SCHENECTADY – Schenectady resident and filmmaker Elahe Gol Pari is no stranger to revolution.
Growing up in Tehran, she was just 10 years old when the Islamic Revolution took place. Decades later, while visiting her hometown in 2022, she witnessed what she hopes is the start of a different kind of sea change.
When Gol Pari first arrived in the spring — her first visit since the pandemic — the city felt different. She noticed a new attitude rippling out among the younger generations.
“My first observation was the emergence of a new generation of teenagers, especially girls with determined faces, wearing hoodies and headphones walking the streets,” Pari said, adding, “Young women were dealing with the moral police bravely rather than being afraid and intimidated towards them.”
Several months later, the September death of Mahsa Amini — a young woman who died in police custody after being arrested on an accusation that she broke the hijab law — sparked anti-government protests. They remain ongoing, with protestors rallying against tightening social controls and discrimination. Chants of “woman, life, freedom” have become the movement’s moniker.
Looking back on the day after Amini’s death, Gol Pari recalls wanting to go out into the city to see what was happening. Her mother was hesitant to let her leave home without a headscarf.
“My mother followed me to the street and worriedly asked me to put on my headscarf. I resisted but she said, ‘Please, not today! Today is not the day!’ Gol Pari remembered. “I realized later that many mothers with teary eyes tried to prevent their daughters from going out that day.”
Sans headscarf, she ventured to Darakeh, a nearby village, and saw a large crowd had gathered.
“That day I saw only a few headscarves while the mostly young women let down long beautiful hair over their shoulders,” Gol Pari said.
The hijab law has been in effect since 1981, right around the time that Gol Pari was coming to terms with what the country’s new regime would mean for her future.
“Throughout my childhood, I dreamed of sharing my ideas on stage, primarily through dance. But soon after the Islamic Revolution in February 1979 when I was 10 years old, I realized that my dream would never come true,” Gol Pari said. “Women were not only forbidden to dance and sing but also had their basic social rights restricted. Wearing the hijab became compulsory.”
She found another creative outlet through writing.
“The part of me that was not allowed to exist in society was living in my writing,” Gol Pari said.
In school, fellow students, perhaps recognizing her talents, would ask her to pen love letters to give to their crushes.
“It was the time of the Iran-Iraq war, and the school environment was highly secure. School officials sometimes checked the contents of students’ bags without their knowledge. I later found out they were looking for political group fliers when they found the love letters,” Gol Pari said.
Her mother was summoned to the school and Gol Pari was reprimanded, though it didn’t stop her from pursuing the arts. She went on to study acting at Tehran University and has written several plays, including one that tackled forbidden love and abortion.
“The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance did not allow it to be performed publicly. It was taboo to write about this topic at that time, which led me to be marginalized, especially by my male colleagues,” Gol Pari said.
While she’d studied acting, she couldn’t perform often in public because she was unwilling to wear a hijab on stage. She turned to writing to give voice to the social changes she hoped to see in the country.
“I created roles for women that were different from the stereotypes. In my scripts, female characters were actively involved in making positive changes in their families and in society, instead of being passive. Men are also women’s partners in these stories, not their adversaries. … In fact, my goal was to create models of the kind of relationship we see today in Iran’s new generation,” Gol Pari said.
Beyond plays and films, she worked as a documentarian, including for BBC Persian’s website and several personal projects.
For years, even with struggles with the Ministry of Culture, she didn’t consider leaving her home country because she felt a “responsibility to serve the people whose sufferings and desires I knew. In all my challenges with the censorship system, I saw them as an opportunity to grow as a human being to overcome obstacles. My progress was sometimes successful and sometimes not, but the hope of making the same small changes kept me going as much as possible,” Gol Pari said.
However, by 2013, as control over censorship grew tighter, Gol Pari felt she could no longer work within that system. After getting a call from Mahmood Karimi-Hakak, a Siena College professor, who, as part of a film festival, was looking for films that were written in Iran and banned in the country, she made the leap and journeyed to the U.S. with a documentary she’d made. In 2014, she moved to Schenectady to work on the FCI festival, which was held at Proctors.
Gol Pari has lived in the Electric City ever since, though she remains connected to friends and family in Tehran.
As protests have continued, Gol Pari has tried to check in on friends and family as much as possible. However, at times over the last few months, the government has limited mobile internet service, severely disrupted internet in areas where protests are held and blocked WhatsApp and Instagram, according to NetBlocks, an internet watchdog.
“Even when the internet works well, knowing your conversations can be controlled and not knowing just how far can create a sense of suffocation,” Gol Pari said.
While the protests began with Amini and the hijab laws, they’ve rippled out considerably into other civil rights and political issues.
“The removal of headscarves by freedom-loving Iranian women has served as a symbolic protest against the Islamic regime. Their demands extend beyond the right for freedom of clothing,” Gol Pari said. “Also, their rebellion is not against the hijab or Islam, but against the imposed laws which deprive them of their basic human rights, in the name of Islam.”
She sees this movement as an extension of other protests that have arisen over the last two decades.
“Iran has suffered from being recognized as a terrorist regime in the world since 1979 when they took power by deception and empty promises. Through successive movements over the last two decades, Iranians have tried to raise their voice to the world, yet the regime has consistently, and brutally, suppressed them,” Gol Pari said.
According to Saladdin Ahmed, a visiting assistant professor in political science and modern languages and literature at Union College, there have long been protests and other forms of opposition against the Iranian government.
In the 1980s, there was some aggression toward the regime, however, as the Iran-Iraq war raged, people were less outspoken. In the following decade, more citizens came to stand against the regime and in 2009, there was the so-called Green Revolution, which denounced the fraudulent re-election of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“This time … it has been the most substantial movement against the regime and this time, people are very explicitly demanding change of the regime,” Ahmed said. “This time, the movement united people also in general, [in] different parts of Iran, and different even political parties.”
The uprising has come at a high cost as the government has deployed riot police and used water cannons and batons to beat back protesters. Many have been arrested and hundreds have been killed since the protests began, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency. The government has also kidnapped people and used terror tactics, according to Ahmed.
“It is tragic because there are casualties on a daily basis,” Ahmed said. “I don’t think there are reliable numbers, but it is definitely very disturbing. We know for sure [the number of] people who have disappeared are in thousands.”
Despite the danger, many, especially those in the younger generations, have continued to protest.
“Today’s Iranian youth generation has made their voices heard on the world stage, with help of the internet and their understanding of how to use it. They are clear in their demands: they want to change the fascist regime of Iran and regain their dignity and national identity,” Gol Pari said.
She also has used social media to help spread the message of the movement. Locally, she has spoken up about the movement and explained its origins. She gave a presentation at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Schenectady last fall and will be giving other talks in the coming weeks, including one hosted by The Capital District Humanist Society via Zoom on Sunday, Feb. 12 at 1 p.m. For more information visit humanistsociety.net.
“Such events go beyond exchanging information; they build connections and encourage interaction between people,” Gol Pari said. “This journey has been very rewarding, and I’ve met many wonderful people. The help that I have received so far in bringing the voice of the freedom-loving women and youth movement of Iran to American citizens is deeply appreciated.”
For updates on where she’ll be speaking next find Elahe Gol Pari on Facebook.
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