"Don't Call it a Protest"
Iranian Montrealers fight helplessness, survivor's guilt and their own trauma as they take to the streets to call for an end to the regime that terrorizes their families.
It had been nearly 24 hours since Saba heard from her parents in Tehran.
It was midnight in Iran, but still, she could only assume the worst: that the Iranian government had cut off internet access in order to commit mass killings.
The next morning, she woke to a text message from her mother: their internet was completely shut down. She spoke to them on the phone shortly after, but the call only lasts four minutes. Long distance phone calls aren’t cheap, so she was grateful she spoke to them at all. They told Saba they’re okay, and promised to stay away from the protests that would start at sundown.
Saba, who did not wish to give her full name to protect her family, left Iran five years ago, where most of them still live. Like thousands of Iranians in Montreal, she lives with uncertainty over the safety of her friends and family every day.
The last time Saba received such a worrisome text from her mother was in November 2019, when a week-long internet blackout “unprecedented in its scale” led to an unknown accounting of human rights violations. The Iranian government had set out to suppress widespread outrage over its announcement of an overnight increase in gas prices. Amnesty International said at least 323 civilians were killed by security forces during the blackout, while Reuters reported the death toll at 1,500 in less than two weeks of unrest.
Saba last saw her parents six months before the blackout, when she spent part of her summer visiting Iran. It was the only time she returned home since she moved to Canada. But no matter how much she missed her family, she balked at the thought of going back.
“I honestly didn’t see a bright future for myself under the current Iranian government,” Saba said. “Thankfully, I had the support of my parents, who helped me move here. … But now I’m so full of guilt — survivor’s guilt — because I know my people are being killed every day, right now.”
Saba is 22 years old, the same age as Mahsa Zhina Amini, a Kurdish-Iranian woman who was allegedly killed by Iran’s Gasht-e Ershad, or so-called ‘morality police,’ for what it deemed an “improper” wearing of the hijab in September. Amini was a small town girl visiting Tehran from Saqqez, and was detained by the police on Sept. 13. Witnesses who were detained with Amini said she was beaten in custody, and photos of Amini with a swollen face quickly went viral on social media.
Amini died in the hospital on Sept. 16, which authorities said was caused by a heart attack and brain seizure. But her family didn’t buy the story. They said Amini didn’t have any underlying health conditions, and believe the police killed their daughter.
By now, it’s clear that the Iranian public doesn’t buy it either. Since her death, protesters have taken to the streets in 111 cities and towns throughout Iran. A week into the uprising, the government pledged to suppress the protests by any means possible, in line with its 2019 strategy. Police have reportedly been shooting directly into crowds of protesters, and brutally beating civilians, most of whom women. To date, at least 270 civilians have been killed, and more than 14,000 arrested according to human rights groups.
Despite its crackdown on the internet, scenes emerging from Iran show early stages of an uprising: young Iranian women taking off their hijabs, burning them and dancing with their hair exposed around law enforcement. Schoolgirls shouting down men until they left school grounds. Teenage girls with a hijab in one hand, and waving a middle finger with the other up to a photo of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on a classroom wall.
“Do not call this a protest,” chanted students at Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Sciences earlier this month. “It’s called a revolution.”
In Montreal, demonstrations have also been largely co-organized by students. One of the most prominent and outspoken organizations is the Iranian Student Association of Concordia University (ISACU). Since Amini’s death, young Iranians have refused to let Montrealers forget that an Iranian revolution is under way. After all, the images from Iran have galvanized the diaspora, and calls for a free Iran are getting louder and harder to ignore across the world.
The persistence of young Iranian Montrealers is evidence despite the outrage over Amini’s death, this movement has found a place in the hearts of Iranians from every demographic, and some say it’s picking up right where the 2019 uprisings had left off.
“On Mahsa’s tombstone, it says in Kurdish, ‘Zhina dear, you will not die,’” said Banafsheh of ISACU, who also doesn’t want to reveal her last name. “‘Your name will become a symbol.’”
Darya has tasted revolution before.
At 31, she isn’t old enough to know life in Iran before the Islamic Republic came into rule in 1979. But she nevertheless witnessed small waves of revolution throughout her young adulthood. Darya, who did not wish to disclose her full name for safety reasons, was a university freshman during the 2009 Iranian Green Movement, which came in response to the election of incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad despite popular support for his progressive opponents.
Protests broke out after the victory was announced just two hours after voting ended, and opposition candidates made accusations of voting fraud.
It drove Darya and thousands of Iranian millennials into the streets, many of whom demonstrated from June through Iranian Students Day on Dec. 7. Gen Z Iranians are familiar with the movement, too. Saba was only nine or ten years old at the time, but she remembered the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26 year-old philosophy student who was reportedly shot in the chest by paramilitary forces as she was walking to her car.
“I was really young then,” Saba said. “I didn’t know exactly what was going on, but I remember she was the symbol of that movement.”
Resistance isn’t new for Iranians. In 1906, Iranian women were a key part of the Constitutional Revolution, and removed their veils in demonstrations over a hundred years ago. And Iranians have fought against the mandatory hijab laws for as long as they have been jailed, tortured and punished since its enforcement.
“It is not an overnight revolution,” Darya said. “Women pushed back against these unwanted laws over the last forty-three years, inch by inch with their hair.”
“But this time, Iranian women have taken off their scarves for good. They’re not putting it back on.”
In Quebec, coverage of Amini’s death has sparked circular discussions about the hijab and its reception within the province. While it is clear to some that the hijab is sacred to those who choose it, others in the west are committed to misunderstanding what freedom of religion or choice should look like for practicing Muslims.
Darya says that while she understands why it’s important for the media to connect world news back to local communities, she fears that the movement for human rights in her home country could be lost.
“They’re taking away the power of what’s really happening,” said Darya, a graduate student and member of ISACU, who grew up in a Kurdish town just 30 minutes from Amini’s.
“The hijab and scarf has become a symbol of all the repressions: the corruption, the lying, the fear-mongering, the hiding. It became a symbol of all that the Islamic regime has done to Iranians in the last 43 years,” she said.
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In recent years, the uprisings have become bigger and harder for the state to suppress. Widespread protests in 2019 made the government uncomfortable enough that Khamenei ordered senior officials to “Do whatever it takes to end it.” And the revolution that sprung from Amini’s death has recruited Iranians of every age and demographic, who are steadfast in their calls for the abolishment of clerical rule and the demise of the Islamic State.
“Iran was like a cup full of water with its problems,” said Shayan, president of ISACU. “Whether it be psychological, social, economical, political, people are not doing well on any front.
“And a cup that full, even one extra drop will make the whole thing overflow.”
“Things are getting worse back home and my brain has stopped working,” said Banafsheh in a text message late one night. “Can we meet in person some time to talk?”
For six weeks, I’ve been checking in and following Saba, Banafsheh, Darya, Shayan and other young Iranians as they built a local movement in honour of the revolution back home. Every single one of them have recounted memories under the mandatory hijab law, and revisited moments of resistance from their mothers, grandmothers and aunts.
They say that Amini’s death was the final straw in the latest string of human rights atrocities over the last year.
“Whatever you do, don’t look up the images,” they warned.
Darya told me about the honour killings of young teen girls that made headlines earlier this year. Banafsheh told me about Sepideh Rashno, who was publicly accosted on a bus for allegedly refusing to comply with the hijab law, and later ended up at the hospital for “internal bleeding caused by assault.” Another ISACU member, who prefers to go by S, told me that Rahsno disappeared shortly after videos of the incident went viral on social media.
In every interview about the unbearable conditions growing up Iran, they shared images from the revolution that they see are signs of fundamental change. But they often came up short when trying to reduce it to words, so they show me images instead.
Darya showed me a photo of the daughter of Minoo Majidi, who stood at her mother’s grave with a shaved head and her hair in one hand. Majidi was killed by police in the early days of protests.
“If you look at her face, you don’t see a victim,” Darya said. “You don’t see much sorrow, you see strength.”
Banafsheh showed me the video of a crowd of young Iranian schoolgirls who drove a senior official from the Ministry of Education out of their school, and of a young protester tying up her hair before heading towards a crowd of police.
And Saba told me about Elnaz Rekabi, who competed in the Asian Sport Climbing Championships in Korea without a hijab a month after Amini’s death.
Just a day after news of Rekabi’s defiance, a video of three young Iranian schoolgirls, marching without hijabs, chanting, “Women, Life, Freedom,” surfaced on Twitter.
“I’m really, really proud,” Darya said. “Because I still feel the anger and the rage from the oppression I faced as a little girl. So I see myself in them.
And now, seeing these girls doing things that I should have done, but they’re doing it at the right time, it makes me proud.”
Iranian Montrealers are just as defiant. In the early days of the movement, a protest organized by ISACU drew thousands, shutting down an intersection outside of Concordia’s Sir George Williams campus. And a human chain outside of McGill University’s Roddick Gates drew media attention just days later. Organizers aren’t slowing down any time soon. A Saturday protest for the fourth consecutive week took place on Oct. 22.
In every corner of the world, Iranians refuse to let the world forget that their fight for liberation continues.
“The revolution has started no matter how hard the regime is trying to suppress it,” Darya said. “Its end has begun, because people have tasted how it feels to be united.”