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Op-Ed – Mona & Mahsa: 40 years apart what their deaths tell us about protecting the life and freedom of Iranians

Article by Nazanin Afshin-Jam MacKay & Dr. Tahirih Danesh

September 16, 2023

Op-Ed – Mona & Mahsa: 40 years apart what their deaths tell us about protecting the life and freedom of Iranians

On a hot summer day in 1983, the Islamic Republic authorities hanged 17 year old Mona Mahmoudnezhad. Her crime? Teaching morality to children.


On another hot summer day, this time in 2022, the Islamic Republic authorities induced the death of 23 year old Mahsa Amini while in custody. Her crime? Displeasing morality officers.


Mona and Mahsa, two young women representing Iran’s most persecuted religious and ethnic communities, those of Baha’is and Kurds, lived in a land troubled by a state which employs its brand of morality as an interchangeable tool for an ever-widening spectrum of human rights violations. Over the four bloodied decades in Iran’s most recent history, millions of Iranians have faced the same fate as Mona and Mahsa.


From arbitrary arrests to mass executions, from summary trials to fatal rapes, from attacks on the streets to war crimes, the Islamic Republic has made a concerted effort to fill cemeteries across the nation with Iran’s children, often in the absence of witnesses or burial rites.


The earliest targets of the Islamic Republic and its followers enraged with revolutionary fervour, were minorities and marginalised communities. Branded as spies or satanic, Baha’is and Kurds were the tip of an ever-growing iceberg of target communities subjected to unmentionable violence and suffering, much of which the international community had yet to categorise and codify.


Take Mona for instance. While her case in 1983 globalised the Islamic Republic’s ruthless maltreatment of its children, it was not until 1989 that the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child provided the legal framework through which Mona’s and many other cases could be deciphered and delineated accordingly.[1]


Although that will never bring back Mona, or thousands of other children detained, tortured and executed by Islamic Republic authorities, it has helped millions readily recognise recent patterns that in a matter of months helped UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, Dr Javaid Rehman, identify Mahsa as part of a series of state-sponsored policies and practices implicating the Islamic Republic in ‘crimes against humanity’. [2]


The legalese may mean little to those whose loved ones never came home, never graduated, never had the chance to marry or lead a typical life. But their lives were not cut short in vain. Their deaths not only developed the legal framework necessary to hold violators accountable, they also helped change post-revolutionary cultural dynamics far more than ever imagined.


The same nation that once upon a time fell for the Islamic Republic’s divisive rhetorics by placing Kurds, Azeris or Baluch on the periphery, or accepted Baha’is, Jews and Zoroastrians as enemies of God, are increasingly open to being a collective ‘us’ rather than ‘us and them’.


The same nation that once zealously aided the morality police raze the holiest site of Baha’is to the ground in Shiraz, marches shoulder to shoulder chanting ‘Baha’i, Baha’i, we support you’.


The same nation that once mistreated all Kurds as disposable vigilantes, has ablazed the globe with its cries of ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ in Jina Mahsa’s honour. Indeed, millions of Iranians of all ethnic and belief backgrounds are now standing up.


They’re not giving up. We are not giving up. Whether writing the first report on Iranian children’s executions in 2009, or now writing together to defend the lives of all Iranians, coalition or no coalition, transitional justice or not, we join our kin who are dancing, singing, calling, petitioning, painting, writing and seeking a life defined by a new form of morality, one centred around life and freedom for all Iranians. Why? Because our story is one.


In February 1983 the Revolutionary Court in Shiraz that executed Mona and her cellmates, accidentally sent an internal circular to its local newspaper. Khabar-i Junub mistakenly published the circular highlighting a call by the Head of Court stating “I warn the Baha’is, come to the bosom of Islam,” or essentially face demise.[3] Emblematic of the Islamic Republic’s national policies, the call is meant to impose the state’s narrow version of morality by unleashing violence on one of the most diverse nations on earth. In February 2023, the Special Rapporteur called on the Islamic Republic to come to the bosom of morality in law and policy.[4] He emphasised the need to “immediately end all forms of violence, torture and ill-treatment” of Iranians by issuing “urgent instructions to all law enforcement and prison authorities”. Dr Rehman also called on the rest of the world’s leaders to “prioritise human rights issues” when dealing with Islamic Republic authorities.


Reminiscent of the 1994 debates around whether mass murders in Rwanda amounted to genocide or simply crimes against humanity, key governments have frozen in a sort of political déjà vu, justifying their inaction on prioritising human rights issues on a convenient curiosity as to whether the events emblazoning Iran and enveloping the globe is a revolution or simply post Jina Mahsa mourning? The answer may be neither. Iran’s contemporary history sets a clear pattern of redefining historical processes.


Iran’s Mona and Mahsa represent two protagonists in a process of change that is slowly evolving Iranians, their neighbouring communities, and sympathisers around the globe for a new culture. One beckoning leaders and citizens everywhere to a new era in justice, equality and progress. To help strengthen this process of change, and perhaps as a response to those caught in their chosen déjà vu, the Baha’is have launched the #OurStoryIsOne campaign, uniting not only Mona and Mahsa, but millions of others seeking life and freedom. They have called on all artists and others benefitting from collective consciousness to carry forward this quest for life and freedom between June 2023 and 2024. While this campaign marks the 40th anniversary of execution for Mona and her cellmates, many the same age as Mahsa, its main aim is to expedite a process of change expressed through the arts, the very forms of arts that young Iranians dance, sing, call, petition, paint, or die for in order to demonstrate to the world that they will no longer let the Islamic Republic fill Iran’s cemeteries with their children. That is simply far from morality.


We along with our brothers and sisters stretching from Iran to South Africa, from Sudan to Iraq, from Afghanistan to Rwanda, call on leaders and citizens alike to stand together, commemorate the millions of Monas and Mahsas in our midst, and mark their anniversaries by committing to prioritise human rights as the code of morality in promises and policies, and help promote and protect life and freedom for all Iranians, for all humankind.


Nazanin Afshin-Jam MacKay is a International Human Rights Activist, Author, and Co-Founder of the non-profit Stop Child Executions.


Dr. Tahirih Danesh is a FPC Senior Advisor, Lecturer in Human Rights Law & Executive Director of the Persia Educational Foundation.



Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Centre.


[1] United Nations Human Rights High Commission, Convention on the Rights of the Child, September 1990,

[2] A/HRC/52/67: Situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran – Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Javaid Rehman, United Nations Human Rights High Commission, February 2023,

[3] Archives of Bahá’ì Persecution in Iran, Khabar-e Jonoob newspaper: Friday Imam of Shiraz on Baha’i treachery, June 1983,

[4] A/HRC/52/67: Situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran – Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Javaid Rehman, United Nations Human Rights High Commission, February 2023,

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