Why these teens are fighting for women’s rights in Iran

Story by CBC Kids News • Published 2022-10-04 16:42

Teens stress that the hijab can be empowering, too


Fifteen-year-old Samar Esmaeli knows what it’s like to be forced to wear a hijab.

Until she moved to Canada when she was eight, the teen from Montreal, Quebec, had to wear one every day when going to school in Iran.

So when she found out about Mahsa Amini, an Iranian woman who recently died in police custody after being arrested for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly, it struck a chord.

“I broke down in tears. I was all over the place,” she told CBC Kids News.

Amini’s family said she had bruises all over her body and was beaten.

Police said she died of a heart attack.

Over the years, Samar says she’s heard countless cases of women being punished for similar crimes back in Iran, and had all but lost hope for change to the Iranian laws that she once was subject to.

Then she saw how Canadians and others around the world were responding.

“When I found out that people were actually doing something about it, I was so happy.”

“It’s not about being against religion or hijab. It’s about bodily autonomy and women’s ability to choose.” - Kosar Hemmati, 17

Samar was one of tens of thousands of people who took to the streets in Canadian cities like Montreal and Toronto, Ontario, over the weekend to protest for women’s rights in Iran, saying that women and girls should have the right to decide for themselves whether to wear the hijab or not.

Protesters gather in Richmond Hill, Ontario, on Oct. 1 to protest for women’s rights in Iran. (Image credit: Samira Mohyeddin/CBC)

Choosing to wear a hijab can be empowering, says teen

Like Samar, 17-year-old Kosar Hemmati grew up wearing a hijab to school in Iran until she immigrated to Ottawa when she was around seven.

She describes a hijab as “any garment that can be used for modesty in Islam,” but the word is often used to refer to a headscarf.

Kosar Hemmati, 17, has been to several protests in the last few weeks including one in Ottawa on Oct 1. She said she’s never seen such a strong sense of unity in her community. (Image submitted by Kosar Hemmati)

A few weeks ago, she was scrolling through Instagram when she saw a video of Amini being dragged away by the morality police, and later found out about her death.

Amini was arrested in the Iranian capital, Tehran, for wearing her headscarf too loosely.

“The fact that she was in broad daylight, doing nothing wrong, the pure innocence of her situation, there was no coming to terms with it,” said Kosar.

That night, Kosar had a “depressing” conversation with her parents trying to make sense of it.

Kosar said her parents grew up practising Islam, but the way the Iranian government has continued to “abuse the Islamic faith” has complicated their relationship with religion.

Kosar was joined by her 13-year-old brother, Sadra Hemmati, in this past weekend’s protest in Ottawa. (Image submitted by Kosar Hemmati)

Despite that, Kosar said that her mom continued to wear a hijab even after moving to Canada.

“For some people, it’s a really important tool for empowerment, and I really applaud that and look up to that,” said Kosar.

Kosar said that making the choice to wear a hijab can be empowering because it gives women control of their bodies and over who gets to see certain parts of their bodies.

Fighting for the right to choose

Kosar says that she is protesting the Iranian government's use of the hijab as a tool for oppression, stripping away the freedom for Iranians to choose for themselves what they wear and what they believe in.

“The movement that’s emerged has this core value, it’s not about being against religion or hijab. It’s about bodily autonomy and women’s ability to choose.”

Kosar has been fighting for these beliefs on the front lines of two protests over the last few weeks, including one in Ottawa on Oct. 1.

Two chants in English and Farsi were used at this weekend’s protest in Ottawa: ‘Say her name: Mahsa Amini’ and ‘Woman, Life, Freedom.’ (Video submitted by Kosar Hemmati)

Like Kosar, Samar participated at the protests to fight for the right for Iranian women’s freedom of expression.

Samar said she still can’t wrap her head around the idea of forcing one type of religion on an entire country, especially in a place like Iran with so much ethnic and religious diversity.

“If you don’t want to represent a religion that you’re not a part of, you shouldn’t have to.”

A woman cuts her hair during a protest against the Islamic regime of Iran in New York City, New York, on Sept. 27. Hair has become a symbol of this fight because Amini’s hair was supposedly sticking out of her hijab. (Image credit: Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

Samar said she’s protesting for the majority of her family who still live in Iran, including her 15-year-old cousin who she grew up with.

Earlier this week, she got a call from her.

“You’re giving us so much hope,” Samar’s cousin said from nearly 10,000 kilometers away.

A message to Canadian kids

Kosar said the protests have been so powerful for her because she’s seen all of these facets of the Iranian community come together for one common goal.

“It’s a sense of unity that hasn’t existed in the Iranian community in a very long time,” she said.

She said she wants Canadian kids to understand this point, that Iranians are incredibly diverse and complex and aren’t just one religion or look a certain way.

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With files from John Paul Tasker/CBC, CBC News, The Canadian Press and Reuters

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