The Iranian diaspora’s role in the Woman, Life, Freedom movement

Author anonymous.

In October last year, Berlin attracted international attention for a turnout of more than 80,000 Iranian people and allies showing solidarity with protesters in Iran. Capturing a feeling that resonates with myself and other members of the Iranian diaspora, one protester told the BBC: “It’s breath-taking, it’s amazing…it’s the first time that so many people in our nation are united regardless of their political beliefs before revolution and after revolution. I am really proud.” Under the Islamic Republic in Iran (IRI) dictatorship that has gripped the homeland for 44 years, mass protests inside Iran are not new.

Why is this unprecedented solidarity and activism from the diaspora happening now? As a British-Iranian woman under 30 years old, who grew up in the UK and with strong family ties in Iran, I have been struck by the increased diasporic activism both online and in the national and international political arena. I’ve found myself active in Iranian homeland politics like never before. Importantly, I have witnessed an increased cohesiveness among the Iranian diaspora and an unprecedented optimism that real change is in the making. 

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Protests in support of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement, London (UK). Photo by the author.

It is estimated there are more than four million Iranians abroad. The 1979 revolution was a huge driver of emigration, with the upper and middle classes moving to North America and Western Europe. The Iranian diaspora is usually a fractured group that steers clear of organising around homeland politics, but the killing of Kurdish-Iranian woman Zhina (Mahsa) Amini at the hands of morality police in September 2022 led to an eruption of political diasporic activism in support of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement. The rallying cry of ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ originates from Kurdish liberation movements, and now also embodies the female-led, intersectional revolution in Iran focused on securing human rights for all and an end the dictatorship. As the former Shah’s son and secular democracy advocate, Reza Pahlavi, told the Guardian newspaper, the revolution is continuing because everyone understands this is a “do-or-die” moment. Diasporic activism has ranged from global rallies for solidarity and awareness, social media campaigns to amplify Iranian voices, and political lobbying. This is however while standing against foreign intervention.

Social media

Unlike previous uprisings such as the Green Movement in the wake of the hotly contested 2009 election, Iranians use of the internet has rocketed from 14 per cent of the population in 2009 to 79 per cent in 2021, Following the killing of Amini, the ability to document what’s happening on the ground and connect with outside Iran is therefore unprecedented. The messaging online and from prominent human rights campaigners was clear early on to not allow the regime’s nationwide internet shutdown to silence Iranian voices and commit atrocities with impunity. And so members of the diaspora (alongside established independent Iranian media and human rights activist groups) have become facilitators in sharing videos, images and messages from Iranians to the outside world and to keep their stories visible, and IRI accountable, on the international stage.

Diaspora mobilisation included templates to write to political representatives, circulating petitions, details of global rallies, and social media posts to spread awareness of particular protesters recently missing or arrested. Organised actions to gain votes for the women of Iran to be chosen as Time magazine heroes of the year, and for Iranian singer Shervin Hajipour’s song ‘Baraye’ (For Freedom) to be chosen as the Grammy awards song for social change category, were also targeted visibility efforts that succeeded. Existing Iranian businesses and celebrities have also turned their hand to using their social media as a tool to raise awareness of events in Iran. One Texas-based Persian language teacher, for example, began doing vocabulary videos of protest slogans, while Iranian food businesses came together to promote #cookforiran challenges.

Social media has also grown in the number of English language accounts now solely campaigning for Iran. Some examples include United 4 Mahsa, Diaspora for Iran, Be Iran’s Voice and Iranian Diaspora Collective on Instagram whose content ranges from weekly round-ups of news of the ongoing revolution, calls to actions and videos shared from Iran on what’s happening on the ground. Iranian Diaspora Collective for example was formed in response to the “overwhelming demand from Iranians in Iran to amplify their voices”. It describes itself as “non-partisan, multi-faith and queer-led” and has more than 57,000 followers. It launched a crowdfunding campaign to install billboards highlighting the Woman, Life, Freedom movement around the world to counter the lack of coverage in the mainstream media. Within two months it had installed billboards at 136 locations and gained 22 million media impressions, according to its campaign update.

Global protests

October 1st, 2022 marked the first day of global rallies to show solidarity with protesters in Iran, which took place in more than 150 cities worldwide. Toronto hosted the highest recorded turnout with 50,000 people, and global rallies continued every weekend through 2022, with further events ongoing. In January 2023, bus loads of Iranians from around Europe travelled to Strasbourg to demonstrate in front of the European Parliament demanding that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a powerful branch of the IRI, be placed on the EU’s terror list. In the UK, the same demand is being targeted at Westminster, with British-Iranian activist Vahid Beheshti’s hunger strike outside the Foreign Office ongoing since February 23rd. And this news gets relayed in Iran. One Iranian journalist Tweeted a picture sent to their newsroom of a boy in Iran holding a sign asking the London hunger striker to break his dangerously long action. An underground youth group of Iranian protesters also published a statement of their support of diaspora efforts to designate the IRGC a terrorist group. A key understanding of activism in the diaspora is that their actions must represent and amplify the demands of those inside Iran.

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Protests in support of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement in London (UK). Photo by the author

But the threat of the regime beyond borders is also a risk. The social media group, Iranian Diaspora Collective, for example, does not disclose the identities of all its members due to concerns of surveillance and the safety of family members in Iran. London-based independent media Iran International’s newsroom was forced to leave the UK in February due to a “significant escalation” in state-backed threats against its journalists. According to the Metropolitan Police 15 plots to kidnap or kill UK-based people seen as enemies of the regime have been foiled since 2022.

International political lobbying

From removing IRI from the UN women’s rights commission, to establishing the UN to set up an independent investigation to hold IRI accountable for its crimes against Iranian people, the diaspora has been at the forefront of pushing international action. Widespread campaigns gained traction worldwide in December as executions of protesters became a reality. In efforts for the  #stopexecutionsiniran campaign, lobbyists tried to galvanise international politicians into giving political sponsorship for prisoners. Joint efforts have also emerged from female Iranian and Afghan activists to launch a campaign to make gender apartheid a crime under international law.

An alliance of diasporic Iranian opposition figures has also formed, drawing up a charter of secular democratic principles. They present themselves not as a “shadow government”, or leaders of the Iranian people, but aims to “reflect and pursue their demands’ with the goal of a secular democracy in Iran. They state practical steps of supporting public strikes and protests in Iran, drawing attention of the international community on the conditions of prisoners in Iran, and asking them to isolate IRI. Members include the former Shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi, women’s rights campaigner Masih Alinejad and Nobel peace prize laureate Shirin Ebadi.


While continuing unity on Iran’s future political landscape is no easy task, the commitment of Iranians abroad to support those inside Iran on a mass scale gives hope and connectedness across borders I’ve never seen before among Iranians. My own engagement has changed. I previously had a strict ‘no Iranian politics’ social media rule for myself. Since Amini’s death, I have been sharing regular updates online, taken part in demonstrations, written to my MP, created templates for others to do the same, written articles, donated to NGOs and signed and shared petitions.

The celebration, education and pride of Iranian culture and diversity has also flourished within this movement, with excitement growing over the possibilities of a free, democratic Iran. For many in the diaspora, this could mean being able to travel to Iran for the first time or returning after many years in exile. For me as a dual national, it will mean being able to return without fear of arrest, which is something I have been unable to do for several years as IRI’s suspicion of foreign influence grows.

For both the diaspora and those inside Iran, the stakes are high and one thing is clear, there is no returning back to the status quo. The gains of a free Iran are too great to stay silent anymore.

As protesters shout on the streets of Iran: “Be scared, be scared, we are all together”.

Note – The author, a British-Iranian, has asked to be anonymous to protect her family from potential repercussions.
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The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the Sussex Centre for Migration Research (SCMR).