How many deaths?
How many are enough?
Should the list include everyone? Can it?
How can a list be complete when it cannot account for the ones who disappeared without a trace…
-Poupeh Missaghi, "trans(re)lating house one," Coffee House Press
Throughout recent history, Iranian women of all ages, genders, income levels and education have participated in national uprisings. In 2023, they are not only participating, they are organizing a resistance which is now massive in scale. The Iranian government is reacting with lethal force, escalating arrests and executions.
More than 500 people have already been killed in the current protests including four public executions. Taraneh Alidoosti, a well-known Iranian actress, and one of the most high-profile targets in Iran's campaign against celebrities who have expressed solidarity with the demonstrators, was arrested on Dec. 18th. Though she has since been released, many others haven't. Neda Naji, a labor activist, was sentenced to 8 months in prison, 60 lashes, and fined.
There are about 500,000 Iranians and Iranian-Americans in the United States right now and none of them, I am certain, are sleeping well. Maedeh Ojaghlou, 28-years-old, arrived in New York City via Dubai from Tehran on an F1 student visa in August 2022. We connected on the New Paltz Community Facebook page and then met for the first time last week for an in-person conversation at a Dunkin Donuts, a dystopian experience, as it was very crowded and we were both masked up. Maedeh (pr. MAH-eh-day) was wearing a sweatshirt with the slogan of the Iranian resistance: #womanlifefreedom, a reverberating echo of women all over the world who have struggled for voting rights, abortion rights, the right to be educated, the right to choose a life partner, the right to equal pay, the right to surface from the hijab into air and light, or to remain veiled—in other words, the right to choose.
Maedeh and I had a lot to talk about and fell into conversation easily. Since the 444-day siege of the American Embassy in Tehran, there has been no official American consulate presence there. When Maedeh received her acceptance for the MFA program in photography at SUNY New Paltz, she was desperate to accept, but didn't know how her modest, middle-class family—her father is an accountant, her mother a housewife—could afford the funds for travel to Dubai to obtain a visa, and then living expenses once she arrived on campus. Somehow, the family found the money.
Maedeh's sister had already emigrated to the United States where she works as a researcher for a pharmaceutical company, so the family was accustomed to departures of their loved ones, and resigned to the financial sacrifice necessary to educate their children, especially their daughters.
Many wealthy Iranian families had fled when the mullahs came to power in 1979 after the fall of the Shah, leaving the less affluent to navigate the new theocracy on their own, in the same way ordinary Afghan families now have to navigate the evisceration of freedoms and opportunities by the Taliban after the American evacuation which privileged those working for the American government or military. The religious fundamentalism of both regimes has been life changing for everyone, especially the women. And Iranians and Afghanis even share related languages: a Farsi-speaking Iranian can probably understand a Dari-speaking Afghani, and vice versa.
Maedeh has been an activist for many years. She had volunteered for a charity helping child laborers, some as young as five-years-old, and her parents knew she would have been on the streets demonstrating every day after Mhasa Amini's death. "But my parents weren't just worried about me," Maedeh says. "They were worried about me and everyone else. We all worry about each other in Iran."
Before long, Maedeh was on a plane to Dubai, her MFA acceptance in hand, applying for a visa. Soon after she landed in New York City, she joined demonstrations with friends and started posting photos on her Instagram account.
It might be difficult for Americans to understand that the demonstrators may, or may not, have an argument with Islam itself, one of the world's great religions. Maedeh's mother is devout, she does wear a hijab, but she supports and encourages the evolution of a new forward-looking generation. And her father, whose father was killed in the Iran-Iraq war, encourages his children to fight for freedom in a sanctioned country where there is no separation of church and state, and taxes go to advancing nuclear power and building drones for Russia's war against Ukraine.
Life in the United States is calm by comparison to Iran, Maedeh says. She misses her family, but she is safe for now, and feels free to study and demonstrate without fear of arrest, solitary confinement, floggings, or death.
Dedicated to the brave women of Iran and Afghanistan.
For more information about incarcerated writers in Iran: