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Source: The Guardian

Mar 18, 2023

As Iranian girls rise up against the iron rule of the Islamic Republic, seven women – from a boxer to a politician – talk about why they had to flee their homeland

BY Mathias Braschler and Monika Fischer

‘In a moment of solidarity, all fear fades’

Parastou Forouhar, artist

I was born and raised in Iran, in a dissident family. My parents met through their political struggle, fighting for democracy in the Shah’s time. My father was arrested again and again. As a child, I would visit him in prison. And at home there were always political meetings with my parents’ comrades, who were like family to me.

When the revolution took place, I was 16. Intellectuals, liberals, democrats, people like my parents committed themselves to the revolution, but the religious forces gained the upper hand. The Islamic Republic grew into a monster that uses tradition and religion to oppose diversity, freedom, democracy and the rights of women.

And enforces its rule with brutality. By the 1980s I had started to study art and I saw how bad it was – that repressive bleakness. It wasn’t just the veil: all freedoms were suddenly restricted. Friends of my parents were executed. There were mass arrests. Three girls from my class in high school were put in jail, and one was killed. Thousands of people died. My father was arrested and sentenced to death. We didn’t know if he would ever get out of prison, but fortunately he was released.

It took decades for an opposition to form, for people to find a language to speak out, to criticise. And among the most radical opponents were my parents. The family of those who were involved politically suffered, too.

In 1991 I came to Germany with my two little sons to study. I wanted to go back to Iran to work as an artist, but when I put on an exhibition there I was besieged by secret service agents. Instead I built a life in Germany.

One day I heard my parents had been murdered by Islamic Republic agents, in the house where I grew up. Since then, the families of victims of such murders have used the anniversaries to remember them, but also to demand truth and justice. I go to Tehran every year on the anniversary of my parents’ deaths.

This year I was fearful, but with the uprising in Iran I was determined to do my part. At the airport my luggage was searched. But when I walked out of that interrogation room, my eyes roamed round the entrance hall and I saw unveiled women. The first sign of change was these wonderful women’s hair.

It filled me with joy. On the way to my parents’ house I saw slogans against the regime sprayed on walls. Propaganda banners had been shredded and burned. In that moment of solidarity, all fear fades.

I have been living in Germany for more than 30 years as an artist, activist and art professor. Every artist draws from their lived experience. Repression and violation of human rights is not an exclusively Iranian phenomenon. It is simply a human condition. But every act of resistance is a spark of hope. In my work I use the image of a butterfly.

It is a magical creature, as thin as paper, with so many patterns. It has a poetic role in Iranian literature, and in other cultures – in Greece it represents the soul. It’s a symbol of resurrection, and it’s also my mother’s first name, Parvaneh.

As told to Mascha Malburg

‘I lost everything because I didn’t wear a hijab’

Shiva Amini, football coach

I grew up with football. When I was two, I started to play on the street with boys. I didn’t have any toys, just a ball. It was natural, something inside of me. They said to me: “You are a girl. You cannot play football with boys. You have to wear the hijab.” I remember I came home and talked with my mum and I said: “Look, I want to be a boy because a girl here cannot do anything.”

When I was 16, I started to play professional futsal [a type of five-a-side football played on a hard court]. I was a forward. Playing in a hijab is so hard. Especially when it’s warm, you cannot breathe, you cannot run. When I was asked to play in the national team, I said no. My mum called the Iranian Football Federation and told them: “Shiva doesn’t want to play with the national team. Only Super League.”

They said: “No, she has to come, she has to do everything we decide for her.” In Iran you cannot decide for yourself. It’s not just sport – it’s everything. When you go outside you have to respect their rules. If not, they arrest you. They torture you.

I built a good life in Iran. I had a house, a car, a dog. My family lived in Isfahan, I was in Tehran, and every weekend I went to see them. I was happy. But six or seven years ago I lost everything. I cannot see my family.

I was on holiday in Zurich when I found out I couldn’t go back. My family and friends called me and said: “What’s happened? What did you do?” Everybody was talking about me on social media because I had played football without a hijab with some boys in Switzerland.

I called the Iranian Football Federation and they said: “You are playing with our enemy.” Enemy? They are my friends. I saw a lawyer in Switzerland who said: “You cannot return because they will arrest you.” A lawyer in Iran told my family the same.

If I went back to Iran now, they would kill me because they are against girls, especially girls who speak out

I built a new life in Switzerland. I learned German, made friends and wanted to play with FC Zurich. But I had to leave because I was on a Schengen visa from Italy. It was terrible because I lost everything. It’s not easy to build another life from zero, but in Italy I now work as a coach in Genoa. I started with children aged six or seven, then with 15- and 16-year-olds. It’s a new life.

If I went back to Iran now, they would arrest me in the airport. They would kill me because they are against girls, especially girls who speak out, who fight them. The Islamic Republic took everything from us, except hope. Now I’m fighting against them. In Iran a girl has no rights. She cannot ride a bicycle, go to a stadium.

Sahar Khodayari set herself on fire in Tehran after she went to a football match disguised as a man and was charged with not wearing a hjiab. Every day we lose another person – and we keep fighting.

I’m also angry with Fifa. They should ban the Iranian regime’s football team. They did it with Russia. What difference is there between Russia and Iran?

As told to Mathias Braschler

‘The day my father died was the day I truly realised what the Islamic Republic is’

Mina Khani, writer

My parents weren’t political in an organised sense. But they were against the state from the beginning, and were educated. So we had books at home that were banned, videotapes that were forbidden. They told me: “You don’t talk about that outside.” So I realised there are two worlds: one where we live openly at home, and a world on the street where it is dangerous to act that way.

Through illegal videotapes I heard about Michael Jackson and Madonna, and I wanted to be like them. I started dancing at home, and writing, but when I got to school I found you couldn’t write everything you’d like to write. I kept my writing to myself for years.

From seven, you had to wear a drab grey uniform at school and cover your head. In our family, that was not a tradition. I had a problem with it and never wore it correctly.

I was 16 when the reformist candidate Khatami was nominated for president. People voted for him because they thought he was different: he was more culturally open; he laughed. My father was sceptical and by the time I went to university, he had been proved right: the student movement had been massively suppressed.

When my father went to Germany to see family, he arranged for me to be accepted into a university there so I’d have the chance to apply for a visa. I wanted to stay in Iran, play my part in the student movement. In the end I was expelled for “moral” reasons. We sat with men in the cafeteria, in protest at gender segregation.

I started smoking because only men were allowed to do so in the university. As students, we went into the city and talked to people on the street, and it was noticed. I got the visa a few weeks after being kicked out. Then I left Iran.

My father died in 2017, when the nationwide protests began.

He and my mother had only been able to visit me once in Germany. I couldn’t be at the funeral service. I think the day I lost my father was the day I truly realised what the Islamic Republic is. What exile is.

I continued to work. I wrote articles about the situation in Iran, even just after my father died. Then when things calmed down in Iran, I collapsed. The doctor asked: “What was the trigger?” I told him and he said: “OK, it is more than normal that you are in this position now.”

Everything is different this time. As Iranian feminists, we are glad the whole country is speaking up. “Woman, Life, Freedom” has become the slogan not only of the Kurds but of all Iranians. Young people, children, are being murdered: the moment is so important politically and historically, I find the strength to continue telling their stories, even if I only sleep three hours a night.

When I see the videos from Iran, I can see how they fight, how they organise, what slogans they shout, how they chase the principals out of the school, insult the militias, tear down pictures of Khamenei and Khomeini in the classrooms. So many are doing it. They are only 16, 15, 13, and they have heard their classmates are being arrested, murdered. I don’t think they will stop fighting.

As told to Stephan Maus

‘After I won a fight in France, my coach got a call warning him we were in danger’

Sadaf Khadem, boxer

I grew up in Tehran in a normal family, where education, sport and work were all highly valued. I started swimming at five and playing basketball at nine. I went on to play professionally, and I always worked with men.

One day my coach said to me: “You play really well, but if you want to be more of a warrior, try boxing.” I used to play basketball with men in the park. So in 2016 I asked a boxing coach to come there and give me some lessons.

But two or three times we were disturbed by the police: “What is this? Why are you doing this?” I was wearing a coat and a veil, but the problem for them wasn’t my appearance – it was the fact that I was boxing. After the revolution, boxing for men was forbidden for 12 years because it was considered an American sport.

Everything they see as American is forbidden: McDonald’s, KFC. We switched to the gym and I trained there every week for two years. But I wanted to fight because in my eyes a boxer who doesn’t is not a boxer.

By then I was 18, and my relationship with my mother was strained because I’d decided to stop my studies. I moved into my own apartment and started training with a new coach. He sexually assaulted me there.

In Iran a lot of girls want to box, but because there is no official federation to supervise their training, a lot of them have been victims of sexual violence in private gyms. For me it was very psychologically damaging and I had to stop boxing for a while. I didn’t tell my mother exactly what had happened, just that I had a problem with the coach. Yoga and meditation helped a lot, and slowly I regained the strength to start boxing again.

It was dangerous for me to have a lot of media coverage, because of what would happen on my return from the fight

I started working with the coach of the national team, who already had girls training with him. I got in touch with a French-Iranian former champion and coach, and I sent him a message saying: “Can you fix up a boxing match?” He helped me get a visa and I had my first fight in Royan in France.

When I got there, I was always in front of the cameras, answering questions. As an Iranian, it was dangerous for me to have a lot of media coverage. I was under a lot of stress – not because of the fight, but because of what would happen on my return.

In Iran I wore the veil out of respect for the rules. In France you are not allowed to display religious symbols in sport. So I respected the rules of the French boxing federation by not wearing the veil. I won the fight, and three days later I was on the way back to Iran when my coach got a call from someone he knew in the government, warning him that if he came home there would be threats against him, and it would be risky for me, too.

My mum agreed that it would be better for me to stay in France. I got an athlete’s visa for six months, and in July 2019 I decided to stay in France.

The hardest moment came in October 2021 when my mother died of Covid. Since moving to France I’d seen her only once, in Turkey. I wanted to leave France; I felt I couldn’t go on. But I had promised my mother that I would make a success of my life. Three months after she died, I started my own business.

I registered a clothing brand and showcased my designs in a fashion show. I continued with my studies and my work for a construction company. Out of 18 fights, I have won 14.

I don’t see my decision to leave as a sacrifice. If I hadn’t taken the risk, I wouldn’t be the first Iranian woman to win a boxing fight. Even if I die tomorrow, I will always be Sadaf Khadem, the first female Iranian boxer. I’ll have left my mark on history.

I am proud of the Iranian people, their courage. It’s shocking that in 2022 Mahsa Amini could be killed because of a piece of cloth. Many other girls and boys have been killed and imprisoned. With all the restrictions on their freedom, they’re still fighting. I hope that in 50 years we will have an Iran more like France.

As told to Stephan Maus

‘My mother broke a taboo being divorced with two young girls’

Afsar Sonia Shafie, film-maker

My parents got divorced when I was five and my sister was six and a half. It was very traumatic. My father was an alcoholic and incapable of taking care of the family. And at some point my mother, who had been fighting depression all her life, just couldn’t take it any more.

It was kind of taboo to be a divorcee with two young girls. That’s why my grandparents didn’t want to take us in. They wanted my mother to remarry, and she refused. Twice we ended up on the street with all our belongings, and sometimes at night we had to take my mother to a psychiatric clinic.

So my childhood was tough, but my sister and I always wanted to have a better life. And we knew from an early age that education was our escape.

When the revolution happened, I was very young, I didn’t understand a lot. I was just seeing demonstrations on the streets, young men, like hippies, with long hair.

Wearing the hijab felt strange. I didn’t want to wear it. I was longing for these white sneakers. Finally my mother got me them, then suddenly they changed the rules and I couldn’t wear them to school. My mother said: “I cannot just go and buy you another pair.” So I dyed them black.

I remember that day: I went to school and my hair was a little bit out of my scarf at the front. And the woman at the door said I couldn’t go in. I had to cover my hair properly. Then she said: “What happened to your white sneakers?” Because they looked terrible after colouring. They used them as an example to everyone else: look, she coloured her sneakers black. You all have to do that.

By the time I applied to go to film school in Lausanne, I was divorced myself. All the men in the family tried to distance their wives from me: if you were a free-minded, independent woman who didn’t follow sharia rules, society saw you as a whore. I wasn’t sad. I just thought: “OK, good. I’m going to build my life. Now I’m free.”

After my divorce, I got pregnant. I had a boyfriend but we weren’t married, so it was illegal. Even if I had decided to keep the child, I wouldn’t have been able to get ID for them. A fatherless child would have been considered illegitimate and you get your identity from the man, not from the woman. So I had to have an abortion, using pills bought on the black market.

After studying film, I got married in 2001 and moved to Zurich because my husband is Swiss. My film City Walls: My Own Private Teheran was released in 2006. It’s not really a political film. It’s about women and how education helped them improve their lives. It portrayed three generations: my grandmother, my mother and me. But of course politics is the background to everything.

When I went back to Iran in 2008, many people had seen the movie. I was pregnant and arrived at the airport really stressed, but I wanted to see my family. I handed over my passport and the guy behind the window didn’t give it back. He said: “You have to wait there.” Suddenly a lot of guys came with walkie-talkies and guns.

They said: “Go to your mother and don’t go anywhere else. We will contact you.” They called me for an interview and made me wait hours. Then I went to a room and a man asked me questions like: “Are you a feminist?” I said: “What is a feminist?” I just played a stupid woman.

He asked: “Why did you make the film?” I said: “To say thank you to my mum because she did a lot for us.” He asked if I got money from the CIA. I told him: “Of course not.” But they were paranoid. They thought there was a hidden plan and they told me: “We are watching you.”

I don’t want my son to grow up without his mum, so as long as this regime is in power in Iran, I don’t see myself going back. But I feel guilty. On my Instagram page I don’t post anything personal: it’s all about Iran, anything to amplify my sisters’ and brothers’ voices.

I would like to introduce my culture, my country, to my son. He feels half-Iranian, but he has never seen Iran or my family, except in a video call. It breaks my heart.

As told to Mascha Malburg

‘I never chose to leave Iran. I was forced to’

Shohreh Bayat, chess arbiter

My father introduced me to chess. It was one of very few sports I could compete in while wearing mandatory hijab. I fell in love with the game – it is very beautiful and you are always learning. We Iranians believe we invented the game – debatable, of course, but at many family gatherings in Iran we would play chess.

At the beginning I was not allowed to compete against men because it was illegal, but my father used to invite strong chess players to our house so I could improve. I became the best female chess player in my city. Then my father managed to get government permission for me to be able to compete against the men as well.

When I was 12 I started to go to chess tournaments and became a women’s champion in my country for my age group. International tournaments were a shock for me because I was quite a religious girl. I was brainwashed at school. When I started to travel to other countries I saw women without the hijab.

I saw freedom. They used to tell us: “If you behave like that, you are going to hell.” There were lots of conversations with my best friends, other chess players my age. We were questioning things and eventually found the courage to talk about it.

At tournaments you would see girls wearing beautiful dresses, but you had to wear loose, ugly uniforms, and someone from the “morality police” would accompany you. I was forced to share rooms with these people. They would intervene in every single thing, including your food.

They would say you are not allowed to shake hands with other genders. At the same time you don’t want to disrespect other people. What am I going to do? Even going to a free country, you have to wear this hijab, be a poster girl for the country. It’s like being a slave.

I never chose to leave Iran. I was forced to. I became an official overseeing tournaments and was chosen to be chief arbiter of the world chess championship final in Shanghai. It was the biggest achievement ever for a female referee from Iran in any sport. But the only thing that mattered to the ayatollahs was my hair.

I took colourful scarves to the tournament because this was the best I could do with this mandatory hijab. I showed some hair at the front and back, and after the first day I received a message from the president of the Iranian chess federation telling me my hijab was not appropriate.

I felt many emotions, taking off my hijab for the tournament, but I was happy not to be wearing this fabric prison

I decided to send them a message. The next day, I pushed my scarf back even more. I had no idea how this decision was going to change my life.

Within a few days, the Iranian media were reporting that I was protesting against mandatory hijab. The president of the federation was saying: “She has nothing to do with us”, trying to save themselves and making me a pariah. And privately he was sending messages asking me to write an apology letter, to post it on my Instagram.

I had to take a side: the side of the regime, or the side of freedom, the side of Iranian people. It was an easy decision to take off my hijab and go to the tournament. I felt many different emotions, but I was happy not to be wearing this fabric prison.

I said in an interview I wanted to come back to Iran on condition that they guaranteed my safety. I said the same thing to the president of the federation, but they refused to do it. In Iran the punishment for not wearing a headscarf is imprisonment and lashes. For me it could be even worse because I was an official in a tournament.

I shared my story with the media because I had to find a safe country to go to. In 2019 I had been to a chess tournament in Gibraltar and I had a visa to go back there in 2020. My friends told me I should come to the UK and apply for asylum. It’s not easy to be a refugee, to leave your loved ones behind, but sometimes you don’t have a choice. After 18 months, my husband joined me here.

One of our activists has compared the hijab to the Berlin Wall. If it collapses, the regime is going to collapse as well. This is their red line. But it’s not just about the hijab.

We are fighting for human rights, for women’s rights. I think it is clear to each and every Iranian that the people are going to win this. That’s why we call it a revolution. The regime is delaying the process by killing innocent people, but they cannot stop it.

As told to Mascha Malburg and Mathias Braschler

‘As a woman, you cannot laugh loudly. You cannot dance. You cannot ride a bicycle’

Darya Safai, politician

I was four at the time of the Iranian revolution. Then the ayatollahs came to power. The first time I realised I was discriminated against, I was six. It was the first day of school and my mother said: “Darling, if you don’t wear that headscarf and uniform, you cannot go to school.”

With the headscarf came lots of other things. As a woman, you cannot laugh loudly. You cannot dance. You cannot ride a bicycle, swim or play with friends on the street. You are different. Only when we went to my father’s remote village could I take the headscarf off and feel the sun and the wind in my hair.

It felt like freedom. When I went to the University of Tehran to study dentistry, we experienced gender apartheid first-hand: we were not allowed to sit next to boys; we were not even allowed to look at them or talk to them.

In 1999, when I was 24, there was a big demonstration at the university, and my husband was one of the leaders. When we came together it was like little drops of water that became a river. The regime was afraid and they bloodily suppressed it. After a week of street protests, the intelligence services of the Islamic Republic came to arrest me at my parents’ house.

I will never forget the look on my father’s face, as if it was the last time he would see his daughter.

I was taken to a place for political prisoners. There were days of questioning and intimidation. Every time the guards listened to the TV and I heard Khamenei, the so-called supreme leader, talking, I thought: “He is writing my execution right now.” We were just people who wanted freedom, but they told us we were spies.

After 24 days they released me on bail in the hope I would lead them to my husband, who was in hiding. I met him secretly and we decided to leave. I cried for days because I had to say goodbye to all the things I knew and loved. But I decided to go and be my countrymen’s voice rather than die in the ayatollahs’ prison.

The first years in Belgium were hard. I was with my husband and I had good neighbours, but I had to study again for my dentist’s licence, in another language.

As a woman in Iran, I had always wanted to go with my family to a stadium and support our national football team. Here in the west, I am free to watch the Belgian team, or Iran if they play abroad. So I made a banner: “Let Iranian women enter their stadium”, took it to the games and showed it in full view of the cameras.

My campaign went around the world, to the Rio Olympics in 2016, to the US, to every country in Europe. I wrote to Fifa and asked them to make it clear to the Iranian regime that any kind of discrimination is prohibited. Inside Iran, women would go to stadiums disguised as a man with a moustache, film it and post it on social media.

When I saw the latest protests in Iran, it was a flashback to 22 years ago. I thought: “These young people have the same dreams as me. Let’s realise them together and take the country back.”

What we are going through now is the beginning of the end. This is a revolution led by women. I’m a member of parliament in a European country. But if I return to Iran, they will jail me.

In my dreams sometimes I am back in Iran. Even in the 21st century, they still have the “morality police”, who will come to me if my headscarf is not worn properly. I wake up from my nightmares and think: “Oh, I am safe.” But I carry a heavy load because I am not free until those people are free.

As told to Stephan Maus

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