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Breaking the bystander effect: How we can help the revolution started by Mahsa Amini

Stories | 09.29.22

By Sara Saeedi, adjunct faculty, Master of Counselling Psychology: Art Therapy
Vancouver Campus

Mahsa Amini was a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman who was murdered on Sept. 16 by the “morality police” of Iran, which accused her of violating its strict dress codes. 

Photo of Sara Saeedi

Sara Saeedi

Since then, her name has grazed the lips of millions of people worldwide over the past few days. However, her story is one that dates back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran. For 43 years, misogyny, dictatorship, and murder have threatened the lives of the 84 million people in Iran. The once prosperous Persian Empire turned into a theocracy that has oppressed its civilians for decades. But today, one name is starting a revolution: #MahsaAmini. 

The Iranian people are no strangers to uprisings for freedom. We have seen widespread protests, most recently in 2019, when we demanded democracy. But this time, it’s different, and #MahsaAmini has gone viral on social media and media coverage. With support from international superstars, elected officials, and public figures, including professional Iranian athletes, writers, and musicians, bystanders are no longer silent, and the names of the victims are no longer whispers. 

In social psychology, we have a term known as the “bystander effect.” This is the idea that people are less likely to help someone in need when there are others present — also known as the “diffusion of responsibility,” where each person who can act and help stands by and waits for someone else to step in. The problem with this is that the person they are waiting for holds the same belief about the responsibility of action. They may hope someone else will step in to do something, but that leaves the victim in danger and lets the perpetrator escape. 

The term “bystander effect” was created after the unfortunate 1964 murder of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese in New York. Genovese was arriving home from work when she was brutally raped and stabbed to death. It was reported that over 30 bystanders watched or heard the attack but instead relied on others to intervene or call the police. No one did anything, and this diffusion of responsibility led to Genovese’s death. 

Amini was tortured and insulted by the police, as witnessed by her co-detainees. After she arrived at the police station, she began to lose vision and fainted.She was in a coma for two days before succumbing to her injuries and dying in the hospital. Her death led to countrywide protests against the morality police, compulsory hijab, and the Islamic Republic. 

Thanks to social media, the names of people who are unjustly killed are no longer whispers. Today, bystanders hold the most powerful weapon in their hands. As fellow brave humans march the streets of Iran and demand a revolution, the world watches on their smartphones. As innocent people are killed, bystanders of social media bear witness. Injustice is witnessed collectively, but everyone must demand justice. We must break the bystander effect and stop our complacency. We collectively share the burden of responsibility, but we must not be afraid to act as individuals with agency, not as hopeful bystanders.  

With major international events, especially ones involving grave injustice, people might feel overwhelmed, helpless, and scared but we must overcome the urge to be silent bystanders. 

As we watch the brave people of Iran march in the streets chanting “woman, life, freedom,” we, too, can demand justice by amplifying their voices through social media by sharing, tweeting, and liking their stories or posts. We can act by writing to our local, state, and national leaders. We can sign pledges with human rights organizations to end the violence against women, men, and all people in Iran. 

Unfortunately, bystanders did not and could not stop the murder of Mahsa Amini, but it’s not too late for #MahsaAmini to stop the murder of thousands of others. 

We are all responsible. 

Say her name: #MahsaAmini. 

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