. She is from Chapel Hill, N.C. and enjoys vegetable farms and long walks. Contact cqchen 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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