A woman reacts during the march following the death of the young Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini.

Mahsa Amini’s death in police custody has sparked protests in Iran and worldwide, such as in Toulouse, France, on 9 October.Credit: Alain Pitton/NurPhoto/Getty

For the past four weeks, Iran has been convulsed by daily protests following the death in police custody of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, on 16 September. The authorities’ response has been beyond brutal. More than 185 people have been killed and more than 110 students have been taken into custody. Many universities are, in effect, closed. Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, Iran’s leading centre for science and technology, has seen some of the worst crackdowns.

Academic staff are conflicted about what to do. But silence was no longer an option for Encieh Erfani, a cosmologist who studies dark-matter candidate particles. On 23 September, Erfani resigned from the physics department at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences in Zanjan, and is now in a secure location.

“Why should I stay in a system that is a brutal dictatorship?” she told Nature. “I could not keep silent while blood is being shed in the streets.”

Why did you choose to resign?

After the death of Mahsa Amini, students were shouting: “The streets are covered in blood and our professors are silent.” As a faculty member, I teach students and I could not stay silent any more. The twenty-third of September is when schools and universities open in Iran. I have great memories of that day, ever since I was a child. I told myself: if I want to resign, I have to do it on this day. It does not make sense to continue.

What is it like to teach and do research in Iranian universities?

Iran’s universities are under the control of the government. University presidents get selected by the minister of science and education. In committees that evaluate professors applying for academic posts, there are mullahs — clerics — evaluating you from the political point of view. Apart from the scientific evaluation, you have to pass a non-scientific evaluation concerning your background, your family, your political activities. If you pass the scientific evaluation but you fail in these respects, for sure you will not get hired.

The pressure on women is much greater, because they check whether your dress code is according to the rules. You must be careful about what you wear, what you do, what you say. Talking about women’s rights is not allowed. I am aware of sexual-harassment cases but nobody can talk about them.

It seems your frustration had been building for a long time.

You are working for the government and you ask yourself: why should I stay in a system that is a brutal dictatorship? I did not want to stay in that system. I could never speak out about it, because of the atmosphere. I could not do anything positive there; I just had to keep silent about everything. Although blood is being shed in the streets, faculty cannot speak out.

How engaged are researchers in the protest movement?

Professors are largely silent because the heads of universities are with the government. If professors join the students, they will get fired. Student protesters might be suspended for one or two semesters or, in a really hard situation, they might get kicked out of the university and have to transfer somewhere else. But for faculty members, if you get fired there is no job for you any more, because you are on a government banned list. However, some faculty members have said that they are not going to teach classes until detained students are released.

Encieh Erfani's portrait.

Physicist Encieh Erfani resigned from her post in protest on 23 September.Credit: Encieh Erfani

How is this protest different from those in the recent past?

It’s completely different. Students used to protest for a few days and get arrested and everything would go silent again. You never heard about students going on strike. This is completely new. The other thing is the nature of the slogans the students are shouting. You used to hear calls to release imprisoned students. Now, they are saying: “Death to the dictator.”

Female students are now removing their hijabs inside the university. You never used to see that in a university in Iran. They are crossing many, many red lines. A few faculty members are resigning: that, too, is completely new. And Iranian scholars outside Iran who have collaborations in Iran and used to stay silent are now supporting those inside.

What is the significance of the crackdown on Sharif University?

The government made a big mistake in attacking Sharif University. It represents the elite of Iranian science. All of us, during our schooldays, had dreams of going to Sharif. What’s happening there makes all of us sad. Why have they done that? Just because of some slogan they did not like?

What should the global scientific community do to help people in Iran?

Policymakers are thinking about sanctions, but sanctions affect the lives of all Iranians. If I am denied an international bank account because of sanctions, I cannot pay registration fees for conferences overseas; I cannot receive international grants, pay for flights or book accommodation abroad. If I get financial support from any international organization, they have to pay me in cash. Getting visas is also a big problem.

In experimental science you need instruments, but we cannot buy them because of sanctions. Telescopes larger than about 35 centimetres are under sanctions, because it is deemed that they could be used for spying. Imagine, a telescope under sanctions. If you want to impose sanctions, then impose them on the minister of science and education. The heads of universities should not get their visas easily and should not be allowed to be involved in collaborations. They don’t have their positions because of their scientific ability, but because of their close relations with the government.

Could the students defeat the regime?

I am not a social scientist. But I was born three years after the 1979 Islamic revolution that brought the present regime to power, and my generation is not supporting the rules of the regime any more. I will just not keep silent. It’s over — enough is enough. I hope that other people will realize that, and not only scholars. Everyone has this responsibility.