Protests rage on in Iran, Kaussler sisters experience emotional turmoil

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Graphic by Clare Kirwan

Women have been at the forefront of the biggest women’s rights movement Iran has ever seen. After the death of Masha Amini, who is said to be killed by mortality police for the incorrect wearing of her hijab, Iranians have taken to the streets. Women have cut their hair and removed hijabs in solidarity with Amini, violent protests continue in the Iranian fight to end the regime.

Clare Kirwan, Yearbook Managing Editor

‘Women. Life. Freedom.’

This chant is heard from corner to corner of the Islamic Republic of Iran after 22 year-old Masha Amini was beaten to death for not wearing her hijab correctly. Iranian officials said Amini’s death was due to a heart attack, but she had no previous heart conditions, according to her family. Amini’s death jump started the biggest social movement Iran has ever seen, after mostly concentrated economic-political protests in 2009, 2017 and 2019.

“[People in Iran] have a dress code. If they don’t wear their hijab the way that the government wants them to wear it or if they’re not wearing what’s considered appropriate or if their makeup isn’t appropriate then they will [punish them]. That’s why a lot of women are getting killed or beaten or put into custody,” junior Soraya Kaussler said. “There’s a lot of protests going on, but it’s not being talked about because the media isn’t covering it and the internet [is] shut down in Iran. It’s a huge issue, but [nobody] really knows about it and knows what’s going on, which is why it’s so important for us to share and spread information.” 

The dress code in Iran requires women to wear a hijab or head covering, cover their lower waist and arms with tunics or coats known as roo-poosh and cover their legs down to their ankles. Women across Iran and the world have begun taking off their hijabs in support of the movement and in honor of Masha Amini.

Junior Soraya Kaussler and freshman Shirin Kaussler wear shirts that illustrate Masha Amini and say ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ in Persian. (Photo courtesy of Soraya Kaussler)

“[The death of Masha Amini] made men and women mad and they started protesting in the streets. They’ll take their hijabs off and throw them in the fire or they’ll cut their hair. It’s [symbolism for] cutting the chains off. They’ll just protest and the morality police will get mad and they’ll beat them up and take them into custody. I’ve seen lots of posts where they just shoot them and throw them against walls,” freshman Shirin Kaussler said.

The morality police is responsible for imposing the strict dress code in Iran, making sure women wear their hijab correctly and limiting other forms of freedom of expression. They have taken to violently trying to contain the protests. 

“Hijabs themselves aren’t bad. It’s about giving women the fundamental right to choose,” Soraya Kaussler said.

Soraya and Shirin Kaussler are no strangers to the persecution of minorities in Iran. Their mother is Persian and her parents had to flee Iran while they were pregnant with her.

“She had to flee because our religion which is the Baha’i religion is prosecuted in Iran by the Islamic government. Our grandparents were put on an execution list and two days before they were set to be executed they found out that they were on the list. They had to take everything and flee. They fled from Iran to Sweden, which is where my mom lived for the entirety of her life until she went off to college,” Soraya Kaussler said.

The Kaussler sisters have grown up in Harrisonburg and despite the small presence of Persians and Baha’is in the area, they have stayed in touch with their culture.

“I think our faith shapes a lot of our culture and the way we live. There’s also no Baha’is in Harrisonburg, me and Shirin are the only ones. There’s a very small population of us. There’s other Persians, but in school there’s not a lot that I know of, so it’s hard to be able to relate to people because of cultural differences. Every culture has different ways that they do things. Being in a predominantly white friend group, it’s hard to relate to things they do culturally and they can’t relate to what I’m doing. There’s always a cultural difference, you just have to see past it in a way,” Soraya Kaussler said.

Shirin Kaussler describes Persian culture as incredibly welcoming, with a love for hugs.

“Coming to the house you’re immediately greeted with food and hugs, it’s a lot of affection. We won’t push you away if you want to come over. If you eat your entire plate, more food is immediately pushed on. My mom would never want somebody to leave our house being hungry or not feeling welcome,” Soraya Kaussler said. “You walk into Persian or Baha’i events and it’s so different because the environment is more welcoming in a sense. Everybody is happy.”

The Kaussler’s still have extended family and friends in Iran, the conflict has taken a mental toll on them as they watch on from the states.

“It’s hard because in a sense you feel guilty because I get to live here. I get to have the freedom of how I dress and wear my hair down and I don’t have to cover it up. Then you see women and girls who are risking their lives by protesting and showing their hair or cutting their hair. They go there knowing that they’re most likely going to die and be killed. It’s scary because these people I have relations with and we have a lot of family there,” Soraya Kaussler said.

The Baha’i religion is different from the Muslim religion which dominates Iran. The Kausslers do not wear hijabs and have a different experience from many Iranians.

“It puts a lot into perspective of how privileged we are [with things] you don’t even think about it. I don’t think about how every morning when I brush my hair and put it up in a ponytail or wear it down how people in Iran are fighting and sacrificing their lives just to have that simple right,” Soraya Kaussler said.

The death total has climbed to at least 233 deaths, around 32 of which were people below the age of 18. However, the number is said to be in the thousands, the censorship of media has made it incredibly difficult for identification to be possible. A large portion of the deaths belong to ethnic minorities, such as Iranian Kurd, of which Amini belonged to.

“One of our distant family friends, her two sons, went to go protest for women’s rights in Iran and one of them ended up getting shot by the morality police because he was speaking what he thought. The older brother was yelling at the police to stop shooting at his brother. They ended up shooting him twice and he died sadly. The father wanted his body because the morality police took the body. They told the father ‘if you want your son’s body, you’ll have to pay the money from the two bullets we lost by shooting at him.’ That was pretty traumatizing for them,” Shirin Kaussler said.

His death hit close to home for the Kaussler family, showing that the impacts of the crisis are felt around the world.

“It puts into perspective how horrible the situation is that your son was killed going to a protest to support women’s rights and just to be able to get his body back you have to pay for the bullets that they lost [even though] they have a trillion,” Soraya Kaussler said. “The mother went out on the news and spoke about how her son died fighting for the women of Iran. He was only 18, he was very young.”

The Iranian government has begun to shut down mobile data and service. If protests continue, the government is said to shut off the entire internet.

“It’s sad [because] we can do things by sharing and posting, but a lot of big news [outlets] aren’t talking about it. A lot of younger kids are dying, even our age. Many girls, 16 year old girls, were just killed, but it’s not covered by media. They’re killing anyone who speaks their voice or posts anything,” Shirin Kaussler said.

The government has said little about the protests, but has publicly announced that they believe the riots are orchestrated by Israel and the U.S., despite a complete lack of evidence, according to BBC.

“I’ve been posting on social media about what [is happening]. I’m reposting what I see. There’s this one Instagram called ‘The Rich Kids of Tehran’ and they’re posting about everything that’s happening that I’m reposting. It’s [gotten] pretty bad,” Shirin Kaussler said.

Despite the lack of major media coverage and the internet shut down, the Kaussler sisters and many others have taken to posting on their social media accounts. Those in Iran are risking their lives to take videos, pictures and post on any site, according to Soraya Kaussler.

It affects everyone, especially women. This is one of the biggest women’s [rights movements ever]. It’s a huge historical moment.”

— Soraya Kaussler

“There’s not much you really can do other than inform people and tell them what’s going on, we’re doing that through [social] media. There’s so much more that I wish I could do,” Soraya Kaussler said. “A lot of women are cutting their hair in solidarity and taking off their hijabs, but it’s really hard because we feel like we can’t do anything.”

A number of organizations are also raising funds to help empower, mentor and inform women in Iran and across the world. Posting, reading, donating and more can help Iranians in their fight for gender equality.

“There’s so many people, so many women risking so much, their lives basically for this. It feels like posting on social media is not doing enough, [but] I don’t know what else we can do,” Soraya Kaussler said. “It affects everyone, especially women. This is one of the biggest women’s [rights movements ever]. It’s a huge historical moment.” 

Consider donating and reading about these organizations dedicated to serving the women of Iran:

Iranian-American Women Foundation: https://www.iawfoundation.org/

Women’s Committee of the National Council of Resistance: https://women.ncr-iran.org/womens-committee-of-iran-ncri/

United for Iran: https://united4iran.org/en/