On Jan. 13, 2023, the upper school welcomed alumnae Dr. Taraneh Azar '85 and Afsaneh "Affie" Azar Ambrose ’88. The sisters emigrated to the United States from Iran following the Iranian Revolution and spoke to students about using their voices to change the world.
“We reached out to open up a topic of understanding,” said Head of School Scott Kennedy in his opening remarks. “One of the key parts of the school’s philosophy is to make sure you have an understanding of global events. Having an understanding and appreciation of the complexity of what happens around the world makes you better global citizens, which is something that we strive to do.”
The program came to life after Ava M. ’26, an upper school student, saw images of Iranian women and the men supporting them being mistreated for voicing their opposition to the Iranian government’s oppression. The student approached David Buckingham, interim upper school dean, and asked if there was something that she could do at the school. They joined forces with Dr. Nefertiti Makeda, Collegiate’s director of diversity and inclusion, and together, they were able to bring Dr. Azar and Ms. Ambrose to campus.
“I didn’t know what to do since I’m only one person. I spoke to my mom and realized that I can use my voice by speaking,” said Ava. “Before today, maybe a lot of you didn’t know the level of violence happening to women in Iran, but starting now, I hope that we can all begin to understand this kind of oppression and realize that this is not just about women’s rights, it’s about human rights instead.”
Dr. Makeda agreed. “Our guests are here to help us understand what’s going on behind the headlines in their country of origin,” she told students.
“It was difficult coming here as kids because it was a confusing time,” said Affie who emigrated at age 9. “We were lucky enough to come to Collegiate. It was a turbulent time, so there was a lot of ill feeling toward Iran in the United States. In the bubble of Collegiate, we were accepted and people understood that when there’s political unrest in a country, it’s not the people you should be pointing your fingers at, but they are the ones who need support. Norfolk Collegiate provided a bubble for us to be safe and feel protected.”
The sisters emigrated with their American mother and Iranian father following the 1978 Iranian Revolution. They spoke of their childhood in Iran, being happy and free, until the revolution.
“We were not aware of the political tension around us. It was a very different time because we didn’t have social media, so information didn’t travel to us the same way it travels to you,” said Taraneh.
Following an overview of the political background and the recent spark in tensions in Iran with a new conservative government and hijab rules for all women, regardless of religion, the sisters focused on how students can be the change by using their voices.
What’s happening in Iran “is not all about the hijab,” said Taraneh. “It’s about the oppression and the government and it’s a symbol of what’s going on in that country.”
“Generally, when there is social unrest in a country, it takes a spark,” added Affie. “In the United States, George Floyd was the spark. In Iran, Masha Amini was the spark and she became the symbol that everybody has rallied around. The protests started against the hijab, but it has grown to the point where now people want to overthrow this government and it could become a revolution.”
The difference between the revolution they experienced as children is the access to social media.
“The grassroots nature of this is very similar to what happened in 1978, but the difference in social media,” said Taraneh.
“The world is now reflecting that back to Iran” with protests, said Affie … “and that gives them hope…Young people are very involved in this. This is driven by young people. You all are the genesis of this because young people are seeing this in free countries and they see the life that they can achieve if they speak up about it. The younger generations have gotten access to what goes on in free countries and have access to see what it can be like.”
“It’s a violent revolution, however, it’s something that’s really important to people from age 5 to 85,” said Affie.
And “the government recognizes that social media is how this is getting out, so they are blocking internet speed…but the kids are overcoming that and working around the restrictions,” said Taraneh.
So what can we do to help?
Ava, Taraneh and Affie all encouraged students to speak out against oppression by using their voices and social media to show Iranians that the world supports them. They also suggested peaceful protests, supporting organizations such as Women, Life, Liberty
, and the Iranian Diaspora Collective
which work to bring awareness through media, as well as sign online petitions.
“You have a voice and you have the freedom to use it without repercussions. Using your voice in all aspects of your life is very important, not only for you and those around you. Your peers in other countries are looking to you to see how you use your voice,” said Affie. “Don’t take for granted the freedoms that we have…those are things that can easily be eroded, and we’ve experienced that in our lifetime. We saw our freedoms eroding. When you’re in it, you don’t necessarily feel it, but it is important to recognize the fact that those can be eroded and to express your freedoms as much as you can.”
Taraneh also agreed. “It’s also important to remember to separate what’s going on at a government level and focus on the people who are there.”
“When there’s another part of the world that’s in pain, we can’t feel at peace…It’s important for all of us to be world citizens and help out our peers around the globe,” continued Affie.
They ended the program with a poem, “Baraye.” It was written by a young man, Shervin, who compiled Tweets that describe the reasons we should all speak out against oppression. Shervin was arrested following the release of a video of him singing the poem.
Special thank you to Dr. Taraneh Azar '85 and Afsaneh "Affie" Azar Ambrose '88, Ted ’85 and Keryn Mathas and Norfolk Collegiate’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion for making the program possible. And to Ava for coming forward.