'A normal life is our right': The Iranian women taking up arms or choosing exile for their daughters

ITV News' Lucy Watson spoke to the Iranian women taking up arms or choosing exile for their daughters

A year ago, the streets of Iran reverberated with the chants of "Woman. Life. Freedom", and cities were ablaze with fire and fury after the death of Mahsa Zhina Amini in the custody of the country's morality police.

She was arrested for not wearing her hijab properly.

Women burned their headscarves, schoolgirls yelled "death to the Supreme Leader," and the regime responded with untold violence.

They blinded protesters, executed them, raped and sexually assaulted them.

Yet still, the women of Iran fought on. Their bravery was terrifying and humbling. 

For the last 11 months, I have covered the uprising. I watched it erupt and stir thousands to protest across all of Iran’s 13 provinces.

Thousands in Iran took to the streets in the wake of Mahsa Amini's death. Credit: AP

It was - it seemed - the world’s first “women’s revolution” and the biggest threat to the country’s theocratic regime it has ever faced.

I then watched it be dampened by severe repression, hundreds of protestors killed and thousands arrested. 

I have spoken with people who have fled the country in fear of their lives, some legally, some with smugglers.

I have interviewed families whose children have been killed, women who have been subjected to brutal sexual attacks by the government forces, and doctors banned by the regime from treating the injured.

I have talked to dissidents, activists, but most often, just ordinary women.

Women who want to feel the wind in their hair. Girls who want to sit next to boys in the university canteen. Women who want to walk their dogs in the street, or who want to dance in public.

They don’t want a better life - just a normal life, they say.

A portrait of Mahsa Amini is held during a rally calling for regime change in Iran. Credit: AP

Mahsa Amini was a 22-year-old Iranian-Kurdish woman.

Kurdistan, Northern Iraq, is where many people have fled to when escaping Iran.

Sima Moradbeigi is one of them, a mother of three-year-old Zhwan. I met them one night in Erbil.

Zhwan was constantly touching and kissing her mother, looking for security and reassurance because five months ago, under a cover of darkness, the little girl was smuggled out of Iran.

Smugglers told her he would take them only if Sima could ensure Zhwan would stay silent. Her cries could give them away.

So she drugged her to keep her quiet on their journey to safety.

Women in Iran have said people are beginning to fight the regime. Credit: AP

Sima told me that she had to get out. She couldn’t take part in protests knowing she was risking death, knowing that meant leaving Zhwan alone to grow up under the regime. She didn’t want that for her.

"The regime is destroying the future of our children," Sima said.

"When Mahsa was killed, I thought that could be me, that could be Zhwan.

"Everything I do is for my daughter. That gives me a power to carry on."

Sima was shot at point blank range by government forces in the demonstrations after Mahsa Amini’s death. There are 200 metal pellets still in her arm. She still might have to have it amputated.

"I have never seen a regime in history behave like the Islamic Republic," she said.

"I witnessed them killing and shooting their own, unarmed people. It is criminal. All we want is a normal life. It’s our right."

'Everything I do is for my daughter, that gives me power to carry on'

She is in pursuit of freedom, something she felt when she took off her headscarf last year. 

"Most women my age in Iran don’t believe in the hijab. It is an order from the regime," she said. 

"The first time I took off my headscarf and felt the wind in my hair. I felt free, like I was crushing the system."

The mountains of Iraqi-Kurdistan are their haven to start over. Here, they can feel freer. 

I also met Parya Ghaysari, her mother, and sister who also escaped after the protests. Enough was enough for them, when the movement was suppressed.

Parya said: "I’m 22. For young people in Iran, we can only do what the government orders, not what we want or feel. That is no life."

But the realities of this battlefield are clear.

Parya then showed me videos and photos of her training with the Iranian opposition group Komala. Parya, her sister Diana, and her mother have all joined. 

"I feel stronger, safer, more powerful. I now know how to use a weapon to defend myself... I am ready to defend anyone," Parya said.

Parya spoke to ITV News Correspondent Lucy Watson. Credit: ITV News

Nasim and Parya share similar haircuts as well as beliefs.

"After Zhina was killed there was an explosion of anger," Nasim said.

"The regime was in shock. They realised they no longer had the loyalty of the people.

"Removing the hijab showed that they would no longer do what the regime told them to.

"That feeling has not gone away. It will not stop and we will win."

Komala - a group of Kurdish fighters has existed since 1969 - but more women have wanted to join since Iran’s uprising began. 

They let us go to their headquarters.

"I think it’s more than 100 women that came to Komala," Commander Kawsar Fattahi said.

'We will win,' said Nasim, one of the women arming themselves against the regime

Kawsar leads the Women’s Unit. She’s a woman who has fought against ISIS. 

"I’m a woman. I can fight. This is the time. This is the situation. I can do it," Kawsar said.

"Women are the real enemy for the Iranian regime and if they can control women they can control society."

I am telling this story from Iraq, not Iran.

I am not allowed into the Islamic Republic. International journalists rarely are.

But in the last week, I have been sent mobile phone footage of women with their hair loose and uncovered inside Iran. Their disdain for the government walking the streets.

The Woman. Life. Freedom movement is no longer shouted out but written on walls.

It is now a quiet revolution, but still a bold one.

To the outside world it might seem like it is all over, but the defiance of Iranian women continues, in a new form.

"There isn’t the revolutionary atmosphere anymore, but there has been a fundamental shift in the mindset of Iranians," Majid Tavakoli told me.

He is a husband and father but also a famous political activist in Iran, living under constant intimidation and restriction in Tehran. 

He has to live life like he is walking a minefield, but believes in a transition of power by peaceful, social disobedience and recognises the need for a national solution or revolution to change the regime.

He’s spent 7 years of his life in prison for speaking out throughout his life. In the next few days, he will be jailed for another 5. Imprisoned for just his thoughts and what he has written. 

"I can’t think about how hard it’s going to be for my family. But I have done what I think is right," Majid said.

"I want my daughter to grow up in Iran but not in these conditions. Just to be a normal country where people have a normal life is what I aspire to."

Majid Tavakoli's daughter is named Raha, meaning Freedom. Credit: ITV News

He sent me video of the last few days he has with his daughter Raha. Her name means Freedom.

Twelve months ago, the inability to live in Iran sparked a willingness to die. The Islamic Republic’s controls and violence forcing people to flee or to sacrifice all they know.

Standing at the Iraqi border in the mountains you feel engulfed by Iran.

You can see their watchtowers, the masked guards, the rifles, the hostile terrain, and you realise what terrifying journeys people have taken just to get away, believing the risk to themselves and their families at home is too great if they stay.

By crossing these borders, mothers have chosen exile for the sake of their daughters. Others have risked their lives to get to Iraq.

The death of Mahsa Amini sparked global protests. Credit: AP

And this anniversary renews that sense of collective trauma and grief, but it also carries with it the potential for unrest again. 

The clerics’ prospects look shaky as domestic support for them ebbs away.

There are protests planned around the world on Saturday to mark the exact anniversary of Mahsa’s death.

In Iran, who knows? Who dares? 

A year on, the face of Iran is still the same.

Every uprising is the link in a long chain pulling Iran from the shadow of the Islamic Republic, but for wholescale democratic change its people must hone their patience.

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