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Divisional Programming Emphasizes the Power of Storytelling in Modern Iran

The Center for Peace, Equity and Justice (CPEJ), in collaboration with faculty, staff, student leaders from the Muslim Culture Club and Feminism at Friends and special quests, held insightful, multi-faceted discussions on Iran last month in preparation for Peace Week. 

US History teacher, Peter Kalajian, began the session with a deep dive into Iranian politics and history, detailing resources and laying vital groundwork to contextualize current events. He explained the westernization of Iran to the progression and radicalization of today under the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's spiritual leader and its highest authority. He also analyzed how women in Iran are allowed to present themselves in public in accordance with government standards in the wake of the suspicious death of 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini allegedly at the hands of the Guidance Patrol, Iran’s religious morality police. In discussing the current demonstrations “context does matter,” Peter insisted.

Columbia Graduate student, Mostafa, studying Public Policy and International Affairs, joined the session as a guest speaker to share his first hand experience during the 8 year war between Iran and Iraq, the harsh economic impact of sanctions on everyday life and the limitation of freedom. “Values like freedom and choice are not just Western values—they are universal values,” he explained. While Amini’s death serves as a catalyst that spawned greater protests against the regime, further exacerbating the gap between Iranian youth and the establishment, it is not a novel endeavor. “Iranians are always pursuing freedom,” Mostafa reveals. 

Elena Hartoonian, US Math teacher, also gave students a personal glimpse into her upbringing in Iran and search for a new home, identity, and what inspired her to become more politically aware. Sisi Kamal, CFO/COO, ended the presentation by drawing parallels between American and Iranian youth, showing a series of videos that prompted students to consider their own privilege, and encouraged the community to hold the people of Iran in the Light. Despite calling the United States home since the start of the Iranian Revolution, Sisi confesses, “My heart is in Iran.”

Additionally, Muslim Culture Club leaders Alizay and Zaina and CPEJ held a book discussion on the memoir The Wind in my Hair by Masih Alinejad, Peace Week’s keynote speaker. The biography chronicles Alinejad's experiences, from being arrested as a teenager to being exiled from Iran. The student leaders questioned the impact of the Iranian Revolution, the power and challenges associated with social media, and the author’s perspective on the role of Iranian women. Upper Schoolers also discussed the ongoing struggles of the vocal human rights activist, who was recently the target of a murder-for-hire plot on American soil and just two years ago had also been involved in a foiled kidnapping attempt linked to Iranian intelligence operatives. One student reflected on the “vilification of Muslim men in America,” and the dangerous propaganda and stereotypes that dominated society following 9/11. 

These discussions leading up to Peace Week have helped uplift the stories of women and girls leading for peace, human rights and dignity and allowed for more thoughtful and empathetic responses to stories that don’t always make the news.
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