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Understanding Iran For Parents: Explaining the Ongoing Protests To Kids

Image of Iranian woman protesting in Tehran
AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

We are heartbroken about the many lives lost and imprisoned during the ongoing protests in Iran against the government’s corrupt and oppressive policies. These recent protests were sparked by the death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini, a young Kurdish woman who was arrested by the morality police in Tehran for allegedly not wearing her headscarf according to government standards. She was beaten while in prison, and later died at the hospital on September 16, 2022 (BBC).

At a time when so many women and young girls are courageously raising their voices and leading unprecedented protests in their country, we believe in amplifying their stories to other young Rebels around the world. 

Since the beginning of the protests, Rebel Girls has received numerous requests from Iranian women to share stories, including from Tara Kangarlou, an Iranian-American global affairs journalist, author of the award-winning book The Heartbeat of Iran, and adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Tara was born and raised in Iran and moved to the US in her late teens. She has since had her finger on the pulse of what goes on in her home country, with a focus on reporting on the everyday lives of Iranians. The following post from Tara focuses on helping parents explain the complexities of this situation to their children. 

These views are Tara’s own, informed by her extensive expertise in the matter, both through her work as a journalist and through lived experience. We hope to provide you with the following takeaways:

  • Historical nuance and context
  • Factual understanding
  • A narrative that humanizes the protests
  • A sense of empathy for those impacted

The Protests in Iran

As we continue to witness the courageous Iranian women and girls raising their voices and risking their lives in the ongoing anti-government protests, it’s important to understand that what’s unfolding in the country is not just about the government’s “hijab mandates.” Rather, this movement is a reflection of the entire nation’s fatigue toward their government’s systematic corruption and oppression that continue to intrude on people’s livelihood.

Illustration by Marco Melgrati
“Cut it out!” by Marco Melgrati

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution toppled the Iranian monarchy, the newly established clerical regime built its power on a fanatical interpretation of Islam. This reinterpretation of Islam—which was practiced for centuries before the revolution—has since become an ideological mechanism for the government to gain a strong grip, expand its influence, and in many ways justify its policies in the name of “religion.” The country’s morality police is just one way that the current government controls the population and imposes its version of religion upon its citizens.

Today, nearly 43 years since the beginning of this theocracy, the government’s strategies have backfired to an extent that the majority of Iran’s population of 83 million is calling for immediate, tangible, and sustainable changes to the current system of governance. Beyond the existing religious mandates, ordinary Iranians are fed up with the country’s dismal economic conditions, their isolation from the international community, widespread corruption, embezzlement, and nepotism. 

As recounted by a young Iranian entrepreneur in Tehran, Mahsa Amini’s death in police custody added fuel that enraged an already burning fire among the people of Iran. The resulting protests around the country continue to be led by the younger generation, who are fighting to break free from the many oppressive mandates imposed by their government and want to rebuild their worn-down, yet rich country so that they can have the opportunity to contribute to the rest of the world.

When explaining what’s happening in Iran to your children, it’s important to highlight a few key elements:

Iran’s History

Iran has a history that spans more than 2,600 years and is considered one of the cradles of civilization. In fact, it was around 2,500 years ago in Persia (the former name of Iran before it was changed in 1935 by then-leader Reza Shah) that King Cyrus the Great wrote one of the first-known bills of human rights—a doctrine that was well-read by many world leaders to come, including Thomas Jefferson. 

Map of the Achaemenid Empire (now Iran) circa 500 AD

In its glory, the Persian Empire stretched all the way from modern-day Egypt and Greece in the west to India and Pakistan in the east. Today, Iran is three times the geographical size of France, and of its 83 million population, nearly 40% are under the age of 24 and almost 50% are between the ages of 25 to 54. 

This oil-rich country is home to vast deserts, lush forests, soaring mountain ranges, green plains, and two significant bodies of water in the north and south (this includes the Persian Gulf, which contains one of the most strategic trade routes in the world). In one day, you can go to the beach and then ski in fresh snow in northern Iran, and then travel all the way to the dry lands of the south and visit date farms and qanats, historic water irrigation sites that date back millennia. Iranians pride themselves on the country’s world-class saffron, caviar, rosewater, pistachios, dates, and carpets that have not had a chance to be recognized on a global stage, as a result of Western sanctions. 

While the country is rich in natural resources, Iran is also the birthplace of some of the greatest literary and scientific figures in history, such as Ferdowsi, whose Shahnameh (translated toBook of the Kings) is one of the world’s longest epic poems. Other notable thinkers include Rumi, Khayyam, Avicenna (the Iranian polymath who many regard as the father of early modern medicine), and Razi (who first discovered alcohol in the 9th century A.D).

While presently, the majority of the country identifies as Shia Muslims, Iran is home to a diverse ethnic and religious tapestry that includes the Azeris, Kurds, Lurs, Baloch, Tajiks, Gilakis, Assyrians, Armenians, Arabs, Jews, Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Zoroastrians.

Nuance and context

It is also critical to understand the history of hijab within Iranian society. As I previously wrote about in TIME—and as reflected in history—“religion at large and specifically the issue of hijab has long been used by Iranian rulers as a measure to control society.” While women have worn the headscarf for cultural reasons or just for personal style (Met Museum), the choice to wear the hijab for religious reasons was often used as a tool in power politics.

Illustration reading "women, life, freedom" in Arabic
“Women, Life, Freedom” by Roshi Rouzbehani

In 1936, the monarch Reza Shah issued a decree banning women from wearing the hijab, which was a customary fashion among the majority of women in Iran, regardless of religious beliefs. At the time, this forceful mandate caused much rage and resistance in society. And as I unpacked in the first chapter of my book The Heartbeat of Iran, my own grandmother, whose family was far from conservative or religious, was asked by her grandfather to stay home for several weeks, as many weren’t ready to accept the then-forceful decree. Years later, with the dawn of the Islamic Revolution, the enforcement of mandatory hijab also became a major point of contention between the people and the new regime.

In a country where the population is more than three times the size of Scandinavia, there are millions of Iranian women who believe in the virtue of their hijab, but full-heartedly detest the government’s forceful imposition of it in public. On the other hand, there are millions of women who long for the day they can remove their headscarves, but more because they want the freedom to choose for themselves. 

Even today, if I were to travel to an Iran where the hijab rules are miraculously no longer enforced, the way I would dress to go to a party in Tehran would differ from the way I would dress to go to the old grand bazaars of Isfahan; the way I would dress in front of an elderly generation in the holy city of Mashhad would be different from the way I would dress at a beachside restaurant by the Caspian Sea. Iran is enriched with centuries of tradition and values that have nothing to do with forceful religious mandates—beliefs that people young and old respect and in many ways want to celebrate and incorporate in their daily lives, away from the forceful and at times violent policies of the governing regime.  

In order for us to understand the underlying reasons for the Iranian women’s uproar in the aftermath of Mahsa’s senseless killing—which has resulted in further arrests, detentions, and killing of journalists, students, activists, and civilians—we need to understand that this rage comes from the people’s fundamental right to choose and to break free from the government’s interpretation of Islamic faith and what they deem permissible in daily life. 

Just as Muslim women and girls in France are outraged with a government that prevents them from wearing their hijabs, women and girls in Iran are also fighting tooth and nail for the day their freedom of choice won’t be violated by their government. While the French policymakers and governing body may not have the same vile policing apparatus, in principle, their controlling and didactic policies are similar to those of the Iranian government. Just as millions of women and girls in the United States are fighting for their own bodily autonomy, young women in Iran want to be their own decision-makers over not just their bodies, but their lives. 

Image of mourners walking to the Aichi Mausoleum
Courtesy of BBC Iran

Today, despite some of the government’s restrictive policies, Iran’s people have continued to fight for progress. For example, Iranian women are some of the most highly educated in the Middle East. According to the United States Institute for Peace

  • Since 1976, female adult literacy has more than tripled.
  • Girls who finished primary education increased from 36% in 1971 to 99% in 2017.
  • The percentage of women in higher education increased from 3% in 1978 to 59% in 2018.
  • The percentage of women in the workforce almost doubled in three decades: from 11% in 1990 to 19% in 2020. 

The Iranian people have proven that no matter what, they will move their country forward and they will not let anything stop them from living life.

In talking to your kids please remember to:

Humanize Iranians

For over forty years, the world has seen Iran through a one-dimensional narrative that has militarized and dehumanized a colorful, textured, complex nation with a rich and long history that existed long before the 1979 revolution. What’s unfolding in Iran is not just another distant news story, but a reality of life for millions of Iranians who are tired of systematic social, economic, and political oppression.

The millions of people currently in Iran have not yet had a chance to tell their own stories. Instead, their story has mainly been told by Iranians who left the country many years ago and have not returned, political figures who do not represent the will of the people, and western media, whose understanding of the nuances and realities of life in Iran can be narrow and unrefined. More than ever, the time has come for the international community to reconnect with Iran’s 80 million-plus citizens, whose hopes and dreams, fears, and aspirations mirror that of others around the world.

Encourage Empathy

When people know each other’s stories, they will inherently learn about their common ground. And thus, the many longstanding differences will slowly give way to engagement, understanding, and discourse. This will ultimately result in empathy—a key ingredient in creating an ever-lasting connection with others.

There is no difference between the youth of Iran and those elsewhere in the world. For years, they’ve longed to know that they are being heard by the world. They want their movement to be seen and supported by their fellow young friends across the globe: those who take joy in the same TikToks or Billie Eilish song, those who have the same worries about school, grades, and their future. 

Empathy is the key ingredient that allows people, societies, and nations to defy barriers, divides, and fear-mongering policies that for too long have created walls between people.

What’s going on in Iran is an example of people standing up to bullies. From a young age, we learn to give power and value to our voice; but in Iran, people’s voices have been devalued for years. As our children learn to stand up to bullies in school and later in the workplace and life, Iranian people are fighting the biggest bully of their life—their government. 

Instances of government control and resulting protests happen all over the world for many different reasons. Help contextualize this for your child by imagining what it could look like in their daily life. What if they had to act one way in private and another in public? What if they lived in fear of getting their family in trouble if they disobeyed public mandates? What if the government required them to behave in ways that contradict human values and their basic human rights?

Understand that Women’s Rights are Human Rights

Image of woman protesting in Iran
Courtesy PBS News Hour

What’s going on in Iran is a universal fight for liberty; the freedom to choose for yourself without any interference from kings and queens, presidents and lawmakers, or clerics and priests. It is the fight for the idea that your body, your mind, your faith, and ultimately, your life, are up to you and you alone.

At present, Iranian women and men—especially the youth—are united in their fight for change. Their demands are the same: freedom to live their lives. Emphasize to your children that what’s going on in Iran is not just about women’s rights or human rights, but the right to life, the right to growth, and the right to liberty—as they wish for themselves.

Conclusion

Imagine a world where no girl, no woman, and no person has to be the victim of man-made oppression. What’s most inspiring in Iran today is not just the zeal, unity, and courage of the young women and men on the streets or the selfless workers on strike across the nation, but the fervent life that young schoolgirls are breathing into this continuous movement for reform, for change, and for their future.

As of today, a handful of young students have been disciplined, arrested, and some have even been killed. But years from now, it is these young girls who will tell their daughters and granddaughters that it was they who stood up tall. It was them who inspired our sisters and brothers, mothers, and fathers to not give up, to continue this fight for us—for life, for freedom. 

Tara Kangarlou

Image of author Tara Kangarlou

Tara Kangarlou is an award-winning Iranian-American journalist who has previously worked with news outlets such as NBC-LA, CNN, and Al Jazeera America. She is a frequent on-air contributor for various international news outlets covering the MENA region and global affairs. She has also spent much time covering the rise and fall of ISIS, the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the unprecedented Syrian refugee crisis, as well as other pressing humanitarian issues worldwide.

Born out of her extensive reporting and firsthand knowledge of the global refugee crisis, in 2016, she founded Art of Hope, the first American nonprofit that strictly focuses on supporting the mental well-being of war-torn refugees in vulnerable communities.

She is also the author of the award-winning book “The Heartbeat of Iran” and is currently an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service teaching at the intersection of journalism and public diplomacy.