Social Injustice, Resiliency, and Freedom in Iran

Sarvine Ashkan February 13, 2023

VOICES + PERSPECTIVES: CRTKL’s Voices and Perspectives series covers topical social justice-related causes. As many may have heard, civil unrest and protests emerged against the government of Iran associated with the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini. The uprising began in September of 2022 and is continuing today.

In this series we learn from our Iranian colleagues, or those of Iranian descent, of how their culture and design intersect. Today, Los Angeles Principal, Sarvine Ashkan shared her story.

Sarvine Ashkan has 35 years of architectural experience in Southern California; In a leadership role, she has 25 years of experience leading complex projects with an emphasis on healthcare facilities. Her passion for positively impacting her community by improving the patient and staff experience and implementing innovative designs has fostered successful projects. As a healthcare principal, Sarvine will lead CRTKL’s Healthcare Studio in Los Angeles and continue to partner with her clients on complex Healthcare projects.

I grew up in an era of Iran that had emerged from a long, storied history of women in power. This history is a source of pride and has shaped the lives of many Iranian people who have made significant contributions to our culture, our country, and the world. The uprising seen across Iran since September of 2022 stems from the 1978 revolution decades prior and is a reaction to an Islamic regime that has flown in the face of the country’s history. It is important to me to discuss Iran’s history and to preserve its role as a place for freedom and equity, one which continues to shape how generations of Iranian women view themselves as well as their visions for a more just future.

Throughout Persian history, the women of Iran have played a key role in governing their country. Pantea Arteshbod, one of the all-time greatest Persian commanders during the reign of Cyrus the Great (559–530 BCE), is remembered for her leadership in the Battle of Opis against the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 539 BCE.

A century later, Boran, also known as Buran and Purandokht, the daughter of Khosrow II (r. 590-628 CE) and the Byzantine princess Maria, assumed the throne in 629-630 CE, becoming the first Empress of the Sassanid Empire. She established sound diplomatic relations with the Byzantine Empire, to which she sent an ambassador; an act well received by Emperor Heraclius (r. 610–641). Boran improved the economy and infrastructure by lowering taxes and minting coins, and attempted to return the empire to its former glory under earlier monarchs.

Over time, Persian women’s rights to high positions in government and roles of importance extended to the larger population. Even in small family units, women were, and still are, one of the prime decision makers of their households. During the last Pahlavi kingdom (1941-1979), Farah Pahlavi was an active first lady, implementing many reforms to improve the life of lesser educated Iranians as well as promoting women to powerful roles in the government. I was raised in that era of Iran, a time when women had the freedom to study and work alongside men. Throughout my early life, I had been told that I could study any major I was interested in and follow my dream career path. It was understood that women were critical to the success of the culture and country, and their contributions were necessary for a bright and prosperous future.

I was attending high school in Iran when the 1978 revolution was fomented against the monarchy—Pahlavi’s Regime—resulting in the removal of Mohamad Reza Shah Pahlavi from power. The leader of the Islamic group, Ayatollah Khomeini, remained in exile during the revolution. From afar, he made promises to the people of Iran, one of which was to sustain the freedom of Iranian women upon his return. A majority of the population ended up voting The Islamic Republic of Iran as the next government.

I clearly remember the day Khomeini returned to Iran after many years in exile. The country celebrated the occasion, and people remained hopeful that the hardship of the revolution would finally prove worth the process that led to it. The expectation was that the country could move in the right direction, become more democratic, and secure freedom of speech and equity for its people. These hopes were quickly stunted, as Khomeini’s first action upon his return to Iran was to mandate that women wear the hijab in public.

That same week, the women of Iran organized a march across Tehran and other major cities to protect our freedom. At the time, the French Catholic school my friends and I attended had restrictions for students, such as students remaining within school grounds during school hours. Determined to participate in the demonstration for our freedom and our futures, we climbed over school walls and joined the thousands of women marching in the streets. When my mother received her subscription to a women’s magazine that month, there my friends and I were on the cover, captured in the center of the women’s march.

The publicity of my participation in the march worried my parents, who were afraid that I would be arrested by the new Islamic Government of Iran. To be safe, my parents decided to send me to the U.S. to live with an American family and complete high school in Washington. I had a difficult time my first year. I didn’t know the language, which made learning difficult as I couldn’t understand my teachers in class. My studies started at night with an English-French dictionary in my lap, and I would translate my books word by word from English to French. Throughout this time, I was homesick and deeply missed my family and friends. Nonetheless, I was able to graduate from my high school with 4.0 GPA and pursue my dream to study architecture. I was accepted to the College of Environmental Design at U.C. Berkeley, starting a new chapter in my life.

Soon after I left Iran, the Islamic Republic implemented even stricter mandates for the hijab, requiring women to completely cover their hair while in public. A radical Islamic group was created, called ‘Guidance Patrol’ or ‘Morality Police’, deployed to monitor women in public places and arrest them if they broke this new law.

For 43 years, women in Iran have had their freedom violated by the Islamic Government and have been forced to live in fear while in public. Alongside this fear is outrage, which came to a head in September of last year. Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman, was arrested by the Guidance Patrol on September 14th, 2022, for an “improper hijab.” The police were accused of beating her, inflicting a fatal head injury, resulting in her death two days later. Once again, the women of Iran were ready for an uprising, this time in full force.

Initial protests, mostly led by women, demanded an end to the mandatory hijab. These protests evolved into a national revolt, with men and children joining women in demonstrations across Iran. The protests became more widespread than previous uprisings in 2009, 2017, and 2019. They occurred in Islamic Republic power bases such as the holy cities of Mashhad and Qom, and unlike previous protests, involved both urban middle classes and rural working people.

Unlike many previous Iranian uprisings, protesters today are demanding a change in government rather than limiting themselves to incremental reforms.

Their demands for a new government are not at all unfounded. A poll released in November of last year by the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran (GAMAAN) found that nearly 75% of Iranians opposed mandatory hijab. Of those against the mandatory hijab, 84% would prefer a secular Iranian state to theocracy, which GAMAAN characterized as an endorsement of a regime change.

Economic hardship and poor living conditions have contributed to the growth of the protests, which continue across the country today. The New York Times itemized Iranian grievances, including: “soaring prices, high unemployment, corruption, (and) political repression.” They identified the poor Iranian economy as a major force behind the protests. According to an Iranian report in August 2021, a third of Iranians live in poverty. Only 15% of Iranians in the job market are women. Prior to the 1978 revolution of my childhood, Iranian women were active in the job market and worked side-by-side with men both in the public and private sectors. The lack of ability for women to participate in the economy has harmed the nation as a whole. Iran ranked 143rd out of 146 countries in the 2022 WEF Gender Gap Report, due in part to prohibitions on female membership in powerful government organizations.

Since the beginning of the 2022 uprising, thousands of women have been detained and abused by the authorities, who have used torture and ill-treatment to obtain false confessions from arrested protesters. As of October 13th, 2022, over a thousand people have been arrested, as reported by Iranian state news. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least forty journalists have been detained. Anonymous sources cited by CBS News have stated that many protesters decline to seek medical assistance due to a reasonable fear of imprisonment. Recently, on November 1st, Iran charged about a thousand people in Tehran for their alleged involvement in the protests, and held public trials against the accused.

Although I have lived most of my life in the United States, my strong belief in women’s rights has reconnected me to my Iranian roots. At the same time, I also experience a sense of hopelessness, as my resources are limited when it comes to helping the women in Iran, eight thousand miles away. To support women’s rights, backing for the uprising must grow. NGO direct assistance and global governmental pressures from all countries would provide positive steps in the right direction.

Women’s history in Iran is interwoven with my life, my work, and my values. I’ve learned the importance of resiliency as well as the importance of advocating for myself and others. This belief emerges in design, which is a tool to create equity in communities and ultimately have a positive impact on how we live, allowing people to thrive. There was a shift during my career in architecture when I became fascinated with healthcare projects. I felt that I could contribute to my community by creating facilities that enhance the patient’s experience, offering the world spaces that reimagine how we heal. I’ve sought to put people first in design, to allow spaces to revolve around their experiences as individuals and a collective.

I believe that as architects, and as people, we are responsible for using the tools we have at hand to make the world a better place. I believe our job as global citizens is no different. The women of Iran, as well as all the protestors that have joined them, can serve as both a source of inspiration to strive for a better future and a reminder to support those that need us. Every day, we can work to make change that matters around the globe.

Author Spotlight

Sarvine Ashkan
Sarvine Ashkan has 35 years of architectural experience in Southern California; In a leadership role, she has 25 years of experience leading complex projects with an emphasis on healthcare facilities. Her passion for positively impacting her community by improving the patient and staff experience and implementing innovative designs has fostered successful projects. As a healthcare principal, Sarvine will lead CRTKL's Healthcare Studio in Los Angeles and continue to partner with her clients on complex Healthcare projects.