As Iranian women expose their heads and burn Islamic veils during demonstrations that have faced nationwide repression, hopes and emotions are also high among those living abroad.
In Iran, at least 17 people have been killed in protests that broke out after Iranian authorities announced the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on September 16.
Amini, from the northeastern province of Kurdistan, was arrested by the Islamic Republic’s feared vice squad, which enforces the strict dress code for women.
Activists say she died after a fatal blow to the head, a statement denied by authorities, who have promised an investigation.
“(She) went to Tehran to visit her family. I told my mother I could have easily been, or my sister, or my cousins,” said Sara, a 48-year-old teacher living in France. Like several others who were interviewed, she asked not to publish her last name.
“That girl wasn’t even an activist, just a normal girl like me… That’s what’s different this time,” she added. “It’s what has affected and shocked people.”
Sara nervously recalled being arrested herself by the vice squad on a trip to Iran when she was in her thirties.
She was held in the same detention center in Iran where Amini was held and was “very scared,” she said.
– ‘Women in charge’ –
Iranians, including women, have previously staged highly visible anti-regime demonstrations, the most memorable in 2009.
“What’s unprecedented about these protests is that women are in charge,” said Azadeh Kian, a sociology professor specializing in Iran at Paris Cite University.
“The economic crisis, unemployment and political immobility” have been the main focus of demonstrations over the past five years, Kian said.
“But this time we hear protests, not only against the general situation in the country, but also for women’s rights. That is an important change.”
Videos posted on social media have documented many female protesters taking off their veils to reveal their hair and waving their head coverings angrily.
They chant slogans, including “Woman, life, freedom!”
Women, especially in Kurdistan Province, have “burned their veils to burn the regime’s ideological foundations,” Kian said. “It’s a very strong symbol.”
Other women have posted videos of them cutting their hair in protest.
But there has been a strong response to the demonstrations.
Oslo-based NGO Iran Human Rights has reported that 31 civilians have been killed, almost twice the official toll of at least 17.
“My heart and stomach are so tense that I can’t speak,” said Mona, an Iranian researcher in her 40s.
Someone she knew was caught on Wednesday in clouds of tear gas released by police in Tehran.
“It’s hard to think about that now, my brain is freezing,” Mona added. “Several people I know are now in prison.”
– ‘Pressure cooker’ –
Under the vice squad, Iranian women have to cover their hair. It is also forbidden to wear jackets that do not reach below the knee, tight pants, jeans with holes or brightly colored outfits.
Sara recalls her accusers attacking her for her shorts and lack of socks.
She was taken in a minibus to the detention center, where women were held in underground cells.
“I was terrified because I had heard rumors of violence. I grabbed one of the poles in the stairs, crying and screaming.”
In Sara’s case, her mother was able to free her around midnight the day of her arrest, although she had to leave her ID card behind until her daughter completed an hour-long “behavior correction” course.
Sara said that since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran there has been “a build-up of repression for 43 years”.
“It’s like a pressure cooker and now it exploded. I hope it continues like this,” she said. “Women say they don’t want any more of it.”
She believes that the women who take part in today’s demonstrations are mostly “young, around 20, with no fear and so much hope.
“We’ve been waiting for these days in Iran for so long,” said Saeideh Mirzaei, 38, a doctoral student at the University of Manitoba in Canada who has organized demonstrations in Winnipeg.
Her feelings were divided between “anger” and “joy,” Mirzaei said. She would continue to protest “as long as there are people on the streets in Iran”.
Outside the United Nations building in New York, 44-year-old healthcare provider Fereshteh took part in a vociferous protest “in support of Iranians in Iran, who are fighting for their rights and risking their lives”.
Women in Iran “set their veils on fire for the police, which means so much when you’re dealing with killers,” she added.
“They are risking their lives, which means they are done and so sick and tired of this crazy regime that is in power.”
In Geneva, 63-year-old Azadeh demonstrated outside UN headquarters.
“We have an anger that we can’t really control,” she said, her thoughts on her family who still live in Iran.
“The veil should no longer be obligatory. We should be free!” she said.
“Iranians are very angry. They have dared to say that they have had enough” of the morality police and other forms of repression, Azadeh added. “When will they stop?”