Personality: Ari Abad

Spotlight on co-founder of Woman Life Freedom RVA

2/9/2023, noon
When Mahsa Jina Amini, a 22-year old Kurdish woman from the city of Saqqez in the Kurdistan Province, died Sept. ...

When Mahsa Jina Amini, a 22-year old Kurdish woman from the city of Saqqez in the Kurdistan Province, died Sept. 16, 2022, in police custody after being arrested for not properly wearing her hijab, the story resonated with Ari Abad. Hijab’s are headpieces worn by some Muslim women.

Although police said Ms. Amini died from a heart attack, a photo of the young woman intubated in the hospital showed blood coming out of her ear, and dark circles around her eyes – indications of severe beating and head trauma.

Ms. Amini’s death sparked protests around the world, including videos of women removing their hijabs. “Woman. Life. Freedom.” became a chant worldwide speaking to women’s health and rights there.

Drawing from the inspirational chant, Richmonder Abad, who was born in Iran but grew up in Dubai, co-founded Woman Life Freedom RVA “to bring attention to the need for equal rights of women and minorities in Iran.”

Reflecting on her childhood, Ms. Abad says she was always the rebellious one in her family who asked a lot of questions about the rules she was expected to follow.

Born in a home that was culturally conservative, Ms. Abad now realizes that her inquisitive nature was stressful for her parents, as she constantly challenged their values and beliefs with a series of “why” questions. But her family learned to embrace and appreciate her curiosity.

“Ultimately, they rose to the challenge to be more progressive, and we’re closer than ever as a result of it,” she says.

Although she grew up in a strict and religious home, Ms. Abad says her home was“very democratic” because she always had a voice.

“I remember loving to sing, to dance and play in school theatre,” she said. “I loved bringing people together to plan plays, or strikes.”

The strikes were her reaction to rules she felt were unjust.

Her rebellious nature led Ms. Abad to leave her family and begin a life in a completely different atmosphere – the United States. Determined to get her college education in America, she moved to Richmond at age 17 to take some basic courses and chose a job she believed would best help her acclimate. “I immediately threw myself into a waitress job, so it forced me to speak and engage,” she said.

She has adjusted to life in the U.S. and enjoys charcoal painting, paddle-boarding, playing tennis, weight training, watching documentaries and spending time with family and friends. Despite her new life, she has not forgotten the struggles facing women in her home country.

“For the women of Iran to live their full potential without being limited by the patriarchy.”

Meet an international human rights advocate and this week’s Personality, Ari Abad:

Volunteer position: Co-founder, Woman Life Freedom RVA.

Occupation:Brand strategist.

Date and place of birth: Nov. 3 in Tehran, Iran.

Where I live now: Richmond, Va. and Los Angeles, Calif.

Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Virginia Commonwealth University.

Woman Life Freedom RVA is: A community organization in Richmond.

When and why founded: Woman Life Freedom RVA’s mission is to amplify the voices of people in Iran who are fighting for basic human rights and to bring the entire RVA community together to support freedom fighters around the world.

Co-founder: Shima Razavi Gacek.

Why is it important to have this organization in Richmond: It relates to what is going on around the world and what people are fighting for around the world. The Iranian community is going through such trauma and having a big population of Iranians in Richmond, it is important to bring the community together about this issue.

Iran is located: In Asia bordered by Iraq and Turkey to the west, by Azerbaijan and Armenia to the east, the Caspian Sea to the north and Persian Gulf to the south.

Size and demographics: Iran is the 17th largest country in the world and has an estimated population of 86.8 million people with 40 percent diversity in religion and ethnicities like Kurds, Lors, Balouchs, Azerbaijanis, Arabs, Turkmens, Armenians, Assyrians and Georgians.

Describe the Iranian-American presence in Richmond and Virginia: About 400,000 Iranian voting citizens live in the United States.

Who was Mahsa Jina Amini: Mahsa Jina Amini was a 22-year old Kurdish woman who was visiting the Iran capital, Tehran, with her family when she was detained by the so-called Morality Police upon exiting a metro station. Three days later, Mahsa died in a coma from the trauma and injuries caused by intense beating to her head and body.

What happened to her: The Islamic Republic murdered Mahsa because part of her hair was slightly showing from under her hijab.

When did “Woman. Life. Freedom.” become a rallying cry on the streets of Iran and around the world: The phrase not only united the oppressed people of Iran against the Islamic Republic’s oppressive, extremist, gender apartheid regime, it is now used in protests in other parts of the world like Afghanistan, Sudan and other countries with populations fighting oppression.

Who initially led the protests in Iran in reaction to the death of Mahsa JinaAmini and what is the significance: When brave journalists Niloofar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi broke the news of Mahsa’s death, a group of people showed up at the hospital in Tehran to support her family.

Where do gender and equality rights of women and ethnic minorities in Iran stand: Many rights as a woman are limited to what is allowed by their male guardian or husband, including but not limited to getting married, education, work and leaving the country. Additionally women are held back from freely being a part of society. For example, woman cannot dance, sing or ride a bike in public.

Why it is important for Richmonders to understand who Mahsa Jina Amini is: The fight for “Woman. Life. Freedom.” is not isolated to a geographical location. Just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

What makes people outside of Iran who are not of Iranian descent identify with this protest: The fight for basic human rights doesn’t know government-defined borders and much of what we are fighting for in Iran are the same rights people are fighting for on an international scale. It is crucial that the international community rise up to this moment to be the voice of those who don’t have one.

Similarities between protests in Iran and recent protests in the United States: Both are fighting for a woman’s right to body autonomy, human rights, and safe health care. Both are fighting for freedom of minorities to ensure they have a voice in today’s society; that their rights aren’t overlookedbecause of the color of their skin.

Ways Woman Life Freedom RVA has made its voice heard locally: Project Niloofar created a community mural at 1205 N. Arthur Ashe Blvd., organized by Woman Life Freedom RVA organizers and volunteers. Our organization also has partnered with Richmond International Film Festival (RIFF), and publishers to continue the conversation and provide support for our local community and beyond.

How to get involved: People can follow us on Instagram to stay updated, sign petitions, and to continue to contribute to the voice of the movement. We also are open to work with artists of any kind to bring more creations like Project Niloofar to life.

A perfect day for me is: Stand-up paddle boarding ON the James River.

A quote that inspires me: “You won’t get what you don’t ask for.”

My friends describe me as: Brave.

At the top of my “to-do” list is: Calling my mom.

Best late-night snack: Raspberries and Nutella.

The best thing my parents ever taught me: There’s always room for improvement.

The person who influenced me the most: Michelle Obama.

Book that influenced me the most and how: “Becoming” by Michelle Obama. It was inspiring because it gave me a peak behind the scenes of her thought process and decision-making, both in activism and in life.