London

Hundreds of Londoners protest for young woman who died in Iranian police custody

'Women, life, freedom,' were the words chanted by more than 200 people from London, Ont.'s Iranian community who gathered at Western University on Thursday to protest the death of a young woman in Iran who died while she was in police custody. 

'That could've been me if I was back home,' said one young woman protesting

Hundreds of people from London, Ont.'s Iranian community gathered at Western University's Community Centre to protest the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, who died in the custody of Iranian police. (Isha Bhargava/CBC)

"Women, life, freedom," were the words chanted by more than 200 people from London, Ont.'s Iranian community who gathered at Western University on Thursday to protest the death of a young woman in Iran who died while she was in police custody. 

Mahsa Amini, 22, died last week after she was arrested in Tehran for wearing "unsuitable attire." Amini was detained by the country's so-called "morality police" who allegedly took issue with the way she wore her headscarf. She fell into a coma while in detention and ultimately died. 

"I have been beaten, I have been humiliated. My sister has been arrested because of really unfair rules that we have in Iran for improper hijabs," said Besat Zardosht, one of the event's organizers, who came to Canada from Iran 12 years ago.

Zardosht organized the demonstration in London as a way to stand for women's rights and freedom of Iranians. 

Zardosht said part of the importance of demonstrations outside of Iran comes from speculation that the Iranian government has blocked internet access in some parts of the country to curb the ability of protesters to organize and be heard internationally.

Besat Zardosht, one of the protest's organizers said when she was living in Iran, she was arrested and humiliated by the morality police as well. (Isha Bhargava/CBC)

Attendees at the event echoed Zardosht's sentiments, including the heartbreak she said she felt upon learning of Amini's death.

"It hurts me deep down because it's a woman's right to choose whatever they want to wear, regardless of where they live," said Mo Akbari, an attendee in support of the demonstration. "On top of that, her clothing has nothing provocative, or nothing of that nature. There was no reason for her arrest."

Akbari has two daughters living in Toronto. He said he's proud of them and their right to wear what they see fit in Canada.

'That could've been me'

Mahsa Manavi, 21, left Iran a decade ago. Hearing that a young woman of the same age who shared her first name, was arrested due to her attire felt all too personal for Manavi. 

"That could've been me if I was still back home," she said. "It really broke my heart and I thought 'This needs to change' we want our freedom back."

Mahsa Manavi, 21, was heartbroken when she heard that a young woman her age was arrested and died in police custody. (Isha Bhargava/CBC)

Manavi believes women protesting in Iran shows the government that Iranian citizens have had enough and want control over their own bodies, she said.

Amini's death has sparked widespread protests both nationally and worldwide calling for a change in the country's hijab laws. Some women in Iran are refusing to wear hijabs in public. Similar protests have taken place in Canadian cities including Calgary and Montreal. 

Protesters holding signs of Mahsa Amini say her name has become a symbol for women's freedom in Iran. (Isha Bhargava/CBC)

A call to action

A common thread in reasoning for the demonstration is to demand change from Ottawa. 

"The world governments need to stop mingling with the Iranian government and trying to please them. For 40 years, the people of Iran have suffered, while foreign governments try to appease them," Akbari added. 

Bahram Zardosht, 19, believes that the fight for freedom is more important now than ever, especially for the young generation of Iranians. He felt shock and disgust when hearing about Amini's death, he said.

Bahram Zardosht, 19, said this protest represents the fight for freedom for the younger Iranian generation. (Isha Bhargava/CBC)

"My friends, young men and women in Iran are not living, it's so frustrating for me since there's not much I can do from Canada," he said. 

"Mahsa's death was like a trigger for all us young people who felt if they kept silent, this would keep happening."

Police in Iran said last Thursday that Amini, who was arrested on Sept. 13, was taken to a hospital after she allegedly had a heart attack while in custody. 

Iranian authorities have said they will launch an investigation to determine the cause of her death. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Isha Bhargava is a reporter for CBC News. She's worked for Ontario newsrooms in both Toronto and London. She loves telling current affairs and human interest stories. You can reach her at isha.bhargava@cbc.ca or on Twitter @isha__bhargava

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