I left Iran to have my daughter, but the protests give me confidence that change is coming

Women are in the streets without scarves and standing up to the security forces. There is something new in the air

It is 2am on 21 September. The widespread protests in Iran are still going on for the fifth day in a row. I am 39 weeks and five days pregnant and my daughter is about to be born. I’m in California in the US, but I feel dizzy. There is so much going on in my birth country.

Five days before, Mahsa Amini, or as her mother called her, Zhina – “life giving” in Kurdish language – died after she was arrested by the hijab/morality police in Tehran for “bad hijab” – allegedly exposing too much of her hair or neck. She was a 22 year old woman from Saqez, a town in Kurdistan Province and she was visiting Tehran with her family. Her brother was with her when she was arrested. A few hours after her arrest she was taken to Kasra hospital where she later died.

The Islamic Republic of Iran denies harming Mahsa and claims she died of heart failure. But witnesses have said she was beaten. All for not wanting to wear a scarf.

Security forces took her body to Saqez overnight and buried her in haste in the morning. People of Saqez gathered at the funeral and didn’t leave the streets afterwards. Kurdish women took their scarves off in protest and Kurdish men stood strong in solidarity with the women chanting “Killed for a veil, how much more humiliation?” From there, protests spread to the rest of the country and cities around the world like a wildfire.

Now, the Islamic Republic of Iran is shutting down the internet and filtering Instagram so there is no witness to the brutality they are using to suppress the protests.

In the maternity unit I watch Ebrahimi Raisi, the sitting president, give a speech at the UN. The nurse comes in to check my blood pressure and move the baby monitor. Everything is fine. From her point of view, life is going on pretty much as normal. Once she leaves I cry. First just tears are running down my face and then I start sobbing. My husband comes to the bedside. “Are you having painful contractions?” I shake my head. “What’s wrong?” I squeeze his hand for a bit until I can articulate it: “Zhina didn’t do anything wrong. None of us did. But we were punished and humiliated every day. We didn’t deserve that.”

That’s why people of Iran are outraged. That’s why they are in the streets despite knowing that they might get beaten, shot or killed. But that’s also why they are not holding back their anger anymore. I saw videos of people beating security officers and overturning police cars in the past two days and there was part of me that felt joyous. The same part of me who had watched the morality police drag women on the ground because they had “improper clothing” according to Islam.

The nurse tiptoes in the dark past midnight to check on me one more time. I tell her I am awake. “Contractions keeping you up?” “No,” but I don’t explain. It’s going to take a while if I do. It is hard for many people to even imagine that somewhere in the world women are forced to wear scarves from the age of seven. No scarf meant no education and no job. There are security officers in schools and official buildings whose job is to check your clothing before you go in and there are morality police to check your clothing, everywhere, every day. It is humiliating.

But that’s not the only reason for the protests. People are fed up with poverty, the corruption, mismanagement of natural resources, and 40 years of oppression of everyone, especially religious and ethnic minorities and women. The chants in the streets are “death to dictator” and “death to Khamenei”, Iran’s supreme leader. People want the downfall of the Islamic Republic.

I hear a baby’s cry from another room. Another human being is born. I was a teenager when I decided to leave Iran because I realised I never want to bring a human being, especially another girl, into this world in Iran. My daughter is lucky. She will be born in the US. I’m know I’m going to call her Roshan, “bright” in Persian and Azerbaijani. She is going to bring light to our lives.

When my daughter is born and placed on my chest, I cry for a long time. I cry for Mahsa, for all the women who have been imprisoned for protesting against compulsory hijab and for all the women who had to live under the Sharia law in Iran and elsewhere.

“Zan, Zhian, Azadi”, people chant in the streets of Iran, “Woman, Life, Liberty.” My friend in Iran tells me there is a growing self confidence and pride in women. They are everywhere in the streets without scarves, burning their scarves, standing up to the security forces that are there to suppress them and their rights. There is something new in the air.

My daughter’s birth is not the only one happening today. Deep in my heart, I am confident that something new is born from Zhina’s death. As she was a Phoenix and from her ashes Iranian woman will rise today, and perhaps other Middle Eastern women will follow.


By Elnaz Sarbar

Elnaz Sarbar is a women’s rights activist based in California

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