Iranians in NB speak out after death of young woman in Iranian custody

It cost Alireza Nonahal about $15 to talk with her parents for less than 20 minutes.

After the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman who died while in the custody of vice police enforcing the Islamic Republic’s strict restrictions on women’s dress, Nonahal could not reach his family for three days.

This is not the first time the University of New Brunswick student has struggled to reach his family in Iran. Nonahal, who goes by the name Alex, was living in Turkey in 2019 when protests over sudden fuel price increases prompted the Iranian government to cut off all internet access.

It’s been ten days since Amini’s death and internet access is still limited. It’s easier for Nonahal to reach her family during the day using WhatsApp with a VPN connection, but the Iranian government has blocked most major social media platforms.

Thanks to a special phone plan, he can sometimes catch up with his parents for short conversations. While the protests aren’t as widespread where they live in the northern part of the country, Nonahal has heard stories of police brutality from friends who live where the gatherings are still going strong.

The situation is not good, he says, but he took care of it here in Canada.

Members of the Iranian community and their supporters rally in solidarity with protesters in Iran, after Mahsa Amini, 22, died in police custody for allegedly wearing a hijab improperly, in Ottawa on Sunday, September 25, 2022 . (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Nonahal was one of the few Iranian New Brunswickers to hold a memorial in front of Fredericton City Hall last week for Mahsa Amini. There was good turnout, in his view, from Iranians and non-Iranians alike, and reporters from the St. Thomas University student newspaper covered the event.

« It was really important for me to be able to share this information so that the whole world really understands what is happening in the country, especially at this time with all the protests, that people are being killed and women are being killed there- down, » he said.

Still, he thinks a bigger event is possible, and he’s working with other organizers to plan a second, either in downtown Fredericton or in front of the UNB campus library.

Nonahal said the protests happening now look different from those in 2019. In his view, more and more people are paying attention. The aftermath of Amini’s death sparked protests around the world, attracting the attention of politicians and celebrities.

A film student wishing to pursue a career in television, Nonahal has created video content on Instagram about what is happening in Iran.

Social media is one of the main reasons why he thinks Mahsa Amini’s story has made its way into media around the world. The #mahsaamini hashtag has gone viral on Twitter and is gaining popularity on platforms like Instagram and TikTok.

All the attention on Iran and the hijab has also drawn criticism of how Western media and politicians are characterizing the conflict, and whether conversations about the protests turn into anti-Muslim sentiments. and in condemnation of the hijab itself.

Nonahal said he observed some of these discussions, but for him the protests are about democracy and the freedom to choose. Women should not be told what they can or cannot wear, he said.

« If you want to have your hijab, if you believe in Islam, that’s fine, that’s good for you, » he said. « If there’s someone who doesn’t believe in Islam or doesn’t want to wear the hijab, or who believes in Islam but just doesn’t want to wear the hijab, that’s their business. «

« We just want freedom »

Nonahal is not alone in emphasizing freedom. Two Iranian women who attended the memorial in Fredericton last week are also speaking out.

Maryam, who asked that the CBC not use her last name to protect her family still in Iran, arrived in New Brunswick three years ago with her friend Samira Amjadian. As Christians, they say they could have been imprisoned if they had stayed in Iran.

The two spoke with CBC News together, and they said what they want is for women in Iran to have the same rights as in Canada.

« We just want freedom, » Amjadian said.

“Like here,” Maryam said, “some people have hijab, some don’t have hijab.”

The two women plan to attend other protests, despite their concerns that Iranian public officials will take their picture. Nonahal had the same concern, which is why he didn’t provide a photo of himself to CBC News.

When they heard of Mahsa Amini’s death, Maryam and Amjadian said they had to do something. They say Mahsa could have been anyone.

« She could be my sister, » Amjadian said.

Like Nonahal, the two women have been active on social media and have searched for any video content the Iranians may have posted. With their limited internet access, Maryam said she felt responsible for being their voice.

« They don’t have internet but we have internet, » she said. « It’s not fair, and we have to do something about them. »


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