It's been almost three months since the death of Mahsa Zhina Amini. In September the 22-year-old Iranian was arrested in Tehran by the country's morality police, who enforce Iran's dress code, for allegedly violating the rule requiring women to cover their hair with a headscarf or hijab. Shortly afterwards, Mahsa Zhina Amini collapsed, fell into a coma and passed away. The police said she suffered a heart attack but at the time there were reports that morality police officers beat her head with a baton. Her death sparked nationwide protests.
Ever since, Iranians across the world have been fighting for change and freedoms. One such woman – whose identity is being protected – was also arrested by the morality police in 2009 and subsequently fled Iran in 2016. Since arriving in Europe, she's been a key activist for women's rights in her home country. This is her story, as told to Lauren Crosby Medlicott.
When I was a teenager, still living in Iran in 2009, I was arrested by the morality police. I had been studying at a friend’s house and afterward, when my friend’s mother took us home in her car, her veil slipped down while she was driving. The morality police arrested all of us in the car for the dropped veil, making false allegations that we all had our hijabs off and that we were dancing and playing loud music.
Although I was encouraged to phone my family when we were detained, I refused, knowing my very conservative family would be furious at my arrest and subsequent court date.
I was allowed to leave the court after my arrest but the experience traumatised me, as did growing up in a country where being a woman would never allow for independence or success. Even though I had planned to attend university and had always had high grades in school, I couldn’t face it after having been arrested.
In 2016, I fled from Iran alone, without any family or friends, and have been living at a safe house in Europe and financially supporting myself without the help of family since then.
During the first months of living here, I had to relearn what it meant to be a woman. For so long, I had been brainwashed to believe I couldn’t accomplish much but I know differently now. I have managed to live independently for over six years now, being forced to learn how to survive on my own in a different country. But I have done it. I know I am strong and capable.
Once I found a job here, just a simple job I can easily do, I started to engage as an activist on social media platforms and blogs, commentating on all that was happening in Iran.
For decades, there have been periods of time when our internet has been blocked and social networks like Instagram and Twitter have been heavily censored. With these measures, the Islamic Republic is trying to prevent information about the situation in Iran, shutting down the internet so that information, photos and videos cannot get out to the rest of the world.
In 2019, activists in Iran I had been in regular contact with suggested I start posting content from people in Iran. I wanted to be the voice of my people so I agreed to do what the activists had asked of me: to start sharing images and stories from Iran on social media for the outside world. I’ve been doing it ever since.
Now, since the protests erupted over the death of Mahsa Zhina Amini, it is even more urgent that footage out of Iran gets shared not only to highlight the human rights abuses occurring under the Islamic Republic but also because a wave of arrests of journalists, photographers and political and social activists has been taking place and many of them are still in illegal detention without reason. The international community must see the death, the protests, the shouting, the murder, the grieving and the strength of women and youth.
At the moment, taking any photos or videos of protests in Iran – like the protests happening right now – is considered a crime. Many people have been shot down in the middle of documenting an event on their phone. If anyone in Iran posts content online, the regime can locate them and detain them. It leaves people petrified.
I consider it my duty as an Iranian who lives outside Iran and has access to social networks to create a platform to convey the voice of my people to the world. Otherwise, the silence and lack of information will make it easier for the Islamic Republic to suppress and crack down on their people more violently.
I first started posting content out of Iran that people sent me on Twitter but quickly changed to using Instagram. There are two main ways people send me videos and photos: either on Instagram direct messages or on Telegram. These come directly from people in Iran or activists who have been sent content from within Iran. I scrutinise each video or photo to make sure it is recent and accurate, sometimes taking up to two hours to find out what time and where it was taken.
The person who sends me the photo or video will almost always also inform me when and where it was recorded. If that is the case, I tend to post it straightaway. Some videos and photos come from trusted activists who have received them and can give me the information about the exact details of what the image/video is, when it was taken and where it occurred. When videos come to me and it is unclear what the footage is, where it is and when it is, I often take up to two hours to do a whole host of investigations through a cell of activists to find out all the details are accurate. It can be a painstaking and time-consuming process but I want to make sure that everything I am posting is happening right now in Iran.
I will have conversations with people who send me messages from Iran but there is lots of mistrust among Iranians right now because of the regime. People don't know who to trust and are treading carefully in conversations, especially ones that are online.
When young people who may not grasp the danger of sending me content get in touch, I let them know I have received the video and then urge them to delete the video and messages with me from their phone. I do the same once I have posted the video on the Instagram feed. Otherwise their lives could be in danger.
There has been such harrowing video footage sent to me in the wake of the death of Mahsa Zhina Amini. Sometimes the violence is too extreme to post – it would get taken down immediately by Instagram.
Even though I find it traumatising and exhausting to do this work, I am very proud to have the honour to get these videos out to the rest of the world. I know how much it means to people in Iran who are risking their lives by sending these videos that their voices are being heard.
I wake in the morning with my phone in my hand and immediately look to see what has been sent to me overnight. Throughout the day, my phone is rarely put away, always at my fingertips. At work, my employers know why I constantly have my phone out and they understand and fully support the work I’m doing to raise awareness of what Iranians are enduring. Even as I fall asleep, my phone stays on, and I often wake in the night to post content that has been sent to me.
What is happening in Iran right now is not just about the hijab. It is about even more than gender apartheid. Iranian people are fed up with forced confessions, mass executions, violence and oppression of not just women but also LGBTQ people, religious minorities and ethnic minorities. The people of Iran are tired of the systemic oppression at the hands of the Islamic Republic. So many people have had their freedom stripped away for decades. All we want is a normal life, the simplest human rights that so many other women and people around the world experience. Iranians are tired, I am tired, and we are begging the men and women outside of Iran to have our backs. Please be our voice. Do not forget us.