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Shahriar Shah Heydari is a postdoctoral researcher at Colorado State’s Natural Resource Ecology Lab. Heydari says he witnessed discrimination against women while still living in Iran, and now pushes for greater awareness in Colorado of injustices in his home country. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Iranian students who attend Colorado State University are pushing for greater awareness and understanding of the injustices against women in their home country, and said they’re disappointed that Coloradans, American politicians and university leaders aren’t more vocal and supportive of them and their families’ plight.

As unprecedented mass protests continue in Iran, the students in Fort Collins have put up a table at their school to educate others about what has led to mass protests there. They’ve helped organize rallies in support of Iranian demonstrators and have pressured university leaders into sending an email that they say is too little and came too late.

Iranian students at CSU said they remain upset about how the university is not supporting them enough as dangerous mass protests continue in their home country. The students said they’ve wanted school leaders to educate the entire CSU community about how women are treated in Iran, which would shine a light on the abuses their loved ones face, and would show solidarity to Iranians in Colorado and the rest of the country. 

Rick Miranda, CSU’s interim president, said in an email to the Colorado Sun, the school supports its Iranian students, who are personally impacted by the inhumane treatment of protesters there. Demonstrators are defending basic human rights, he said, and everyone plays an important role when condemning suppression of those inalienable rights.

“We can only imagine the frustration that our Iranian students are experiencing, and we feel it too,” he told The Sun. “Ultimately, this isn’t about campus-wide emails from the interim president or a single university with limited reach but about the need for greater awareness worldwide, about the ongoing human rights violations and brutal treatment of civil rights protestors in Iran.”

Above all, he said, the school will continue doing what it can to directly support impacted students and their well-being.

Two Iranian students and an Iranian postdoctoral researcher at CSU said the school’s response to the brutality in Iran is just one example of why they feel forgotten in Colorado and across the country. They were apprehensive about speaking, in fear of retaliation from their own government, which has a track record of monitoring citizens’ conversations through social media. The students’ distrust in the American news media, which has at least once incorrectly attributed protests in Iran to economic struggles, rather than the actual cause, which is that mostly young people are fighting for women’s rights and freedom, has compounded that fear, they said. On top of that, they realize they may never be able to return home if the Iranian regime does not become more democratic.

In the meantime, Iranian students said they want to see state and national leaders regularly publicly condemning the Iranian government for its brutality, oppression and violence on its citizens, especially on women.

“We in the Iranian community are really going through a lot, and we really did our best to make the university understand and acknowledge this, but the university did a very terrible job of acknowledging it and spreading the word and just not doing even close to what they did with Ukraine and how they supported the Ukrainian students,” said one Iranian student, who is unnamed because she fears repercussions from speaking against the Iranian regime. “Not to say that we wanted the exact same thing but we wanted the same amount of support because we’re still in the same CSU community.”

A delayed response

On Oct. 5, about three weeks after a young woman was killed under suspicious circumstances in Iran, Colorado State University’s interim president Miranda sent an email to students and staff to help them understand how members of the school are being impacted by events outside of the classroom.

One paragraph in the middle of the email focuses on the Iranian students who are living and studying in Fort Collins — while their loved ones face brutality at the hands of Iranian officials — and as unprecedented protests have continued for two months after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died after police arrested her and accused her of not wearing her hijab head covering correctly.

CSU’s letter came weeks after Iranian students said they asked several school officials multiple times to show public support to their community to help create awareness. CSU declined to say why it took three weeks to send out a letter of support.

“We (30 to 40 Iranians on campus) were actually offended by that email because we asked them to address this and they did it that way,” the Iranian student said. “It should have been sent separately for Iranian students. It was as if they were forced to do it because we asked so many times.”

After Russia launched its war on Ukraine, Julia Khrebtan-Hörhager, an associate professor of communication at CSU, said she was invited to speak about the conflict on many panels. But she has not yet been approached to speak about the situation in Iran, she said.

“They are not wrong when they say that this has not been given the same attention,” she said of the students.

Two Colorado-based political analysts have agreed with the Iranian students, but said the American government is unlikely to meddle in another country’s affairs during mass protests, especially after America has already helped to overthrow the Iranian government in 1953 and while both countries’ leaders have viewpoints still very much at odds with one another.

Before CSU sent that email to students and staff, Iranian students said they took matters into their own hands and, for a week, set up a table in front of the student center to raise awareness about the political climate in their home country and encouraged passersby to email their senators to push the local leaders to “rise up and do something,” the Iranian student said. 

“In the beginning, they just thought a girl died,” she said of Mahsa Amini. “But they did not truly understand the nature of the protests. It’s as if the death of Mahsa was the last straw. … We’ve had protests over economical issues. But never something similar to this: having men and women fight next to each other for women’s rights.”

Colorado College did not respond in time for publication to a request for comment about how they’re supporting Iranian students at their schools.

Metropolitan State University of Denver has a small international student population and does not currently educate any students from Iran, said Tim Carroll, director of media relations at the school. The school’s student care center selectively reaches out to students who are negatively impacted by major events, which in most cases relate to domestic incidents, he said.  

The University of Colorado Denver currently teaches 15 students from Iran, said Jennifer Woodruff, director of public relations at CU Denver. The school provides support services through its office of international affairs and its counseling center helps provide “culturally responsive” counseling and mental health services, she said.

The University of Colorado Boulder sponsored a panel discussion Wednesday night with remarks from local and state elected officials and campus leaders to brainstorm actions to help support the women’s movement in Iran, according to an online flier for the event.

Unprecedented, unwavering protests

On Sept. 16, Amini died at a hospital in Tehran, under suspicious circumstances. The religious  morality police, who enforce the rules of the Islamic Republic, arrested her earlier that day for allegedly not wearing her hijab in accordance with government standards. Iranian officials claimed Amini had a heart attack at a police station and that she fell into a coma before she was transferred to the hospital. But eyewitnesses, including women who were detained with her, said Amini was severely beaten by Iranian authorities during her arrest. Those assertions and leaked medical scans have led many to believe Amini died from a cerebral hemorrhage or stroke.

Her death has led to unprecedented, unwavering protests where Iranian women demonstrators have cut off their hair or removed their hijabs in public. In the early 1980s, Iranian leaders set a strict mandatory dress code that still requires women to wear the head covering in public. Extreme violence, harassment and imprisonment against women not wearing the headscarf in keeping with those standards has been repeatedly reported. Protests against the mandatory hijab rule have taken place since the guideline was put in place decades ago.

“Even if you do not participate in the protests, if you’re just passing by the scene, they might arrest you,” the Iranian student said. “And they might not let you go. And they might imprison you for life. It’s as simple as that.”

Since the most-recent protests began almost three months ago, hundreds of Iranians have been killed by security forces who, in some cases, have fired live ammunition into crowds and have beaten demonstrators with batons. 

Over the years, Iranian women have become more liberal about the hijab rule. Iran’s morality police have responded by launching campaigns to re-educate, punish and arrest them. When women are arrested, they are brought in a green and white van to a government center where they’re forced to sign a form promising they will not break the rule again. Then, they’re usually retrieved by a guardian, said the Iranian student, who was once arrested by the morality police when they claimed her clothing was inappropriate. 

The religious police often arrest people who they think are putting Islam, or the Islamic Republic in danger, including women they deem to be a source of seduction for men, the student said.

“There was nothing wrong with my clothes because I was wearing a long coat and jeans and I had a scarf on my hair,” she said. “The morality police are there to make sure people are not as attractive as they look because they have a problem with people who dress nicely and look good. This is their pattern. They’re sick. They do not work based on reason.” 

Shahriar Shah Heydari, a postdoctoral researcher at Colorado State’s Natural Resource Ecology Lab, said when he was still living in Iran, women were indiscriminately arrested and it took a mental toll on him.

“Nobody was pressuring me for my clothing but they were pressing my sisters and other women in Iran for a very stupid rule,” he said. “And every time I was going out in the street, or biking or doing anything that the girls and women in Iran cannot do or could not do as freely as I was doing, I was always feeling guilty. It was sad and that was one of the reasons I left my home country.”

Heydari said he wants to see national leaders more heavily sanction members of the Iranian government. People who are linked to the Iranian regime should be prosecuted, their assets abroad should be frozen, and they and their families should be barred from entering other countries, he said. 

Shahriar Shah Heydari is a postdoctoral researcher at Colorado State’s Natural Resource Ecology Lab. He witnessed discrimination against women while living in Iran, and now pushes for greater awareness in Colorado of injustices in his home country. “There are so many students there that are suspended – and many of them will be expelled – for protesting,” he said. “There are many things that can be done, but it requires engagement.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Iran is a member of many international bodies, such as the International Telecommunication Union, the agency that facilitates international connectivity in communications networks. However, the Iranian government has been reducing and shutting down the internet in a longstanding pattern of censorship, making it even harder for Iranian students to keep tabs on their loved ones there.

“This is against the basic idea of international telecommunication,” Heydari said, and the Iranian government should be pressured by members of the union to explain its brutality on citizens and why it reduces access to the internet and does not obey the mission of the organization, he said. That kind of pressure would show solidarity with Iranian people, he added.

Mahsa Amini

Thousands of people have been arrested since Amini died including many journalists and scholars. The two women journalists Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, who broke the first story about Amini’s death while in police custody, were arrested and Iranian officials have since accused them of spying, which carries the death penalty.

Americans, who have a free press, should voice their opposition to Iranian officials jailing people for speaking against the regime, and should call for prisoners’ immediate release “to help people who have been arrested for doing nothing other than telling the truth,” Heydari said. 

“They need support and (for us) to tell the stories, talk to people there, and keep this as high-paced as it was at first,” he said. “Don’t let it cool down because the issue there is not cooling down. Protests continue every day, but in the news, the attention seems to be declining.”

The Iranian movement calling for women’s rights and freedom began in September after Amini’s death, he said. But it underscores much larger issues. Iranians want regime change, and to live in a democracy, not a dictatorship, he said. They want a government without widespread corruption, and to live in a country that has good relations with other nations. Those changes would help Iran prosper, individually, and as a nation, Heydari said.

Political analysts have said global leaders aren’t as vocal as the students want because they’re likely afraid of making the repression even worse in Iran. Iranian leaders have already blamed the United States for supporting and organizing the most-recent mass protests there, said Peter Harris, associate professor of political science at CSU.

“If they can portray protests as being part of this Western plot against the government, that’s not a good thing,” Harris said. “It’s bad for the protesters, who will probably be the ones who get punished for that.”

In the past, when the U.S. has intervened in foreign conflicts, it has come back to “bite us” later, Harris said. “Those countries hate us — like in Cuba and Mexico — there’s a long history of that — Iraq, Iran and Guatemala. There’s a lot of countries around the world that just have historical animosity toward the United States because, we, in the past, overthrew their government. So there’s resistance these days (to intervene) because it can turn out badly,” he said.

Supporting Iranians

However, more can and should be done to support Iranians across the country, he said. 

The U.S. could accept more Iranian asylum seekers and refugees, particularly women, who need to escape and seek refuge. Granting them political asylum for persecution based on their sex or gender could help, he said. 

The U.S. should also adopt a more consistent and expansive approach on women’s rights, as human rights, he said. The Women, Peace and Security agenda, a policy framework that recognizes that women must be critical actors in all efforts to achieve sustainable international peace and security, was adopted by the Trump administration, Harris said.

“But it wasn’t a very long document, and there wasn’t too much detail on it,” he said. 

Christoph Stefes, a professor of political science at CU Denver, shared a similar sentiment and said the U.S. government had many programs, many of which were cut under the Trump administration, that paid young foreign activists to work or study in America. When foreign students from repressive nations are allowed to study in the U.S, they return to their home countries with higher education and often a different mindset. They’re usually better positioned to fight for democracy and human rights when they return to their home land, and are usually better allied with the U.S., which can have a positive impact on creating global peace, Stefes said.

He said he hopes Iranian protesters can remain nonviolent during the protests ahead. Many studies show that nonviolent resistance movements are much more likely to be successful in toppling a repressive regime when compared to violent resistance movements, he said.

If the Iranian government does not heed the call and address the issues protesters are fighting for, and if communities around the U.S. are not vocal about supporting their fight for freedom, the effect will be “double isolation,” Khrebtan-Hörhager said.

“Iranians in America will see all that has been done wrong in their home country, which they still love and care about, and they will continue to disagree with their Iranian government, all while living in the U.S. in a kind of democratic bubble that is still not solving their problems,” the CSU professor said.

If Iranian officials don’t promptly address protesters’ calls for women’s rights, democracy and freedom, the effects will be enormous, Harris concurred.

Research shows countries with massive amounts of gender inequality are much more violent countries, he said, and resolving the inequity should be at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy, he said. 

“This link between women’s rights, gender equality and a more peaceful world, that’s the biggest takeaway,” he added. “Women’s rights is not a frivolous concern. They’re half the population of the world.”

Global protests

Iranian officials opened fire on women in a subway car in Tehran in mid-November. One of Heydari’s friends’ relatives was blinded when she was shot by officials in the subway, he said. Iranian’s security forces are also using rape as a sadistic tool to quell protests, according to a special report by CNN. Many Iranian families with daughters are looking for ways to get their young women out of the country as quickly as possible, the unnamed Iranian student said.

More than 170 universities worldwide hosted rallies in honor of Amini and in support of the mass protests that have followed in Iran.

“Unfortunately it seems that no university in Colorado is prepared to do the rally but many people (in Colorado) were involved in content preparation and logistics, and I was personally contributing in developing the statement,” Heydari said in an email the afternoon before the event.

Women in Iran are denied fundamental rights, such as custody of their children, the right to choose their clothing, the right to leave the country without the permission of a male guardian, freedom to ride a bicycle on the street, singing in public and participation in top government roles, according to a summary of the Wednesday event.

“More events will come,” Heydari said in an email. “We want to raise awareness in academia (especially about the regime’s brutality against students) and remind universities of their power. We want to do anything we can to help brave Iranian protesters.”

UPDATE: This story was corrected Dec. 1 to reflect that Heydari said Iranian leaders should be pressured by the International Telecommunication Union to explain its brutality.

Tatiana Flowers

Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment beat reporter for the Colorado Sun. She has covered crime and courts plus education and health in Colorado, Connecticut, Israel and Morocco. In her spare time, she enjoys skiing, Zumba, learning how to...