Salon owner Maryam Lavasani is hosting a life-sized sculpture of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old whose death at the hands of Iranian "morality police" has sparked worldwide protest.
Those who walk past Salon Maryam at 8131 Germantown Ave. during the Chestnut Hill on Ice event this weekend will see a life-size likeness of a young woman sculpted in ice and undoubtedly wonder who she is.
The woman, whose image will melt away but whose memory will not, is Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old whose death at the hands of Iranian “morality police” has sparked nationwide uprisings, which continue to spread despite harsh crackdowns by the government. Amini died in police custody after being arrested because “strands of her hair were showing from beneath her headscarf.”
Salon owner Maryam Lavasani, who built a life here after emigrating from Iran 38 years ago, said she’s hosting the sculpture – and participating in the weekend event for the very first time – because she felt she had to do something.
“My heart is shattered – watching the news, I feel so sad. I feel I want to be there, to do something,” she said. “All these children are over there, losing their lives, being locked up with death sentences, and for why? What are they doing wrong, other than just being young? This sculpture is the least I can do.”
According to Lavasani, this is the first time she’s seen the Iranian government’s control over information begin to crack – and that gives her hope.
“The Iranian government has downplayed these horrors for decades, but things are different now because of the internet,” said Lavasani. “Before, the atrocities were kept in Iran, but now the whole world can see what is going on. People take pictures and put them on the internet for the entire world to see.”
Mahsa had traveled from her rural town in the Kurdistan Province to visit her uncle in Tehran. Her family members told reporters that she was unfamiliar with the ultra-strict dress code in Tehran and with the “morality police.” (The Kurdish people, who have been staunch allies of the U.S. in Iran and Iraq, have much more relaxed dress rules.) In addition to regular police, the Islamist regime in Tehran employs “morality police” who patrol the streets enforcing mandatory Islamist hijab. They are free to beat people, mostly women, with clubs for alleged violations of strict Islamic laws on personal behavior.
According to Lavasani, Iranians have been demonstrating against the government ever since Islamic revolutionaries took power 44 years ago. But none of those other uprisings ever gained this much widespread support, she said.
“People were afraid to speak up,” she said. “But now, young people feel they have nothing to live for, and nothing to lose. They'd rather die than live the way they have been living.”
Since Amini was killed, there have also been demonstrations in support of Iranian women and others who are resisting the harsh regime in many other parts of the world, including Philadelphia, and countless Iranians have been jailed, tortured and killed.
“The Iranian government says less than 20 have died, but our sources say the number is really about 700,” said Pouya Hatam, a Chestnut Hill resident and Iranian native who has been in the U.S. for 30 years. “There have been about 100 hangings. The military has been attacking cities. There are mass graves of victims, most under 25 years old and many women and minorities like Kurds and Bahá'í and LGBTQ individuals.”
Hatam is a co-founder of Iran Philly, a nonprofit advocacy organization of Iranian natives who now live in the Delaware Valley. Since mid-September they have held rallies and demonstrations every two or three weeks, with as many as 100 to 500 people taking part at Rittenhouse Square (last Sunday), the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, City Hall and Liberty Place. Among other things, they have been showing evidence of recent executions in Iran.
“We try to echo the voices of the people of Iran,” Hatam said. “The teenagers there just want to have a normal life, like other teens around the world, to have boyfriends, to dress the way they want, to go to a coffee shop. They don't want anything special, just to be allowed to live a normal life.”
Lavasani took over ownership of the Chestnut Hill salon from Norio of Tokyo in December of 2019, after working there for 35 years. Lavasani, whose brother Maurice was the owner of Shundeez, a Persian restaurant at the top of the Hill (where Thai Kuu is now) and of a Middle Eastern foods business in the Chestnut Hill Farmers Market for more than 20 years, has been in the U.S. since 1985.
“I am very thankful for my clients who have stuck with me,” Lavasani said, “especially during the pandemic. Just three months after I took over, COVID started. I had to close for four months. There is no way my business could have survived without the help of my customers and my wonderful landlord, Paul Altomare. My clients are my friends and feel like part of my family.”
The ice sculpture will be in front of Salon Maryam until it melts. For more information about Philly Iran, email email@example.com. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org