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Women, Life, Freedom

Revolutions affect us all, even when we’re far away from home


By: Lilia


A "Women, Life, Freedom" protest at Gapper Park in Richmond Hill in October 2022. Photo credit: Lilia.

On the morning of Sept. 16, 2022, my life, and the lives of millions of Iranians, was changed forever. As I made my way through my morning routine mindlessly and unexpecting, I was suddenly met with an outroar on social media about the death of an Iranian woman — or rather, another death.


The murder and brutal beatings of my people are not something I was unfamiliar with; in fact, ask any Iranian, and they’ll tell you about all the times their aunts, cousins, sisters, and mothers were detained and issued whippings, beatings, or “let off” with bankrupting tickets all for “indecency,” “immodesty,” or rather, for existing.


That September morning, as I was making some breakfast, my father entered the room to tell me the daily news. He does this often, updating us on our homeland, so we can stay connected with current events and our family. After talking about the crippling economy, and the poverty-stricken public, he finally made his way to mentioning Mahsa Amini. I had already heard the news from social media, yet hearing it come from him solidified the situation for me.


To us, this was not something new. It was heartbreaking, but no Iranian was shocked. As my eyes welled with tears, my father took my hand with a reassuring look, almost to say, “At least I got you out.”


Social media outroar was still fairly local the first two days, mostly being shared amongst Iranians and the occasional foreigner. I never expected the media to care. Growing up, the media never paid attention to the cries of help from the Iranian people. I remember the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, another woman who was murdered by the Iranian police in 2009. Some outlets reported on it, yet the public forgot in less than a week. I never anticipated Mahsa’s death to be different.


This has been our life for 43 years, I thought. Girls have been beheaded by their fathers and brothers, legally. Women have been whipped and beaten lawfully, and no one has batted an eye. The regime has allowed women to be the possession of their fathers and brothers for decades, and be punished for “indecency,” through whippings. These things are not only considered normal, but they are the law. The West has never cared. I believed that local attention would be the end of the discussion. That there would be a few protesters, met with bullets and blood, and that eventually, like always, the issue would be killed off, silenced for another three years until the next protest.


I was wrong.


Over the following weeks, the media took off in a way I never could have imagined. In a way no Iranian could have imagined. Iranians all over the world took to the streets of their resident countries to advocate for the voiceless stuck at home.


They took advantage of their lawful right to protest to represent those protesting in Iran who were met with tear gas, plastic pellets, baton beatings, and whips. Iranians and non-Iranians joined forces, and demanded that the media pay attention and look in our direction after having been ignored for decades.


On Sept. 25, I joined the likes of the incredible Iranians who were taking to the streets for Mahsa, and all of the women in Iran. As I drove past the protest looking for a place to park my car, I saw the eyes of my people hurting, looking for any glimpse of understanding, any glimmer of hope for the future of our nation.


As I walked toward the protest, it began pouring. Not just drizzles of rain but a heavy, hard, downpour that mimicked the sorrow we all felt gathering to protest the death of another Iranian.


People fled off of the blocked road into shelter from the bullet-sized drops falling from the sky.

But groups soon walked into the rain without umbrellas, ponchos or shelter and stood under the freezing, weeping sky and chanted,


“If our people can stand in front of bullets, we can stand under rain”.


I stood there and witnessed my people run onto the road with bleeding ink from their signs dripping onto the wet road. I stood in the rain, hand in hand with these people I did not know, but people I fully understood.


Our eyes wallowed with tears as we chanted, “We are all Mahsa.”


I watched as women older than me and girls younger than me chanted and screamed and stared at each other with no words said but decades of stories exchanged.


We all have stories where it could have been us, we mean it when we say we are all Mahsa. We have all been in her position, felt her fear and cried her tears, we were all just spared her fate.


I vividly remember being fourteen and going to my first party ever in the busiest neighbourhood in Tehran. I was there with my best friends at the time, and it was the first time I felt that my life could be normal.


I was wearing a dress. It covered my chest, but my arms and legs were showing. I wasn’t a woman, I was merely a girl. Yet when I heard voices shouting that the morality police were storming the party, it didn't matter that I was only a girl, or that I hadn't done anything wrong.


All that mattered was that my arms and legs were showing and that my hijab was halfway across the room jumbled up with my manto (body covering) on a random chair that I could never get to in time.


My then best friend shouted my name and hurdled the manto and hijab across the room as he told me to throw it on. He told me I was shaking and that everything will be okay.


Everything was okay, for the most part. Everyone fled and we were let off easy with a warning. The police saw how young we were and realized that it would be easier to take the bribe our parents would offer in exchange for no punishments (whippings, beatings or fines) rather than taking us to the station. However, the fear that we felt that night is one every single Iranian knows.


***


The protest ended and I headed home to do my new nightly ritual of stalking any and all Instagram pages that had updates on the protests that had now erupted across Iran. This was a ritual I, like many Iranians, had developed since the start of the protests. Most videos were gorey and unforgiving, and I couldn’t get myself to stop watching as my people sacrificed their lives chanting “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” (Women, Life, Freedom).


A few days before the protests, I was heading to school while texting my mother and best friend, just as I do every day, on Whatsapp — the app of the immigrants, or so we like to call it.


Suddenly, as I’m telling my best friend a detailed story about my subway ride, my messages stopped delivering. Two checkmarks turned to one, and with that change my heart sank. I frantically left the chat to text my mother. Hoping it was a fluke, I texted my mom and waited for the second check mark to appear. Nothing. I left that chat and texted another friend, I sent the message and awaited a second check mark, a response, something.


That night I got a phone call from my mom telling me that their internet had been shut down and that she’ll call me when she can. Again I wasn’t shocked, I doubt any Iranian was. By now, we know how the regime reacts.


I lived in Iran during the 2019 internet ban, and played a lot of offline tetris that week. I knew my family would be fine as long as they stayed inside. Yet the bottomless pit of fear ate at me for days and days until I could hear from my family and friends again.


I went six days without hearing from my best friend. Longer than we’ve gone in four years. My mother would call everynight to tell me that they’re all okay, but still I missed her and I missed the rest of my family and friends that I couldn’t reach.


A billboard promoting the "Women, Life, Freedom" movement at The Iranian Plaza in North York in late November 2022. Photo credit: Lilia.

I spent those days on social media, looking for ways I could help them access the internet, or ways I could just know who’s safe and who isn’t. It was in those days I came across a mutual friend of mine known as @kymyatehrani on Instagram.


What she was doing stuck out to me, she was making moves I wasn’t seeing anyone else my age making. Taking risks no one my age living abroad were willing to take. Her level of vocality quickly escalated into what I considered to be activism. Something that is beyond dangerous to do, especially if she planned on returning home.


I decided that I needed to reach out, needed to talk to her — wasn’t she afraid? Did she think activism could help? I had so many questions and I was beyond desperate for answers so I began looking for them.


Hearing from her made me realize just how important reaching out to each other is — hearing her stories, her experiences in Iran, hearing about her bravery and dedication to freeing our homeland.


She shared her experiences protesting during the 2019-2020 protests in Iran, following the devastating plane crash that left 176 dead, after it was shot down by the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard).


“It was two nights in a row, the first night was very deadly, they killed a lot of people.

The second night they didn’t kill anyone, but that was the night the police had the gun pointing to me and my friend. I don't know if he felt mercy or what, but they let us go and later tear gassed us, which was very typical. They also lasered our eyes, and we lost our vision.”


As I heard about the violence, my heart sank. To think someone my own age, that I can relate to so deeply, has been face to face with a police officer with a gun in his hand, ready to shoot, made me realize it truly is every Iranian who has seen this type of violence. We all really are Mahsa.


After hearing this, I wondered what other stories I have never heard from my family and friends because there are far too many to count and way too many to retell.


***


I decided to ask my dad about his experience in the 2009 protests, another brutal time in Iranian history. A time where we were met with the same batons and bullets that have also attacked us during this year’s protests, only last time, it was for the right to have our votes count. My father had gone out protesting, and I was merely five years old.


“I was leaving work watching [and] the protests while stuck in traffic. I was stuck on a hill when I saw the secretary of my office leave the building and walk into the road. She was walking too far ahead for me to catch up to her, and I was stuck in between two cars. The roads were so busy and backed up there was nowhere to go, that's when I saw a police officer whip out his baton and start beating our secretary along with anyone else on the road. There was no way I could get to her in time”


We have been beaten, bruised, killed and left for dead, stolen, kidnapped, whipped and raped at the hands of this regime for the past 44 years. Iranian people know this story all too well. Ask your Iranian neighbours, bakers, bankers and friends. We have been through protests time after time again, and year after year.


And yet, this time, it’s been different. This time, we have the attention of the media, the West and the Iranian diaspora. Something we never, ever had before.


“We’ve never really seen anything like this before, it's definitely owed to digital media, technology and the internet,” says @kymyatehrani.


Social media has been used as a tool by Iranians and non-Iranians alike to spread the movement of Women, Life, Freedom, and has aided in holding the Islamic Republic accountable for their actions in a way that the Iranian people haven’t been able to do for the past 44 years.


It is because of this that I have been able to find hope in this movement, hope in the eyes of the Iranian people and hope in a future that we never could have imagined years before.


Iranian people have shown up for the rest of the world’s pain and injustices in times where they were able to, like the vigil held in Iran following the murder of George Floyd.


That is why I encourage everyone to keep liking, sharing, retweeting and showing up.

We are all Mahsa, which is why we all need to fight for not just Mahsa, but for every woman, man and child who has died at the hands of this regime.


Women, Life, Freedom.

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