Iranians in N.B. speak out after death of young woman in custody in Iran
Mahsa Amini was killed after being detained by Iran's morality police for not having her hair fully covered
It cost Alireza Nonahal about $15 to speak with his parents for less than 20 minutes.
After the Sept. 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman who died while detained by morality police enforcing the Islamic Republic's strict restrictions on women's dress, Nonahal was unable to reach his family for three days.
It's not the first time the University of New Brunswick student has had trouble reaching family in Iran. Nonahal, who goes by Alex, was living in Turkey in 2019 when protests over sudden fuel price increases triggered the Iranian government to cut off all internet access.
It's been ten days since Amini's death, and internet access is still limited. It's easier for Nonahal to reach his family during the day using WhatsApp with a VPN connection, but the Iranian government has blocked most major social media platforms.
Using a special phone plan, he can sometimes catch his parents for short conversations. While the protests aren't as prevalent where they live in the northern part of the country, Nonahal has heard stories of police violence from friends who live where the rallies are still going strong.
The situation isn't good, he said, but he's been keeping busy here in Canada.
Nonahal was one of a handful of Iranians in New Brunswick who organized a memorial outside Fredericton City Hall last week for Mahsa Amini. There was good turnout, in his opinion, from both Iranians and non-Iranians, and reporters from St. Thomas University's student newspaper covered the event.
"It was really important to me to be able to share this information so the whole world actually understands what is going on in the country, especially right now with all the protests, that people are being killed and the women there are being killed," he said.
Still, he thinks a bigger event is possible, and he's working with other organizers to plan a second one, either in downtown Fredericton or in front of the UNB campus library.
Nonahal said the protests happening now feel different than in 2019. In his view, more people are paying attention. The aftermath of Amini's death has sparked protests around the globe, catching the attention of politicians and celebrities alike.
A film student with an interest in pursuing a career in television, Nonahal has been making video content on Instagram about what's happening in Iran.
Social media is one of the key reasons why he thinks the story of Mahsa Amini has found its way into news outlets around the world. The hashtag #mahsaamini has gone viral on Twitter and is gaining popularity on platforms like Instagram and TikTok.
All of the attention on Iran and the hijab has also been cause for some criticism of how western media and politicians are characterizing the conflict, and whether conversations about the protests are bleeding into anti-Muslim sentiments and condemnation of the hijab itself.
Nonahal said he's observed some of these discussions, but for him, the protests are about democracy and the freedom to choose. Women shouldn't be told what they can or can't wear, he said.
"If you want to have your hijab, if you believe in Islam, that's great, good for you," he said. "If there's someone who doesn't believe in Islam or doesn't want to have hijab, or believes in Islam but just doesn't want to have hijab, that's their business."
'We just want freedom'
Nonahal isn't alone in his emphasis on freedom. Two Iranian women who attended the memorial in Fredericton last week are also speaking out.
Maryam, who asked that the CBC not use her last name to protect her family still in Iran, came to New Brunswick three years ago with her friend Samira Amjadian. As Christians, they say they could have faced time in prison had they stayed in Iran.
The two spoke with CBC News together, and they said what they want is for women in Iran to have the same rights they have in Canada.
"We just want freedom," said Amjadian.
"Like here," Maryam said, "some people have hijab, some people don't have the hijab."
The two women have plans to attend more protests, despite their worry about Iranian public agents taking their photograph. Nonahal had the same concern, which is why he did not provide a photo of himself to CBC News.
When they heard about Mahsa Amini's death, Maryam and Amjadian said they had to do something. They say Mahsa could have been anyone.
"She could be my sister," Amjadian said.
Like Nonahal, the two women have been active on social media and searching out whatever video content people in Iran have been able to post. With their limited internet access, Maryam said she feels a responsibility to be their voice.
"They don't have internet but we have internet," she said. "This is not fair, and we have to do something for them."