1 year after Mahsa Amini's death, Iranian activists still fighting for freedom despite regime's cruelty

Amini became a symbol of resistance that sparked widespread protests.

September 19, 2023, 6:02 AM

On Sept. 16, 2022, Mahsa Amini was detained by Iran's morality police for allegedly violating the country's hijab law. The 22-year-old Kurdish woman's death in police custody triggered Iran's longest anti-government protests since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Amini became a symbol of resistance that sparked the "Woman, Life, Freedom" movement, prompting protests and rallying all generations and sexes to the streets fighting to be free from a violent regime.

For the past year, ABC News has been following the movement, talking to women directly involved in the moment and facing the regime's cruel tactics. Many say they hope to return one day to be able to live freely.

A portrait of Mahsa Amini is held during a rally calling for regime change in Iran following the death of Amini, a young woman who died after being arrested in Tehran by Iran's notorious "morality police," in Washington, Oct. 1, 2022.
Cliff Owen/AP, FILE

Two Iranian activists recall learning of Amini's death and the fear it inspired in their communities. Their real names, identities and locations are being withheld for safety reasons.

"The majority of people, including Kurds, who were discriminated against thought that it could be possible that one day, that this could be their own child," one of the women said.

"On the day Mahsa's body was repatriated to Kurdistan, I joined the protest. The Islamic Republic was firing on protesters indiscriminately. I was hit in the rib cage by a bullet," the other women said.

The two women, facing safety concerns and direct violence from attending the protests, say they were left with no choice but to leave.

Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist and activist, has been involved with several campaigns against compulsory head covers in the Islamic Republic. She has been exiled since 2009 due to her reporting on corrupt officials.

Last October, Alinejad gave a talk at the Oslo Freedom Forum about the death of Amini and the reality of life for women living under the Iranian regime. She told the story of Roya Piraei, a young Iranian feminist who protested against Amini's death and whose beloved mother Minoo Majidi, was shot and killed.

Still mourning the loss of her mother, Roya was unable to find the words to speak to ABC News, though her sister, Mahsa Piraei, recalls the painful memory of her mother's death.

"Woman, Life, Freedom is my mother," Piraei said.

For those still on the ground in Iran, the dangers they face are unimaginable. Several women captured video diaries for ABC News showing what life is like under the rule of a ruthless regime.

A police motorcycle burns during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's "morality police", in Tehran, Iran Sept. 19, 2022.

One woman detailed her experience in jail, saying, "I was not allowed to have a lawyer either during my arrest, my interrogation or any other phase of processing my case."

"The first time I was tortured was when I stepped into the intelligence detention center. They touched my private parts with the pretext of checking if I had drugs," the woman said.

Iran's top Sunni cleric admitted on social media last December that he had received reports from prisoners confirming the ongoing "sexual assault on female prisoners" was spreading "with the intention of humiliating, suppressing and forcing confessions."

There has been no public response from the regime.

Some women jailed in Iran have reported that once they are in prison, the morality police are raping them or drugging them. Alinejad says she has heard similar reports.

"Khomeini, all the clerics and more are telling us that we forced you to wear hijab because it's good for your dignity. Now, see, the same clerical regime, have no dignity, have no morale and they rape women, sexually harassed them in prison," Alinejad said.

Some Iranians say the regime's use of sexual violence to instill fear is not working.

People, carrying banners and flags, stage a demonstration in solidarity with protestors in Iran, which was triggered by the Sept. 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody, on Jan. 21, 2023, at Farragut Square, in Washington, D.C.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Raha, whose full name and identity are being withheld for her safety, says the flames of the Woman, Life, Freedom revolution are still burning strong within the women forgoing their hijab in public, even if people are no longer taking to the streets in protest.

"Each woman who is walking without a hijab anywhere on the streets of Iran, Tehran or any other city, she is carrying 40 years of fear with her," Raha said.

"I am a citizen of this country and it is my home. I won't be a slave and I won't be the woman I used to be a year ago," Raha said.

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