For Iranian American journalist Neda Semnani, 2022 belongs to the women and girls of Iran.


December 20, 2022

Mahsa ‘Jina’ Amini, a Kurdish-Iranian woman, was on her way to the rest of her life when she was profiled, detained, and allegedly beaten to death in Tehran, Iran in September. 

Amini’s fate, like so many other women’s, was decided in a split second by a man who looked at her and saw only what he wanted to see: her hijab askew. Both she and he knew that the systems and institutions of the country were created to benefit one of them over the other. 

Perhaps if Amini had died at another moment in time, no one but her family would have known her story. But on this particular day, the young women and girls of Iran decided to reclaim her agency and their own. 

They chose to make history.

A woman sets fire to her headscarf during a protest over the death of Iranian Mahsa Amini outside the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

They flooded the streets and social media en masse to mourn Amini—but not only Amini. They mourned all the others who had died, who were imprisoned, who were held down by hopelessness. Iran’s women wept in public, many pulling off their state-sanctioned hijabs and cutting off their hair. And they weren’t alone. Every other marginalized group in the country joined them: Kurds and Baluchs, Black and queer, Ba’hai and Jewish, and so many others. Each person demanding equal rights for women. Each person taking up space and screaming for their history—our history—to be acknowledged, to be heard, to be integrated into the story of their country and the world at large. 

As an Iranian American and a journalist, I have watched all of this from the safety of my New York apartment. Never have I felt as connected to my ancestral homeland and its people as I have during these long weeks, and never have I felt the distance between us so acutely. 

Since the uprising began, Iranians—women, men, and non-binary people—have burned their hijabs and the Iranian flag; they’ve come together in public; they’ve made music and theater, harnessed spray paint and brushes; they’ve danced and kissed in the streets. Each nonviolent action like a ballistic missile aimed at the core of the ruthless regime and its sophisticated surveillance state. 

And after the women and girls of Iran decided to stand together, the men who rule the country fell apart. They began clutching at power through blunt force and unimaginable brutality. Since September, the Islamic Republic has killed more than 500 people, including at least 57 children, and arrested more than 1800. They have made freedom fighters of school girls and martyrs of teenagers. They’ve rounded up and jailed more than 58 journalists, most of whom are women. They’ve set fire to a prison which was filled past capacity with dissidents. They’ve used buckshot to shoot at women’s faces and genitals; hundreds of protestors have lost their eyesight. The security forces have used ambulances to pick up demonstrators and monitored hospitals to find those who had gotten away. They’ve raped and sexually assaulted protesters, many of whom are in their teens and early 20s. Security forces have allegedly tried to stop people from witnessing atrocities by shooting into homes where people were looking out of their windows.

Then last month, the parliament went further. It voted to make protest punishable by death, dissolving whatever trust was left in the Islamic Republic and officially pitting the government against its people. 

Sham trials followed. Last week, in the city of Mashhad, cranes were erected, stretching high into the air. Steel trees bearing strange fruit: two young men dead, their bodies hanging above the heads of the people. 

Their names are Mohsen Shekari and Majidreza Rahnavard. They may have been the first and second official execution, but they are not the first or second to die at the hands of the Islamic Republic. 

Protestors hold a sign in honor of the lives of Iranian women in Turin, Italy. In the first known execution linked to ongoing protests, Iran sentenced and hanged a man named Mohsen Shekari for injuring a paramilitary officer. (Photo by Stefano Guidi/Getty Images)

The point of these killings isn’t to punish individuals or to protect the regime or warn off protesters; it is an attempt to obliterate hope. Yet they can’t extinguish what doesn’t exist. Because the simple truth is that as long as this regime is in power, the people say there is no hope in their future; their hope will be reborn when this regime is gone. So the revolution marches on and the people chant, “Thousands stand behind each one killed.” In other words: “You can’t kill us all.” 


This Iranian uprising, this revolution, keeps falling in and out of the headlines, a fact that belies its global importance. Iran at this moment contains the intersection of so many issues: economics, foreign policy, technology, health, religion, sectarianism, race, and class—underpinned, at least for now, by feminist values. It is like nothing we’ve seen before, making it arguably the most important story in the world, the most important story of our time.

We’re watching one generation rise up where others have cowered. We’re watching the people come together to champion the rights of women. We’re watching them reach for democratic values and ideals, not with resources or institutional support, but with their weapons of choice: speech, assembly, art, music, literature, poetry, fashion, and movement. 

As an Iranian, an American, and a woman, I’m devastated that for many outside Iran, this moment is, at most, a hashtag and a chance for people to push their political agendas. Women, minorities, and their allies are being attacked by their government and fighting for their very survival. It isn’t on the front page of every country’s newspapers, but it should be. 

Iranian protestors hold up signs for women’s rights during the FIFA World Cup Qatar. (Photo by Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

So what can we do, you and I, to show up and engage with this moment? We have to support these women, children, men, boys, and non-binary Iranians by going out of our way to report their stories and amplify their voices. As we see more Iranians flee their country, we must open our own borders and provide refuge. 

Finally, we must acknowledge that in order for this revolution to succeed, many brilliant, beautiful, and brave human beings will give up their futures for someone else’s. We must acknowledge their suffering, their fears, and most of all, the lives they won’t get to live. We must also acknowledge the people they leave behind and the pain those who will survive will carry with them. This is what it means to resist and to revolt. It means that one group will sacrifice their plans, their potential, and all their normal mornings so that perhaps, one day soon, the rest of us might revel in freedom.  

Neda Toloui-Semnani is an Emmy-winning journalist and the author of They Said They Wanted Revolution: A Memoir of My Parents.

Photo by Nilo Tabrizy