Opinion: Died for showing a few locks of hair

Editor’s Note: Marina Nemat is the author of two memoirs, “The prisoner of Tehran” and “After Tehran”. She has received awards for her writing and human rights work. Nemat is a member of the Renew Democracy Initiative’s Frontlines of Freedom project. The views expressed in this comment are hers. You view more views on CNN.


Mahsa Amini died because she let the world see some strands of her hair. She was 22, she was beautiful and full of hope and promise. She died in the custody of the Iranian Morality Police. She was neither the first nor she will be the last.

Iranian officials say she died after suffering a “heart attack” and falling into a coma (she was detained for allegedly breaking hijab rules). But Amini’s family – and protesters across the country – aren’t buying it. Watching dramatic images of protesters burning hijabs, haircuts and violent clashes with security forces shows how little has changed since my adolescence at the hands of police brutality and the Revolutionary Guard.

I was 13 when the Islamic revolution overthrew the Iranian monarchy in 1979. Despite promises from revolutionary leaders to expand social freedoms, women’s rights to self-expression were eroded within a year. Activities like dancing, wearing bikinis, and even holding our boyfriends hands in public have become largely off-limits.

I was one of those who spoke out against the regime and paid the price, albeit not as expensive as some of my fellow activists. At the age of 16 I was accused of being an anti-revolutionary and sent to the infamous Evin prison in Tehran.

Even now, decades later, every night when I go to bed, I think of my cellmates. Many died, executed by the Islamic Republic of Iran in the 1980s. And those who survived, like me, were tortured in prison. The guards and investigators, all men, tied us to bare beds in small, windowless rooms that stank of sweat, urine and fear, and tied the soles of our feet with cables: heavy, hard and cruel. It hurt so much I couldn’t even scream. I was later led to a mock execution, threatened and raped. I was practically a child and so were many of my cellmates. We had dared to protest against the fanatical and autocratic laws of the newly formed regime with Ayatollah Khomeini as supreme leader.

I was arrested on January 15, 1982, more than 40 years ago. At the time, I would never have believed it if someone had told me that in 2022 I would have stayed up at night in my bed in Canada, thinking of the innocent young women still beaten to death in Iran for “immoral”. In the Islamic Republic, beauty remains a mortal sin.

When I was in Evin, I kept telling myself that the Iranian people would save me and my cellmates. We were the daughters of Iran. We have been violated. We had been terribly and brutally offended. We waited and waited, but no one came. The corpses kept piling up, but no one came.

Our parents, friends and neighbors were terrified. They had heard of torture and mass executions. The regime had guns, mafia, armies, torturers and prisons. I suppose the good people decided to cut their losses and leave us dead. Those of us who survived and returned home have hit a wall of silence. Our loved ones didn’t want to talk about it, because it would cause more trouble. The message was “carry on”. And we tried. God knows, I’ve tried. But what I had experienced and witnessed left my soul in a coma that took me many years to overcome.

I was released by Evin in March 1984 when the authorities decided they had destroyed me, that I was no longer a threat. (In 1991 I left for Canada). Since then, every few years, there have been widespread protests in Iran that have resurrected the hope that the end of the Islamic Republic was at hand, but, each time, we have been disappointed.

Like any other autocracy, the Iranian regime and its Revolutionary Guard are corrupt and, with the extreme inflation that the country has suffered for many years, middle and lower class Iranians are finding it increasingly difficult to put food on the table while the ruling elites are visibly becoming richer.

This economic situation, together with Iranian women and young people beaten and even killed for protesting or simply for being “immoral”, causes greater public disillusionment, leading to more protests. While I wish these protests would soon put an end to the Islamic Republic, I highly doubt they would. Iran is a very divided country on many levels, including ethnic and ideological ones, and these protests do not have a charismatic leader who can unite.

Most of the protesters want the Islamic Republic to leave, but what will take its place? Who will guide Iran towards a better future and what will this future look like in practical terms? These questions have no answers yet.

I had just become a teenager when the streets of Tehran filled with protesters shouting “Death to the Shah” and “Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic”. People did not know that freedom was inherently incompatible with the Islamic Republic of Ayatollah Khomeini. History always moves forward, albeit very slowly, and not always towards a better future. It would be tremendously difficult for a country that has been under dictatorships for many decades to find the way to sustainable freedom.

But miracles happen in history. The problem is that they are usually neither quick nor easy, and they are expensive.

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