Indigenous | Death

'It could have been me or my sister': Iranians here worry about crackdown

Photo/Getty Images

"We are all anxious and we are just furious watching this news coming out of Iran," Iranian Women in New Zealand founder and chairperson Forough Amin says.

And the news that is coming out is grim. Protests have erupted across the country, spreading to over 80 cities, including Tehran, and are highly concentrated in the Kurdish-majority northeast. In many protests women are removing their scarves and cutting their hair as a sign of mourning.

The protests were sparked by the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman in the custody of the "morality police," who had arrested her while she was visiting Tehran for wearing her headscarf too loosely.

"That is a really common occurrence. It is not at all shocking for Iranian women to get arrested and beaten," says Golriz Ghahraman, who was born and lived her early years in Iran and is now an MP in New Zealand. "But she died as a result of her injuries."

The Iranian communities in both Wellington and Auckland are organising events on Saturday to show solidarity.

In Iran police have cracked down on the protests and, according to state television reports, 17 people have been killed, although activists claim the number is higher.

Authorities deny allegations that she was beaten and died of her injuries. Iran's Interior Minister said the girl had pre-existing medical conditions which caused her to collapse. Authorities took her to a hospital where she was in a coma for three days and died. Her family has rejected that claim.

And even Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian President, who is currently in New York, has said that the death "must certainly be investigated."

A long history

"Iranian people neither believe their denial nor have any hope that any justice will take place,” says Hanna Habibi who moved to Aotearoa in 2016 and now lives in Wellington. She says the regime has a history of denial. “Iranian authorities downed an airplane with 172 passengers on board, and for three days they outright denied it.”

Iran is no stranger to protests - there have been many uprisings since the theocratic state was instituted in 1979. The country is also no stranger to swift and brutal crackdowns in response to these protests.

"But this time I think the difference is people have reached the boiling point," Forough Amin says. "Ten years ago we were thinking there was a way through democratic elections, through political parties. But in the past ten years, it has been proven that no, it’s not going to work. The regime is a totalitarian state that doesn't want to share power."

The protests are also driven by women, she says. "They have shown lots of courage, taking off these scarves."

"We are seeing women removing hijab. It’s really at the risk of death and torture," says Ghahraman. "If they are willing to beat a young woman for showing too much hair to the point that she goes into a coma and dies, they are wiling to beat and kill these protestors, and they have done so."

Women's rights

Amini was from the northwestern part of the country, a region populated by Kurds who have long suffered from targeted oppression by the Iranian regime.

Habibi feels that in this instance Amini's ethnicity was not a factor in her arrest. "I don't deny the discrimination against Kurds and other ethnic groups," she says. "However women, no matter from which side of Iran, are subject to various sorts of harassment and their rights are violated constantly."

"The actions of the morality police are one of the things that unite all Iranians," Ghahraman says.

"In the past four decades, we women have been the main targets," says Forough Amin. And this death felt personal. "People were all thinking it could be me, it could be my sister.

'It happened to me'

And she has been there.  "It was five years ago when I had gone back to Iran to visit my family. I came out of the metro station exactly like Mahsa."

She saw the "morality police" trying to take away some girls and put them in a van. She protested and the officials tried to put her in the van with the others.

When the van was moving, she jumped off on to the street. "I am not a very courageous person," she says. "I don't know how I got the strength to do that."

"I didn't even get taken to the police station. It was a 10-minute experience and it traumatised me, so just imagine what happened to Mahsa and other girls like that.”

“This is a brutal regime, and I remember the absolute anxiety of leaving the house or interacting with regime officials. And I was a child," says Ghahraman. "I knew my mother was scared. And my aunties."

Internet blackouts

There have reportedly been internet blackouts across the country, a common feature of police response to protests.

“In (the protests in) 2019, there was a week of internet blackout,” says Habibi, and there were reports that over a thousand people were killed during that one week nationwide.

"What happens when they cut off the internet, apart from not allowing people to share their stories with the rest of the world, is that they go to arrest people. To kill them," Amin says.

But the fact that the regime has cut off the internet is a sign that Iran cares that the world is watching, Ghahraman says. "It makes me scared that they are about to do something even more terrifying in terms of the use of force against protestors."

Global response

One of the good things about social media, says Forough Amin, is that people around the world are talking about Iran. But she thinks the world may not do anything about it.

"France's President Macron was shaking hands with President Raisi at the United Nation just yesterday."

"I would hope nations all around the world, In particular as we go into the UN General Assembly sitting right now, would say something to this regime to show that we stand with the people of Iran," says Ghahraman. "To call this out, to do everything they can to make it stop.”

"We are aware of the tragic death"

A spokesperson for the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade says the ministry is aware of the tragic death of Mahsa Amini in Iranian police custody.  "The New Zealand government places great importance on human rights, which remain a key tenet of New Zealand’s foreign policy engagement."

"New Zealand regularly expresses its concerns about the human rights situation in Iran, both bilaterally and in the multilateral fora."

Cutting their hair

The Iranian communities in Wellington and Auckland are organising events in their respective cities on Saturday, 24 September to "show solidarity with the fight of people, specifically women, in Iran for freedom and for equal rights, as well as paying tribute to Mahsa Amini and her family".

“Myself and other participants will be cutting our hair as a sign of protest and a sign of mourning, as is customary among Kurdish people," Habibi says

"We have loved ones back at home. Most of us have experienced in one way or another the same violence. So it's to acknowledge that that community is actually hurting," says Ghahraman, who will be attending both events.

And it is to send a message, Habibi says.

“I don’t know if Iran cares,  I know the protestors care.”