Nfld. & Labrador

Half a world away from home, Iranians in St. John's watch protests with mix of fear and pride

Rally organizers in St. John’s reflect on their own emotions concerning the situation in Iran and call for renewed awareness for women’s rights and freedom.

'Jin, Jiyan, Azadi' — or 'Woman, Life and Liberty' — has become a rallying for social justice

An activist is pictured in Beirut on Oct. 2 during a demonstration protesting the death of Iranian woman Mahsa Amini. Tens of thousands of Iranians living abroad have marched on the streets of Europe, North America and beyond in support of what many believe to be a watershed moment for their home country. (Hassan Ammar/The Associated Press)

Two Iranian women in St. John's are watching what's unfolding in their home country with fear — and hope.

One of the women, "B.R." — CBC is not identifying the women due to fears for the safety of their friends and family in Iran — said she's proud of the courage being shown by people protesting the Iranian government.

"We have this expression in Farsi: 'Juneshun-o gereftan kaf-e dasteshun' — holding your life in the palm of your hand. The people of Iran are going out knowing that they could be shot, killed, detained. Any number of things could happen, and they still go out. And they stand up to these fully armoured men and I'm just so proud of how far we've come as a people," said B.R.

"It's people being extremely brave, smart, and thoughtful in how they express their anger and how they stand up for their rights, only to be met with the brick wall of the government." 

The Islamic Republic has been beset by five weeks of demonstrations that erupted after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody last month. The Kurdish-Iranian woman had been detained and taken into custody by the morality police in Tehran.

She was arrested for breaching Iran's mandatory dress code, which strictly monitors and restricts women from showing their hair and skin. Three days later, she died of injuries reportedly inflicted by the divisive arm of the police force that enforces dress code regulations. The Iranian regime has denied the allegations.

Two people hold signs at a rally. One reads: my people are fighting in the streets. They are brave and inspiring. Something big is happening in Iran. Be our voice.
Demonstrators hold signs at a rally in St. John's in September supporting the Iranian people. (Submitted by B.H.)

The activist news agency HRANA — for Human Rights Activists News Agency — said in a posting that 244 protesters have been killed in the unrest, including 32 minors. It said 28 members of the security forces were killed and more than 12,500 people had been arrested as of Thursday in protests in 114 cities and towns and some 81 universities.

Another Iranian woman living in St. John's said the protests have focused the world's attention on her home.

"We are on this island of Newfoundland and this place has a small window that we open to see what's going on in the world," said "B.H."

"And now, I'm looking through this window to see what is going on, not in the world, but in my home country. I see people are protesting on the streets that I used to work with at the university and that I used to study with. So they are very familiar to me." 

The protests, led mainly by women and young girls, have brought together people both inside and outside Iran to challenge the regime's oppression.

B.R. and B.H. helped organize three rallies in St. John's, the most recent in early October. For the women, the rallies have been a chance to show solidarity and an avenue for a basic human right: self-expression

"One of the things that makes me cry when I see videos from inside Iran is that we're all around the world," said B.R. "We're all chanting the same things. We're all singing. Just the experience of standing with a group of people that is men and women, and singing a song, is a thing that we've been robbed of. I've never had that experience before this."

B.H. said the rallies helped her to express her anger about the situation.

"I've heard from other people as well that after attending the protests, they felt better and had more hope, for the future, freedom, and for all of this to make some difference," said B.H.

Students hold a rally in protest of the Islamic regime at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver on Oct. 4. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Living with morality police

Both women lived in Iran under the morality police's ultra-conservative stance on attire.

"The morality police control how Iranian women should dress in public. You are not allowed to not wear a headscarf, but you also need to cover up your whole body," explained B.H., "so if you don't wear it properly based on their rules, they — who are everywhere — can question you and detain you. Sometimes, there can be legal consequences where they can find and jail you."

It's something they haven't forgotten, even after moving to Canada.

"I've lived here 10 years and I still have moments where I double-check if something is OK to wear," said B.R. "If, during Ramadan, I'm out on the street and drinking water, I've had moments of absolute panic where if somebody sees me, I'm scared. But then I remember that I don't live in Iran where that is a crime and you could be detained, fined, or lashed."

Prepubescent children are also regulated by the fundamentals of the regime's vice squad.

"The morality police is the entire system of control that the government has. You know, when I was in grade school, they would check that we weren't wearing pink socks — like pink socks with frills," said B.R. in bafflement. "What is it that you think, that if an eight-year-old wears pink frilly socks that make her happy, [she] is going to go against an entire religion and your entire system of morality?"

A woman in a black shirt looks directly into the camera.
Maral Karimi specializes in media and communication studies with a special interest in Iranian and Middle Eastern politics. (Submitted by Maral Karimi)

The power of protest

Despite facing intense opposition from the Iranian government, protesters continue to gather against the state's violence against its own people.

"I think people have had enough at this point, and enough people are aware of what's going on that they're standing up for women's rights, which encompasses everything, as in the slogan 'Woman, Life, Freedom,'" said B.R.

"Jin, Jiyan, Azadi" — or "Woman, Life, and Liberty" — has its roots in Kurdish, the language spoken by the marginalized Kurdish community in Iran, of which Amini was a part of. Since her death, the three words — used in the Kurdish independence movement — have become a unifying call for persistence, hope, and social justice in the face of adversity and systematic oppression.

Maral Karimi, a PhD candidate in the University of Toronto's department of social justice, said Canada is home to hundreds of thousands of Iranian diaspora — some who've immigrated, and others who are in exile.

"Canada is a very diverse country and people are in tune with — even if they're not from Iran — their neighbour's plights. Look how we stand up for Ukraine. We try our best to stand up for other countries. And I think the Iranian community has done a great job raising awareness about this issue. So we're declaring solidarity and raising public awareness of the issue."

"The ideology of the [Iranian] regime is so entrenched and entangled with women's bodies and how that is treated," said Karimi, author of Iranian Green Movement of 2009: Reverberating Echoes of Resistance.

"So I feel like in Canada, people are waking up to that in understanding that the fact that women are burning their head scarves, it's not Islamophobia. It's not the same as the laws passed on in Quebec. It's standing up to their oppressors. It's standing up to people who are limiting their choices."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nabila Qureshi is an associate producer with CBC in St. John's. You can reach her at nabila.qureshi@cbc.ca.

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