‘An innocent and ordinary young woman’
A protest outside the Iranian consulate in Istanbul last year after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Iranian morality police.
By FARNAZ FASIHI
Her face has lit up a billboard in New York City’s Times Square, and has been painted on murals in Paris and Berlin. It has been splashed on the Barcelona soccer team’s private jet and commemorated on T-shirts with the red, white and green colors of Iran’s flag. Vienna and Los Angeles have even named streets after her.
At rallies across Iran and the world last year, tens of thousands of men and women waved placards with her face shouting, “Say her name: Mahsa Amini. Mahsa Amini.”
Saturday marked one year since the 22-year-old woman from Saghez, a small city in a Kurdish province in northwest Iran, died in the custody of the country’s morality police on allegations of violating the hijab law, which mandates women and girls cover their hair and bodies.
Her death in Tehran ignited monthslong protests nationwide, led by women and girls who tossed off their headscarves in defiance and demanded the end to the Islamic Republic’s rule. The uprising bearing her name, the “Mahsa movement,” morphed into the most serious challenge to the legitimacy of Iran’s ruling clerics since they took power in 1979.
Security forces responded with a violent crackdown, arresting thousands and killing at least 500 protesters, including children and teenagers, rights groups have said. Seven protesters have been executed, and even relatives of demonstrators have been targeted.
On Saturday, security agents swarmed the neighborhood of Amini’s family home and prevented her parents from attending a commemoration they had planned at her gravesite. Her father was briefly detained for interrogation and released Friday, according to Saleh Nikbakht, the family’s lawyer. To further prevent visitors from visiting Amini’s grave in Saghez, authorities imposed checkpoints along the road leading to the cemetery and intentionally opened a nearby dam to flood it, residents said on social media.
But if Amini in death became a global icon, the young woman with brown eyes and long dark hair was also a daughter, a sister, a niece and a favorite granddaughter. In recent interviews, Amini’s father, an uncle, two cousins and a family friend described her as an unlikely candidate for global fame, a person whose story has resonated so widely and deeply precisely because she could be any girl living and walking the streets of Iran.
Amini was quiet and reserved and treated everyone around her with a kind of old-school politeness, they said. She avoided politics and activism, and she did not follow the news. She didn’t have many friends and mostly socialized with her relatives, family members said.
Her mother was her best friend and her biggest influence, they said, and the two cooked, hiked and listened to music together. On the day she was arrested, walking with her family in Tehran, she was wearing a long black robe that belonged to her mother and a headscarf. The morality police arrested her on allegations of violating the hijab rules.
“She was an innocent and ordinary young woman from a middle-class family who was just starting to discover her adult path,” said Vafa Aeili, her 43-year-old uncle, who left Iran for Finland a few weeks ago. “She was very inquisitive, always asking me questions, always seeking advice about what to do, how to improve her studies and organize her work.”
Iran stepped up crackdowns on dissidents before the anniversary of Amini’s death with a new wave of arrests. Another uncle of hers, Safa Aeili, was detained in a raid on his home in Sanandaj last week. Her father, Amjad Amini, has been interrogated multiple times recently and pressured to cancel Saturday’s commemorations.
Amini’s parents issued a statement on their Instagram accounts this month saying that they planned to hold a “traditional and religious ceremony” at her gravesite Saturday to honor their daughter but asked that people “avoid any violence or reactions to violence.”
Amini was born into a Kurdish family of modest means but deeply entrenched in their ethnic community and its traditions and cultures. Her parents were mindful of potential state discrimination that their daughter might face as an ethnic minority. So they gave her two names: Mahsa, for official documents, and a Kurdish name, Jina, which means eternal. That was the name everyone who knew her used.
The family was tightknit, with conservative values. Some members of Amini’s extended family are religious and observe Muslim practices such as praying and fasting, but faith was never enforced, Aeili said.
Amini’s father worked for the state social security agency, retiring about a year before her death. Her mother, Mozhgan Eftekhari, was a homemaker known for her renditions of classical Persian songs. Her parents lost their firstborn son, Armin, at the age of 5, from food poisoning and lack of proper medical care, family members said. When their daughter was born, they were overjoyed and overprotective, Aeili said.
The Iranian government has said that Amini died while in police custody because of underlying medical issues. Her family has said she had no health issues, and that she died because police beat her. A photo of Amini in a coma in the hospital with blood dripping from her ear and tubes in her mouth went viral, further undermining the government’s narrative.
Saleh Nikbakht, the family’s lawyer, said no one has been arrested in Amini’s case because the coroner’s office rejects the assertion by her family and doctors that she was killed from a blow to the lower part of her skull.
On Saturday, protests honoring Amini on the year after her death were planned in more than 50 cities across the world, including Washington, New York, London and Sydney.
For members of the Amini family, the anniversary brings some solace, in that their daughter’s death has galvanized Iranians to seek change. But it also brings pain and regret.
They had traveled to Tehran on that week in September to visit Amini’s aunt and buy clothes to stock the shop. They had spent a week at the Caspian Sea, after which Amini had asked if they could skip the drive to Tehran and instead fly back home, her uncle said.
“I will never forgive myself as the head of the family because I was the one who insisted we go to Tehran,” her father said.