Protesters march through downtown Ottawa, burn headscarf in demonstration against Iran

With the death of a young Iranian woman in police custody sparking demonstrations around the world, hundreds of people took to the streets of Ottawa Sunday to protest against Iran's Islamic Republic.

Crowds pledged solidarity with Iranians after woman dies in custody of morality police

Protesters gather while a headscarf burns in the picture's foreground.
Demonstrators burn a scarf at a protest against the Iranian government on Sunday. The protest was inspired by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who'd been arrested by Iran's morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly. (David Bates/CBC)

With the death of a young Iranian woman in police custody sparking demonstrations around the world, hundreds of people also took to the streets of Ottawa Sunday to protest against the Iranian government.

The 22-year-old woman died last week while in custody of Iran's morality police. Mahsa Amini was arrested for allegedly wearing a hijab improperly, and while police said she died of a heart attack and was not mistreated, her family has cast doubt on that account. 

"This could have happened to [any] one of us," said Taraneh, a protester who lived in Iran for about 30 years. CBC is withholding her last name due to her safety concerns. 

Taraneh said she and her sister were once arrested by the morality police while in Iran and held for five or six hours.  She said she's frustrated that Iranian women are forced to comply with the strict hijab requirements. 

"The women in Iran are not free at all," she said. "We are tired of this system."

Movement larger than just opposition to hijab 

The protesters marched past Parliament Hill on Wellington Street, down Metcalfe Street and onto Queen Street, where they gathered to chant and burn a scarf in protest.

Police estimated about 1,000 people took part.

"It's not just a matter of hijab anymore. It's not a matter of the morality police forces anymore," said organizer Rosa Kheirandish, who was born in Iran and moved to Canada in 2001.

"They just want the mandatory Islamic Republic to go."

Kheirandish said she helped organize the protest so that other Iranians could claw back their freedom from the oppressive government — starting with freedom of religion.

"[They want] that same kind of freedom that we have here in Canada," said Kheirandish. "I mean, thank God we have it here." 

She said she also hopes the protest raises awareness of what Iranians are facing.

A man in a suit and sunglasses speaks into a microphone while protesters holding signs gather around him and film him.
Some of the hundreds of protesters who rallied in downtown Ottawa on Sunday. (David Bates/CBC)

Protestors concerned about internet access

Iranians have experienced widespread internet disruptions amid days of mass protests against the government, including a loss of access to Instagram and WhatsApp, two of the last Western social media platforms available in the country.

Kheirandish fears that the disconnection will precede government violence.

In November 2019, Iran imposed a five-day nationwide internet shutdown to stifle protests against fuel price hikes. By the time access was restored, Amnesty International said over 100 demonstrators had been killed by security forces — a figure rejected as "speculative" by the government.

Another protester, Lora Solaimani, said she was concerned internet outages may also impede Iranians' ability to call to the international community for help. 

"They've cut the internet so that we can't actually see what's going on," said Solaimani. "I think that needs international attention."

Oppressive government a 'risk' to world

Protestor Rahil Golipoor, a risk analyst for the federal government, said the oppression of human rights happening in Iran could have a harmful impact worldwide.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran is a risk for the world," Golipoor said, adding that the actions by the country's morality police could influence other governments. "They are a virus starting in Iran, but they don't stay in Iran." 

Golipoor said she is demonstrating not just against Iran, but to send a global message against all religious and gender-based discrimination. 

"We stand for the future of the world," said Golipoor. "We don't stay silent for any dictator [or] religion."

With files from Avanthika Anand, Darren Major, The Associated Press and Thomson Reuters